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Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one on Bloomberg which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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On the morning a debt collector threatened to rape his wife, Andrew Therrien was working from home, in a house with green shutters on a cul-de-sac in a small Rhode Island town. Tall and stocky, with a buzz cut and a square, friendly face, Therrien was a salesman for a promotions company. He’d always had an easy rapport with people over the phone, and on that day, in February 2015, he was calling food vendors to talk about grocery store giveaways.

Therrien was interrupted midpitch by a call from his wife. She’d gotten a voicemail from an authoritative-sounding man saying Therrien was in some kind of trouble. “I need to verify an address to present you with your formal claim,” the man had said. “Andrew Therrien, you are officially notified.”

A few minutes later, Therrien’s phone buzzed. It was the same guy. He gave his name as Charles Cartwright and said Therrien owed $700 on a payday loan. But Therrien knew he didn’t owe anyone anything. Suspecting a scam, he told Cartwright just what he thought of his scare tactics.

Cartwright hung up, then called back, mad. He said he wanted to meet face-to-face to teach Therrien a lesson.

“I will,” Cartwright said, “and I hope your wife is at home.”

That’s when he made the rape threat.

Therrien got so angry he couldn’t think clearly. He wasn’t going to just let someone menace and disrespect his wife like that. He had to know who this Cartwright guy was, and his employer, too. Therrien wanted to make them pay.

At the same time, he worried that the call might not be a swindle. What if some misinformed loan shark really was coming for them? But Therrien didn’t have any real information he could take to the police.

Then he remembered Cartwright had left a number with his wife.

He dialed.

Somewhere—at the top of a ladder of dirty debt collectors that Therrien would spend the next two years relentlessly climbing—a man named Joel Tucker had no idea what was coming.

Earlier this year, I met Therrien, 33, at a Panera Bread restaurant in central Providence. He had reluctantly agreed to be interviewed, on the condition that I not reveal his hometown or his wife’s name.

Therrien had been caught up in a fraud known as phantom debt, where millions of Americans are hassled to pay back money they don’t owe. The concept is centuries old: Inmates of a New York debtors’ prison joked about it as early as 1800, in a newspaper they published called Forlorn Hope. But systematic schemes to collect on fake debts started only about five years ago. It begins when someone scoops up troves of personal information that are available cheaply online—old loan applications, long-expired obligations, data from hacked accounts—and reformats it to look like a list of debts. Then they make deals with unscrupulous collectors who will demand repayment of the fictitious bills. Their targets are often poor and likely to already be getting confusing calls about other loans. The harassment usually doesn’t work, but some marks are convinced that because the collectors know so much, the debt must be real.

The problem is as simple as it is intractable. In 2012 a call center in India was busted for making 8 million calls in eight months to collect made-up bills. The Federal Trade Commission has since broken up at least 13 similar scams. In most cases, regulators weren’t able to identify the original perpetrators because the data files had been sold and repackaged so many times. Victims have essentially no recourse to do anything but take the abuse.

Most victims, that is. When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken—using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.

When Therrien dialed the number Cartwright had left, a woman answered and said she worked for Lakefront Processing Solutions in Buffalo. She’d never heard of Charles Cartwright, though, and implied he must be some kind of freelancer or bounty hunter. Regardless, she said, Therrien could clear everything up by making a payment. Her records indicated that he owed a payday lender called Vista.

Therrien had indeed once taken out a loan, but he didn’t think it was from Vista. He’d been selling copiers at the time, and when his boss stiffed him on a $20,000 commission, he turned to an online lender to make a car payment. Therrien says he paid back the debt promptly. He was offended by the Lakefront woman’s suggestion that he was a deadbeat. “I’m a person who believes in personal friggin’ responsibility,” Therrien tells me. “I signed an agreement. And I fulfilled my obligation.”

On his laptop, Therrien started digging. He found a securities filing saying Vista had merged with a company called That Marketing Solution Inc. After paying a few dollars to an online people-search service, he got its president on the line. “You sold my personal information to a bunch of thugs,” Therrien recalls telling the man. “I want to know why, and I want to know what you’re going to do about it.” Within hours, the company provided a letter saying that Therrien had never borrowed from Vista.

Armed with proof the debt was invalid, Therrien turned back to Lakefront. More searches yielded a corporate parent, owned by two Buffalo men. Therrien called them, then their lawyer. When the lawyer stalled, Therrien bombarded him with more calls, at home and on his cell—enough to put Lakefront off him for good. (The parties eventually reached a confidential settlement, and Lakefront—whose name I found in a public record—declined to comment.)

By the morning after Cartwright’s call, Therrien’s fears of a psycho collector had been assuaged—no one had showed up at his house. But swatting down Lakefront turned out to be just the first round in a game of whack-a-mole. More collection agencies contacted him, his wife, his brother, even his grandparents. The calls made it clear to Therrien that an overarching force was at play. His name had to be getting on these lists somehow.

Each night, after his wife went to sleep, he cracked open his laptop to comb lawsuits, unearth filings, and uproot the owners of the agencies calling him. When he got names, he’d phone them, often surprising them at home, and make clear that he wouldn’t go away until they’d revealed who supplied their debt portfolios. “Here’s the deal,” he’d say. “I don’t really care about you. There’s a million guys like you out there. You’ll never get your money back. You might as well get blood out of it. Tell me what I need to know to put these guys in jail.”

Sometimes, Therrien would make a small payment on the fake debt, then check bank records to see where it went. He found people with convictions for counterfeiting, stock fraud, drug dealing, and child molestation. He started a spreadsheet, Scums.xlsx, to keep track. On weekends he’d harangue them from his couch while watching New England Patriots games. He used persuasion techniques he’d learned selling copiers, some drawn from a book called Getting Into Your Customer’s Head. On the phone, Therrien is a savant. He has an instinct for when to be a friend—one gruff payday lender tells me, sheepishly, that he simply doesn’t know why he speaks with Therrien so frequently—and when to be a bully.

Therrien would threaten to report the collectors to regulators unless they helped him figure out what was going on. “You are either with me in this, or you are against me,” he wrote to one man. Others he tried to shame. “If my intentions are right, I’ll have God on my side,” Therrien emailed one source. “You may not love poor people, but He does.”

The targets were shocked by Therrien’s doggedness. In their world, complaints are common, but most victims give up after being promised they won’t be called again. One shady-debt player tells me he suspected Therrien was an undercover federal investigator because he’d gathered so much information on his business. “It’s an obsession, it’s unbelievable, an outright vigilante crusade,” another says. “It doesn’t seem to equal the harm that was done to him.”

Therrien knew his fixation seemed odd. He didn’t tell his friends and family much about his nighttime activity. But the collectors’ threats brought back feelings of rage and fear that he’d struggled to suppress since childhood. He grew up in working-class Connecticut, where his father was a factory man and his mother had a series of part-time jobs. Therrien says they mistreated him and his brother, and he moved out at 16 after an incident he won’t discuss. He told me he regrets not doing more to protect his brother. (Therrien’s father is dead, and his mother denies she did anything wrong.)

In college, Therrien worked at a J.Crew store, where a customer spotted his talent for sales and offered him a job. Therrien makes a good living now, and he takes pride in being a more responsible person than his parents—paying his bills on time, going to church on Sunday, and taking care of those close to him. “If it’s just about me, I don’t particularly give a f—,” he tells me, with an incongruous laugh. “You call my wife, and you call my grandparents? You just opened up a door that got really f—ing ugly, and now I’m going to make sure that I just ruin your life.”

As more collectors yielded to Therrien’s persistence and talked, he dropped his pursuit of Charles Cartwright, concluding that it was an untraceable alias, and focused on understanding their business. Phantom debt, he learned, is blended with real debt in ways that are almost impossible to untangle.

Americans are currently late on more than $600 billion in bills, according to Federal Reserve research, and almost one person in 10 has a debt in collectors’ hands. The agencies recoup what they can and sell the rest down-market, so that iffier and iffier debt is bought by shadier and shadier individuals. Deception is common. Scammers often sell the same portfolios of debt, called “paper,” to several collection agencies at once, so a legitimate IOU gains illegitimate clones. Some inflate balances, a practice known as “overbiffing.” Others create “redo” lists—people who’ve settled their debt, but will be harassed again anyway. These rosters are actually more valuable, because the targets have proved willing to part with money over the phone. And then there are those who invent debts out of whole cloth.

Portfolios are combined and doctored until they contain thousands of entries. One collector told Therrien that he’d paid cash at a diner for a thumb drive with a database containing Therrien’s name. Some collectors told him they thought the files were partially legitimate; others knew their paper was completely falsified. Yet they continued to trade it, referring to the people they pursued as deadbeats and losers. The more Therrien learned, the more disgusted he grew with everyone involved.

His search for the ur-source rarely traveled in a straight line. For a time, Therrien focused on Buffalo,one of the poorest cities in the U.S. and a hub for the collections industry—home to agencies that work the oldest, cheapest paper. Debt collector is a more common job there than bartender or construction worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As Therrien wore down as many Buffalo collectors as he could, one name kept surfacing: Joel Tucker, a former payday-loan mogul from Kansas City, Mo. By the summer of 2015, Therrien was convinced he’d found his guy.

Therrien needed an ally inside the Kansas City racket. He found one in Frampton “Ted” Rowland III, a middle-aged insurance-broker-turned-predatory-lender whose company was listed as the original creditor for one of Therrien’s supposed loans. When Therrien called, Rowland said he was sorry—and kept talking. His life was falling apart. He’d been sued by the FTC over his lending practices, he’d lost all his money, and his wife was leaving him. Therrien sympathized. He sensed Rowland was a good man who’d made a bad choice out of a desire to provide for his family. They started to speak regularly, and Rowland told Therrien he blamed Tucker for everything.

Tucker had created the local industry with his two brothers. Scott, the oldest, was the brains. He’d served time in prison for a scam in which he’d pretended to work for JPMorgan Chase & Co. The middle son, Blaine, was popular and a talented musician. Joel, tall and handsome, was a natural salesman. But when he was 21, he was selling furniture and working at a mini-mart, so hard up that he got arrested for bouncing a $12 check. (The case was dismissed.)

In the mid-1990s, Scott opened a payday-loan store and gave his brothers jobs. Lending money to people who don’t have any is surprisingly profitable. In states where such stores are legal, such as Missouri, they’re more common than McDonald’s franchises. But in the 15 states where such stores are against the law, there are millions of desperate people willing to pay for fast cash and no one to give it to them. Scott pioneered what he thought was a clever legal loophole that would give him access to that market: He created websites that were owned on paper by an American Indian tribe, which could claim sovereign immunity from regulators. Those sites charged as much as $150 interest on a two-week, $500 loan—an annualized interest rate of about 700 percent.

The loophole was ridiculously lucrative. Scott’s operation generated $2 billion in revenue from 2003 to 2012. He bought a private jet and spent more than $60 million to start his own professional Ferrari racing team. Around 2005, Joel split to start a company that would allow anyone to get into online payday lending—supplying software to process applications and loans and offering access to a steady stream of customers. All the clients had to bring was money and a willingness to bypass state law. Word spread around Kansas City’s country clubs and private schools that if you wanted to get rich, Joel Tucker was your man.

With Tucker’s help, one property management executive and his son, a general contractor, started a lender that saw $161 million in revenue over eight years. An investor presentation from that period shows that Tucker was personally clearing tens of millions of dollars in profit per year.

One of his clients was Rowland, until the gravy train crashed in 2013. Under pressure from regulators, banks stopped doing business with the sketchiest payday lenders, making it hard for them to issue loans and collect payments. In 2014 federal authorities raided Rowland’s office, and the FBI began investigating the Tucker brothers. Blaine committed suicide by jumping off a parking garage in 2014; Scott was charged two years later with racketeering, and prosecutors called his tribal arrangement a sham. (He declined to comment.)

By the time Therrien came looking for Joel Tucker in the fall of 2015, he’d become a hard man to find. Twice divorced, he was moving from place to place, ducking his creditors. A booking photo from the time when he was briefly imprisoned for failing to show up for court in an unrelated lawsuit shows him with bristly gray hair and dark circles under deep-set blue eyes. Therrien couldn’t find a working phone number for him—not even when he reached his 81-year-old mother, Norma. She claimed not to know where he was.

Therrien’s tactics grew more intense, mirroring those of the debt collectors he loathed. As he had in Buffalo, he developed a network of sources in Kansas City, figuring out who hated whom and playing them off each other. He got a burner app that provided disposable numbers for his smartphone, with any area code he wanted. He called wives, widows, business partners, even a waitress who’d once worked at a restaurant the Tuckers owned. He’d have his sources drive by places where he thought Tucker might be living, to look for his car. He told one broker’s mother-in-law that she should investigate who her daughter was married to. Therrien acknowledges that sometimes he went too far.

By November 2015 he developed a simple theory. Tucker’s business had given him access to a huge database of people who’d applied for loans—including, just maybe, the one Therrien had taken out in his copier-selling days. What if, when Tucker was broke and needed money, he’d taken applicants’ personal information, invented loan balances, and sold the list as a portfolio of delinquent debt?

Therrien took his hypothesis to the FBI and FTC. His emails were breathless and confusing, but the authorities were patient, taking his calls and talking to him at length. It was clear they knew about Tucker, but Therrien got frustrated by what he saw as inaction. “There are millions of people out there being threatened daily by these actions and I’m doing my part to try and stop it,” he wrote to an FTC investigator in early 2016, begging him to hold Tucker accountable.

January 2016 saw a breakthrough: A former employee of Tucker’s agreed to arrange a call between him and Therrien to clear the air. Therrien couldn’t believe his unseen antagonist was willing to talk. So anxious he couldn’t sit down, he set up a recording device in his home office, put his phone on speaker, and called.

Tucker seemed hyper and defensive, telling Therrien that if any of the portfolios he’d sold now contained phantom debt, they must have been doctored after leaving his hands. “F—ing shame on them,” he said. “Wasn’t me. It had to have been them.”

Therrien was trying to hold back his anger, but his voice wavered. He wanted to impress Tucker, mentioning tidbits he knew about his business. Tucker didn’t understand why Therrien, this guy he’d never met, was so extravagantly invested.

“I’ll tell you why I care,” Therrien said calmly. “I’ll tell you why I care. I believe, and I’m just telling you what I believe, you sold my personal information 21 separate times. I’ve gotten close to 100 f—ing calls, and because I’ve gotten those 100 calls from scumbag collectors that you facilitated, I’m going to make sure that that kind of shit ends now.”

Tucker was incredulous: “You think this is my fault?”

“You got desperate because you spent two dollars for every dollar you had,” Therrien said.

“What are you talking about? Are you trying to micromanage my life? You don’t know jack shit about me.”

“I know what happened. You f—ing stole money from people,” Therrien said. “I’m giving you the opportunity to come clean.”

“I don’t know who you are, Andrew,” Tucker said. “Who are you?”

“A person that you f—ed with too many times.”

When Therrien played the tape for me, I was amazed at how fluently he channeled emotion—his own and Tucker’s—to get what he wanted. Incredibly, by the end of the half-hour call, Tucker was offering to help Therrien collect evidence about crimes committed by other people in the payday-loan business. “We need to get this stuff resolved,” Tucker said on the tape, with a sigh. “’Cause this—it’s not healthy for anybody.”

The two men started talking and texting a few times a week. “I think he has a mental illness that allows him to think he did nothing wrong,” Therrien told me. (Tucker didn’t respond to most of my emailed questions and kept putting off interview requests. “Lies are not stories,” he wrote in one email. He said that any debt he’d sold was legitimate.)

Tucker’s denials made Therrien hate him more, but Therrien masked his feelings to keep the conversation going. The one-year anniversary of his quest was approaching, and he wanted real evidence of wrongdoing—something Tucker couldn’t deny and officials couldn’t ignore.

Therrien soon obtained two crucial sets of documents to that end. In March 2016 he flew to California to meet a debt broker, who handed over some contracts Tucker had signed. Separately, Therrien received an email from the manager of a collection agency, to whose conscience he’d spent weeks appealing. The email, whose subject line read “Have faith in the good in heart,” included actual phantom-debt files, with names and Social Security numbers. The metadata yielded a new name: Rob Harsh, Tucker’s IT guy. (The author of the email died of a drug overdose a few months later.)

In May 2016, Therrien emailed his discoveries to the FTC. A lawyer replied right away: “Andrew, we need to talk about this.” Therrien also gave his intel to some private lawyers who were going after Tucker in Texas. They contacted Harsh, and in August 2016 he submitted an affidavit to the court. Harsh, who declined to comment for this story, testified that Tucker had asked him to manipulate a database of almost 8 million payday-loan applications, writing in a made-up lender and adding an amount owed of $300 for each person.

Therrien had been right all along.

Vindication didn’t make Therrien happy, not even when the FTC suit against Rowland’s company took a karmic swerve that drew in Tucker, directing him to return $30 million he’d received in ill-gotten profits from the business. Tucker told the court he was broke.

Meanwhile, Rowland was spiraling. He confided in Therrien that he was considering suicide, and one day that summer he called Therrien to say goodbye. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Therrien texted him afterward. “I may be callous with you lately but I still care and don’t want anything bad to happen.” Therrien told me he’d informed the police of Rowland’s plan and that they had intervened. But that October, Rowland shot himself. His death added to Therrien’s outrage at Tucker and other predatory lenders like him who hadn’t faced any real legal consequences.

Finally, in December 2016, the FTC sued Tucker for selling phantom debt. According to the regulator, everything had happened pretty much as Therrien imagined: Tucker had invented more than 7.7 million fake debts and sold them to a series of middlemen for $4.2 million. This September, a judge ruled for the agency, ordering Tucker to pay back that money on top of the $30 million he already owed.

The FTC has never credited Therrien, and Michael Tankersley, an agency lawyer, declined to discuss their interactions. But Tankersley told me that Harsh and the California broker were two key sources of information establishing Tucker’s wrongdoing.

Therrien, as usual, was unsatisfied. He was still getting calls from collectors, for one thing. And he felt that if he’d done a better job investigating, Tucker would be facing criminal charges—not a civil fine he’d never end up paying. Therrien has stayed in touch with the FBI’s Kansas City office. An FBI spokeswoman declines to say whether Tucker is being investigated, but three of his associates told me that agents had contacted them about his debt sales.

After the ruling against Tucker, Therrien heard from him for the first time in months, and they started talking again. Amid their conversations, which were recorded, Tucker’s brother, Scott, was convicted on all 14 charges he faced. Without directly asking Therrien to drop his vendetta, Tucker seemed to be pleading for mercy. “I’ve f—ing had enough harm done,” he said. “I’ve lost a brother. Got a brother going to prison. Put it this way, Andrew. I’m tired, buddy. I’m f—ing tired.”

“I’m tired too,” Therrien replied, “because I’m still getting harassed by these motherf—ers.”

By Zeke Faux in Bloomberg and can be found here.

 

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Tactical Retreat: Nothing But the Kitchen Sink

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Polarization and the Counter-Factual Crisis

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Splice Today by my old philosophy professor Dr. Crispin Sartwell from back in my Penn State days which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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It seems impossible for people at the moment to grasp that I’m not on their side and also not on the other side. So, for example, when I predict that Trump will be impeached and declare that it will be richly deserved, I’m taken to be a Democrat. Or when I describe and sneer exhaustedly at the way CNN and The New York Times have transformed themselves from news organizations into obsessive anti-Trump ranters, it’s obvious that I’m a Republican.

I don’t even understand this line of thought: a society in which you could infer someone’s whole politics from his prediction of whether Trump will be impeached is entirely irrational, because the whole edifice of anyone’s political beliefs is completely irrelevant to the factual claim. If political ideology correlates across the population with whether people think Trump will be impeached, the right conclusion is that everyone is operating on the same standard of evidence: wishful thinking.

Be that as it may, I think that in 2017 CNN and the Times and many others compromised their own mission, as they themselves purport to understand it. Watching Jake Tapper or Don Lemon in a righteous lather every afternoon and evening: you might as well be watching Sean Hannity. But Hannity knows who he is: a right-wing polemicist. Tapper and Lemon are still purporting to be news anchors. The Times did somewhat better with a news/opinion firewall. But they should understand, as well, that when more or less all your columnists are unanimous anti-Trump verbal abusers and your every editorial hits the same tone of indiscriminate outrage, they’re making their institutional culture evident to their readers. I know and they know that they’d do anything to destroy Trump. That may even be their duty as citizens or something as they understand it. But it’s incompatible with the values and purposes of their profession.

Also, they might want to consider that Charles Blow, Timothy Egan, and Paul Krugman are, as verbal abusers, completely incompetent: excruciatingly repetitive, utterly predictable, indistinguishable from one another or thousands of others of their ilk. You could sell me a year of insults directed at the President, but you’ve got to write better than that.

These organizations may think they can take a virtually unanimous political position as individuals and on their opinion pages and also function as neutral arbiters of the facts and gatekeepers of relevant information. But this distinction doesn’t necessarily come naturally to readers, and they should reflect that they’re giving many good reasons to be suspicious that numerous aspects of their news coverage are consciously or semi-consciously devoted to inculcating their shared ideology, or to motivating rather than informing people.

To all these difficulties, they’ve managed to add a layer of continual self-righteous defense of their own neutrality. One of the biggest stories they covered last year was Trump’s supposed repression of and misunderstanding of journalism. Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post: “How scary it is to have a president who derides us as ‘the enemy of the American people.’ To have a cable news network that inflames his worst instincts and recklessly flings suggestions of a ‘coup’ by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. To have nearly half the public, egged on by Trump’s bellowing about ‘fake news,’ believing that reporters simply invent negative stories about the president.” (How scary is it that Fox News exists? She slipped that one in there, but it’s the mirror image of Trump’s attacks on CNN, for example.) Like many alleged news stories last year, the underlying events in Marcus’ crisis consisted of little but a series of tweets.

Indeed, it couldn’t be more obvious that the self-image of these newsrooms as part of the political resistance infects their news coverage every day. There might’ve been 30 tweets last year that were greeted as actual crises, covered as though they were acts of terrorism or natural disasters. The fake news is the enemy of the people. Mika had a facelift. NFL players shouldn’t kneel. Jeff Sessions is “beleaguered.” In the end, almost none had any effect on anything, and yet they filled the pages and airwaves day after day.

An astonishing example of the extreme slant (and we might throw in The Washington Post, MSNBC, and the network news broadcasts) is one of the biggest stories of 2017, which has dominated the news on and off since May: the counter-factual Mueller firing crisis. What if Trump were to fire Mueller? You can ask every guest that question; you can desperately probe for leaks to the effect that he may have mentioned it. In other words, you can cover a story that hasn’t happened, and that you have no particular reason to think will happen, heavily for a year. It’s an interpretation of Trump’s personality, or a personal takedown. It purports to be objective coverage (of the non-facts, mind you).

Perhaps Trump will fire Mueller at some point. That would be the time to write your “Mueller-firing-constitutional-crisis” story, if you regard your primary function as reporting the facts. Or you could, instead, blame Trump for events that haven’t occurred and call that news.

Media organizations have to think about readership numbers, ratings and page views. I think they’re doing well in this regard; their total anti-Trump obsession is paying off in that sense, at least at the moment. But they should also consider what sort of operations they’re becoming; more and more, CNN represents a mirror mage of Fox, and The New York Times of Breitbart. Marcus, who is one of the better and more reasonable columnists working today in many ways, pretty much says right there that the job of thePost is to compensate for the existence of Fox. But to do that, all of these publications are becoming more like Fox every day.

Well, it seems like we all are, so now you’re probably reading me as a Republican. If so, there’s just going to be no point in trying to communicate.

Originally published on January 1, 2018 and can be found here.

Teaching lechery and getting lechers

– – Wednesday, November 29, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Another day and yet more and more claims of sexual assault flood the news.

NBC announced Wednesday its firing of Matt Lauer. Axios reports that, in addition to Mr. Lauer, the list of sexual miscreants now includes the likes of celebrity chef John Besh, Comedian Louis C.K, Cinefamily executives Hadrian Belove and Shadie Elnashai, actor Richard Dreyfuss, director-producer Gary Goddard, casting employee Andy Henry, actor Dustin Hoffman, actor Robert Knepper, showrunner Andrew Kreisberg, actor Jeremy Piven, filmmaker Brett Ratner, comedy festival organizer Gilbert Rozon, producer Chris Savino, actor Steven Seagal, actor Tom Sizemore, actor Kevin Spacey, actor Jeffrey Tambor, actor George Takei, writer-director James Toback, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, actor Ed Westwick, Billboard magazine executive Stephen Blackwell, Penguin Random House art director Giuseppe Castellano, New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish, Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, NPR news chief Michael Oreskes, Amazon executive Roy Price, Webster Public Relations CEO Kirt Webster, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, NBC News booking exec Matt Zimmerman, Sen. Al Franken, Senate candidate Roy Moore, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, Florida Democratic state Sen. Jeff Clemens resigned, Florida Republican state Senator Jack Latvala, Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, International Olympic Committee member Alex Gilady, Former South African soccer association president Danny Jordaan, Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and CBS News personality Charlie Rose.

And let’s not forget the 2006 accusations against Vice President Al Gore, the 2008 disclosure of vice presidential candidate John Edwards’ illicit affair, the 2016 recording of President Trump’s boorish boasting, and the granddaddy of them all: the repeated accusations of multiple rapes and assaults levied against former President Bill Clinton.

Why are we surprised by any of this? Why do any of these rampant claims of sexual aggression seem to catch us off guard? Can we really take anyone seriously who pretends to be shocked? Can we even take ourselves seriously if we act as if this all has taken us unawares?

If we have any measure of honesty left in our cultural soul, the answer has to be no. This story was as predictable as the sunrise and, furthermore, we all know the above list is only the tip of the iceberg.

How did we know this would happen, and how do we know that more is yet to follow? It is obvious. All we need to do to is look at our public schools and what we’ve been teaching for the past several decades. Ideas always have consequences and lecherous behavior will always be the inevitable consequence of teaching lechery.

For years our schools have mocked morality. Why are we now shocked to find we live in a society that has no understanding of personal morality?

For decades, we’ve taught our children that there are no boundaries. Why are we now surprised to find we have raised young adults who behave as if there are no boundaries?

Year in and year out we have taught our kids the merits of sexual experimentation, rather than the virtue of sexual restraint. And now we wonder why our country lacks virtue and our culture is void of sexual restraint?

We act as if something has gone wrong but yet we continue to teach our kids to do what is wrong.

We have torn down all standards but yet we are incredulous to find that we are led by men who have no standards.

We mock what is right and then shake our heads at leaders who don’t know how to do what is right.

“We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful,” said C.S. Lewis.

Nearly a hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton warned of this moral castration: “The terrible danger in the heart of our Society is that the tests are giving way. We are altering not the evils, but the standards of good by which alone evils can be detected and defined.” He went on to say, “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. And it is coming from [those] resolved to enjoy themselves, with [nothing] to hold them back.”

Indeed the “attack” has come. It did not come from without but, rather, from within: from right within our own local schools. As your grandmother once said, “Garbage in and garbage out” and the ideological garbage we have taught our children in our classrooms is now bearing itself out in the garish behavior we now see in our culture.

Ideas have consequences. When you teach lechery, you get lechers. Alter the standard of good by which you detect evil, and evil prevails. If you don’t want your progeny to get cancer of mind and soul, you might want to stop feeding them the ideological carcinogens that gave them the disease in the first place.

By Everett Piper who is president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University and author of “Not A Day Care: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth” (Regnery Faith, 2017).  This was originally published in Wallbuilders on December 29, 2017 and can be seen here.

I’m a Pediatrician. Here’s What I Did When a Little Boy Patient Said He Was a Girl.

“Congratulations, it’s a boy!” Or, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

As a pediatrician for nearly 20 years, that’s how many of my patient relationships began. Our bodies declare our sex.

Biological sex is not assigned. Sex is determined at conception by our DNA and is stamped into every cell of our bodies. Human sexuality is binary. You either have a normal Y chromosome, and develop into a male, or you don’t, and you will develop into a female. There are at least 6,500 genetic differences between men and women. Hormones and surgery cannot change this.

An identity is not biological, it is psychological. It has to do with thinking and feeling. Thoughts and feelings are not biologically hardwired. Our thinking and feeling may be factually right or factually wrong.

If I walk into my doctor’s office today and say, “Hi, I’m Margaret Thatcher,” my physician will say I am delusional and give me an anti-psychotic. Yet, if instead, I walked in and said, “I’m a man,” he would say, “Congratulations, you’re transgender.”

If I were to say, “Doc, I am suicidal because I’m an amputee trapped in a normal body, please cut off my leg,” I will be diagnosed with body identity integrity disorder. But if I walk into that doctor’s office and say, “I am a man, sign me up for a double mastectomy,” my physician will. See, if you want to cut off a leg or an arm you’re mentally ill, but if you want to cut off healthy breasts or a penis, you’re transgender.

No one is born transgender. If gender identity were hardwired in the brain before birth, identical twins would have the same gender identity 100 percent of the time. But they don’t.

I had one patient we’ll call Andy. Between the ages of 3 and 5, he increasingly played with girls and “girl toys” and said he was a girl. I referred the parents and Andy to a therapist. Sometimes mental illness of a parent or abuse of the child are factors, but more commonly, the child has misperceived family dynamics and internalized a false belief.

In the middle of one session, Andy put down the toy truck, held onto a Barbie, and said, “Mommy and Daddy, you don’t love me when I’m a boy.” When Andy was 3, his sister with special needs was born, and required significantly more of his parents’ attention. Andy misperceived this as “Mommy and Daddy love girls. If I want them to love me, I have to be a girl.” With family therapy Andy got better.

Today, Andy’s parents would be told, “This is who Andy really is. You must ensure that everyone treats him as a girl, or else he will commit suicide.”

As Andy approaches puberty, the experts would put him on puberty blockers so he can continue to impersonate a girl.

It doesn’t matter that we’ve never tested puberty blockers in biologically normal children. It doesn’t matter that when blockers are used to treat prostate cancer in men, and gynecological problems in women, they cause problems with memory. We don’t need testing. We need to arrest his physical development now, or he will kill himself.

But this is not true. Instead, when supported in their biological sex through natural puberty, the vast majority of gender-confused children get better. Yet, we chemically castrate gender-confused children with puberty blockers. Then we permanently sterilize many of them by adding cross-sex hormones, which also put them at risk for heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancers, and even the very emotional problems that the gender experts claim to be treating.

P.S. If a girl who insists she is male has been on testosterone daily for one year, she is cleared to get a bilateral mastectomy at age 16. Mind you, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out with a report that urges pediatricians to caution teenagers about getting tattoos because they are essentially permanent and can cause scarring. But this same AAP is 110 percent in support of 16-year-old girls getting a double mastectomy, even without parental consent, so long as the girl insists that she is a man, and has been taking testosterone daily for one year.

To indoctrinate all children from preschool forward with the lie that they could be trapped in the wrong body disrupts the very foundation of a child’s reality testing. If they can’t trust the reality of their physical bodies, who or what can they trust? Transgender ideology in schools is psychological abuse that often leads to chemical castration, sterilization, and surgical mutilation.

By Michelle Cretella and published on December 11, 2017 in the The Daily Signal and can be seen here.

Tactical Retreat: Lonely Man

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

The First Sexual Revolution

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Epictetus was the sort of figure that only the Roman Empire could have produced. He was born in the Phrygian hills of Anatolia in the middle of the first century. Enslaved and brought to the capital, he served in the household of the freedman Epaphroditos. Epaphroditos, in turn, was in the direct employ of the emperors. Epictetus has told us nothing about his circumstances in these years, but he must have had a close-up view of the swarm of peoples and ideas that passed through the corridors of power. We do not know whether Epictetus noticed, or cared, when in a.d. 64 the emperor Nero fastened blame for the Great Fire on a tiny band of religious eccentrics known as “the people of the anointed one.” We do know that he met the Roman aristocrat and Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus and fell under the master’s spell. Epictetus earned his freedom and lived out his days, many of them in exile, as a Stoic sage. The former slave from Phrygia was a sensational teacher, sought out by the sons of the gentry from across the empire; he shaped the best minds of a generation.

Epictetus sought to attain the Stoic ideal of “apathy,” a majestic indifference to all things without moral value, including pain and death. For the Stoic, the lover of virtue does his duty—to family, to city—without concern for wealth or status. True freedom, taught the ex-slave, is not a legal condition, but a kind of moral Zen achieved by emancipation from the passions, including the pangs of sexual desire. Musonius Rufus seems to have gone so far as to advise against all sex for the purpose of pleasure, even within marriage. Epictetus, too, reckoned the conquest of physical desire an integral part of the philosopher’s task. But sexual desire claimed no special place of distinction in the wide array of the world’s enticements. “Learn to use wine with refinement,” Epictetus said, “and to hold back from some little lass or a little flatcake.” The precise tone of Stoic advice in sexual matters is nowhere clearer than in his Stoic Handbook. “Remain as pure as you can before marriage with regard to sexual pleasures, and insofar as they are engaged in, let them be lawful. Yet do not become oppressive or reproachful toward those who do indulge, and do not hold forth all the time on your own restraint.”

Of course, when it comes to sex in the ancient world, the moral decency of the imperial Stoics is not what immediately leaps to mind. We are more apt to imagine modern scenes of Roman debauchery (“I’d like a sit-down orgy for forty”) and the naughty pictures on lamps and living room walls dug up in places like Pompeii. But the tame austerity of the philosophers and the ebullient eroticism of the streets coexisted in easy proximity. In fact, they shared a hidden premise. Both presumed that sex was just sex, one instinctual need among others, to be channeled in certain fundamental ways.

For sages and sensualists alike, there were consensus “no-go” zones, where the rules were hard and fast. Expectations of chastity for respectable women, whether maidens or wives, were clear and inflexible. Female purity was heavily guarded. Men were governed by entirely different rules. The code of masculinity abhorred any hint of feminine passivity, in the public square and in the bedchamber alike. The stern threats of public law hovered in the background of these norms. But male sexual restraint was not a prerequisite of dynastic purity, and men were not restrained by the protocols that regulated female chastity. For instance, there is not even a word for “male virgin” in Latin or Greek. It is a little misleading to say that Roman sexual culture had a double standard. There were, very frankly, two entirely different sets of standards of erotic behavior, precisely because sexual morality was determined by the imperatives of reproducing the family and the city, and the bodies of men and women had different roles in that endeavor. The perpetuation of socially honorable households, generation after generation, was the enduring mental frame of public sexual morality. Stoic morality, hard-edged as it might at times be, ran along the grain of this world.

The Roman Empire that nurtured Stoic moralists such as Musonius and Epictetus was really an agglomeration of societies connected by bustling roads and busy sea-lanes. It was a sprawling, polyglot, and agrarian empire. The empire was home to a galaxy of cities—some one thousand of them, most of them smaller than their proud marble ruins might suggest. A grievously poor and unlettered peasantry constituted the silent majority, and some 10 or 15 percent of the empire’s inhabitants had the misfortune of finding themselves in bondage, as chattel slaves whose bodies could as well have been inert matter in the moral imagination of ancient philosophers. Life expectancy at birth was in the mid-twenties. The evanescence of all life turned eros into a divine blessing to be enjoyed in proper season. But the grim realities of Roman life expectancy also made reproduction urgent. Epictetus’s short list of human duties encompassed “citizenship, marriage, child production, piety to God, care of one’s parents.” Sex was a civic duty.

This was the scene onto which the Christians came loudly striding. The Christian movement’s sexual demands were not just austere or unusual. They were jolting, and deliberately so. The apostolic generation did not pour out of the Levant onto the open roads of the empire with anything like a detailed packet of sexual rules. Paul’s letters show us that Christian sexual morality was settled on the go, adapting the gospel’s searing ethic of radical love and interior purity to the realities of life in the towns of the empire. Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth provides the clearest example. It is the most direct entrée we have to the confrontation between the nascent Christian Church and the habits and half-articulate expectations that governed sexual life in a Greek or Roman city.

First Corinthians shows that Paul’s message was heard in the most contradictory ways, even by sympathetic ears. Some of the new adherents to the faith had drawn startlingly libertine conclusions from Paul’s language of Christian freedom: “All things are lawful for me.” This was not altogether surprising. In the society from which they came, sexual ethics were not invested with much more significance than dietary guidelines. The desire for some “little lass” and the desire for a “little flatcake” were treated with the same moral gravity. So it stood to reason that just as the Gentile Christians were freed from the magnificently intricate regulations of the Jewish dietary code, so too they might expect a certain laxness in erotic matters.

Paul stops this line of thinking in its tracks. His letter unleashes a barrage of ideas and metaphors that came to define the boundaries of Christian sexual orthodoxy. He could have ruled narrowly—along the lines that sex is a moral category like violence or greed, not a merely ethnic cultic norm like rules about shellfish and the Sabbath. He could have enjoined Gentile Christians to obey the old Jewish codes, which regulated sex in detailed ways. Instead, he offered a conceptual framework that, while drawing some of its language and logic from familiar sources, offered an entirely fresh way of grounding sexual morality. His model of human sexuality flowed from a much grander vision than any we find in pagan antiquity. Sexual morality was part of the proclamation of a half-hidden story of God’s restoration of the created cosmos.

The keystone of Paul’s reaction to the Corinthians was his steadfast opposition to “fornication,” porneia in Greek. The word’s underlying associations are rich and esoteric, and we must approach the term with due caution. Consider that the Latin word for it, fornicatio, seems to have been invented for no other purpose than to capture all the fugitive associations of the original. Fornication in English is a churchy word, with little place in the vernacular. (As I tell my students, it is impossible to imagine “fornication” in a text message or tweet.) The root of the word in Greek is “prostitute,” pornê. In ordinary Greek from the classical period onward, the meaning of porneia was prostitution. Before Jews and Christians took hold of the term, the exclusive meaning of porneia was prostitution in the active sense, from the pimp’s or prostitute’s perspective. Porneia was the business of trading sex for money, not the act of patronizing a brothel—and certainly not premarital or extramarital sex tout court.

Yet Paul has something much broader in mind than running a cathouse when he uses the term in his letters. The generic translation in English, “sexual immorality,” won’t do. The locution is too anodyne and reflects a failure of nerve in the face of the intimidating range of meanings that porneia takes in Paul’s usage. It fails to shed light on what the word meant for Paul and leaves a fog around the origins of a distinctive Christian sexual ethics.

Paul’s use of porneia fuses two very different frames of reference, one biblical and the other drawn from the experience of life in the Greco-Roman towns where the apostle preached. In the Old Testament, prostitution (zenuth in the Hebrew, which became porneia in the Septuagint) became a metaphor for idolatry. It is the visceral image of Israel’s betrayal of her exclusive covenantal relationship with Yahweh, and it appears frequently in the Old Testament. The English “harlotry” may still capture some of the abrasive sound of this evocation of covenant infidelity. Closer still: Idolaters are spiritual sluts. The metaphor is easily reversed, so sexual sin can be considered a form of religious betrayal. The prostitute, especially the non-Israelite harlot, who had many lovers, threatens to lure men into idolatry, the worship of many gods. In the Old Testament, sexual and covenantal infidelity are blurred, and thus the imperative of fidelity also has fused meaning. Religious matters of supreme significance merge with and elevate what the surrounding cultures considered matters of worldly propriety.

Paul not only summoned the high-stakes history of porneia in Israel’s Scripture but also deployed it in a way that made the word’s resonance unmistakable. In his usage, prostitution was a synecdoche for the many forms of erotic permissiveness in the culture around him. Moving in a society where it was totally unexceptional—and casually expected—for men to indulge their sexual desires with prostitutes, slaves, and others who lacked social honor, Paul forbade it. Not only that, he proclaimed sexual congress to be a mysterious union of the flesh, something of transcendent significance. The body is a temple, a site of sacred communication. Sexual sin, therefore, is a kind of pollution, as scandalous and disruptive as the desecration of a holy sanctum. We are a long way from the rigorous but pragmatic counsels of Epictetus. The Stoic urged self-control, on the grounds that physical pleasure was a dangerous distraction from the virtuous life. Paul does so because sex implicates us in something with sacred significance.

Paul concedes in his Letter to the Corinthians that marriage is a legitimate safeguard. Because of the lures of the city, the followers of Christ would be allowed to marry. But Paul’s words are hesitant and qualified. Ideally, he writes, followers of Christ would be as he is—in a state of sexual abstinence (possibly but not certainly lifelong celibacy). Marriage is permissible, but only by way of concession, not command. It seems an implicit rejection, or at least a fundamental qualification, of the original imperative “Be fruitful and multiply.” Yet, for Paul, marriage does look back to the original acts of creation. It requires a level of mutual fidelity between partners that mirrors the original congress of God and the human creature. This emphasis on fidelity was alien to the patriarchal culture in which he proclaimed the gospel. With these few words, Paul charted the future course of Christian sexual discipline: Virginity as the highest mode of life and marriage as second best, yet also infused with a divine significance that jealously reserves sexual union for itself.

It is easy enough, and not entirely misleading, to say that Paul’s thought was compressed by the heavy weight of the apocalyptic atmosphere. He wanted his churches to live devotedly toward the coming age, during the small slice of time remaining. But that never led ancient Christians to doubt the larger significance of Paul’s austere counsels. After all, as the time between Christ’s ascension and return lengthened, the entire orthodox tradition in early Christianity chose not to write off Paul’s rigorism as a distortion of his apocalyptic lens; quite the opposite, it tended to accentuate the more extreme and anti-erotic possibilities latent in his thought. The possibility of full-blown Encratism stalked much of early Christian history. (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues” is about right: “Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish; / There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.”) In the second century, Clement of Alexandria held fast to the view that within marriage, only sex solely for the purpose of procreation was permissible. Not until the Jovinianist controversy was extinguished in the late fourth century, and Augustine’s tour de force “Of the Good of Marriage” was written, did it become completely clear within Christianity that marriage could be a genuine good and not merely some kind of lesser evil.

Over this same span of centuries, the Church gradually worked out another revolutionary implication of Paul’s message: Sexual morality would require moral agency for all persons, even those whose bodies were beyond the field of vision for ancient thinkers. In today’s terms, Christian sexual morality was inclusive. To be sure, Paul hardly announced the legal emancipation of the unfree. But already (so I have argued, though not all agree) Paul’s ban on porneia restricted one of the slave-owner’s most ordinary prerogatives: sexual access to his slaves. We can trace a dawning awareness in the early Church, unlike anything in pagan antiquity, of the sexual integrity of all persons. By the fifth century, Christian emperors were actually taking proactive (if still, by our standards, limited) measures to protect the bodily integrity of vulnerable women. The heightened place of sexuality in the overarching structure of morality, the respect for the human dignity of all persons, and the insistence on the value of the transcendent and sacred over the secular and the civic—these all went hand in hand in the growth of Christian culture.

Paul’s prohibition on fornication, his highly qualified acceptance of the practical necessity of marriage, and the liberatory movement of Christian individualism form a coherent ethic: For the early Christians, sexual morality was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God. Once launched, the revolution was not easily contained, and when the early Christians tore sexual morality away from the familiar outlines provided by the civic background, the repercussions were not confined to one discrete section of the moral code. Sex came to occupy a place in the foreground of moral instruction in a way that it simply never had in Judaism, or even the most stringent pagan philosophies. The conspicuous austerity of the early Christians caught the eye of early observers, including the Greek doctor Galen. In the competitive marketplace of Roman imperial religion, the way in which Paul loaded questions of sexual morality with dramatic salvific significance gave the moral teaching of this small but vocal movement a particular flavor. The proclamation of the gospel and this strange, spiritualized rigorism were inseparable.

The Christian movement did not come, in the first place, to overthrow the Stoic sages, but rather the folk and civic polytheism that ruled in the hearths and streets of the ancient Mediterranean. Despite the importance of the philosophical schools in shaping literate morality, traditional paganism prevailed. The Roman Empire was not an age of spiritual decadence, as once believed. Christianity did not triumph over a tired or limping polytheism. The old gods confidently ruled. The cities thrummed with their sounds, and the streets were fogged with altar smoke. Later Roman Alexandria, we happen to know, had some 2,500 temples. So it is no accident that the Roman Empire gave birth to the genre of deeply religious literature we call the Greek romance. The romances may be as close as we can get to the warm, earthy spirit of mature paganism in the centuries when Christianity rose to prominence. These long, prose stories of love—of eros, erotic love—start to appear in the first century. They celebrate the idea that two young people, a boy and a girl of high station and uncommon beauty, can fall in love with each other and overcome the obstacles thrown in their way. In the end, all tensions are resolved, as reliably as the stars move across the heavens. The lovers wed and are physically united. Sex is a blessing, the source of all generation and renewal.

These romances proclaim that we belong to the world; we are ordered toward its endless pattern of sexual consummation and new life. The presiding god is Eros, the son of Aphrodite, a god of this world if ever there was one. In Daphnis and Chloe, a second-century pastoral romance that Goethe advised rereading every year, the innocent, natural desire of the two protagonists is likened to the same lush power of nature that impelled the herds of rams and ewes in their season of love. The springs of desire well up from deep inside us and sweep us through life on their raging currents. Sex is an immanent, divine force running through the cycles of time. In these narratives, the whole course of vegetable life—desire, love, marriage, sex, childbirth—constitute who we truly are. We belong here, to the earth, to the benevolent gods, and to the dancing cosmos.

Despite its charms, the romance told Christians exactly what they were not. They did not belong in this world. It is telling that early Christians shaped their imaginations with the diffuse body of legends known as the apocryphal acts of the apostles (whence come such integral stories as the quo vadis and upside-down crucifixion of Peter). These stories are, despite their low literary register, clever anti-romances. In these stories, the Christian apostle often rends a convert away from sex and marriage. Usually, the apostle convinces the beautiful wife of a powerful Roman to believe in Christ, and even to renounce conjugal relations. The Christians in these narratives are ruthlessly hunted by a ruling order that is not benevolent. The assault on physical eros throws ice water in the face of those who walk through life oblivious to the false promises of this world. The stories end not in marriage and the renewal of life but in abstinence and spectacular, sanguinary acts of dying. The renunciation of sex is integral to the apocryphal acts, not as a discrete moral commandment, but as a way of orienting the self in the world. In the early Christian imagination, sexual renunciation turns humanity away from the transient cosmos and toward the eternal reality of divine truth. For the early Christians, a rigorous sexual morality was integral to its spiritual project, which was to move through a world that was always ebbing away and toward the immaterial and transcendent God.

It was not the austere sexual morality itself that set Christians apart from the world so much as its central place within an effort to redefine how humanity ought to live in a created but fallen order. This transforming vision was something new and altogether estranging—in antiquity and ever since. Michel Foucault was neither the first nor the last to look at the rigors of Stoic virtue and see antecedents for Christian austerity. But appearances of continuity are deceptive. However close they were in time, place, and occasionally idiom, what seem like subtle differences between Epictetus and Paul in fact point toward an impassable chasm. The Christian revolution in sexual morality was a departure from, not an acceleration of, Stoic asceticism. And it was a radical break from the warm and earthy pagan eroticism of the kind we find in romance. Christianity put forward a new cosmology, a new ethics, and a new vision of human solidarity, in short, a new view of human destiny that makes sex far more important. Sexual morality is integral to the Christian vision of redemption.

The experience of the early Church might suggest that there have always been, and will always be, uneasy fault lines between the Church and the culture around it. These fault lines have become more visible and dramatic in recent decades. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the 1960s as the “hinge moment” in the longer arc of modern secularization. The triumph of the secular, by Taylor’s account, does not mean the simple abolition or erasure of the divine from the modern world. Instead, it is a change in the background conditions of all beliefs. The self is no longer imagined as journeying toward final redemption. Human existence is pictured within an indifferent and infinite universe made up of what T. S. Eliot called the “vacant interstellar spaces.”

In this model, sex was, and is, the crux of secularization. According to Taylor, the 1960s saw the sensibility of romanticism broadened into a mass phenomenon. By romanticism he does not mean the dynamic of the ancient Greek romances, a fusion of erotic desire with a fecund, living cosmos. Modern romanticism is more anthropocentric. Romanticism in this sense means an ethic of individual expressivism in accord with codes of authenticity and freedom. Unable to recover eros as worldly god—and unmoored from a shared, public culture whose picture of the universe has a measure of enchantment and meaning—we are left with eros as a private prerogative.

Secularization is not just the scraping away of a religious crust and the return to a pristine condition. (Indeed, it is worth observing that the social assumptions of pre-Christian sexual morality, such as the casual exploitation of the bodies of non-persons, seem incomprehensible precisely because the Christian revolution so completely swept away that old order.) The dethroning of a broadly Christian public morality in the last generations has seen the revival of eros, but not a return to a pre-Christian framework. Eros is no longer a god that weaves us mysteriously into the fabric of an enchanted cosmos. The Christians killed that god dead. Nor does modern sexuality bear any trace of the Stoic sensibility, in which the needs of the city provide moral order to the desires of the individual subject. The power of eros simply is.

Thus, the modern Church finds itself in an odd position. It is surrounded by a culture that bears some of its own values, but they are shorn of their enchanted origins and presented as neutral axioms of the universe. Ironically, some of the most unabashedly secular models of human sexuality also share with Christianity a belief in the central place of the erotic within the architecture of morality. This is utterly alien to Epictetus, and for that matter to most religions outside the Christian (and to some extent the Jewish) tradition. An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all individuals and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who always envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and its picture of a created cosmos in the throes of restoration.

And so we live in a fractured culture, with a shared background of meaning that is as thin as gossamer and yet whose values bear the ghostly presence of ancient religious revolutions. The friction between old codes and new ones is not about restraint versus liberty, repression versus authenticity, any more than the difference between Stoic sexual morality and the Pauline view can be described in terms of strict versus lax. In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.

The modern sexual revolution, Taylor writes, has “a tremendous impact on churches whose stance in recent centuries has laid so much stress on these issues [sexual ethics], and where piety has often been identified with a very stringent sexual code.” That is putting it delicately. For stance, read core. For recent centuries, all the way back. For piety, orthodoxy. In the early Church, sexual morality was not baggage, afterthought, or accident. It was the plane on which Christians tried to live in the world, but not of it. Which is why adapting this sexual morality to the modern age has proven as simple as extricating a taut thread from a spider’s web

By Kyle Harper and originally published in First Things in January 2018 and can be seen here.

Liberalism and the Wrath of the Privileged Whites

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Each of our parties is acting crazy, thanks to its own elites. The Republicans are acting crazy thanks to the narcissism and entitlement of the right-leaning business and professional classes. The Democrats are acting crazy thanks to racial politics—specifically, the angry racial politics of upper-middle-class white liberals.

One irony of recent American politics is that the exodus of wage-earning whites from the Democratic party has tended to make the rump of white Democratic voters more affluent, better educated, and more doctrinaire leftist. According to Pew, about 35 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners are white “solid liberals.”

Solid liberals are left-of-center on both economic and social issues, and they are pessimistic about American society. One presumes that they are pessimistic about other people in American society. The solid liberals are also the best educated and most affluent segment of the Democratic party’s factions.

The weakness of solid liberals is that they are electorally nothing, absent alliances with less affluent, less ideologically rigid, and less secular groups. This creates all kinds of complications. The largely white and affluent solid liberals are notionally egalitarian and opposed to white privilege, but they include many of the most privileged whites in America. How can they participate in a coalition that is largely poorer, less educated, and darker-skinned than they are, while maintaining their comfortable position (both economically and socially)?

One solution would be for them not to maintain their privileged position, but instead to prioritize the interests of the poorer, less secular, and more moderate parts of their coalition. But that hasn’t happened so far. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics opposes increasing immigration, but their position is entirely unrepresented in the Democratic party. It seems possible that the Democrats will throw away a winnable Senate seat in Alabama because they have nominated a pro-abortion extremist against a Republican who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and ephebophilia (probably better that you don’t look that up).

Even ten years ago, Democrats were willing to nominate candidates who were culturally conservative (or at least willing to pretend to be culturally conservative) in order to replace conservative Republicans with somewhat-more-liberal Democrats. What changed?

The first thing was the alleged coming of the “emerging Democratic majority,” which was supposed to be brought about by demographic change and a larger nonwhite share of the electorate. This Democratic majority has been a little late in arriving, but that isn’t the only important part of the story.

Many liberal whites wanted to be rid of the culturally conservative, economically liberal, working-class white voters whom Democrats had courted in the previous decade. Upper-middle-class whites were embarrassed by these people. After all these centuries of white privilege, they never managed to get into a good school—or even a state college—and now they were making demands about trade and immigration.

One of the themes that emerges from Shattered (a chronicle of the Clinton campaign) is that the Clinton operation didn’t want to make a strong play for working-class white voters in swing states. The Clintonites thought these voters were disposable. It was left to Barack Obama to point out that he had done better than Clinton in many heavily working-class white areas, because he had done those voters the courtesy of treating them as though they were as important as any other American.

In one sense, it was easy for Obama. He didn’t risk being called a racist by playing to working-class whites. This is the dilemma facing affluent white liberals: They want to lead a coalition in favor of equality, but their identity places them under suspicion.

And they do want to lead. Hilary Clinton’s slogan was “I’m with Her.” That is why the loudest yelps about white privilege come from pale-skinned students at the most expensive liberal arts colleges. The strategy is to make the bad whites a justification for the privilege and power of the good, solidly liberal whites. See? We are using our position to make America a better place (and living rather well in the meantime).

This helps explain the biggest rhetorical difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama’s rhetorical vision included all but the most right-wing of Americans. Millions of working-class whites felt that Obama was talking about them, too, when he said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

And many of those same Americans knew that Hillary Clinton was talking about them when she ranted about the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” deplorables.

The Trump administration, for all of its obnoxiousness, seems most to have irritated affluent white liberals, rather than the nonwhite and relatively poor who are supposedly Trump’s great targets. Part of this is ideology, of course, since affluent white liberals are the most extreme segment of the Democratic coalition. But part of it is the rage of a privileged class.

By Pete Spiliakos and originally published in First Things on December 7, 2017 and can be seen here.

 

 

Something is wrong on the internet

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Medium which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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I’m James Bridle. I’m a writer and artist concerned with technology and culture. I usually write on my own blog, but frankly I don’t want what I’m talking about here anywhere near my own site. Please be advised: this essay describes disturbing things and links to disturbing graphic and video content. You don’t have to read it, and are advised to take caution exploring further.

As someone who grew up on the internet, I credit it as one of the most important influences on who I am today. I had a computer with internet access in my bedroom from the age of 13. It gave me access to a lot of things which were totally inappropriate for a young teenager, but it was OK. The culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships which I consider to be central to my identity were shaped by the internet, in ways that I have always considered to be beneficial to me personally. I have always been a critical proponent of the internet and everything it has brought, and broadly considered it to be emancipatory and beneficial. I state this at the outset because thinking through the implications of the problem I am going to describe troubles my own assumptions and prejudices in significant ways.

One of the thus-far hypothetical questions I ask myself frequently is how I would feel about my own children having the same kind of access to the internet today. And I find the question increasingly difficult to answer. I understand that this is a natural evolution of attitudes which happens with age, and at some point this question might be a lot less hypothetical. I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. I would want my kids to have the same opportunities to explore and grow and express themselves as I did. I would like them to have that choice. And this belief broadens into attitudes about the role of the internet in public life as whole.

I’ve also been aware for some time of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between younger children and YouTube. I see kids engrossed in screens all the time, in pushchairs and in restaurants, and there’s always a bit of a Luddite twinge there, but I am not a parent, and I’m not making parental judgments for or on anyone else. I’ve seen family members and friend’s children plugged into Peppa Pig and nursery rhyme videos, and it makes them happy and gives everyone a break, so OK.

But I don’t even have kids and right now I just want to burn the whole thing down.

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level. Much of what I am going to describe next has been covered elsewhere, although none of the mainstream coverage I’ve seen has really grasped the implications of what seems to be occurring.

To begin: Kid’s YouTube is definitely and markedly weird. I’ve been aware of its weirdness for some time. Last year, there were a number of articles posted about the Surprise Egg craze. Surprise Eggs videos depict, often at excruciating length, the process of unwrapping Kinder and other egg toys. That’s it, but kids are captivated by them. There are thousands and thousands of these videos and thousands and thousands, if not millions, of children watching them.

From the article linked above:

The maker of my particular favorite videos is “Blu Toys Surprise Brinquedos & Juegos,” and since 2010 he seems to have accrued 3.7 million subscribers and just under 6 billion views for a kid-friendly channel entirely devoted to opening surprise eggs and unboxing toys. The video titles are a continuous pattern of obscure branded lines and tie-ins: “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Smurfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho,” “Cars Screamin’ Banshee Eats Lightning McQueen Disney Pixar,” “Disney Baby Pop Up Pals Easter Eggs SURPRISE.”

As I write this he has done a total of 4,426 videos and counting. With so many views — for comparison, Justin Bieber’s official channel has more than 10 billion views, while full-time YouTube celebrity PewDiePie has nearly 12 billion — it’s likely this man makes a living as a pair of gently murmuring hands that unwrap Kinder eggs. (Surprise-egg videos are all accompanied by pre-roll, and sometimes mid-video and ads.)

That should give you some idea of just how odd the world of kids online video is, and that list of video titles hints at the extraordinary range and complexity of this situation. We’ll get into the latter in a minute; for the moment know that it’s already very strange, if apparently pretty harmless, out there.

Another huge trope, especially the youngest children, is nursery rhyme videos.

Little Baby Bum, which made the above video, is the 7th most popular channel on YouTube. With just 515 videos, they have accrued 11.5 million subscribers and 13 billion views. Again, there are questions as to the accuracy of these numbers, which I’ll get into shortly, but the key point is that this is a huge, huge network and industry.

On-demand video is catnip to both parents and to children, and thus to content creators and advertisers. Small children are mesmerised by these videos, whether it’s familiar characters and songs, or simply bright colours and soothing sounds. The length of many of these videos — one common video tactic is to assemble many nursery rhyme or cartoon episodes into hour+ compilations —and the way that length is marketed as part of the video’s appeal, points to the amount of time some kids are spending with them.

YouTube broadcasters have thus developed a huge number of tactics to draw parents’ and childrens’ attention to their videos, and the advertising revenues that accompany them. The first of these tactics is simply to copy and pirate other content. A simple search for “Peppa Pig” on YouTube in my case yielded “About 10,400,000 results” and the front page is almost entirely from the verified “Peppa Pig Official Channel”, while one is from an unverified channel called Play Go Toys, which you really wouldn’t notice unless you were looking out for it:

Play Go Toys’ channel consists of (I guess?) pirated Peppa Pig and other cartoons, videos of toy unboxings (another kid magnet), and videos of, one supposes, the channel owner’s own children. I am not alleging anything bad about Play Go Toys; I am simply illustrating how the structure of YouTube facilitates the delamination of content and author, and how this impacts on our awareness and trust of its source.

As another blogger notes, one of the traditional roles of branded content is that it is a trusted source. Whether it’s Peppa Pig on children’s TV or a Disney movie, whatever one’s feelings about the industrial model of entertainment production, they are carefully produced and monitored so that kids are essentially safe watching them, and can be trusted as such. This no longer applies when brand and content are disassociated by the platform, and so known and trusted content provides a seamless gateway to unverified and potentially harmful content.

(Yes, this is the exact same process as the delamination of trusted news media on Facebook feeds and in Google results that is currently wreaking such havoc on our cognitive and political systems and I am not going to explicitly explore that relationship further here, but it is obviously deeply significant.)

A second way of increasing hits on videos is through keyword/hashtag association, which is a whole dark art unto itself. When some trend, such as Surprise Egg videos, reaches critical mass, content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration. This is the origin of all the weird names in the list above: branded content and nursery rhyme titles and “surprise egg” all stuffed into the same word salad to capture search results, sidebar placement, and “up next” autoplay rankings.

A striking example of the weirdness is the Finger Family videos (harmless example embedded above). I have no idea where they came from or the origin of the children’s rhyme at the core of the trope, but there are at least 17 million versions of this currently on YouTube, and again they cover every possible genre, with billions and billions of aggregated views.

Once again, the view numbers of these videos must be taken under serious advisement. A huge number of these videos are essentially created by bots and viewed by bots, and even commented on by bots. That is a whole strange world in and of itself. But it shouldn’t obscure that there are also many actual children, plugged into iphones and tablets, watching these over and over again — in part accounting for the inflated view numbers — learning to type basic search terms into the browser, or simply mashing the sidebar to bring up another video.

What I find somewhat disturbing about the proliferation of even (relatively) normal kids videos is the impossibility of determining the degree of automation which is at work here; how to parse out the gap between human and machine. The example above, from a channel called Bounce Patrol Kids, with almost two million subscribers, show this effect in action. It posts professionally produced videos, with dedicated human actors, at the rate of about one per week. Once again, I am not alleging anything untoward about Bounce Patrol, which clearly follows in the footsteps of pre-digital kid sensations like their fellow Australians The Wiggles.

And yet, there is something weird about a group of people endlessly acting out the implications of a combination of algorithmically generated keywords: “Halloween Finger Family & more Halloween Songs for Children | Kids Halloween Songs Collection”, “Australian Animals Finger Family Song | Finger Family Nursery Rhymes”, “Farm Animals Finger Family and more Animals Songs | Finger Family Collection – Learn Animals Sounds”, “Safari Animals Finger Family Song | Elephant, Lion, Giraffe, Zebra & Hippo! Wild Animals for kids”, “Superheroes Finger Family and more Finger Family Songs! Superhero Finger Family Collection”, “Batman Finger Family Song — Superheroes and Villains! Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman” and on and on and on. This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.

Other channels do away with the human actors to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos. The above channel, Videogyan 3D Rhymes — Nursery Rhymes & Baby Songs, posts several videos a week, in increasingly byzantine combinations of keywords. They have almost five million subscribers — more than double Bounce Patrol — although once again it’s impossible to know who or what is actually racking up these millions and millions of views.

I’m trying not to turn this essay into an endless list of examples, but it’s important to grasp how vast this system is, and how indeterminate its actions, process, and audience. It’s also international: there are variations of Finger Family and Learn Colours videos for Tamil epics and Malaysian cartoonswhich are unlikely to pop up in any Anglophone search results. This very indeterminacy and reach is key to its existence, and its implications. Its dimensionality makes it difficult to grasp, or even to really think about.

We’ve encountered pretty clear examples of the disturbing outcomes of full automation before — some of which have been thankfully leavened with a dark kind of humour, others not so much. Much has been made of the algorithmic interbreeding of stock photo libraries and on-demand production of everything from tshirts to coffee mugs to infant onesies and cell phone covers. The above example, available until recently on Amazon, is one such case, and the story of how it came to occur is fascinating and weird but essentially comprehensible. Nobody set out to create phone cases with drugs and medical equipment on them, it was just a deeply weird mathematical/probabilistic outcome. The fact that it took a while to notice might ring some alarm bells however.

Likewise, the case of the “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” tshirts (along with the “Keep Calm and Knife Her” and “Keep Calm and Hit Her” ones) is depressing and distressing but comprehensible. Nobody set out to create these shirts: they just paired an unchecked list of verbs and pronouns with an online image generator. It’s quite possible that none of these shirts ever physically existed, were ever purchased or worn, and thus that no harm was done. Once again though, the people creating this content failed to notice, and neither did the distributor. They literally had no idea what they were doing.

What I will argue, on the basis of these cases and of those I’m going to describe further, is that the scale and logic of the system is complicit in these outputs, and requires us to think through their implications.

(Also again: I’m not going to dig into the wider social implications of such processes outside the scope of what I am writing about here, but it’s clear that one can draw a clear line from examples such as these to pressing contemporary issues such as racial and gender bias in big data and machine intelligence-driven systems, which require urgent attention but in the same manner do not have anything resembling easy or even preferable solutions.)

Let’s look at just one video among the piles of kid videos, and try to parse out where it comes from. It’s important to stress that I didn’t set out to find this particular video: it appeared organically and highly ranked in a search for ‘finger family’ in an incognito browser window (i.e. it should not have been influenced by previous searches). This automation takes us to very, very strange places, and at this point the rabbithole is so deep that it’s impossible to know how such a thing came into being.

Once again, a content warning: this video is not inappropriate in any way, but it is decidedly off, and contains elements which might trouble anyone. It’s very mild on the scale of such things, but. I describe it below if you don’t want to watch it and head down that road. This warning will recur.

The above video is entitled Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes. The title alone confirms its automated provenance. I have no idea where the “Wrong Heads” trope originates, but I can imagine, as with the Finger Family Song, that somewhere there is a totally original and harmless version that made enough kids laugh that it started to climb the algorithmic rankings until it made it onto the word salad lists, combining with Learn Colors, Finger Family, and Nursery Rhymes, and all of these tropes — not merely as words but as images, processes, and actions — to be mixed into what we see here.

The video consists of a regular version of the Finger Family song played over an animation of character heads and bodies from Disney’s Aladdin swapping and intersecting. Again, this is weird but frankly no more than the Surprise Egg videos or anything else kids watch. I get how innocent it is. The offness creeps in with the appearance of a non-Aladdin character —Agnes, the little girl from Despicable Me. Agnes is the arbiter of the scene: when the heads don’t match up, she cries, when they do, she cheers.

The video’s creator, BABYFUN TV (screenshot above), has produced many similar videos. As many of the Wrong Heads videos as I could bear to watch all work in exactly the same way. The character Hope from Inside Out weeps through a Smurfs and Trolls head swap. It goes on and on. I get the game, but the constant overlaying and intermixing of different tropes starts to get inside you. BABYFUN TV only has 170 subscribers and very low view rates, but then there are thousands and thousands of channels like this. Numbers in the long tail aren’t significant in the abstract, but in their accumulation.

The question becomes: how did this come to be? The “Bad Baby” trope also present on BABYFUN TV features the same crying. While I find it disturbing, I can understand how it might provide some of the rhythm or cadence or relation to their own experience that actual babies are attracted to in this content, although it has been warped and stretched through algorithmic repetition and recombination in ways that I don’t think anyone actually wants to happen.

Screenshot from Toy Freaks channel

[Edit, 21/11/2017: Following the publication of this article, the Toy Freaks channel was removed by YouTube as part of a widespread removal of contentious content.]

Toy Freaks is a hugely popular channel (68th on the platform) which features a father and his two daughters playing out — or in some cases perhaps originating — many of the tropes we’ve identified so far, including “Bad Baby”, (previously embedded above). As well as nursery rhymes and learning colours, Toy Freaks specialises in gross-out situations, as well as activities which many, many viewers feel border on abuse and exploitation, if not cross the line entirely, including videos of the children vomiting and in pain. Toy Freaks is a YouTube verified channel, whatever that means. (I think we know by now it means nothing useful.)

As with Bounce Patrol Kids, however you feel about the content of these videos, it feels impossible to know where the automation starts and ends, who is coming up with the ideas and who is roleplaying them. In turn, the amplification of tropes in popular, human-led channels such as Toy Freaks leads to them being endlessly repeated across the network in increasingly outlandish and distorted recombinations.

There’s a second level of what I’m characterising as human-led videos which are much more disturbing than the mostly distasteful activities of Toy Freaks and their kin. Here is a relatively mild, but still upsetting example:

A step beyond the simply pirated Peppa Pig videos mentioned previously are the knock-offs. These too seem to teem with violence. In the official Peppa Pig videos, Peppa does indeed go to the dentist, and the episode in which she does so seems to be popular — although, confusingly, what appears to be the real episode is only available on an unofficial channel. In the official timeline, Peppa is appropriately reassured by a kindly dentist. In the version above, she is basically tortured, before turning into a series of Iron Man robots and performing the Learn Colours dance. A search for “peppa pig dentist” returns the above video on the front page, and it only gets worse from here.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform.]

Disturbing Peppa Pig videos, which tend towards extreme violence and fear, with Peppa eating her father or drinking bleach, are, it turns out very widespread. They make up an entire YouTube subculture. Many are obviously parodies, or even satires of themselves, in the pretty common style of the internet’s outrageous, deliberately offensive kind. All the 4chan tropes are there, the trolls are out, we know this.

In the example above, the agency is less clear: the video starts with a trollish Peppa parody, but later syncs into the kind of automated repetition of tropes we’ve seen already. I don’t know which camp it belongs to. Maybe it’s just trolls. I kind of hope it is. But I don’t think so. Trolls don’t cover the intersection of human actors and more automated examples further down the line. They’re at play here, but they’re not the whole story.

I suppose it’s naive not to see the deliberate versions of this coming, but many are so close to the original, and so unsignposted — like the dentist example — that many, many kids are watching them. I understand that most of them are not trying to mess kids up, not really, even though they are.

I’m trying to understand why, as plainly and simply troubling as it is, this is not a simple matter of “won’t somebody think of the children” hand-wringing. Obviously this content is inappropriate, obviously there are bad actors out there, obviously some of these videos should be removed. Obviously too this raises questions of fair use, appropriation, free speech and so on. But reports which simply understand the problem through this lens fail to fully grasp the mechanisms being deployed, and thus are incapable of thinking its implications in totality, and responding accordingly.

The New York Times, headlining their article on a subset of this issue “On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters”, highlights the use of knock-off characters and nursery rhymes in disturbing content, and frames it as a problem of moderation and legislation. YouTube Kids, an official app which claims to be kid-safe but is quite obviously not, is the problem identified, because it wrongly engenders trust in users. An article in the British tabloid The Sun, “Kids left traumatised after sick YouTube clips showing Peppa Pig characters with knives and guns appear on app for children” takes the same line, with an added dose of right-wing technophobia and self-righteousness. But both stories take at face value YouTube’s assertions that these results are incredibly rare and quickly removed: assertions utterly refuted by the proliferation of the stories themselves, and the growing number of social media posts, largely by concerned parents, from which they arise.

But as with Toy Freaks, what is concerning to me about the Peppa videos is how the obvious parodies and even the shadier knock-offs interact with the legions of algorithmic content producers until it is completely impossible to know what is going on. (“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”)

Here’s what is basically a version of Toy Freaks produced in Asia (screenshot above). Here’s one from Russia. I don’t really want to use the term “human-led” any more about these videos, although they contain all the same tropes and actual people acting them out. I no longer have any idea what’s going on here and I really don’t want to and I’m starting to think that that is kind of the point. That’s part of why I’m starting to think about the deliberateness of this all. There is a lot of effort going into making these. More than spam revenue can generate — can it? Who’s writing these scripts, editing these videos? Once again, I want to stress: this is still really mild, even funny stuff compared to a lot of what is out there.

Here are a few things which are disturbing me:

The first is the level of horror and violence on display. Some of the times it’s troll-y gross-out stuff; most of the time it seems deeper, and more unconscious than that. The internet has a way of amplifying and enabling many of our latent desires; in fact, it’s what it seems to do best. I spend a lot of time arguing for this tendency, with regards to human sexual freedom, individual identity, and other issues. Here, and overwhelmingly it sometimes feels, that tendency is itself a violent and destructive one.

The second is the levels of exploitation, not of children because they are children but of children because they are powerless. Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.

Many of these latest examples confound any attempt to argue that nobody is actually watching these videos, that these are all bots. There are humans in the loop here, even if only on the production side, and I’m pretty worried about them too.

I’ve written enough, too much, but I feel like I actually need to justify all this raving about violence and abuse and automated systems with an example that sums it up. Maybe after everything I’ve said you won’t think it’s so bad. I don’t know what to think any more.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform. The video used animations from the Grand Theft Auto game series overlaid with cartoon characters assaulting, killing, and burying one another.]

This video, BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video, contains all of the elements we’ve covered above, and takes them to another level. Familiar characters, nursery tropes, keyword salad, full automation, violence, and the very stuff of kids’ worst dreams. And of course there are vast, vast numbers of these videos. Channel after channel after channel of similar content, churned out at the rate of hundreds of new videos every week. Industrialised nightmare production.

For the final time: There is more violent and more sexual content like this available. I’m not going to link to it. I don’t believe in traumatising other people, but it’s necessary to keep stressing it, and not dismiss the psychological effect on children of things which aren’t overtly disturbing to adults, just incredibly dark and weird.

A friend who works in digital video described to me what it would take to make something like this: a small studio of people (half a dozen, maybe more) making high volumes of low quality content to reap ad revenue by tripping certain requirements of the system (length in particular seems to be a factor). According to my friend, online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale. It uses existing and easily available content (such as character models and motion-capture libraries) and it can be repeated and revised endlessly and mostly meaninglessly because the algorithms don’t discriminate — and neither do the kids.

These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place.

To expose children to this content is abuse. We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here. What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay. The asides I’ve kept in parentheses throughout, if expanded upon, would allow one with minimal effort to rewrite everything I’ve said, with very little effort, to be not about child abuse, but about white nationalism, about violent religious ideologies, about fake news, about climate denialism, about 9/11 conspiracies.

This is a deeply dark time, in which the structures we have built to sustain ourselves are being used against us — all of us — in systematic and automated ways. It is hard to keep faith with the network when it produces horrors such as these. While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want.

I’m going to stop here, saying only this:

What concerns me is not just the violence being done to children here, although that concerns me deeply. What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects. As I said at the beginning of this essay: this is being done by people and by things and by a combination of things and people. Responsibility for its outcomes is impossible to assign but the damage is very, very real indeed.

By James Bridle and published in Medium on November 6, 2017 and can be found here.

Tactical Retreat: Erectile Dysfunction Commercial

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

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