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A German Exchange Student in the Middle of a Campus Rape Shitstorm

Meet Paul Nungesser, a German exchange student at Columbia University in New York:

Speaking carefully, with a slightly formal bearing and an accent so faint that it can be hard to place, Mr. Nungesser, who is from Germany, says he believes sexual assault is an important cause for concern. “My mother raised me as a feminist,” he says, well aware of how those words will strike some people, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”

Yet according to campus activists, Nungesser is a 'rapist' and 'sexual predator', and his actions have sparked a 'national movement' to address the supposed (my skepticism expressed here) campus-rape crisis in America. 

This year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz became an emblem for how colleges mistreat victims of sexual assault on campus. After Sulkowicz reported an alleged rape to the Columbia administration and the college found the accused not responsible, she began hauling her 50-pound dorm mattress across campus as a powerful symbol of an adjudication system she claims is confounding, ineffectual, and unfair. The act has grown into Sulkowicz’s undergraduate art thesis project and inspired a national movement, Carry That Weight, that advocates on behalf of campus sexual assault survivors. In the shadow of her campaign stands Paul Nungesser, the student Sulkowicz says raped her. Today, the New York Times published the first interview with Nungesser himself. It’s the most intimate, high-profile portrait so far of a college student who was accused of rape—one who says that the system has failed him, too.

In his time at Columbia, three female students have accused Nungesser of sexual misconduct. He's denied each accusation, and has not been formally disciplined by the university. When one student accused Nungesser of groping her at a party, the university initially decided against him, but he successfully appealed the ruling. After another student accused him of intimate partner violence, the university dropped the case when the alleged victim stopped cooperating with the investigation. And when Sulkowicz accused Nungesser of raping her, Columbia declined to find him responsible, citing lack of evidence.

In lieu of any formal finding, Nungesser had paid a social cost. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Ariel Kaminer reports in the Times. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle. … His name has been plastered on campus bathrooms and published in easily searchable articles. His face is visible online, too, in photos that detractors have posted as warnings to strangers.” Because Columbia failed to discipline Nungesser, Columbia bloggers, activists, and supporters have stepped in to exact their own punishment, and national media has fanned the flames.

Paul Nungesser, I have some advice for you. Your ordeal may seem pretty horrifying now, but when you return to Germany, hire a ghostwriter and publish an account of your situation (suggested maximum-sales title: 'How I Became the Victim of a Puritanical American PC Witch-Hunt'). It will sell millions, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.


'Cloth Insignia of the SS' by LTC (ret.) John R. Angolia

Not many posts recently, because I've been in Japan for the holidays, admiring Shinto shrines, being harangued by right-wing soundtrucks, ogling Harajuku cuties, and all the rest.

Browsing the bookstalls in Jimbocho, the used-book district of Tokyo, I came across a book which brought back fond memories. Good old Col. Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) John R. Angolia was a friend of the family, and used to take me to World War II war movies. Problem was, he knew so much about Nazi insignia that every couple of minutes, he would bust out and say something like 'What kind of moron directed this piece of crap? That cadet's sleeveband reads SS Schule Braunschweig in Sütterlin script. This movie is supposed to take place in 1941! Any fool knows that from 1936 onwards, Sütterlin script was reserved exclusively for the insignia of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler!' Sometimes he began clawing at the screen, and they had to drag him out of the theater.

Fortunately Old Leatherballs, as they used to call him in the army, found a productive outlet for his disturbingly profound knowledge of Nazi insignia:

Cloth Insignia of the SS cover.52

From now on, I'll never be embarrassed at dinner parties by insisting that all the sleevebands for the Heinwehr Danzig bore SS runes, when every rube knows that some of them did not. Imagine my humiliation when my host's 11-year-old son Hartmut had to correct me on that point, and then asked rhetorically: 'Daddy, why is the fat American lying?'

Below are are just a few of the 475 magical pages of this book:

SS lady.40

SS violinist.59

As for Old Leatherballs, he went on to write Leather Insignia of the SSMetal Insignia of the SS, and his famous memoirs, My Golden Hours Among the SS Insignia. How I miss him and his delightful stories of SS insignia. Rest in peace, Leatherballs.


Hot Weather Reduces Productivity

Another reason air-conditioning is a blessing:

new study just released by the National Bureau for Economic Research [argues]that it is warmer temperatures that may be the real economic cost [of global warming].

The paper, by Tatyana Deryugina of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley, shows a fairly dramatic negative influence of heat on economic productivity. In particular, they find that, for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree C) that a given day's 24 hour average temperature exceeds 59 degrees, economic productivity declines by 1.7 percent. And for a single very hot day -- warmer than 86 degrees F -- per capita income goes down by $ 20.56, or 28 percent....  But the paper also highlights the "well-documented productivity decreases of workers who are exposed to thermal stress." According to Hsiang, on hot days, people working outdoors tend to work as much as an hour less. He also points to research suggesting that in warmer temperatures, workers make more mistakes.


In Defense of 'Serial', a Brilliant Podcast about the Epistemology of Investigation

 
If you haven't been following 'Serial', the podast from Chicago Public Radio, you should. It's like nothing you've ever heard before. Go to the podcast website and listen to the episodes in order. 'Serial' patiently re-investigates a 15-year-old American murder case:
 
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
 
'Serial' uses the unique openness of the American criminal justice system: the reporter, Sarah Koenig, plays audio recordings of the actual trials of Syed (the first ended in a mistrial), interviews jury members, and plays for us long excerpts of her conversations with Syed from the Maryland Correctional Center. She re-interviews witnesses at the original trial, and many who didn't testify. She visit the places where things important to the case happened. Experts on everything from cellphone tower tracing to attorney competence to police investigations to psychopath and personality disorders weigh in on both the original evidence and what Koenig's team have uncovered since the trial. She discovers some new evidence that seems to point away from Syed's guilt, and other new evidence that is either ambiguous or, as we lawyers say, 'unhelpful' to Syed. And then she speaks directly to Syed on the telephone and asks for his comments on what she's found. Syed is not your average convicted murderer -- he's intelligent, articulate, and a model prisoner, and knows precisely when to parry and when to thrust in response to accusations.
 
The podcast has sparked huge interest, with over a million people listening, and partisan commentary raging all over the Internets. The last episode broadcasts today and is already available for download, but I haven't heard it yet. The comedy sketch above satirizes one aspect of 'Serial' -- its open-endedness. Many want the podcast to end with everything tied into a neat little bow: Syed is innocent, and I found the magic bullet that proves it! Syed is guilty and has been lying all along, and I uncovered the magic bullet that proves it! To these people, the podcast seems to meander back and forth between trying to convince listeners Syed is innocent and sadly confirming the charming young sociopath's guilt.
 
This attitude slights 'Serial's' genuine achievement, which is precisely its openness, its effort to bring the reader along on a journey to genuine understanding. Journalists -- especially German ones -- are prone to be condescending crusaders, spoon-feeding their readers one-sided narratives intended to hammer home Approved Opinions™ about everything from the death penalty to fracking to immigration to Greek finances. To make sure nothing complicates the lesson, these journalists swallow the most outlandish tales of victimization, ignore glaring contradictions, and leave contrary viewpoints and empirical verification outside in the cold. Not all of them, to be sure -- there are lots of German journos doing solid, thoughtful work. And the problem ain't just Germany. Why, just last month a major American magazine published a made-up-story of gang rape based on a teenager's romantic catfishing ploy without doing even the simplest verification.
 
Koenig treats her listeners like adults, in fact almost like accomplices in the investigation. And on the way, she illustrates a number of points that ordinary people don't understand about criminal investigations (full disclosure: I was a criminal defense lawyer in a previous life):
  • Eyewitnesses who saw the same incident often -- in fact usually -- describe it in inconsistent ways, which makes eyewitness testimony one of the leading causes of false convictions.
  • Many criminal cases are based on the testimony of acomplices who are just as guilty, if not even more guilty, than the defendant they testify against.
  • Men and women who are guilty of crimes can adamantly and convincingly protest their innocence. Many can even do so sincerely, because they have convinced themselves they are innocent.
  • Since most normal humans are lucky enough never to have never encountered a sociopathic liar willing to recite detailed, convincing lies to another person, they are often taken in by these people. (I'm looking at you, European women who marry American death-row inmates).
  • The way in which a person reacts to news of a loved one's death is so individual and unpredictable that it's meaningless as a clue to guilt or innocence.
  • If you hire a private criminal defense lawyer in the U.S., there is no effective real-time regulation of that person's fee policies or performance. If they make an error that leads to you being convicted, you can only argue about that after the fact in expensive appeals, and you face a forbidding standard in proving your case.
  • Notorious criminal cases attract unstable people who will do everything from claiming responsibility for horrific murders to fabricating evidence for or against the accused.
  • If you investigate any incident long enough, you will inevitably come across spectacularly improbable 'coincidences', such as the fact that the man who discovered Lee's body happened to be a notorious streaker who once intentionally exposed himself naked in public to a female police officer in uniform. (After he waggled his dong at her he ran away. She found his clothes and confiscated them).

During her patient re-investigation of Lee's death, Koenig encounters almost all of these vagaries of investigation. She shows how the fabric of reality attending the actual events starts dissolving immediately, and decomposes further with every passing day until the original pattern is irretrievably lost -- or distorted by bias, error, or selective memory. Koenig can't wrap the events up in a neat little bundle because this isn't fiction, there is no bundle, there is no happy ending. It is to her credit that she chose a case marked by ambiguity, and that she resisted the urge to channel the facts she found into a pat, tidy, misleading narrative. By doing so, she conveys profound truths about memory, bias, violence, and justice. 'Serial', if you ask me is journalism at its finest.


American Moral Panics Then and Now

So, the comments are in (thanks!), and the consensus seems to be that there's no special focus on campus sexual assault in Germany because (1) Most German universities don't have traditional campuses or an insular 'campus culture' like American universities; and (2) German university authorities just aren't expected to deal with crimes between students. That's what the police are for. German universities have no 'campus police' in the American sense, just a few hired security guards.

And there's no special concern about 'campus' sexual assault in Germany the way there is in the U.S. Disclaimer: I believe sexual assault is a serious crime that should be punished. Every allegation should be followed up, preferably by specially-trained investigators. These things are self-evident to any civilized person, but in this crazy modern era, there are people out there eager to misconstrue.

That out of the way, I have three problems with the particularly American approach to campus sexual assault, which strikes me as a classic moral panic:

  • First, the debate revolves far too much around whether you immediately 'believe' personal stories of people who say they have been victimized. Most accusations of sexual assault are well-founded, but some people invent rape stories to gain sympathy or take revenge, or more commonly because they suffer from mental illness. Statistics vary from study to study, but they generally put the rate of false accusations between 2 and 8%. A small percentage, but considering  that many American states impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years in prison for rape, caution is in order. The focus of activists on immediately believing all rape accusations creates self-inflicted wounds when some of the accusations turn out to be unfounded, as they inevitably will. As Freddie de Boer recently put it in an intelligent piece: 'By creating the expectation that all rape accusations must be presumed true regardless of circumstance, anti-rape activists have tied the credibility of their efforts to every individual accusation, and in so doing perversely undermined our efforts to end sexual assault.' His argument is more complex than this, go read the whole thing. But the point comes across.
  • Second, many universities, in response to pressure from activists, have adopted investigation guidelines for allegations of sexual assault that deprive the accused of a fair chance to be informed of the allegations against him or her and respond effectively. Twenty-eight Harvard law professors from across the ideological spectrum recently denounced Harvard's new guidelines for exactly this reason. Emily Yoffe's recent long read on one of these cases shows, in my view, a system that makes a mockery of due process. Like university administrators, the American criminal justice system is heavily influenced by public opinion, which means moral panics often translate into an urgent call to do something, and this call is heeded by elected prosecutors eager to make headlines (like this guy). From the death penalty to Satanic child abuse to life in prison for drug dealing to civil forfeiture, the list of American punitive overcorrections based on moral panics is long indeed.
  • Third, there is a class angle to this story that many people ignore. Three quarters of Americans will never go to college. Women who do not attend college are more likely to be raped than women who do. The farther down the socio-economic ladder, the wider the prevalence of sexual assault. As one recent study put it: 'Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence.' America is focussed on sexual assault on campus because politicians, journalists, and activists almost exclusively emerge from the college-educated class. If we really want to combat sexual assault, it would probably be much more effective to concentrate resources in poorer areas, where it happens more often than on university campuses. Instead of reporters fanning out across campuses interviewing upper-middle class people like themselves, why not fan out to isolated suburban strip-malls and ask the working-class female employees how prevalent rape is in their lives? Whether their workplaces have adequate security? How long they have to walk through dark parking lots to get to their cars at night? I wager the results would be pretty sobering. But the upper-middle class college-educated journalists who shape news coverage don't seem to be very concerned about the 75% of Americans who will never go to college. Whenever class raises its fat, pimply head, an uncomfortable silence descends on the American chattering classes, with a few notable exceptions.

Peculiar Idea for the Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's been a recent increase in odd political messages being posted in the halls the university. I presume these folks are attempting to reach the 'leaders of tomorrow' and may not be aware of the Internets.

In the name of political enlightenment, I hereby present you with the latest example. The guy included his full name and address at the bottom; I've decided to blot it out for obvious reasons. Enjoy!

Untitled


Are There Any Crises at German Universities?

Given my interest in public opinion and constitutional law, I've been following the so-called University of Virginia rape story with considerable interest. Briefly put, here's what happened:

  • On November 19, the US pop-culture magazine Rolling Stone publishes an explosive story about an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia, a prestigious state university. The lodestar of the story is an account by a 20-year-old student named Jackie, according to which she was viciously gang-raped by a bunch of fraternity members.
  • The story gains massive publicity in the U.S. According to some activists, there is an 'epidemic' of sexual assault on campus at American universities. One study concluded that 1 of every 5 female American university students will be 'sexually assaulted' before she graduates, although that statistic is based on an Internet survey conducted on just two campuses and which used an extremely loose definition of 'sexual assault'.
  • While skeptics question that statistic, which would mean that rape is more common on US university campuses than in war-torn central Africa, the President of the US, sensing a low-risk, high-reward political issue, decries the epidemic of campus rape on American universities.
  • Five days after the Rolling Stone story is published, Richard Bradley, an American editor, publishes a blog entry basically saying it's over-the-top, thinly sourced, and generally incredible:

One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.

And, of course, this is a very charged time when it comes to the issue of sexual assault on campuses. Emotion has outswept reason. Jackie, for example, alleges that one out of three women who go to UVA has been raped. This is silly.

  • For this, Bradley is pilloried by feminists. Until, that is, further reporting, especially by the Washington Post, shows that Jackie's story is almost certainly a fabrication, and that the original reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never spoke to several witnesses who would have cast doubts on Jackie's story. In particular, she didn't even speak to the men Jackie accused of the rape.

The story has also gotten plenty of play in Germany, as you might expect. The story and its implosion raises plenty of fascinating legal questions, but I will spare you a discussion of those.

What strikes me is this: I work at a German university every day. I am surrounded by young undergraduate students, male and female. Many of them live close together, and they most certainly have parties, get drunk, and have sex. I mean, how could they not? Yet there seems to be no hysteria about a supposed epidemic of sexual assault or rape at German universities. No 'slut walks', no pressure to reform 'campus guidelines' to punish students accused of rape, no sit-ins, no dramatic stories of sexual assault. It's possible I've missed an op-ed or demonstration here or there, but I think I'm on 100% solid ground in saying there's nowhere near the level of hysteria in Germany as there is in the USA on this issue.

Why is this? Is it because German university students are more mature and law-abiding? Is the 'campus rape' bubble a typically American 'moral panic'? Is it because many German universities don't have traditional campuses which many students live on or near? Is it because German universities aren't expected to deal with crimes between students?

Or is it because the problem exists, but German universities are covering it up? What say you, readers?


The Boston Globe Praises My Book

A little blatant self-promotion here. Katharine Whittemore in the Boston Globe just began a round-up of seven books about capital punishment and life sentences with this punchy, but essentially accurate, abstract of my book's argument:

Why has Europe ended the death penalty, but we’ve still got it? The conventional answer trades on cultural divides: America is an immature cowboy nation, racist and trigger happy, while Europe is more measured, mature, and its societies, chastened by two world wars, are understandably keen to avoid further violence. They’re enlightened; we’re philistine. Germany, in fact, got rid of capital punishment in 1949 and Britain in 1969. Before I read today’s books, I’d vaguely guessed that the Germans acted in revulsion at their Nazi past, and the British embraced the moral revolution of the Sixties. I was flat wrong; in both cases, the people overwhelmingly supported the death penalty. But their leaders coolly, blatantly overruled them.

“Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) helped me, like no other book, to understand the worldwide evolution of the ultimate punishment. When Andrew Hammel, a professor of American law at the University of Düsseldorf, asked European jurists and pols why they’ve succeeded where we’ve failed, he constantly heard this refrain: Americans are naïve to think public opinion must change before the law changes. That’s because the “desire to see murderers executed is a basic drive of human nature, one which only the most educated are able to overcome.”

So that’s their strategy: an elite fait accompli. There are long roots here, for the earliest calls for diminishing the death penalty came from European philosophers invited by European monarchs to put their ideas into practice. Voltaire was pivotal and so was Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 landmark treatise, “On Crimes and Punishments” (Beccaria, 2013), remains powerful reading today and had a marked influence on Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Beccaria found it immoral and illogical to treat brutality with brutality: “Murder, which [judges] would represent to us as a horrible crime, we see practised by them without repugnance or remorse.’’

In our era, when those on death row in the United States are in for heinous crimes only, we forget that the state once killed for far less. In 19th century Britain, you could die for some 200 transgressions, including vagrancy and “theft from the premises of a calico printers.” The march toward abolition was a slow one, steadily scratching offenses off — but it was basically a top-down process. Such condescension is a nonstarter in our more populist, pluralist society where 63 percent of Americans favor the death penalty. Eastern European countries had similar stats but, in order to join the European Union, they had to end the practice. The responsive structure of American politics guarantees, for now, it’s here to stay.