No, It Can't Happen Here: America's Political Institutions Are Much Stronger than Trump

 

This video is making the rounds recently, mostly accompanied by a sinister warning that 'it could happen here', i.e. in the U.S. The idea is that if Americans elect Donald Trump, it could set in motion a chain of events that could transform America into a dictatorship.

Breathe easy, world. It won't happen. If America elects Trump, it will simply have made a dim narcissist demagogue President. Nothing more, nothing less. Trump will not transform the structure of American democracy because he can't. No President can, no President ever has, and no President ever will. It's that simple.

The American style of Presidential democracy, in contrast to the parliamentary style which is much more popular world-wide, has a number of disadvantages. Elections only happen every two years. The President may, and often does, lose his support in the Congress, leading to political gridlock which stymies new policy initiatives. The first-past-the-post electoral system means there are only two viable political parties. Third parties come and go, but never get a lasting foothold.

But there are advantages to the system as well. The number one advantage, by far, is its phenomenal stability. The USA has had the same system of government for the past 230 years, placing it in an extremely tiny, rarefied group of countries which have ever, at any time in history, kept the same basic governing structure this long. Even the Civil War did not interrupt the consistent election of new Congresses every 2 years.

One of the reasons for this stability is separation of powers, which strictly limits what the President can do. Here are some of the things the American President cannot do which heads of states in other countries often can:

  1.     Dissolve Congress and call a snap election.
  2.     Unilaterally declare a state of emergency.
  3.     Fire or otherwise punish or sanction members of the Supreme Court.
  4.     Unilaterally change the number of judges on the Supreme Court.
  5.     Declare war without Congress' consent (although Congress has relinquished a lot of this authority).
  6.     Change the Constitution, even if he has the support of 70% of all members of Congress.
  7.     Interfere with areas in which individual US states have exclusive legislative competence, such as family law, contract law, tort law, and dozens of other areas.
  8.     Name or replace governors of states.
  9.     Remove anyone from any political party, including his own.

Democratically-elected leaders have sometimes been able to transform their countries into authoritarian systems, and sometimes into totalitarian ones. But all of those countries differed from the United States in several critical ways. First, they usually gave the head of state at least some of the 9 powers listed above, or they gave the head of state the means to acquire some of these 9 powers. 

But the differences go even deeper:

First, their political institutions in these countries were much less robust, popular, and well-anchored. No matter how unpopular an American Congress is, Americans have never, and will never, support abolishing the institution itself. The same goes for the Supreme Court and the Presidency, for that matter. A President who suggested abolishing any of these institutions "in the name of national solidarity during a time of crisis" would be laughed at, or declared insane.

Second, the political institutions are designed for stability. Stability is one of the side-effects of the 9 limits on Presidential power listed above. There is simply no way the President can ever stop the Supreme Court from reviewing laws and declaring them unconstitutional. Now, the President can direct the executive branch to consciously and openly decline to enforce certain Supreme Court rulings, and this has happened on occasion in American history. But it's considered a major and controversial breach of trust, and hasn't happened in decades. And believe me, the US Supreme Court has handed down some extremely unpopular rulings that have gone directly against the President's wishes, such as the 2010 ruling about corporate campaign contributions, which Obama criticized in front of members of the Court.

Third, federalism. The USA is among the top 2 or 3 most federalist countries in history. Individual US states have a huge amount of authority to determine their own policies. They can and do all have their own, individual governments, including a governor, state legislature, state constitution, and state supreme court. They have their own criminal laws, family laws, tort laws, tax laws, inheritance laws, contract laws, commercial codes, hunting and fishing regulations, road traffic laws, drug laws, environmental laws, workplace-safety laws -- the list goes on and on. There is a lot of federal government legislation in some of these areas, but states still get to have their own policies, and they use this privilege with gusto. States could and would certainly rebel against any attempt to use illegitimate powers to force the entire country to obey a single unified policy handed down by an authoritarian President run amok. The Second Amendment fans among you might also point out that if the President tried to crush resistance by military force, he would face a well-armed and no doubt rebellious population.

So breathe easy, World. A Trump Presidency would be most regrettable, but the US has already had one dim, reckless, foolish President this millennium. He did a lot of damage which we're all still living with, but he didn't usher in Armageddon or AmeriKKKa, and neither will Trump.


Who is Fethullah Gülen, What's he Doing in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, and Why does Turkey Want Him Extradited?

The reactions to the recent attempted coup in Turkey are basically the predictable moralizing -- Erdogan will now finally become a dictator! This is just like the Reichstag Fire! (which, contrary to popular opinion, actually was started by a Dutch Communist, not the Nazis). Erdogan-bashing has now reached a fever pitch, even though the question of leads Turkey has zero practical relevance to the daily lives of 90% of Germans (and would have zero relevance to even more if Germany had a better immigration policy).

Leave it to fun contrarian Steve Sailer to put aside the bloviation and focus attention on the most interesting aspect of the whole shebang: mysterious Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen now lives in a fortified compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, having been allowed to obtain a green card for mysterious reasons.

And now, Turkish officials are demanding he be extradited to Turkey to face prosecution as a ringleader of the recent coup attempt. The USA is in high dudgeon publicly, saying Turkey has no evidence. The affair is threatening to do severe damage to relations between the USA and Turkey. Privately, I'm sure a lot of officials are asking the question yet again: "Why exactly did we allow this guy into the country? How does it benefit the USA to be dragged into the Byzantine internal politics of some other country halfway across the globe?"

Here's part of Sailer's profile of Gülen from way back in 2014: 

With Turkey’s traditional ruling class—the secularist Kemalist generals—finally neutralized by the Ergenekon show trial, the Muslim civilian factions now appear to be plotting against each other. It is widely assumed among Turkish conspiracy theorists (i.e., roughly 98% of all Turks) that the prosecutorial assault on the prime minister was at the behest of Erdoğan’s former political ally, Fethullah Gülen, a powerful and mysterious Muslim cult leaderholed up since 1999 in, of all places, the Poconos, where he has become America’s largest operator of charter schools.

The imam has been preparing for the struggle in Turkey for decades, launching his adherents on a long march through the institutions. The holy man’s Turkish enemies leaked a video in 1999 just before he defected to the US and took up exile in his fortified compound in Saylorsburg, PA. Gülen was shown advising his believers:

You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers.…You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power….

Gülenists have since become common within Turkey’s police and judiciary, playing a lead role in last year’s conviction of 254 secularists for allegedly conspiring against the Islamic government. According to Wikileaks, the American ambassador to Ankara, James Jeffreys, cabled Foggy Bottom:

Gülenists also reportedly dominate the Turkish National Police, where they serve as the vanguard for the Ergenekon investigation—an extensive probe into an alleged vast underground network that is accused of attempting to encourage a military coup in 2004. The investigation has swept up many secular opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), including Turkish military figures, which has prompted accusations that the Gülenists have as their ultimate goal the undermining of all institutions which disapprove of Turkey becoming more visibly Islamist. (COMMENT: The assertion that the TNP [Turkish National Police] is controlled by Gülenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it.…)

Amusingly, the Gülenists’ December attack on Erdoğan’s ethics seems to be retaliation for the government’s November attack on Gülen’s college admission test preparation centers. TheNew York Times reported:

…relations soured in recent weeks after the government tried to shut down private test preparation centers in Turkey, many of which are run by followers of Mr. Gülen and are important for the movement’s recruitment and finances.…“Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down the private schools was the last straw for Gülen and the Gülenists,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He who controls test preparation controls the future.

...Ambassador Jeffreys commented in his secret cable:

…we have heard accounts that TNP [Turkish National Police] applicants who stay at Gülenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam.

The Gülen movement receives hundreds of millions of dollars from American taxpayers to operate approximately 130 charter schools in America. Not surprisingly, they claim excellent test scores.

In defense of Gülen, it might be argued that he’s providing the Anatolian heartland with something that was extremely valuable to northern Europe: a business-oriented religious network in the Weberian mode. One reason Mexico is Mexico is because the Counter-Reformation kept Puritanism out of Latin America, and along with it the Protestant work ethic. Turkey, which has long been a sort of Mexico of Europe, could use an Anatolian business class.

On the other hand, the more I look into Gülen, the more he seems characteristically Ottoman. The adjective “byzantine” stems from the labyrinthine and devious politics of the imperial court of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire. Not everything has changed since 1453.

Of course, the Gülen movement’s test prep schools in Turkey aren’t just about test prep. In an aggressively laicized state, after-school school is the best chance for indoctrinating youths in Islam and/or Gülen’s cult of personality.

“It’s organised like a cult,” a French researcher told FRANCE 24, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In certain places where they meet in Istanbul, it really feels like you’re in a Scientology centre. Leaders make speeches about universal love, and distribute pamphlets with photos of celebrities on them. Private classes are given, but we don’t know if the teachings are religious or not.” Most members are not even allowed to talk about the movement,” the French researcher explained. “The way it functions is totally opaque, which is reminiscent of Freemasons.”

Gülen's English-language Wikipedia page displays the suspiciously anodyne tone and ESL mistakes characteristic of controversial topics/people involving developing countries. Everyone who thinks their English is good enough is trying desperately to massage Gülen's image for English speakers.


America: Still Not on the Brink of Civil War

Every time there's a controversial police killing in the US, Angstlust and Schadenfreude combine into a moist throbbing supernova in the bowels of German journalists, and the only release is to ejaculate yet another think-piece onto the pages of some newspaper: The United States is self-immolating, a failed state, teetering on the brink of civil war.

And yet, every time, America somehow survives. This never stops the next prediction, of course. As the old joke about economists go, Germans have predicted 492 of the last zero collapses of American civilization. Whoops, I meant "civilization".

And America's going to survive this week as well!

A few numbers to put things into perspective:

In 2015, 258 black people were killed by US police, representing over 26% of deaths.

For 2016, the trend seems similar. As of July 7, US police have shot dead 509 people this year, of whom 123 were black.
 
Even counting only the deaths of black people who were unarmed, the results are staggering. A conservative count puts that death toll at 38, right in line with the average during Jim Crow.

These statistics are taken from an article which is intended to compare current numbers of blacks being killed by police to the number of lynchings back when racial segregation ('Jim Crow' laws) was the law of the land.

But what they also do is highlight a few facts which will be unknown to the average German. First, that the overwhelming majority of people shot dead by the police in the United States are not black. Second, the majority of black people killed by the police were armed

Let's take the number 258 black people killed in the USA in 2015. The black population of the United is 42 million, more than half the entire population of Germany. Dividing 258 by 42 million yields a number so tiny it is expressed by scientific notation. The chance that a black person will be killed by the police in any given year is microscopic. Since the majority of the people killed by the police -- including black people -- are armed, the number of unarmed black people killed by police is even smaller.

It may still be too high, of course. Some of these police killings, no matter who the victim is, could be prevented by better training and equipment. Even confrontations with armed suspects should not have to end in death or serious injury. Many American police departments, like the Dallas police department, are changing policies to emphasize de-escalation, with some success.

But the image gleefully propagated by mainstream German media -- that black Americans can't leave their houses without fear of being gunned down by cops for no reason -- is false. And pace all those dull conformists in the German media, America's not going to melt down this time, either.

And one other thing, German journos -- you should know that Germany's quaint 19th-century laws on image protection make it illegal to broadcast videos excessive force by German cops. When it comes to police accountability and transparency, the US is light-years ahead of backward, insular Germany. Funny how German journalists never seem to notice this.

 


A Fine Article About Justice in Texas

I’ve been hard on many German journalists who report on the USA. Sometimes tough love, sometimes tough hate! The cardinal sin of German reporters is not getting facts straight and not correcting mistakes even after I or someone else points them out.

The venial sin – by no means limited to coverage of the USA – is telling us what they think about everything they report. I know you have a lot of profoundly civilized feelings about guns or prisons or the death penalty or racism, Maximilian or Felicitas, but they don't interest me. I neither know nor care very much who you are. Tell us what you saw and heard, not what you think about it, and certainly not what you think we should think about it.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to recommend this fine in-depth piece (g) by Andreas Ross about a ‘drug court’ in Dallas, Texas. The point is to single out those criminals whose basic problem is drug addiction, and to divert them into an alternative program designed to keep them straight and out of jail. It’s still pretty strict – participants have to pass constant random drug tests and can be summarily thrown in jail if they mess up – but it’s been effective. And keeps people out of Texas prisons, which have a deservedly awful reputation. The author drills down into the subject, lets people speak for themselves, and stays in the background, where you always find the best reporters.

Well done!


Presidential Candidate Says Muslims Shouldn't Be President

I haven't blogged about the American Presidential race because I don't live there anymore and don't really care who runs it, as long as it's not a very silly person like George W. Bush. For the record, I support Bernie Sanders, have donated to his campaign, and would vote for him if I still bothered to vote in American elections, which I haven't done recently. The last place I was registered to vote was Texas, so I can only vote there. I don't care who runs Texas, and my Texas vote never has the slightest role to play in national elections. because of the silly Electoral College.

But this is really something else. Ben Carson is a retired neurosurgeon. By all accounts a gifted one, he was the first to separate twins conjoined at the head. He is also a Seventh-Day-Adventist (that's one of those shiny new American religions, by the way) and is running for the Republican Presidential nomination. Here's a short excerpt of a recent interview: 

Carson thinks a Muslim shouldn't be President because Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution of the US. US Constitution, Art. VI: "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Now, Ben Carson will never become President of the USA, not even in the darkest alternate timeline where the zombies join up with the aliens. But still, the fact that millions of Americans think he should be is rather sobering.


The US Model for Accepting Refugees: Selective & Secure

The current German model of refugee resettlement is to permit hundreds of thousands of unknown people into the country with, in 75% of the cases, no verified information about their background. The selection process is the following: Germany lets in whoever was physically able to travel, rich enough to pay smugglers, and early enough to make it into Germany before the countries around it closed their borders.

Everyone else -- most likely including hundreds of thousands of people now headed for the fences and checkpoints of Southeastern Europe -- is out of luck.

There is another way -- I'm tempted to say the grown-up way. Here is an official US government document (pdf) explaining how the United States selects refugees for resettlement:

According to UNHCR’s latest statistics, there are approximately 10.5 million refugees in the world. The vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled until they can voluntarily and safely return to their home country. A small number of refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an even smaller number — primarily those who are at the highest risk — will be resettled in a third country. While UNHCR reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are eventually resettled in third countries, the United States welcomes more than half of these refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combined.

When UNHCR — or, rarely, a U.S. Embassy or a specially trained nongovernmental organization — refers a refugee applicant to the United States for resettlement, the case is first received and processed by an Overseas Processing Entity (OPE). The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) works with international and nongovernmental organizations to run eight regional OPEs around the world. Under PRM’s guidance, the OPEs process eligible refugee applications for resettlement in the United States.

Some refugees can start the application process with the OPE without a referral from UNHCR or other entity. This includes close relatives of refugees already resettled in the United States and refugees who belong to specific groups set forth in statute or identified by the Department of State as being eligible for direct access to the program.

The OPEs collect biographic and other information from the applicants for security screening. The security screening ensures that terrorists and/or criminals do not enter the United States through the refugee program. Officers from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) review all the information that the OPE has collected and also have a face-to-face interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for resettlement in the United States.

When a USCIS officer approves a refugee for admission, the next step is a medical screening to identify medical needs and to ensure that people with a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, do not enter the United States. Finally, the OPE requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. All refugees are offered a brief U.S. cultural orientation course prior to departure for the United States. The total processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances, but the average time from the initial UNHCR referral to arrival as a refugee in the United States is generally from eight months to one year.

So, people are interviewed near where they are, their needs are evaluated, priority is given to the most vulnerable, and they are carefully screened to ensure the safety of US citizens.

It may not be the perfect model for refugee resettlement, but it's certainly much more controlled, rational, and secure than what Germany is doing now.


German Prisons 'Astonish' American Visitors

A delegation of Americans just visited several German prisons this year and came back impressed:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

...

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

...

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

...

In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

At conferences the question often comes up whether the dedication to 'inviolable' human dignity that starts the German constitution has real meaning. The prison example shows it does, in my opinion. Nevertheless, many English and American lawyers claim that human dignity is not a meaningful legal value. Justice Thomas, a black conservative justice who voted against gay marriage, explained:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

One American law professor even cautioned readers concerning the 'danger' of human dignity:

The word dignity eludes narrow definition, or for that matter, any generally agreed upon definition. The Court itself has not provided a clear definition of dignity. One scholar, William A. Parent, declares, “[D]ignity is to possess the right not to be arbitrarily and therefore unjustly disparaged as a person.” In another article on “the Jurisprudence of Dignity,” Leslie Meltzer Henry writes that there is no single definition, but that dignity includes various conceptions including institutional status, equality, liberty, individual integrity, and collective virtue. She concludes, “dignity’s conceptions and functions are dynamic and context-driven.”

If dignity is defined so elastically, then conservatives judges might invoke it to strike down not only gun-control laws, but also other progressive legislation. Libertarian groups invoked the “sweet-mystery-of-life” my [sic] language in Casey to argue that the Obamacare healthcare mandate unconstitutionally violated the dignity and autonomy of Americans by forcing them to buy health insurance. In the future, cigarette smokers might argue that anti-smoking bans violate their ability to create an individual identity. And conservative Christian wedding photographers could claim that anti-discrimination laws compelling them to photograph gay weddings violate their dignity and ability to define themselves as conservative Christians. What courts would do when confronted with the clashing dignitary rights of the religious wedding photographer and the gay couple, or the hunter and the victim of gun violence, is anyone’s guess, because dignity is such an abstract concept that its boundaries are difficult to discern.

I find the different attitude toward 'dignity' pretty interesting and have written about it in a few contexts, but I'll spare you the boring details. It's the kind of issue that, to do it justice, requires you to lay down a bunch of ground rules, collect historical examples, and carefully delimit your claims with a bunch of caveats. In other words, to write like a boring academic. If that doesn't deter you, head on over to my academia.edu page. But don't say I didn't warn you. 


Most Victims of Police Shootings in the USA are Armed with Deadly Weapons

The Washington Post is keeping a tally of people shot by the police in the USA this year. Their count is 558 so far. That sounds like a lot, and perhaps it is, even for a nation of 318 million people. But it should be kept in mind that the overwhelming majority of these cases involve people armed with deadly weapons, or things (like pellet guns) which could be mistaken for deadly weapons. Here is a random sample of some of the most recent cases:

Timothy Johnson, a 41-year-old man armed with a knife, was shot on July 28, 2015, in Manila, Ark. Manila police were responding to a report of a disturbance. Johnson approached an officer and refused to drop his knife.

Samuel Forgy, a 23-year-old white man armed with a knife, was shocked with a stun gun and shot on July 27, 2015, in an apartment building in Boulder, Colo. Forgy refused to drop his knife when Boulder City police officers responded to a report of a stabbing.

Timothy Milliken, a 56-year-old man armed with a knife, was shot on July 27, 2015, in a house in Irmo, S.C. Lexington County sheriff's deputies were called to a residence and found Milliken stabbing a family member with a knife.

An unidentified person, a man armed with a gun, was shot on July 27, 2015, in Houma, La. Officers from the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office and the Houma Police Department were pursuing the man in his vehicle when he climbed out with the gun.

Khari Westly , a 33-year-old black man armed with a gun, was shot on July 26, 2015, in Shreveport, La. Shreveport police were called to investigate a report that Westly was holding two women hostage. When officers found him, he shot at police.

Zachary Hammond, a 19-year-old white man driving a vehicle, was shot on July 26, 2015, in Seneca, S.C. Hammond attempted to evade a traffic stop and allegedly drove his car toward a Seneca police officer.

Roger Braswell, a 50-year-old white man armed with a gun, was shot on July 25, 2015, in Decatur, Ga. Decatur County sheriff's deputies responded to a report of a suicidial man. When they arrived at Braswell's home, he met them at the back door, firing his gun.

An unidentified person, a 60-year-old white man, was shot on July 25, 2015, in New Orleans, La. The man struck four homes and a number of cars with his pickup truck before he allegedly climbed out and pointed the gun at New Orleans police officers. Witnesses dispute whether he was armed.

Earl Jackson, a 59-year-old black man armed with a gun, was shot on July 25, 2015, in Micanopy, Fla. When a Florida Highway patrolman stopped to investigate Jackson's disabled vehicle, he opened fire on the officer.

Bryan Keith Day, a 36-year-old man with a toy weapon, was shot on July 25, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nev. Day shot a Las Vegas Metropolitan police officer in the face with a pellet gun as the officer responded to a report of a robbery.

Lee Aaron Gerston, a 30-year-old man armed with a knife, was shocked with a stun gun and shot on July 24, 2015, in Pinnacle, N.C. Gerston robbed a tanning salon and stabbed another man. He was shot after Stokes County police used a stun gun on him and he refused to drop his knife.

An unidentified person, a man armed with a gun, was shot on July 24, 2015, in Studio City, Calif. Los Angeles Police responded to reports of a man firing a gun in Studio City. The man refused to drop his weapon when police ordered him to do so.

Derek Wolfsteller, an unarmed 31-year-old man, was shocked with a stun gun and shot on July 23, 2015, in a restaurant in Plymouth, Minn. A Plymouth police officer responding to a disturbance call at a fast-food restaurant shot Wolfsteller during a struggle. A week before the incident, Wolfsteller's grandparents had called Plymouth police for help dealing with a mental health crisis what Wolfsteller was experiencing.

Dontae L. Martin, a 34-year-old black man armed with a gun, was shot on July 23, 2015, in Dayton, Ohio. Martin pointed a gun at Montgomery County deputies who approached his crashed vehicle.


'Die Zeit' Correction Watch: 1 Error Secretly Corrected, 1 Still There

Holger-Daniel-pop-up-correction

UPDATE (31 July 2105): Both errors have been corrected as of now. 

Let me preface this post by saying that I quite like Die Zeit, the august German weekly newspaper. I have subscribed to Die Zeit for years, and have derived much pleasure and enlightenment from it, especially the Feuilleton. Sometimes I disagree with its editorial line, but who doesn't?

So it's in a spirit of amity and constructive criticism that I point out what I consider to be errors and ethical lapses in its reporting. Such as yesterday, when I tweeted Jochen Bittner and Sabine Rückert to complain about errors in articles about the United States criminal justice system, after there was no response to tweets I sent to the authors of the articles themselves.*

And now I can report a partial victory for accuracy!

Error Number One Secretly Corrected

After I pointed out a mistake in the story published yesterday on the website of Die Zeit, someone silently corrected that error. Instead of stating that 'most' persons killed by the police this year in the USA were not white, the article has been changed to: "663 people were [killed by police] this year ... compared to their percentage of the population, there were disproportionately many blacks and hispanics."

That is accurate. Of course the article fails to mention that the vast majority of those killed were armed, but we can debate whether that is necessary context. I think it is, others many not. And the author of the piece does note later that the prevalence of weapons in the USA is an important factor.

Of course, the article was silently corrected. I can find no indication on the website that this assertion has been changed -- not in a note at the bottom of the text (standard policy in the USA), or in the comments (there are 17 pages of them, so any notice here would be easily overlooked). Nor did the journalist in question or any of the editors I emailed respond to my request, except to secretly correct the mistake.

This does not conform to the standards used by the vast majority of U.S. newspapers, or to the Code of Ethics of the American Society of Professional Journalists:

– Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

But of course, Hamburg is not in the USA. However, Die Zeit has its own code of ethics which says basically the same thing (g) and adds (my translation): "It is unacceptable to silently correct mistakes in the content of an online article." (emphasis added)

It certainly looks like that's what happened here, doesn't it?

Error Number Two Still Out There

The second error I pointed to was the assertion in an August 2014 article called (my translation of the title) Saying Goodbye to the Dream of a Post-Racial Society (g) in which author Sebastian Moll asserted that 30% of the American population is black, and that 60% of the people in American prisons and jails are black. As I pointed out back on July 17th, both statics are way off. I tweeted Mr. Moll requesting he correct the piece, and received, as you might expect, no response. 

13 days later, this error stands uncorrected (g). I am going to start a 'Die Zeit Correction Watch'. Each day I'll check to see if this mistake has been corrected, and each day it hasn't, I will tweet Die Zeit editors and the story's author to politely remind them that there is a mistake on their website.

I'll start tomorrow. Just to make it interesting: For every day the article goes uncorrected after today, I will donate 1 Euro to the organization Reporters Without Borders, which advocates for the rights of journalists worldwide.

Wait, no, that sets the wrong incentive. Right now, I plan to donate 30 Euros to RWB. For every day this article goes uncorrected, I will reduce that amount by one euro. So if they correct it tomorrow, RWB gets 30 euros. After 15 days, 15 euros. After 30 days, if the mistake is still there, RWB gets bupkus. Zilch. Nada. Gaaar Nichts.

To make things fair, I will even count a silent correction as a correction, even though that violates Die Zeit's own policy.

Let the countdown begin!

Continue reading "'Die Zeit' Correction Watch: 1 Error Secretly Corrected, 1 Still There" »


'Die Zeit' Prints Another Misleading Stat

An article just out in Die Zeit has yet another gigantic error. In a piece on police training in the USA by Frauke Steffens, she says: "663 people have been killed by police in the USA this year, the British Guardian found, and the majority were not white." ("663 Todesopfer waren es bereits in diesem Jahr, fand der britische Guardian auf diese Weise heraus – und die meisten davon waren nicht weiß.").

In fact, the very article Steffens cited to and linked to says otherwise. 318 shooting victims were white, 174 black, and so on. It says so right here, right in the very same article she cited. Now theoretically you could count up the number of all other victims and it would be somewhat higher than number of whites. But it seems to me the most reliable way of counting these statistics would be to leave out the 55 killings in the other/unknown category, since we do not know what race they are. That leaves us with the following total:

318 white

290 all other races

Which means even taken on its own terms, the statement is incorrect. But in any event, the average reader, confronted with the statement in the article, would not correctly conclude that whites were the category with by far the highest number of police shootings. It might also be relevant for readers to know that over 80% of those shooting victims were armed with a deadly weapon at the time of the confrontation.

I have tweeted to Ms. Steffens to correct the error, but in my experience, the response will be silence, and the error will stand.

The glaring error I pointed out in another Die Zeit article still stands