Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.


Chapter Links

Chapter 1: The New Censorship.
Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important.
Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities.
Chapter 4: Hate Speech.
Chapter 5: What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do.
Chapter 6: What’s at Stake?

Free Speech on Campus (5): What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do

Hate speech codes are a bad idea, but it’s a mistake to ignore the harmful effects of hateful and bullying speech. According to the authors, “free speech advocates must acknowledge the admirable values that tempt people toward censorship, and then provide a road map for addressing these issues in a way that does not undermine higher education’s necessary commitment to free speech, academic freedom, unfettered inquiry, and robust debate”.

They offer a series of cans and can’ts, or shoulds and shouldn’ts for private universities. Here are the highlights.

  • Faculty members may choose to provide students warnings before presenting material that might be offensive or upsetting to them. Colleges and universities should not, however, impose requirements that faculty provide such “trigger warnings”.

Professors need to decide how to best educate their students without being micromanaged by the administration. In some cases a professor’s judgment might be that being exposed to disturbing material without warning will make for more effective instruction. Besides, understanding cuts both ways. Just as professors should not be tone deaf to the feelings of their students, students need to prepare themselves for the real world where they won’t be coddled.

  • Campuses should create “safe spaces” in educational settings that ensure that people feel free to express the widest array of viewpoints. They should not uses the concept of “safe spaces” to censor the expression of ideas considered too offensive for students to hear.

Put simply: you go to college not to learn things which comfort you, but to learn things that shatter you out of your comfort zones. That’s what education is about.

  • Campuses can sensitize faculty and students to the impact certain words will have, as part of an effort to create a respectful work and learning environment. But they should not prohibit or punish faculty or students from using words that some consider to be examples of “microaggressions”.

We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.

  • Campuses should expect university administrators to speak out against especially egregious speech acts and intolerance as a way of demonstrating the power of “more speech” rather than enforced silence. They should not expect the administrators to comment on or condemn every campus speech act that some person considers offensive.

It’s cliche by this point, but a lesson that’s being lost, that the best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech — robust counter-speech that rigorously challenges what we object to.

The authors list other campus agenda items:

  • Protect the rights of all students to engage in meaningful protest and to distribute materials that get their message out, while at the same time preventing disruptions of university activities.
  • Ensure that campus dormitories are safe spaces of repose, short of imposing content-based restrictions on speech.
  • Establish clear reporting requirements so that incidents of discriminatory practices can be quickly investigated and addressed.
  • Encourage faculty and students to research and learn about the harms associated with intolerance and structural discrimination, and sponsoring academic symposia.
  • Organize co-curricular activities that celebrate cultural diversity and provide victims of hateful and bullying acts the opportunity to be heard.

In the final chapter we’ll see what’s ultimately at stake in all of this.


Up last: Chapter 6: What’s at Stake?

Free Speech on Campus (4): Hate Speech

The authors survey the Supreme Court rulings on hate speech issues (pp 82-97) and then with this background turn to the issue of hate speech codes in campus settings (97-110).

The problem is that in practice, hate speech codes are used less against the hateful slurs that inspire their passage, and more against opinions that people disagree with. For example, when the University of Michigan adopted hate speech codes in 1988, one student got in trouble because he claimed that Jewish people used the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Another student faced punishment for simply stating that he had heard minorities had difficulty in a particular course. A graduate student was at risk for exploring certain theories in his field of psychobiology. The courts then struck down the hate speech codes as unconstitutional, and between 1989-1995, the courts ruled similarly against the hate speech codes adopted by other colleges and universities.

Hate speech codes, in other words, “inescapably ban the expression of unpopular ideas and views, which is never tolerable in colleges and universities”. This relates to the problem I mentioned in the chapter-2 post, that one person’s hate is another’s struggle against injustice and oppression (Hirsi Ali, Nawaz).

Statistics are relevant. There is no evidence that hate speech laws or codes result in more tolerant attitudes. According to FBI reports, hate crimes in America decreased from 1996 to 2010 to 2015, without hate speech laws. (For that matter, same-sex marriage has gained much wider acceptance between 2001 and 2016, not because homophobic speech has been punished or silenced, but because of the increased presence of gay and lesbian voices in American culture and politics.) By contrast, in Europe, the Anti-Defamation League’s survey of anti-Semitism reports higher levels than in America, despite their having hate speech laws.

Some of today’s students like to claim that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, though of course it is. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment. Inciting violence and harassment aren’t either. Ditto for child pornography, the use of copyright, disturbing the peace, threatening national security, etc. These are sometimes called examples of “restrictions on free speech”, but they go beyond offensive opinion content and translate directly into harmful action or violating the rights of others. Child pornography is illegal not because of how offensive it is, but because it involves exploitation of children. Threats are illegal not because they’re emotionally upsetting, but because they cause a person to fear physical harm. Etc.

To censor hate speech would be to censor something solely on the basis of its offensiveness and opinion content, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to dismiss the emotional harm that comes by hate speech, and the authors address what can be done about that in the next chapter.


Up next: Chapter 5: What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do.

Free Speech on Campus (3): Colleges and Universities

In chapter 3 the authors distinguish between two zones of free expression in college and university settings: (1) a professional zone, which “protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings”, and (2) a larger free speech zone, which “exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large”. On this understanding, members of the campus community may say things in the free speech zone that they wouldn’t be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment.

In their view, colleges and universities should never punish faculty members or students who express controversial or offensive views outside the professional educational context, where there are no enforceable scholarly standards, and no disruption of the educational context other than the fact that people might take offense. So faculty and students who behave properly in the classroom and do not illegally harass others, should not be punished for controversial or offensive statements made on their own time. This is basically what is enforced in public universities, and the authors believe, as do I, that it should be enforced (though not legally required) at any institution of higher learning that wants to be taken seriously as such.

On the question of guest speakers, the authors bring up The Bell Curve, which is a good example since it was just last year that hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray (one of the book’s co-authors) and started violence that left a faculty member injured. The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and argued for racial differences in intelligence which account for different levels of economic and social success in America. Then as now, it was tempting to prevent the idea from being aired on a college platform, but rather than being worse off for it, society was better off since the book was subjected to rigorous scholarship and refuted on that professional basis. Angry students don’t have veto power, in any case, over students who want to hear the speaker.

The authors give a short history of colleges and universities in America, and their long road to intellectual freedom, culminating in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, and a good discussion of the “six-year war” fought long and hard over free speech rights on campus. How Berkeley has dramatically changed since then, with its students protesting Bill Maher as the 2014 commencement speaker for his supposed “hate speech”. Which is the subject of the next chapter.


Up next: Chapter 4: Hate Speech.

Free Speech on Campus (2): How Times Change

One of the striking points the authors make in chapter 2 is that today’s generation of students don’t value free speech like previous generations did, because the idea is more of an abstraction to them. They didn’t grow up in times when the act of punishing speech was associated with undermining good values — the eras of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Those who experienced these generations saw how officials tried to silence or punish protesters in the name of community values and protecting public peace, which is the same rationale used by today’s liberals.

Back in those days (the 60s-80s), liberals “owned” free speech, in the way conservatives “own” the right to bear arms. Liberals and minorities fought racism, sexism, and homophobia tooth and nail, but they drew the line at trying to silence their foes. They were better than that. The right to speak your racist/sexist/homophobic mind — whether on campus or not — was for the most part taken for granted. The reason for this is as the authors say: the enemies of free speech tended to be conservatives, not liberals, right up to the end of the ’80s, when it almost became illegal to burn the American flag. Threats to free speech were identified as a right-wing issue, and liberals didn’t want to be hypocrites. That all began changing in the ’90s.

Throughout history the alternative to free speech — governmental control of ideas — has always led to disaster, regardless of what end of the political spectrum is in control. Censorship is on the side of conformity, authoritarianism, and the status quo. Today’s liberals suggest the opposite: that governmental control of ideas can be used for positive things, like protecting the vulnerable. But history refutes this. Social progress has never come by silencing offensive speakers. It has come by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and express their views. That’s the way to fight discriminatory and bigoted speech.

Every generation tries to suppress speech for reasons that seem noble at the time. Today it’s to help create inclusive learning environments for minorities. Before that it was to stop pornography which offended women. Before that it was to stop flag burning out of respect for one’s country. Decades before, it was to stop communism. Further back, during World War I, it was to preserve the draft and win the war. Hindsight always shows, with embarrassing clarity, how misguided these efforts are. It will show the same thing for today’s efforts to silence hate speech.

How so? The authors address hate speech in chapter 4, which I’ll cover in detail, but for now I’ll mention an obvious problem. One person’s hate speech is another person’s lone voice crying against oppression and injustice. Aayan Hirsi Ali (a human rights activist) and Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim reformer) are examples of progressive-minded liberals who have been branded as hateful for speaking facts about the Islamic religion. “Hate speech” accusations have been attempts to silence them for their views which are inconvenient but certainly not hateful. In the case of Aayan Hirsi Ali, she has been banned from college campuses for her “hateful” opinions. That alone shows why hate speech codes are a bad idea, and we’ll see more when we look at chapter 4.


Up next: Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities.

Free Speech on Campus

This is the book on campus free speech I’ve been waiting for. The authors are constitutional scholars who teach a course in free speech to undergraduates, and their position is that campuses must provide supportive learning environments for an increasingly diverse student body while never restricting the expression of ideas in the process. I’ll summarize the six chapters below, and then devote a separate blogpost for each chapter over the next week.

Chapter 1: The New Censorship. The authors’ central thesis is that all ideas and views should be able to be expressed on college campuses, no matter how offensive or how uncomfortable they make people feel. But there are steps that campuses can and should take to create inclusive communities where all students feel protected, without catering to “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions”.

Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important. A brief history of how the idea evolved. Today’s generation often has little understanding why it is a crucial right that needs to be protected.

Chapter 3: Free Speech at Colleges and Universities. Free speech is important in society as a whole, but even more so on college campuses. The authors’ position is absolute: campuses never can censor or punish the expression of ideas, no matter how offensive, because otherwise they cannot perform their function of promoting inquiry, discovery, and the dissemination of new knowledge. Although the First Amendment applies only to public universities (and rightly so, as a matter of law), all colleges and universities nevertheless should commit themselves to these values.

Chapter 4: Hate Speech. The authors look at the real harm caused by hate speech on campus, review the First Amendment in this area as well as the history of hate speech codes, and explain that although well intentioned, campus bans on hate speech are not desirable.

Chapter 5: What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do. This chapter offers ideas on how to create inclusive learning environments without undermining freedom of speech and expression. Most notably — and this is often overlooked — campus leaders can engage in more speech themselves, by proclaiming the type of community they seek and condemning speech (without censoring it or punishing the speakers) that is inconsistent with those goals.

Chapter 6: What’s at Stake? The final chapter looks to the future. If campus leaders allow calls for “safe spaces” to suppress the expression of any idea, little will remain of free speech or academic inquiry. But if campus leaders do not find ways to create a conducive learning environment for everyone (without suppressing ideas), they will discover that they have provided free speech to some but not for all.


Up next: Chapter 2: Why Free Speech is Important.

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (1): Koko

koko(I never flag spoilers because it would be redundant: all of my reviews are full of them. In the case of The Blue Rose Trilogy, however, I need to be explicit. This series of reviews will absolutely ruin your experience of the novels if you read them beforehand. They are full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. You’ve been duly warned.)

This year is the 30th anniversary of the first Blue Rose novel, and I’ll be writing retrospectives for the trilogy: Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). You won’t like these mysteries if you have little patience with slow plotting, digressions, and false leads, but you’ll love them if you’re rewarded by that sort of grinding realism on top of lengthy character examination.

Nor will this be your thing if you’re put off by the redundant techniques of metafiction. The Blue Rose novels are less concerned with the internal consistency of their narratives than with recreating the narratives in new settings and circumstances. We get a grim vision of Milwaukee in Koko, a fever-dream portrait of a Caribbean isle (Mill Walk) in Mystery, and the brutal canvass of an Illinois city (Millhaven) in The Throat. All three places stand for Milwaukee, alternate theaters where protagonists solve mysteries in the present by solving others in the past. The same evils abound. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. The ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible. Deep scars, and the question of healing. I cringe to think how much of the Blue Rose trilogy is based on events from the real Milwaukee where Straub grew up as a kid.

The story of Koko starts with the reunion of four Vietnam vets in the early ’80s. They believe a member of their old platoon (Tim Underhill) is killing people across Southeast Asia; the former lieutenant (Harry Beevers) is quite sure about this, since Underhill has been living in places like Singapore and Bangkok; the other three (Michael Poole, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo) can’t quite make the leap to convict Underhill, as they have fond memories of him. When they find him in Bangkok, they realize he’s innocent and become convinced the killer is Victor Spitalny, who went missing back in 1969 when he deserted the army. But while Spitalny was a sadist, he was also an ineffectual twit, and hard to imagine as an efficient serial killer driven by grand purpose. Finally the truth hits them. The killer is Manny Dengler, who was supposedly killed in 1969 when on R&R with Spitalny (indeed presumed to be killed by Spitalny), and a man they deeply admired. Koko is a mystery and psychological thriller about what creates a killer by ruining his soul.

As for the book’s title, Koko is the killer’s calling card and moniker. When Dengler kills his victims, he leaves playing cards in their mouths with his signature “Koko” scrawled on them, after cutting out their eyes and off their ears. Dengler has reinvented himself out of his childhood hero Babar the King. In that famous children’s book, the Song of the Elephants ends with “Ko ko ko”. To Dengler the elephant represents mercy in times of peace and wrath in times of war, a duality which feeds his child complex and homicidal urges.

Only astute readers will figure out that Koko is Dengler. You really have to be paying attention, because the narrative effectively establishes that Dengler is long dead and was deeply admired by his platoon. It also makes clear that Spitalny was a sadist who hated everyone; he’s the only logical candidate for Koko once Underhill is ruled out.

The Clues

One clue comes in a novel written by Underhill, about a soldier misidentified because someone switched his dog-tag with another soldier. Dengler was inspired by the novel, and so when he killed Spitalny he put his own ID on him, then mutilated Spitalny’s body beyond recognition. This clue ties in with Dengler’s reverence for Underhill and why he impersonates Underhill when he lures journalists to kill them.

Another clue comes in chapter 22, when Koko has just killed Tina Pumo, and is getting ready to attack his girlfriend Maggie Lah:

When Pumo had opened the door and looked into Koko’s face, he had known, he had seen, he had understood. Angels walked him backwards up the stairs, angels backed him into his great glowing cave. Tears spilled from Koko’s eyes, for it was true that God did all things simultaneously (bold mine) and Koko’s heart overflowed for Pumo, who understood, who took flight, even as his soul took flight and sailed off, sailed home. The eyes, the ears, the Elephant Card in the mouth.

That kind of passage is easy to skim over as the mental derangements of a psychopath. The last part — the removing of Pumo’s eyes and ears, and stuffing the calling card in his mouth — grabs the reader more than the demented nonsense that proceeds. But the phrase “God did all things simultaneously” calls to mind the Vietnam flashback back in chapter 14, where Pumo remembers the death trap he and his platoon found themselves in for hours, as pressure mines exploded all around, ripping apart soldiers from crotch to chest. Pumo recalls a lot of craziness during that afternoon horror, including this bit from Dengler:

Pumo became aware that Dengler was beside him and grinning. “Don’t you think God does all things simultaneously?” (bold mine), Dengler asked him. “What?” Pumo asked. “What I like about that idea is that in a funny way it means that the universe actually created itself, which means that it goes on creating itself, get me? So destruction is part of this creation that goes on all the time. And on top of that is the real kicker, Pumo — destruction is the part of creation that we think is beautiful.” “Get fucked,” Pumo said. Now he understood what Dengler was doing: talking nonsense to wake him up and make him capable of acting.

The reader also assumes that it’s just nonsense Dengler was spouting. Most of the soldiers were saying or doing crazy shit in the flashback slaughter, and nothing in Dengler’s commentary suggests him to be the present-day serial killer — until chapters later, when you’re inside Koko’s head and he reflects upon God’s “simultaneous” actions. If you’ve paid and are still paying close attention. I’m a careful reader, but this is another clue I missed when I first read the novel.

A Tale of Two Families

The mystery of the killer’s identity is suspenseful, but there are deeper mysteries that make Koko more a psychological thriller. One is the war crime that haunts the vets. What exactly happened at Ia Thuc village, which called forth angry journalism and the court martial of Lieutenant Harry Beevers? Beevers, Spitalny, and Dengler went inside a cave, and when they came out, thirty Vietnamese children hiding inside were dead — all killed on Beevers’ orders. He remains proud of his deed, and even more proud for having been exonerated in the court martial, for in his words, “There are no children in war.” Spitalny and Dengler were scarred in different ways by the atrocity.

Which leads to the root mystery. What happened to Koko when he was a child that molded him into a serial killer triggered by the Vietnam horrors? The visits to the homes of Spitalny’s and Dengler’s parents are Koko’s best chapters (32 and 33). Both kids had terrible parents, terrible upbringings, but differently so. Spitalny’s mother is a doormat and his father a trash talker who projects his flaws onto his son. If I were Victor’s father I wouldn’t miss him either, but George Spitalny is no better. Straub is able to convey how pathetic George is in paragraphs like the following, where having no idea how to host guests in his home, he begins oogling Maggie Lah:

Poole watched George Spitalny leaning forward in his reclining chair, eating up Maggie Lah with his eyes. He had forgotten his wife and the two men. He felt great — he had a beer in one hand, and a girl who looked like Sex Incarnate was sitting on his living room couch. He was an awful man. He had burned Victor’s effects because of wounded narcissism. Poole felt an unexpected stab of pity for Victor Spitalny, growing up under the thumb of this vain, arrogant, inadequate man.

Yet for all the awfulness that runs in the Spitalny genes and environment, neither seems a likely breeding ground for a psychopath. Victor, like his father, was hollow and insecure, and not very smart; sadistic, but in a petty way; and certainly not disciplined. He’s the prime suspect for Koko because they can’t fathom anyone else… until they visit Dengler’s mother.

The visit with Helga Dengler involves one of the most creepy and disturbing verbal exchanges I’ve read in a work of fiction. She’s a cheerless fundie who loves citing the Bible, and drops these vague off-kilter comments to obscure information. Only later does a horrified Poole make sense of them:

  • Everyone lied about us. No they didn’t. After Poole, Underhill, and Maggie Lah leave Helga’s home, they learn more about her husband’s trial and conviction from the Milwaukee library. Manny had been found by a social worker imprisoned in the meat locker of Karl’s butcher shop (“The Blood of the Lamb Butcher Shop”), bruised and half-conscious, clutching his favorite book Babar the King. Karl Dengler not only abused his son, but molested him since the age of six, and was justly sentenced to prison, where he died two years later. On top of that, Karl wasn’t just Manny’s foster father. He was his biological father who raped a Hispanic woman, whom he then probably killed since he considered her an inferior race.
  • We kept that boy busy. An understatement. They raised Manny like a slave.
  • He had to be put in chains. No matter what anyone said. Helga was being literal. Karl Dengler chained Manny up in the butcher shop as a disciplinary measure.
  • Imagination has to be stopped. You have to put an end to it. Helga didn’t like Manny’s children’s books like Babar the King. For her, only Scripture was appropriate for the young mind.

Thus it begins to dawn on everyone that Manny Dengler, abused horribly as a child, is Koko, and that it was he who killed Victor Spitalny while on R&R back in ’69, not the other way around. Inspired by one of Underhill’s novels, he concealed Spitalny’s death by putting his military dog-tag on him. Dengler then mutilated Spitalny’s body so thoroughly that only the dog-tag could be used to (mis)identity the corpse as Dengler’s.

When Helga goes on about how Manny was lazy and in sore need of discipline, Poole wants to shake her and ask: Couldn’t you see what a gift he was to you? He and the other vets have such precious memories of Dengler (unlike the universally despised Spitalny) that it forces the cliche of whether serial killers are born or made. Koko implies the latter — that Dengler was molded into Koko by abusive parents — and is silent on the former. According to scientists, if you have the high-risk form of a gene that predisposes you to violence and were abused early in life, then your chances of a criminal life are relatively high, whereas if you have the high-risk gene but weren’t abused, there isn’t much risk. A genetic tendency towards violence plus an abusive childhood is the killer combination; serial killers are born and made. Manny Dengler was probably hostage to bad genes as much as to the hellish environments of his home and then later Vietnam.

Murder Vacation Services

The most graphically upsetting part of Koko comes not in the serial killings nor Vietnam flashbacks, but at the novel’s midpoint (chapter 20), where Conor, after searching for Tim Underhill in countless nightclubs across Bangkok, is taken to an underground bar where he witnesses a staged murder. Except that it’s not staged: the woman is beaten and killed under the calm gazes of men in business suits who savor the brutality while sipping booze. Conor runs out appalled.

Apparently this is based on a real-world business in Thailand that offers (or used to offer) “murder vacation” services. The customer pays a hefty price to torture and kill someone, or to watch it happen for a slightly lower price. Straub isn’t the only one who has been inspired by it; Eli Roth based his Hostel films on the premise. It could be an urban legend, but it wouldn’t surprise me if secret organizations like this exist in the world.

The chapter is a side plot that doesn’t result in getting any closer to Underhill or the real Koko, but it’s one hell of a tension builder, and an example of Straub’s ability to engage the reader with red herrings. The scene gave me a nightmare in which I was Conor, didn’t get out of the bar in time, and became the next stage victim. Seriously.

Straub’s best novel?

He thinks so, and I see his point. You can taste the sweat and tears that went into Koko. Every sentence feels constructed with anorexic care; the pacing is incredibly disciplined for a thriller; and the dialogue so realistic it’s like sitting in on real-life conversations. Straub was always good at this stuff, but he had seriously upped his game by this point in his career. The genre itself marked a maturing, since Koko was his breakaway from horror — out of Stephen King’s shadow and into a style of mystery completely on his own terms. He should be extremely proud of Koko. But the fact is that he did better in Mystery and The Throat. The plotting is even richer in those books, and they feature as leads Tom Pasmore and Tim Underhill, who are the best characters Straub has written. Koko is seen mostly through the eyes of Michael Poole — a solid character to be sure, but nothing like Pasmore or Underhill.

There are small but significant problems with Koko that prevent me from awarding it 5-stars. First are the chronological inconsistencies. Straub can’t seem to decide whether or not the Koko killings happened in 1981 or 1982. In chapter 1 we learn that the first killings happened soon after the Iranian hostages were released, in January-February ’81. Then in chapter 16, we are told the dates for those killings are January-February ’82. And when Poole, Linklater, and Beevers are in Singapore looking for Underhill in January the following year, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has just been released (see chapter 15). That happened in January ’83, which supports the ’82 dates for the early Koko killings, rather than the ’81 dates.

Second is the problem of how Tim Underhill could have written his novel The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Underhill doesn’t become aware of this until he, Poole, and Maggie visit Helga Dengler in Milwaukee. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years before in the early ’70s? That question is later answered in The Throat, where we learn that the fifth Blue Rose killing represents a butcher from Illinois (Heinz Stenmitz) who molested Tim Underhill when he was a child, and which Tim has repressed memory of. But that leaves us with the impossible coincidence of two characters (Manny Dengler and Tim Underhill) who were in the same Vietnam unit, and had both been molested by different butchers (Karl Dengler and Heinz Stenmitz) who each ran his own meat shop — and on a street with the same name (Muffin Street) in different states! Straub’s metafiction techniques get away from him at times.

Third is the unlikely coincidence that Michael Poole and Maggie Lah, independently of one another, happen to be obsessed with the children’s book Babar the King, which was Manny Dengler’s favorite book as a child and inspired him to think of himself as “Koko”. At one point Maggie even recalls the Song of the Elephants:

Patali di rapato
Cromda cromda ripalo
Pata pata
Ko ko ko

Maggie doesn’t know at this point that the serial killer calls himself Koko, but it asks a lot of the reader that she would be ruminating over the one children’s book that “explains” the serial killer. Michael Poole, for his part, is also obsessed with Babar the King because his deceased son loved it, though he has forgotten about the “Ko ko ko” line.

Fourth and last, the novel could have used some editing. There are places where description goes on more than it needs to, for example when Poole is wandering the streets in Singapore, or Harry is scouting out New York City for a place to trap Koko. The slow paced technique usually works for Straub and sets him above the hacks who crank out cheap page-turners. Still, it can be overdone. In Mystery and The Throat Straub gets away with all his indulgences; in Koko I lost patience in a few places.

None of these weaknesses diminish Koko‘s excellence, but they are enough to make me demur from Straub’s claim that it’s his best work to date. It’s also worth noting — though this really isn’t a criticism — that the Blue Rose killings play a minimal role in Koko. They are mentioned only once, in Underhill’s novel The Divided Man, where to Poole they come across as a meditation on the Koko killings. But that’s rather impossible, since Underhill wrote the novel in the early ’70s, years before Koko started his homicidal campaign. In Mystery the Blue Rose killings relate to a series of murders under investigation, and in The Throat they are the main plot; in Koko the Blue Rose idea seems to be in gestation, and Straub unsure as to how he wanted to use those killings to interpret other events. It’s hard to even think of Koko, really, as a Blue Rose novel, or at least until you read the next two novels and see how everything intertwines. We’ll look at Mystery in the next retrospective.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Immigration: Three Reasons Trump’s Fans Should Love the Idea

Trump is obviously an idiot, but his hostility to immigration shows how clueless he and his fan-base really are.

(1) From a national perspective, welcoming immigrants has been a mark of enlightened thinking. The U.S. was founded by immigrants and has prided itself on being open to diversity. For all its troubled history with Native American ethnic cleansing and African American slavery, the nation was built on principles which advocate equal opportunity for all. When a president like Benjamin Harrison called for needless restrictions on Asian immigrants, he was judged for it accordingly. Americans have historically resisted the equation of nationality with ethnicity. Nationality has been about citizenship, and allegiance to the vision of the founding fathers.

(2) From an economic perspective, immigration has always been the life’s blood of the U.S., infusing new ideas and skills into the American market. Immigration has given the country new jobs, new businesses, new inventions. Immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. People tend to fear job competition in times of hardship or depression — and the threat of having jobs “stolen” from them — but the fact is that a bigger workforce means more consumption, more demand, and more jobs. That’s the long-standing wisdom of economists. Thwarting immigration is a likely path to slowing economic growth.

(3) From a Judeo-Christian religious perspective, one could make a strong case to be pro-immigration. According to even a hard-core fundamentalist like Pastor Steven Anderson, God specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant: “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33). After all, says Anderson, everyone in America descends from immigrants (aside from the Native American Indians), and those who have a problem with immigrants “should probably leave the country themselves”. There is also the example of Ruth, who wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

In light of the support Trump receives from “patriotic” nationalists, entrepreneurs, and conservative Christians, the irony is amusing.

Female Circumcision: A Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. Or at least in three of the four branches of Sunni Islam. In the Shafi’i school it’s obligatory, and in the Maliki and Hanbali schools it’s recommended. Only in the Hanafi school is there considerable ambiguity, where some jurists hold that female circumcision is preferred, and others resist a religious prescription and even say that it’s undesirable.

The Reliance of the Traveler is the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law, from al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar is a prestigious institution of Sunni Islam, and basically Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican. The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s popular translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris (the prepuce) instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. He treats the Arabic word “bazr” as referring to the clitoral hood or prepuce, and doesn’t indicate what other term might refer to the clitoris if “bazr” does not. In contrast, the vast majority of scholars believe that “bazr” means clitoris, not the skin around it (see Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam, p 138). In Shafi’i Islam, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates (dark blue, below) also happen to be the places where clit-cutting is heavily frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time Shafi’i Islam was introduced; this was a part of the world where female circumcision hadn’t been practiced. Obviously the Shafi’is haven’t been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Similar apologetics have been tried by other Muslim leaders. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, has claimed that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. Circumcision, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin (the prepuce) at the top of the clitoral glans. But as with Keller’s misleading translation, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It’s a religious practice as much as a cultural one in regions dominated by Shafi’i Islam which requires it, and Maliki and Hanbali Islam which both encourage it. (In a similar way, honor killings are sanctioned in Islamic Law, according to which “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right,” however, “not subject to retaliation” is “a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring”. Reliance of the Traveler o1.1-2.)

We often hear that female circumcision isn’t a religious requirement in Islam because it’s not mentioned in the Qur’an. But that’s like saying anti-abortion isn’t religiously grounded in Christianity because the Bible has nothing to say about abortion. The Qur’an is one of Islam’s many authoritative religious writings, along with the Hadith, the Sira, the Fiqh, and the texts of Sharia law. All of these are understood to convey the will of Allah — regardless of what the “historical Muhammad” would say on the matter if we could somehow ask him.

This is well put by Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose specialty is the Maliki school of Islam. In his landmark book on medieval Spain (where the Maliki school dominated throughout the 8th-12th centuries), he refutes myths of Islamic tolerance, and in the section on female circumcision, he writes:

“Today’s discussions on whether or not the practice of female circumcision is actually prescribed ‘by Islam’, or whether it was a pre-Islamic practice that Islam kept, or whether it was a practice that Muhammad did not condone but that later clerics implemented, are irrelevant to the fact of its approval in Maliki law and therefore to the logic of its practice in lands ruled by Maliki law right down to the twenty-first century.” (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, p 143)

It may be “Islamophobic” to point this out, but it’s factual, however much facts are out of fashion. Few liberals and media outlets like to admit that female circumcision has anything to do with Islam.

Which makes last year’s events in Detroit a very interesting post-script. Two Muslim doctors were charged in April 2017 for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” Now, obviously the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right — the thing no one cares to admit: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I explained in this post. Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients. They will doubtfully win, but you gotta love the irony: the only liberal multi-culturalist who will speak truth on this matter is a lawyer, who will say anything to defend the indefensible.