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Lady Liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Help Me Identify This Sniveling Lying Coward
posted by Bathus

[01/04/2006 Note by Bathus: After I had already written and posted the following item, and after thinking things over for a couple of more days, I came to the conclusion that I was a little too tough on the anonymous UMass Dartmouth student, and way too easy on the the New Bedford Standard-Times. In a more recent post, I explain why the kid deserves less blame and the newspaper deserves more blame.]

Can You Identify This Man?

1. He's a senior at UMass Dartmouth, majoring in history.

2. He's 21 or 22 years old.

3. His family resides in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

4. He has a twin brother who is a student at UMass Amherst.

5. He has an uncle who lives in Puerto Rico.

6. In Autumn 2005 at UMass Dartmouth, he was enrolled in Prof. Robert Pontbriand's course on fascism and communism.

The young man who fits the above profile is a liar and coward, and he deserves to be identified by name.

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So what's this all about?

Surely by now you've heard the bewitching tale, originally reported by Aaron Nicodemus of the New Bedford Standard-Times, about the poor UMass Dartmouth student who claimed he had been interrogated by Department of Homeland Security agents. The student's tale, which Nicodemus swallowed hook, line, and sinker, included the inflammatory claim that those government agents warned him he had been placed on a "watch list" because he had submitted an Inter-Library Loan request to check out Mao's Little Red Book.

One can evaluate the direction of Nicodemus' bias in this comment he wrote when his reportage quickly came under withering scrutiny:
[M]y story, published in The Standard-Times on Saturday, Dec. 17, is real and is factual to the extent I reported. I am trying to convince the student to come forward, and for the university library loan system to come clean about its involvement, and of course, for the Department of Homeland Security to admit it visited the student.
So you might wonder exactly how far into Nicodemus' original story one can read before encountering reporting that is not real and factual? The answer is, one line, the very first line in which Nicodemus really and factually reported falsely that, "A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called The Little Red Book." Manfully ignoring the many paths to enlightenment that honest bloggers were pointing out to him, Nicodemus still saw nothing dubious about the student's tale. His journalistic duty, as he understood it, was not to scrutinize more carefully an uncorroborated second-hand anonymous source. No, Nicodemus' highest journalistic duty, as he saw it, was "to convince . . . the Department of Homeland Security to admit it visited the student," a factoid Nicodemus accepted as an established truth, in the glaring light of which his job was merely to obtain a full confession from the relevant authorities.

Once the bogus story had hit the internet, every variety of radical leftist America-hater (from Ivins to Kos to Carville, with Ted Kennedy being the most notable example) immediately threw gas on the fire and set about fanning the flames. This was, they gleefully announced, precisely the sort of abuse we would all regularly suffer if Bush got his way with the Patriot Act, which was at that moment a subject of heated debate. (Just google "patriot act" umass mao to get a sense of how the often the left repeated this flimsy story to gin up opposition to the Partriot Act. This was not a harmless hoax.)

But at the same time, bloggers (mostly on the right, but including a few on the left) began drowning the radical leftists' fantasy in well targeted jets of ice cold water. Within a week the reporter who "broke" the strange story admitted the kid's claim was entirely false.

As noted above, one of the more obvious of the many problems with the story was that Nicodemus first put the tale into print based entirely on information received second hand from a single uncorroborated anonymous source with whom the reporter had not yet had any direct contact:
Although The Standard-Times knows the name of the student, he is not coming forward because he fears repercussions should his name become public. He has not spoken to The Standard-Times.
Okay, even if Nicodemus didn't bother speaking directly with his single anonymous source, there was a tiny shred of corroboration: the opinions of two of the student's professors who--though they themselves had no personal knowledge of any of the actual events comprising the substance of the student's tale--were nonetheless eager to stake their own reputations on the student's truthfulness. (For that misjudgment, they might yet be called upon to pay a more concrete penalty beyond the damage done to their reputations.)[UDATE: The Standard-Times has now issued a statement conceding that the newspaper never should have published the story without first making direct contact with the uncorroborated second-hand source: "We -- reporter and editors -- failed here because we put our faith in what two college professors told us. We should have held off publishing the story until we had a chance to judge the student's credibility for ourselves."]

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In a post titled The Homeland Security agent ate my paper!, blogger Academic Elephant at Elephants in Academia explores the comic possibility that the student-hoaxer was motivated by that familiar necessity of coming up with a story juicy enough to convince a prof to give you more time to finish that paper you've been putting off starting all semester:
[I]t was a surefire way to get out of writing Professor Pontbriand's odious paper, which, I assume was due in a few days, or might have already been overdue, because the Homeland Security agents took the book with them. The student knew his audience from the content of the class, and was confident that his professors would lap up this story and let him out of his responsibilities--and almost certainly give him an A as a badge of honor. If this is the case I must applaud the student's deviant verve, because "The Homeland Security Department took my book" is an excuse I have not yet heard--and I've heard a lot. Give him an E for effort but an F for the course, put him on academic probation and be done with it.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

I have a different hypothesis about how this lie was born, grew, and evolved.

But first a legal disclaimer:

My speculation, I admit, is exactly that--speculation and nothing more. (But hey, what's sauce for the goose!). My speculation is not grounded in fact and should not be understood as fact. My speculation does not even rise to level of an opinion. It's less than an opinion. My speculation is meant to be a sort intellectual exercise, an almost worthless mental gymnastic with which we must maintain ourselves until either the good professor Williams, UMass Dartmouth, the MSM, some industrious blogger, or perhaps even the cowardly lying student himself favors us with the actual confirmable facts about how this lie originated, including the identity of the person who first dreamed it up.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I offer my idle speculation, which is:

The anonymous student originated purely as a figment of the imagination of the good professor Brian Glyn Williams.

And here's how I speculate that things might have snowballed out of control for the good professor Williams:

A reporter from the local press phones an undeservedly obscure, courageously ambitious, mildly charismatic academician, one Associate Professor Brian Glyn Williams at UMass Dartmouth, to obtain an utterly predictable comment to fill out a piece of fluff the reporter is putting together on the evile evils of the evile Bush junta spying on wholesome God-fearing ordinary citizenry. Intoxicated by the prospect of a little press attention, the prof embellishes his comment with some harmless BS anecdote. The prof claims he heard tell of a student who recently had been investigated by DHS agents for trying to get a copy of Mao's Little Read Book. (Pun intended!) Much to the prof's surprise, the lefty reporter gobbles up that mini-bolus of harmless BS and promptly poops out a story glorifying the poor student's plight.

The story immediately burns up the internet.

All this attention comes as quite a shock to the prof, who had no idea that his harmless little mini-bolus of an anecdote would generate such a shit storm. At first he's basking in his cheaply-won celebrity, as he smugly taps out emails like this one to his well-wishers in the academic left:
I am delighted to hear that librarians are aware of this outrage. I was wondering if you could possibly give me a link to the site that displayed the story. All is well here in Boston, the story has caused a surge of interest in academic freedoms and I have been inundated with emails from people urging me to teach my class [the class the poor victimized professor had been quoted as saying he was now afraid to teach].
But then things start to get way out of hand. Reporters start calling the good prof from all over the country, and now they want some kind of corroboration. Yikes! To save his reputation, the good prof has to come up with a real live flesh and blood student to present to the press.

Not to worry. That might have been a serious problem if the prof and the university and the entire MSN hadn't made protecting the sacred anonymity of this hoaxer their highest value. But with a promise of anonymity (and maybe some extra credit points), the prof can easily find a student willing to play out the role conjured in prof's imagination. So the cooperative student spends a few minutes rehearsing his story with the good professor, and then spends a few more minutes on the phone chatting with intrepid reporters, and then a few more minutes in the dean's office elaborating his tale. Of course, eventually the story had to fall apart, but in the process the good prof manages to anoint himself a self-sacrificing hero for single-handedly conducting the investigation that unearths "the real truth": "My investigation eventually took me to his house, where I began to investigate family matters. I eventually found out the whole thing had been invented, and I'm happy to report that it's safe to borrow books." Great work, professor. We all share deeply in your relief.

After the tale was fully debunked, the prof laments sadly, "I feel as if I was lied to."

Uh, excuse me prof, whadaya mean you "feel as if" you were lied to? If this student really exists, there can be no "feeling" about it. You were lied to, plain and simple. But if the student was a figment of your imagination, then I suppose conjuring up a "feeling" is about the best you could be expected to do. In the good prof's inability to state flatly that he was lied to, I detect the sort of mental slippage that arises from the subconscious pang experienced by all but the most accomplished fabricators.

And in another email to a colleague that was posted to an ALA list serve shortly after the story broke-- when the story was coming under fire, but before it was fully debunked--the good prof Williams wrote:
I know this student well. He is the real thing, he is mature, honest, reliable, hard-working and genuinely interested in getting to the truth on issues, i.e. he is everything we train our students to be. The fact that Dr. Bob Pontbriand who is by the way a passionate educator who seeks to instill just this sort of above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty research in his students also vouches for him lends two voices to his defense. I sincerely hope that your questions are meant to be the sort of critical inquiry we expect from our students and not some reflexive attempt to de-legitimize our reporting of what it is frankly a rather disturbing act of surveillance . . .
Let's look more closely at the above email that the good professor Williams wrote to defend his student's claim against his fellow academicians' skeptical inquiries.

This student, so the good prof Williams claimed at the time, was "the real thing . . . mature, honest, reliable, hard-working . . . everything we train our students to be." That over-the-top praise instantly sets off the BS detector. Without intending disrespect toward undergrads (whom I sincerely consider the most delightful, but hardly the most honest, creatures God ever invented) and based on my experience loitering around college campuses for the better part of the last twenty-five years, I would estimate that the prof's assessment of the hoaxer's character can be applied accurately to approximately zero out of every forty zillion undergrads. And the prof's perfect student was certainly no exception. When all was said and done, the putatively perfect student summed up his experience with these lucid lines:
When I came back, like wow, there's this circus coming on. I saw my cell phone, and I see like, wow, I have something like 75 messages and like something like 87 missed calls. Wow, I was popular.
Like wow, like something like wow. Thus spake Professor Williams' ideal student?

So pardon me for my confusion, Professor Williams, but how can you expect anyone to believe that you yourself honestly believed that Mr. Like Wow Anonymous could be the same student you had previously claimed was "everything we train our students to be"? Something just doesn't add up. Not even a college professor could so thoroughly misjudge the character, not to mention the scholarly inclinations, of a student he claimed to know well. When Mr. Honest Mature Reliable of your fantasy turned out to be Mr. Like Wow I'm Popular Anonymous, it left me with a suspicion that the perfect student you had described (whom no decent prof could disbelieve) really was too good to be true--too perfect to be anything more than a character playing a part in a good professor's fantasy university, where perfect students of undeservedly obscure professors are hounded by black-suited government agents.

And that was all fine until the fantasy got mixed up with reality.

Interestingly, just as Professor Williams over-hyped the character of his fantasy student, he also seems to have vastly oversold the endorsement he claimed his colleague, Robert Pontriband, had offered on that student's behalf. Williams claimed that Pontbriand "also vouches" for the student. But Pontriband himself now contends that he "merely confirmed that the student in his seminar on totalitarianism had asserted that he had been visited by federal agents." (Whether the student made that claim to Pontbriand before or after Williams had already reported it to Nicodemus remains unclear.)

Note also the way the good prof's email slyly assaulted the integrity of an academic colleague who had the balls to question the story: "I sincerely hope" wrote the good professor Williams, "that your questions are . . . not some reflexive attempt to de-legitimize our reporting of what it is frankly a rather disturbing act of surveillance." That aggressive-defensive posture, of the sort one often hears from liars who try to shame their critics into silence, coming from a man who is supposedly dedicated to the relentless pursuit of truth, strongly suggests to me that the good prof himself might have something to hide. Again I repeat, this is all idle speculation, which I wish the professor would lay to rest by telling us the name of the student who got him sucked into this lie.

In any case, and this is my main point, this student, if he exists, needs to be outed forthwith.

If this student were anything more than a lying crybaby of a coward without a scrap of integrity (he reportedly "broke down and cried" when he could no longer sustain his lie), he would have come forward voluntarily to admit and openly apologize for what he has done.

His hoax corrupted the public debate on extension of the Patriot Act at the critical moment when the rational resolution of that debate was a matter of the utmost national concern.

There are lessons to be learned here. And for the lessons to work the way they should, a name and a face needs to be put to this lie. This story is not wrapped up until this liar is outed for all the world to see.

The MSM won't do it, and you know why, just as you know how they'd light up a student who invented a story championing some right-wing dogma. Imagine how bright the floodlights bathing the liar's front lawn had his fantasy story been one that supported a conservative viewpoint! Can the reporters at the Boston Globe, the Standard Times, and other MSM outlets honestly contend that they have an ethical journalistic duty to protect the identity of a source who tried to use them to promulgate what he knew was a bald-faced lie? To the contrary if anonymous sources knew they'd be exposed if they used the media to publish what they knew were blatant falsehoods, those sources would be rather more reliable than they currently are.

So if you'd like to help me help track down this sniveling cowardly liar, so he can bear the shame he deserves and serve as an example to others of his kind, reread the profile at the top of this post. There can't be many students who fit that profile. If, on the other hand, it turns out that there is no UMass Dartmouth student who fits that bill, then one is left to conclude that some good prof made up the entire story from the start. If this student actually does exist (and contrary to what I've speculated above, I do believe the student does exist), and if you know who he might be, send me an email telling me what you know. (I promise you anonymity--unless you lie to me.)

posted by Bathus | 12/30/2005 01:59:00 AM
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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Science and the Meaning of Things
posted by Bathus

Material existence carries the meaning of things the way the meaning of a book is carried by the words written on its pages. It's not as if words don't matter in themselves, but one would not mistake the arbitrary shapes of ink pressed on paper for the meaning. Neither should one mistake the words, isolated from each other, for the full meaning. All the words of a book affect each other's meaning. They have to be understood together, as a whole. And the meaning of a book exists in some sense apart from the words which carry that meaning, just as the meaning of things exists in some sense apart from material existence.

The modern scientist's concern with what makes up material existence, his quest to master and to remake it, is akin to a concern with the compounds and processes that go into producing the ink and paper of a book. The modern scientist, with our encouragement, begins his quest to remake the book without bothering to read more than a few words, much less trying to understand the whole story. He never grasps that the ink, the paper, and the isolated words are not the meaning. He believes what is almost the opposite, that one finds the truth about the book of meaning by ripping pages from binding to see what they are made of and how they are held together, and then tearing pages into sentences, and then dissecting sentences into words, and then cutting words into letters, and finally boiling the letters down to ink and pulp. Then he tries to reconstruct some of those pieces in a way that seems more useful or convenient for the purpose of the moment. He does not fail to concoct a more permanent ink and a sturdier paper. Emboldened by that success, he will set about repairing or replacing the imperfections he sees in isolated words and sentences that he believes to be most important, which are the words and sentences he imagines he understands.

When something cannot be explained by his method, the modern scientist tries nonetheless to assign a meaning that accords with his method: "Love," says a scientist, "is at bottom nothing more than a series of electro-chemical reactions." (Most of us still refuse to believe what the scientist says about love. Yet even though we disbelieve him about love--the most important thing in our lives--we stand ready to believe whatever he says about almost everything else.) Whatever cannot be assigned a such a meaning, the scientist dismisses as having no real meaning. Thus, a mediocre scientist will proclaim, "the only truth is scientific truth." A better scientist, knowing the very idea of "scientific truth" to be a contradiction of the basic principle of science, instead proclaims, "There is no truth. There is no meaning. There is no love. There is only the expanse of space, particles of matter, bits of energy, and perhaps some sorts of in-between stuff we've not quite discovered yet, but which amount to much the same thing."

If the modern scientist continues in his own way and with our encouragement, he will eventually manufacture something that looks like the real book, the one with real meaning, which he will have ripped apart to produce what he believes will be a more perfect version, or at least a version that promises to be more amenable to our usual preferences. But the story he writes will be a chaos--a loveless, friendless, soulless chaos--within which no one would wish to live.

posted by Bathus | 12/04/2005 11:51:00 PM
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