Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed fifty years ago today by an assasin’s bullet to the neck as King stood on his Memphis hotel room balcony. J. Samuel Walker recounts the impact of King’s assassination in Washington in the days the followed:

A crowd began to gather at the corner of 14th and U Streets in Northwest Washington when the news that King had been shot became public. The areas around the east-west corridor of U Street and the north-south corridor of 14th Street had deteriorated since the 1920s and 1930s, but this was still the premier commercial center of black Washington. For about 20 blocks north of U Street, the 14th Street corridor and its offshoots hosted some 300 businesses, plus bars, theaters, and nightclubs.

The 14th and U neighborhood was also the center of black activism in the city; the local offices of black leadership groups were clustered there. In addition to the local SNCC headquarters, the Washington offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were located in the immediate area. People gravitated toward the intersection when they learned that King had been shot. At the same time, police and civil defense intelligence units moved in to observe the scene. They found that, at first, the “mood of the group was … one of shock and dismay rather than of anger.”

The mood of the crowd became increasingly bitter after the announcement that King had died. Some individuals gathered around a transistor radio to listen to President Johnson’s speech. His appeal for calm was not greeted favorably; one person shouted that King’s death would “mean one thousand Detroits.” …

But the calls for calm and reason soon proved to be futile. At 9:25 p.m., the first acts of vandalism and looting occurred. A window at the Peoples Drug Store that had closed at Carmichael’s request was smashed. At about the same time, a 15-year-old boy broke the glass of the front door of the Republic Theatre just down the street. A window of a Safeway market at 14th and Chapin Streets, five blocks north of U, was shattered and people immediately entered and began looting. One block south of the Safeway, a woman used her body to pummel the window of a television and appliance store until it broke. Carmichael and other SNCC workers tried to stop would-be looters, but their efforts could save the store’s inventory for only a limited time. …

As the attacks on the police and firefighters, most of whom were white, indicated, the participants in the riot demonstrated ample measures of racial hostility. The disorders on 14th Street were not a race riot in the sense that they produced a series of direct, violent confrontations between blacks and whites. This had occurred at other times in Washington, most notably in a fierce clash between races in 1919 that resulted in thirty deaths and countless injuries. But if the outburst on the night of King’s death was not a race riot, it clearly brought to the surface black resentment toward white society. “This is it, baby. The shit is going to hit the fan now,” yelled one rioter shortly after the breaking of store windows and looting began. At this juncture, Stokely Carmichael tried once again to cool passion, but the turmoil quickly gained momentum.

Bonnie Perry, who was 13 at the time of the riot and an attentive witness to what went on, later told an interviewer that some residents participated “because they just wanted to loot.” She suggested, however, that those people were exceptions. “Most people did it because they were angry and were frustrated with the country. Frustrated and angry that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and frustrated that there was nothing,” she recalled. “It was like there was no hope for the future.”

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects today on the anniversary of MLK’s assassination:

We too easily reduce the memory of our nation’s great and good persons to a liturgy of public pieties. These pieties lose force as the years go by. Not so with the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Generations have grown up since his 1968 assassination that can never fully grasp the measure of his achievements or the scope of the positive changes to society he helped bring about, because they have no experience of the America in which he lived out his ministry.

He was a man of civility, nonviolence, intelligence, and respect for his opponents; but also a man with a tireless zeal for justice, inspired and directed by his Christian faith.

America was made better by his life. …

I’m on Amtrak on the way to Washington as I write this, where I’ll be spending the rest of the week at Catholic Uniersity’s fiftieth anniversary Humanae Vitae symposium, commemorating Pope Paul VI’s affirmation of Christian moral teaching on sex, marriage, and human life. While I’m in Washington I’m planning to visit the MLK Memorial on the National Mall for the first time. Figures like Lincoln and MLK come along only rarely and at apparently necessary historical moments. I’m grateful to be living in a time when there are still so many alive with living memory of MLK’s teaching and witness.

Franciscan Brothers of Peace

Jessica Trygstad reports on the Franciscan Brothers of Peace and their missionary work alongside torture survivors:

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace have housed male international victims of torture since the 1990s — about 70 to date, said Brother Conrad Richardson, who serves as the brothers’ community leader. Describing their apostolate as “doing whatever needs to be done,” Brother Richardson said the 12 brothers provide room and board and fulfill other tangible needs — climate-appropriate clothing, food, monthly mass transit passes and phone cards. Multicultural artwork hangs on the walls of their friary, and their kitchen is stocked with ethnic foods to help give their guests a sense of home.

“All are received as Christ,” Brother Richardson said. “Residents who live here, they know that they’re welcome to join us for any meals we have and even to join us in prayer as they like.”

The men come to the U.S. through various means. A former resident, Brother Richardson said, was a stowaway on a ship and found enough food and water to survive the journey. Another man from Iraq had served in a high-ranking military position under Saddam Hussein. He escaped through bribery. The information the brothers garner about their guests is confidential; through the men’s social workers and lawyers, the brothers only know pertinent information and what the men are willing to share, per the Center for Victims of Torture’s policies.

Knowing at least some English, most of the men were well educated and held good jobs in their home countries, giving them the wherewithal to help mobilize people, thus making them targets of their oppressive governments. …

He said a “beautiful aspect” of sharing their home with people of different faiths has been the unity they’ve found through common respect, pointing to their Muslim guests’ admiration of Mary and Jesus. The brothers try to reciprocate that respect. Brother Richardson recalled the time a Muslim guest asked one of the brothers about getting a prayer rug to use for his required prayer times throughout the day. When the brother supplied one, the man held it to his chest and tried to keep his composure.

“He said to us, ‘I have experienced peace here that I have hardly experienced even among my people,’” Brother Richardson recalled, “and that he would be buried with this rug, the gift that was given.”

Complementing the brothers’ ministry, Sarah’s Oasis, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, serves female victims of torture.

Br. Conrad Richardson and the Franciscan Brothers of Peace are good and remarkable men. I know Br. Conrad as a friend and as a Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board member, and we talked about this work when he was visiting Philadelphia last month. I can’t imagine bearing the emotional and spiritual weight of this work day to day, and so I admire Br. Conrad and his missionaries all the more.

‘Neither confirm nor deny’

Joseph Goldstein reports that the New York Supreme Court has ruled that New York City police can now refuse transparency by employing the CIA tactic of “neither confirming nor denying” public requests for information:

On Thursday, New York State’s highest court told the New York Police Department that it was free to use the phrase in response to inquiries from citizens who want access to their police files to learn if they have been the subject of surveillance.

The ruling, by the state Court of Appeals, carves out a new exemption in the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which has been understood to require local agencies to at least acknowledge the existence of records, even if they were not required to release them.

But the ruling for the first time allows the New York Police Department to avoid even answering whether such files exist, said Christopher T. Dunn, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer who filed a brief in the case. “That’s the ultimate act of secrecy,” Mr. Dunn said.

The case before the court involved public-record requests filed in 2012 by two men to get records relating to any surveillance of them by the police. The men, who are both Muslim, filed the requests after a series of articles by The Associated Press described a secretive Police Department counterterrorism program that conducted extensive surveillance of Muslim organizations and mosques. One of the men, Talib Abdur-Rashid, is the imam of a Harlem mosque. The other man, Samir Hashmi, was a student at Rutgers University and active in its Muslim Student Association. After the Police Department refused to confirm or deny the existence of the records they were requesting, the men sued.

The police maintained that even disclosing the existence or nonexistence of any such records — let alone publicly releasing any that existed — would provide too much information. “The knowledge that a person or group is the subject of a N.Y.P.D. counterterrorism investigation would allow that person or group to alter their behavior so as to avoid detection,” the department’s intelligence chief, Thomas Galati, wrote in an affidavit. “Conversely, the knowledge that a person or group is not a subject of investigation would allow such persons to more freely engage in illegal activity.” …

In a statement, the Police Department said it has “rarely” responded to public record requests with a “neither confirm nor deny” answer. “The department will continue to do so only on a very limited basis and where appropriate,” the statement said.

But Mr. Dunn, the civil liberties lawyer, expressed concern that the Police Department would keep to that.

“The big question is how far they are going to push this,” he said, noting that the Police Department recently issued a “neither confirm nor deny” answer to a public records request the New York Civil Liberties Union had filed that sought information regarding a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest. In that case, the civil liberties union wanted to know if the police had listened to — or jammed — phone calls among demonstrators.

“They’ve already used it in a protester case,” Mr. Dunn said.

What an odious ruling. It’s one thing to defend the value of secrecy on the national/international spying/investigative level wherein there is hypothetically a collective public good to be served by non-disclosure. It’s entirely another thing to rule that domestic authorities can simply refuse to answer public inquiries from citizens, journalists, etc. for private reasons.

Computer science and digital literacy

Fred Wilson’s post on the push to make computer science a standard part of New York state public school curriculum got me thinking, and specifically the struggle to make that happen outside of the cities, got me thinking.

I support the addition of computer science as a standard part of K-12 curriculum, so long as it’s balanced by a strong and challenging literary/humanities curriculum. As Steve Jobs once said, technology alone is not enough. And in many respects American educational thinking is already far too focused exclusively on the economic aspect of learning, while personal and cultural knowledge is lost or never conveyed in the first place.

But literacy of any sort requires good language. Think of Albus Dumbledore’s comment to Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows to the effect that “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. That means that the careful use of language in what we describe will shape what we strive to do.

How many schools still use archaic language like “Computer Class” or “Technology” or something similar? That’s atrocious phrasing that I think underscores how far those schools are from Fred Wilson’s vision of computer science for all. (The same is true, by the way, for terrible, nebulous subjects like “Religion” and “Social Studies” and “English Language Arts”, etc.) What’s really being taught (or what should really be taught in this class) is not “computers” or “technology” but digital or electronic literacy.

“Digital Literacy” curriculum would demand better teachers, because it would encompass not just basic skills like typing, systems use, coding, etc, but could go a step further by seeking to impart a sense of public citizenship. And personal social network guidance. And imparting at least intermediate critical learning and research methodology.

“Computers and Technology” is creaky language, and an obsolete, vague, unmeasurable sort of class. It’s like calling an English composition class “Typing Class”—technically accurate, while missing the point.

A digital literacy curriculum could encompass what Fred Wilson is working to do in New York, while also cultivating a wider set of virtues that would serve the whole person.

Free range parenting

I shared something last week about the idea of “free range kids” that I had read a few years back, and as fate would have it I just read today that Utah has passed what is being reported as a first-of-its-kind “free range parenting” bill:

So-called free-range parenting will soon be the law of the land in Utah after the governor signed what appears to be the country’s first measure to formally legalize allowing kids to do things on their own to foster self-sufficiency.

The bill, which Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday that he’d signed, specifies that it isn’t neglectful to let kids do things alone like travel to school, explore a playground or stay in the car. The law takes effect May 8.

Utah’s law is the first in the country, said Lenore Skenazy, who coined the term free-range parent. A records search by the National Conference of State Legislatures didn’t turn up any similar legislation in other states.

Utah lawmakers said they were prompted to pass the law after seeing other states where parents had been investigated and in some cases had their children temporarily removed when people reported seeing kids playing basketball in their yards or walking to school alone.

Headline-grabbing cases have included a Maryland couple investigated after allowing their 10- and-6-year-old children to walk home alone from a park in 2015. …

Skenazy, who wrote the book “Free Range Kids” after writing about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone, has said the law is a good way to reassure parents who might be nervous about their parenting decisions. …

On the federal level, another Utah politician, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, added an amendment to a 2015 federal education bill supporting the concept. It said kids shouldn’t be stopped from biking or walking to school alone with a parent’s permission, and parents shouldn’t face charges for letting them.

Good! The world seems much stranger and less safe than it used to be, but often in looking at the data that just isn’t the case. Utah’s legislation should be a model for the country, and should encourage parents to let their children explore their world when they’re old enough. I think it’s much more dangerous to raise a sheltered person.

Engineering consumer behavior

Looking for incongruous wealth and status in popular culture, and figuring out how to make sure it doesn’t warp your sense of reality:

How much does it cost to be CJ?  Not Pamela Anderson—CJ. So, not how much are  implants, a nose job and a personal trainer; but how much are CJ’s nail appointments, and hair? How much does her (or any of the characters’) makeup cost? The car lease? Her CD player and apartment in Malibu?  The sofas? CJ and the gals never wear the same clothes in two shows.  Never the same shoes. How much does that cost? They don’t shop at Sears, right? …

Baywatch, along with Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, is changing America in ways you don’t notice– precisely because you don’t notice. In prior TV and movies any incongruous displays of wealth had an explanation, however cliched.  Magnum PI lived off the kindness of Higgins.  Rachel on Friends has rich parents.  But with rare exceptions, the characters in the new crop of 20 something TV have access to material goods way outside their pay range, but they are made so ordinary you never think to question it.  We know very well how Pamela Anderson affords it.  But it’s made axiomatic that CJ can.

It’s wrong to look at the Baywatch women as pornography, especially during a time when actual pornography is becoming so easy to acquire.  The real pornography is the surrounding materialism, the casual display of impossible lifestyles and unattainable goods as if they are ordinary commodities. After ten hours of porn, a breast flash doesn’t seem like a big deal. After ten hours of Baywatch, leasing a car doesn’t, either.

When I read the above article, an example that came to mind was from “Night Stalker“, a short-lived 2005 reboot of a 1970s detective/horror series. This particular scene from the opening credits has stuck with me after all these years, I guess, because it shows the lead character, Carl Kolchak, working from his Hollywood Hills home:

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The median sales price for a home in the Hollywood Hills is just under $1 million. The median salary for a reporter in Los Angeles is roughly $90,000/year. And you can tell that the home above would be way more than $1 million. That scene was filmed at the Stahl House, which was built in 1959 for $34,000, which someone recently attempted to buy for $15 million. So maybe the Carl Kolchak of that series inherited the house from his grandparents, but he definitely wouldn’t be living there on a journalist’s salary.

Ramit Sethi has written about subtle barriers in place to combating the subtle psychological barriers to meeting reality when it comes to losing weight. He’s addressed the “Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?” complaint:

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written a terrific book describing how food companies systematically engineer foods to overeaten (including designing foods that can be swallowed quicker so we can consumer more and more in one sitting). These are tested, refined, and optimized processes, not mere accidents.

Most importantly, behavioral change is not simply about trying harder.

There’s a strong case for intentionally shielding yourself from popular culture in many areas of life.

American moral consensus

David Carlin writes that strong societies used to require a common religion:

Once upon a time, everybody believed that if a society was to cohere it had to have a common religion. And thus kings and other rulers had little choice but to persecute heretics; for heretics, like criminals and political rebels, were great disturbers of social unity.

Queen Elizabeth I persecuted Catholics on the one hand and Puritans on the other, not because she was a religious fanatic but because she was a conscientious ruler. If she failed to punish dissenters, she’d be allowing them to undermine social unity.

Likewise the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s. They fled England, generations of American schoolchildren have been told (I remember being told this in the 4thgrade), in search of religious freedom. True enough. But not the principle of religious freedom for all; only the desire of freedom for themselves.

One of their number, Roger Williams, believed in the principle of religious freedom for all, and for that heresy they tossed him out into the wilderness of Rhode Island. They also expelled Ann Hutchinson for heresy, and they punished Quakers by hanging them.

After many religion-based wars – for instance, 16th-century civil wars in France, the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48), and the English Civil War of the 1640s – the world, having discovered that compulsory religious uniformity didn’t always work well, began to turn in the direction of religious freedom. It was a gradual process and took a long time, but much of the European-American world finally arrived at the conclusion that society could cohere without a religious consensus.

And things seemed to change with the United Stated. We didn’t need a single national religion, but instead could live in a pluralistic society with many different denominations of a single religion:

In the United States, from the beginning of the republic, we did fine without an ecclesiastical consensus; that is, we didn’t all belong to the same church. But we didn’t have to do without a religious consensus, albeit an informal one. Virtually everybody was Protestant. There were a few Catholics and Jews and Deists and frank unbelievers. But they didn’t count very much; they were small non-Protestant drops in a very large Protestant bucket.

The Protestants, of course, came in many denominational varieties: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, and more. But all Protestants, regardless of their denominational differences, agreed on many things: the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Ten Commandments, Heaven and Hell.

They all agreed too that Catholicism was a great perversion of Christianity. We should never forget that anti-Catholicism was an important “glue” holding the Protestant world together.

As Catholics and Jews came into greater numbers in America, and as the confidence and strength of Protestant denominations waned for various reasons, the fusionism of Judeo-Christianity sought to serve the role of social glue for an even more pluralistic society:

By the early years of the 20th century, however, you could no longer say that the USA was a Protestant country. Too many Catholics and Jews were living here by then, and too many of them were playing important roles in American life. But then somebody came up with the brilliant idea that, if we could no longer have a Protestant religious consensus, we could at least have a “Judeo-Christian” religious consensus. It wasn’t as “thick” a consensus as had been the Protestant consensus, but it was thick enough. Just think of all the things religious Protestants and religious Catholics and religious Jews agreed upon.

And so, by 1950, more than 300 years after Roger Williams had argued for freedom of religion, Americans still had a religious consensus, albeit one that was informal and not legally prescribed.

That finally collapsed in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory prayer in public schools is a violation of the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment. Until then schools, in keeping with the spirit of our national Judeo-Christian religion, had mandated prayers that gave no offense to Protestants or Catholics or Jews. Usually, this was the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer whose content gave no offense to any believer. But all prayers would give offense to atheistic parents of school children.

Just as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954 was a symbolic moment declaring that blacks are equal to whites, so the prayer decision of 1962, Engel v. Vitale, was a symbolic moment declaring that atheists are equal to Judeo-Christian religious believers. If Brown meant that racial segregation was on its way to the dustbin of history, so Engel v. Vitalemeant that our informal national religion was headed in the same direction.

Judaism and Christianity in all their forms seemed to work well together to deliver great social and moral victories in the 20th century in the form of largely non-violent political and civil rights movements:

So it is only since the second half of the 20th century that we Americans have had to try the experiment of living without a religious consensus. How are we doing? Not too well, I’d say, to judge from the great divisions currently plaguing American society.

The great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) argued that in modern secular society, where religious consensus is impossible, we could still have a moral consensus. This moral consensus would be based on natural law, a law that applies to all humans and is known by all humans, whether religious believers or atheists or something in between.

But is this moral consensus, boiled down in simple terms to a shared sense among Christians, Jews, and others in America of a “natural law” written in the heart of human beings, still a meaningful social force? Carlin continues:

Now I’m a great fan of Maritain and a great believer in the idea of natural law, and many years ago, influenced by Maritain, I expected that in America a moral consensus would replace our collapsing religious consensus. But it hasn’t. We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.

Well, if we cannot have a religious consensus, and we cannot have a moral consensus, what kind of consensus can we have in the United States? For surely we have to have some kind of consensus. A society that cannot agree on anything won’t be able to endure.

The best I can think of – barring a religious and moral revival – is that we will endure, if we do endure, with a consensus about the importance of making money and spending it. If we cannot agree about abortion or homosexuality or euthanasia, we can, perhaps, at least agree about the wrongness of commercial fraud and cheating on taxes and other forms of thievery.

But that’s not an inviting prospect.

“We have no moral consensus on divorce, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism, pornography, capital punishment, and other things. We are very badly divided on questions of morality, and the divisions are growing worse.”

That seems broadly true, but maybe that’s just a natural consequence of an America that’s far more pluralistic today that it was a century ago. If that’s the case, the real question is whether there is a limit to how pluralistic a nation can be without ceasing to be one.