Sexual Assault Has Declined Dramatically in a Generation

Sociologists have long noted that public perceptions of social problems can depart dramatically from the reality of social problems. For example, during the height of Ebola coverage, many Americans were more terrified of Ebola than the flu, even though the latter disease is a much greater threat to U.S. public health. Because of the recent spate of media coverage about sexual assault, many people I read and encounter are convinced that the problem has never been worse and will get even worse in the future. Rather than descend into panic and despair about this terrible crime, let’s not forget that the prevalence of sexual assault has declined dramatically over the past generation.

Twenty years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey was redesigned to do a better job detecting sexual assault. The revised questions showed that in a nation of 258 million people, nearly 550,000 rapes occurred. Two decades later, the most recent survey reported that in a nation of 316 million people 300,000 rapes occurred. Thus, in the space of one generation, the raw number of rapes has dropped by 45% and the population-adjusted rate of rape has dropped 55%.

I started my career working with and advocating for rape victims, and no one needs to convince me that the only acceptable goal for society is to have no rapes at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have experienced an astonishingly positive change that should lead us to (1) Figure out how it was achieved so that we can build on it (personally, I credit the feminist movement, but there may be other variables) and (2) Never give up hope that we can push back dramatically against even the most horrific social problems.

Living well with breast cancer by choosing wisely

Over at Wonkblog, I checked back in with one of my favorite people, Amy Berman.AmyBerman_1x1 5 (1)

Amy is a program officer at the Hartford Foundation. She is on my real-life Madden team. She has been living with stage IV breast cancer for several years now. By the judicious use of palliative care, she is living well despite the challenges of a spreading cancer. It is a strange experience yucking it up over Skype sipping diet soda and discussing metastatic cancer. Life is funny like that.

We spend so much time debating what a good death might look like in end-of-life care. She has had a good life for the past several years despite an incurable cancer, because she has sought and received excellent care.

More here.

The Eurozone: Something’s Gotta Give

The turmoil in Greece is but one instantiation of the broader crisis in the Eurozone. I chart below the latest jobs data to illustrate that the zone’s unemployment rate is worse than that of any non-zone European country. That big red bar on the far right reflects substantial human misery.


Charting economic growth adds insult to injury. The Eurozone is dead last here, generating not even a third of the growth of the best performers, Britain and Hungary.


Numbers like the above, both in themselves and relative to other European countries outside the Eurozone, create enormous pressure and something’s gotta give. But what will it be?

Will it be a massive stimulus package? European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker announced an impressive sounding 315 billion Euro investment package, but upon close inspection it turns out to be quite puny, and in any event Juncker’s future is unclear as revelations emerge that he may have helped wealthy corporate friends evade taxes. Meanwhile, Germany ordoliberals remain committed to spending restraint, suggesting that the Eurozone isn’t likely to go on a spending binge in order to avoid a deflationary spiral.

Another alternative is that the pain continues to mount until populist movements gain control of member governments and start taking radical action, for example defaulting on their debts, or, exiting the Eurozone entirely. The Euro doesn’t have a well of democratic legitimacy upon which to draw. It was always an elite project designed with little regard for (or understanding of) the man and woman on the street. The elite commitment to not owning up to the basic flaws of the system will therefore not count for much if the suffering masses get their hands on the levers of power.

Sunday Pub Quiz: Anglo-American Politics

This is a quiz about American politics, and it’s fairly hard. Google not and see if you can get half of these right, all of which I derived from Raymond Seitz’s charming book Over Here. As ever, post scores and comments/critiques at the end.

1. Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was about the relationship between the United States and what other country?

2. If Hillary Clinton is elected President, she will be the first POTUS with prior experience as Secretary of State since who?

3. Before he became Secretary of State, James Baker was asked whether he had ever visited a communist country. He replied “No, but I’ve been to”….where?

4. William Gladstone said it was “The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”. To what was he referring?

5. U.K. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was a distant relative of which U.S. President?

6. The first communication by Transatlantic Cable occurred between Queen Victoria and which U.S. President?

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More Sunday pylon blogging

In the High and Far-Off Times (2008 and 2011) I blogged some photos of modern French and other designs for high-voltage electricity pylons that look like well-designed pieces of engineering, not a child’s failed Meccano project. I told you that the British Department of Energy and Climate Change had launched a competition for pylons for the British grid, then I forgot about it. Rather late, here are the winner and the five others that made the shortlist. This was actually announced – ahem – in October 2011. There hasn’t exactly been a rush anywhere to phase out the old lattices, so it’s still a good idea to publicise the new designs. The assessment included National Grid, the operator of the transmission network, and an eminent academic engineer served as one of the judges, so we can assume all the shortlist met engineering standards.

Winner: T-pylon from Bystrup of Denmark

Pylon T-pylon
This clean but not very exciting design won in part because of its low height, making it less intrusive in the landscape: it cuts 35 14 metres off the existing lattices. National Grid are committed to this to the extent of building a line of six at their training centre in Nottinghamshire, and will offer the design as an option to communities affected by new lines.

Also-rans below the jump. Continue Reading…

“This one photo shows why Michel du Cille was an incredible photojournalist”

This is just a terrific piece by Vox’s Amanda Taub remembering a distinguished photojournalist. I won’t spoil the image. Please click through. The look on this child’s face is just one element that makes this a fantastic and heartbreaking picture.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Brief Encounter

Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

brief_encounter2A few years back I recommended In Which We Serve, the first collaboration between Noël Coward and David Lean. As their partnership evolved, Coward ceded full directorial control to Lean and the two men made a series of films (now available as a boxed set from Criterion Collection) that both reflected and defined Englishness for a generation. This week’s recommendation is the strongest of their efforts, which is truly saying something: 1945′s Brief Encounter.

Expanded from a one-act play of Coward’s, the plot is so simple that it would have been slight in less talented hands. A plain-looking, thoroughly respectable suburban housewife and mother named Laura Jesson is waiting for her regular train on her regular shopping day. A train throws a piece of soot into her eye. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey comes to her aid and something sparks between them. They meet again by chance, a third time by intention mutually disguised as a trivial convenience, and then, guiltily, on purpose. A forbidden — though by modern standards, extremely restrained — romance develops. But where can it go, for two married parents with a lifetime of British socialization in their veins?

Other than The Browning Version, no British film conveys the nature of quiet desperation as achingly as does Brief Encounter. Coward wisely does not make the choices simple for the characters or the audience. Laura’s husband is gentle and devoted and her children loveable. Alec’s family is never seen, but the audience imagines something similar regarding his own responsibilities and constraints. Alec and Laura are drawn to each other not because they are fleeing violence, hatred or some other overt misery. Rather, they are running from dullness towards passion, which is underscored (pun intended) by perfectly chosen music by Rachmaninoff.

Lean and his frequent collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan understood the possibilities of film as well as any team in the history of cinema (Not incidentally, they went on to make many classics together post-Coward, including prior RBC recommendation Great Expectations). This movie is one of many times when they hit it for six. The tone, look, pacing and editing are all unimpeachable.

The other undeniable virtue of Brief Encounter is the acting. Trevor Howard, as Alec, is strong, but Celia Johnson tour de force’s as Laura, the more fully developed of the two characters, will stay with you until the end of your days. She might have been an unsympathetic character but Johnson’s evident humanity and emotional turmoil will elicit forgiveness from even judgmentally-inclined viewers. Johnson’s most unforgettable moment: Her character’s realization that her husband loves and trusts her so much that the lie she tells to cover up meeting Alec has no chance of being detected. Johnson deservedly received a 1947 Oscar nomination for her performance. It came that long after the 1945 British release because a movie in which infidelity is not punished was long considered too scandalous to release in a number of countries, including the U.S.

Every moment, every look and every gesture rings true in Brief Encounter. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get out your hanky and watch this truly magnificent film made by a creatively matchless group of artists.

Fred Karno’s thugs

The Feinstein report on the torture programme run by the CIA is horrific but also blackly comic.
The Agency:

  • took crucial advice from two crank psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid $81m for their services, including taking part in interrogations (NYT);
  • appointed as chief of interrogations in the renditions programme an oldtimer who had been responsible for abusive interrogation training in Latin America from 1983 (JW: possibly at the infamous School of the Americas) and later censured (executive summary, page 19);
  • carried out no research on the effectiveness of coercive methods of interrogation before applying them systematically (ibid., page 20);
  • waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times after he had already cooperated fully with FBI interrogators (ibid., pages 24 ff);
  • had no complete record of the number of prisoners held in the programme (ibid., page 14) or in particular locations (page 51);
  • detained at least 21 prisoners that did not meet its own subjectively assessed criteria (ibid., page 16);
  • subcontracted 85% of the jobs in a top-secret programme of the utmost importance and sensitivity;
  • failed to brief President George Bush on its interrogation methods until 2006 (executive summary, page 6);
  • committed a war crime all for nothing; the torture “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” (ibid., page 2).

You have to think that none of those involved would have lasted long in the more efficient operations of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Heinrich Himmler, Tomás de Torquemada, or Francis Walsingham.

But I wonder. Feinstein’s narrative is one of bunglers talking themselves into a crime. In her Chairman’s introduction (page 2), she writes (my emphasis):

.. CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.

The White House, it seems, was a passive victim of CIA deception, like Congress. The report even paints Bush’s deliberate decision in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to future al-Qaeda and even Taliban prisoners as being taken on the sole recommendation of the CIA (page 20).

There is a similar theory about the Holocaust, and it’s about about as convincing. (No, I’m not suggesting the crimes were equivalent.) High-ranking Nazis sort of talked themselves into genocide, and the Wannsee conference was an important step in the decision rather than a briefing of underlings to receive orders. In a state guided by the Führerprinzip? In the disciplined Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Administration?

The prime beneficiary of this considerate incuriosity does not want anything of it:

What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized.”

For once, I believe Cheney. He and Bush wanted the detainees tortured, and they were.

On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.

I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.

This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course that he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.

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