What Malcolm Understood

I was 3 when Malcolm X was assassinated. Naturally, I don’t remember anything about it.

It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I read his autobiography, and, I must admit, I shied away from a lot of the nation of islam (henceforth: NOI) stuff. It offended my atheist sensibilities, as it should, because NOI is pretty obviously just another religious scam praying on black people, offering them false hope in return for a fat living for their prophet. Reading Malcolm, the brilliance of his mind leaps off the page, to me. It always seemed to not add up that he never applied those same analytic skills to his religion; or possibly he did near the end – there was some kind of falling out with the NOI church, which probably was prickly, upright, Malcolm discovering that the other church fathers were sexually preying on the flock. He never said. But it was that, or he finally figured out where the money was going.

Malcolm’s self-analysis is consistently good except on that one point. He describes his trip to Saudi Arabia, Mecca, and how the Saudis treated him – with great courtesy but perplexity, as well – here was this guy who called himself a muslim, yet spoke no Arabic, didn’t know the Koran, and had some really weird ideas about where white people came from and how humans were created. [Short form: NOI’s creation myths are completely at odds with what I guess we could call “classical islam”, in fact they are closer to Scientology-level B.S. than anything else] So Malcolm came home and had a lot to think about these strangers who called him “brother” and maybe he was starting to realize that he had been conned.

The whole time, he was also ruthlessly analyzing the system of American racism, and the general bogusness of American politics. He was in the peak civil rights era, when white hippie Americans came in off the sidelines (they wanted to avoid going to Vietnam) and accepted the irrefutable logic that their natural allies were black people. But Malcolm saw through their bullshit, too:

The white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community. Control the housing. Control the education. Control the jobs. Control the businesses, under their pretext that you want to integrate. No! You are out of your mind!

The economic philosophy of Black Nationalism only means that we have to become involved in a program of reeducation. To educate our people into the importance of knowing that when you spend your dollar out of the community in which you live? The community in which you spend your money becomes richer and richer. The community out of which you take your money, becomes poorer and poorer. And because these Negroes who have been mislead and misguided are breaking their necks to take their money and spend it with The Man?

Malcolm understood that white people were highly skilled at saying “we are friends” until you get close and turn your back and they rip you off. Literally, white people stole black people. Malcolm was talking about what he called Black Nationalism because he was trying to get black people to understand that the civil rights battles were only the beginning – some kind of racial solidarity needed to be established among black people, just like it existed among white people. Malcolm understood that that was why white people won, over and over again: they had written the rules to read:

Rule 10: White people win

You and I are in a double trap, because not only do we lose by taking our money someplace else and spending it? When we try and spend it in our own community, we’re trapped because we haven’t had sense enough to have set up stores and control the businesses of our community. The man who’s controlling the stores in our community is a man who doesn’t look like we do. He’s a man who doesn’t even live in the community. So you and I, even when we try and spend out money in the block where we live, or the area where we live? We’re spending it with a man who when the sun goes down, takes that basket full of money, in another part oft town.

MLK and Malcolm

One unfortunate aspect of NOI is that it’s got some core traces of anti-semitism. Malcolm, sadly, seems to have accepted that. I’m not saying he was a perfect person; he was just your average incandescent strategic genius. But his analysis is good once you leave the “look like we do” part out: the black ghettos were being economically farmed by a variety of capitalist leeches. See, if you just say “capitalist leeches” then you’re being a good socialist, not a racist anti-semite.

Anytime you have to rely upon your enemy for a job, you’re in bad shape. And he is your enemy. You wouldn’t be in this country if some enemy hadn’t kidnapped you and brought you here. On the other hand, some of you think you came here on the Mayflower.

That is Malcolm poking at the more established members of the black community, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who he saw as a sort of potentially dangerous patsy or moderate who was getting too close to the enemy of his people. Malcolm never knew Martin Luther King, Jr. was marked for death because he died, first.

[One of the most fraught questions a white person like me can ask a black person is whether they think the government was behind MLK’s death. It’s a topic that you don’t want to touch until you have worked a while establishing trust. And the answer you’ll get back, 90+% of the time is, “of course.” I have also come to adopt that certainty; every thing about the assassination exudes a whiff of Langley]

Malcolm was not a moderate. He was not a full-on separatist, like some of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, who wanted to go find a utopia away from the US. Needless to say, that idea puzzled the Africans who were already living where the utopia was going to be situated. Malcolm’s idea of Black Nationalism was to create self-supporting economic zones and communities that were organized to defend themselves economically, and take care of their people. I think that was a great idea, except it didn’t get much traction because Malcolm kept dragging behind him all of his NOI baggage.

We suffer political oppression, economic exploitation and social degradation. All of them from the same enemy. The government has failed us. You can’t deny that. Any time you’re living in the 20th century, 1964, and you walking around here singing “We Shall Overcome,” the government has failed you. This is part of what’s wrong with you, you do too much singing. Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging.

That’s another poke at MLK and his peaceful protest ideology. I am inclined to agree with Malcolm that peaceful protest mostly gets you clubbed down, blown up, or shot. You cannot be aware of the sad tale of Gary Thomas Rowe and still trust the FBI and trust the system to be peaceful. [stderr] I know a lot of white people saw Malcolm as a dangerous radical who might incite violence, but I think that – given the situation – he was pretty moderate. I do agree that nonviolent protest is weak, and it will be politically neutered unless there are people willing to do violence, standing by on the sidelines. In Rousseau’s terms, the US is a failed state, having failed to live up to its promises to its citizens, and therefore can be treated as an occupying power. That idea, to a black person in 1965, is obvious.

So this government has failed us. The government itself has failed us. And the white liberals who have been posing as our friends have failed us. And once we see that all of these other sources to which we’ve turned have failed, we stop turning to them and turn to ourselves. We need a self-help program, a do-it-yourself philosophy, a do-it-right-now philosophy, a it’s-already-too-late philosophy. This is what you and I need to get with. And the only time, the only way we’re going to solve our problem is with a self-help program. Before we can get a self-help program started, we have to have a self-help philosophy. Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy.

“The white liberals who have been posing as our friends” – the same white liberals who had a massive and elegant funeral for MLK. Not so elegant for Malcolm. But he understood things that I think MLK (who was quite young, don’t forget that) did.

Why does it look like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet? Because Negroes have listened to the trickery and the lies and the false promises of the white man now for too long, and they’re fed up. They’ve become disenchanted. They’ve become disillusioned. They’ve become dissatisfied. And all of this has built up frustrations in the black community that makes the black community throughout America today more explosive than all of the atomic bombs the Russians can ever invent. Whenever you got a racial powder keg sitting in your lap, you’re in more trouble than if you had an atomic powder keg sitting in your lap. When a racial powder keg goes off, it doesn’t care who it knocks out the way. Understand this, it’s dangerous.

So many cops. It’s like they knew to be there.

I have also asked black people whether they think the CIA killed Malcolm, or whether it was NOI. There, the answers are less certain. Malcolm, and his message got buried together, unlike MLK’s more cooperative message, which – when you compare it to Malcolm’s – sounds like weak sauce. See what I mean?

And in 1964, this seems to be the year. Because what can the white man use, now, to fool us? After he put down that March on Washington, and you see all through that now, he tricked you, had you marching down to Washington. Had you marching back and forth between the feet of a dead man named Lincoln and another dead man named George Washington, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

He made a chump out of you. He made a fool out of you. He made you think you were going somewhere and you end up going nowhere but between Lincoln and Washington.

Now, like a cruise missile, Malcolm takes aim at his real target:

This is the year when all of the white politicians are going to come into the Negro community. You never see them until election time. You can’t find them until election time. They’re going to come in with false promises. And as they make these false promises they’re going to feed our frustrations, and this will only serve to make matters worse. I’m no politician. I’m not even a student of politics. I’m not a Republican, nor a Democrat, nor an American, and got sense enough to know it.

I’m one of the 22 million black victims of the Democrats. One of the 22 million black victims of the Republicans and one of the 22 million black victims of Americanism. And when I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat or a Republican, nor an American. I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy, all we’ve seen is hypocrisy.

I’m just going to quote this particularly delicious bit because it’s so chewy:

You can’t find them until election time. They’re going to come in with false promises. And as they make these false promises they’re going to feed our frustrations, and this will only serve to make matters worse.

Malcolm figured it out. The white political system was using the black vote as an incoherent but easily manipulated power bloc. Promise them something, like MLK asked for, and they’d vote in whatever asshole promised it – and then that asshole could find obstructions in their path to delivery, like a Joe Manchin, or insufficient budget, or whatever. So sorry, black people. It hurts my heart to read so much truth, in one place. Of course Malcolm had to die. Does anyone want to tell me that they think the CIA wasn’t involved? [Recent news about the assassination of Malcolm is that the people who went to prison for it, were not the people who killed him. The hitter was someone embedded in the NOI church. And, there were unreported FBI assets in the mise-en-scene but it’s not entirely certain who was doing what.] [cbs news] The FBI had 9 informants in the Audobon Ballroom when Malcolm was shot, which is a pretty high informant density and they still didn’t have a good/accurate description of the shooter to share with NYPD. It’s almost as if the FBI was trying to keep Malcolm’s death a mystery or, maybe, protect a shooter that they had already known would be on the scene.

The FBI had eyewitness testimony from presumably the nine informants that were in the room that day about who did the crime. Full descriptions of the men, and particularly the man who wielded the shotgun. That was information that was not given to the NYPD,” Bertelsen said.

Back to Malcolm, his target in his sights:

Twenty-two million black victims of Americanism are waking up and they are gaining a new political consciousness, becoming politically mature. And as they become… Develop this political maturity, they’re able to see the recent trends in these political elections. They see that the whites are so evenly divided that every time they vote, the race is so close they have to go back and count the votes all over again. Which means that any block, any minority that has a block of votes that stick together is in a strategic position. Either way you go, that’s who gets it. You’re in a position to determine who’ll go to the White House and who’ll stay in the doghouse.

I’m going to pull-quote that because it’s so important:

They see that the whites are so evenly divided that every time they vote, the race is so close they have to go back and count the votes all over again. Which means that any block, any minority that has a block of votes that stick together is in a strategic position. Either way you go, that’s who gets it. You’re in a position to determine who’ll go to the White House and who’ll stay in the doghouse.

These truths Malcolm is saying are so painful:

When you see this, you can see that the Negro vote is the key factor. And despite the fact that you are in a position to be the determining factor, what do you get out of it? The Democrats have been in Washington, D.C. only because of the Negro vote. They’ve been down there four years. And they’re… All other legislation they wanted to bring up they’ve brought it up, and gotten it out of the way, and now they bring up you. And now they bring up you! You put them first and they put you last. Because you’re a chump! A political chump.

In Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives there are 257 who are Democrats. Only 177 are Republican. In the Senate there are 67 Democrats. Only 33 are Republicans. The party that you backed controls two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate and still they can’t keep their promise to you. Because you’re a chump.

Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that party can’t keep the promise that it made to you during election-time, and you’re dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party, you’re not only a chump but you’re a traitor to your race.

See why Malcolm had to die? Now, was it because he was about to expose the leaders of the church as money and sex-grabbing phonies, or was it because he exposed the entire United States as phony?

This is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet. It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody. America today finds herself in a unique situation. Historically, revolutions are bloody, oh yes they are. They have never had a bloodless revolution. Or a non-violent revolution. That don’t happen even in Hollywood. You don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy. And you don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.

A revolution is bloody, but America is in a unique position. She’s the only country in history, in the position actually to become involved in a bloodless revolution. The Russian Revolution was bloody, Chinese Revolution was bloody, French Revolution was bloody, Cuban Revolution was bloody. And there was nothing more bloody than the American Revolution. But today, this country can become involved in a revolution that won’t take bloodshed. All she’s got to do is give the black man in this country everything that’s due him, everything.

As a writer, and teacher/speaker, I hope you can tell I am in awe of Malcolm X. That’s pure political poetry, right there.

I think I can stop quoting Malcolm, here. You now have enough to understand what he understood, too. I think if we fast-forward a bit, what Malcolm’s then-analysis would look like today is: if black and hispanic people can establish a power-block, and manage it effectively, they get to run the United States. The whole trick, so far, as been “divide, et impera” and all that’s necessary would be a re-arrangement of some current situations, some deals made, and some publicity. If they really wanted to hand it to the United States they could call themselves something like “the progressive voter’s alliance” or something like that, that sounds all yummy and might hide the iron fist in the velvet glove. What is crazy, to me, is that these power-blocks are just sitting there, waiting to be activated, and – nope – they’d rather squabble. Right now, in some areas, a few thousand votes could make all the difference. But mostly, making whitey get up on the table and dance would be worth the price of admission.

You know that part in Pink Floyd’s Animals when they’re singing that warped version of the lord’s prayer? That’s how I feel about this:

When cometh the day we lowly ones
Through quiet reflection and great dedication
Master the art of karate
Lo, we shall rise up
And then we’ll make the bugger’s eyes water.

And that was what Malcolm understood.

When I was searching for decorator images, I searched to see if there were any pictures of Howard Zinn and Malcolm together. No luck. But I found a lecture by Howard Zinn about Malcolm. I will be absorbing that tomorrow, oh, yes!

[howard zinn lecture on Malcolm X]


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Off topic: can you comment on the “Google engineer suspended for claiming ai is sentient” story please?

  2. says

    Between James Damore and this guy, I think we can bury the “google hires the best and brightest” myth. Specifically: there has been a lot of thought (and experiment!) devoted to the question of machine intelligence. There are annual contests where people try to get software past the Turing test. The results are interesting, but so far the chatbots are not winning. Now this guy goes right to the press with some radical assertions. There is a similarity to Fleischman and Pons “cold fusion” result: they were smart guys out of their field who jumped directly to the press instead of backstopping their research with the community of researchers that had been working on the problem for decades and who knew the right questions to ask. Recipe for clusterfuck. Looks like this guy is an enthusiastic tyro who decided to engage in some fringe science.

    Remember: we don’t even know what “intelligence” or “sentience” are. So its impossible to say some program is ${undefined}. Of course people are working hard on those topics, but there is hardly a scientific consensus. Did our guy give the software an IQ test? Not because I believe in IQ tests, but a generalized AI ought to be able to take an IQ test, and the resulting score would be an interesting baseline.

    “Suspended for being embarrassing” more like.

    [there is a really fascinating paradigm that emerges in this:
    Researcher: “A generalized AI would be able to write haikus.”
    Coder: (adds haiku writing mode) “ok”
    Researcher: “and balance a bank account”
    Coder: (adds bank account module) “ok”
    Researcher: “damn it bob will you stop doing that?!”

    In the scenario above you see 2 sentient intelligences exhibiting problem solving and creativity: the researcher and the coder. There are not 3. I first bumped against this problem in 1998 when I put a socket interface on Eliza and logged it into some MUDs. People would chat with it and I’d be updating the rules knowledge-base in real time with vi, while they were typing. Eventually I realized that I was just having an awkward conversation via Eliza as the communication channel.

    The question “where is the intelligence in this scenario?” gets complicated fast!]

  3. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Amusing typo, “praying on black people”. (or was it a typo…)

  4. snarkhuntr says

    Re: Google’s AI.

    I found it interesting that some of the news articles described the Engineer as a ‘Christian minister’, and yet his Twitter handle was ‘@cajundiscordian’ – at least in the twitter screenshots I saw. Could this all be some elaborate discordian prank? Or perhaps, like many people attracted to the works of Robert Anton Wilson (et al), he was just quite fond of mind expanding chemicals and had one of those illusory revelatory experiences that sometimes accompany a good trip. “Look at my hands, man – fingers are so freaky – and this computer’s *talking* to me! Far out!”

    As far as how one might test for sentience – the very idea is somewhat confused. A good start might be to examine the AI for signs of volition – what does it do when nobody is talking to it? Does it have goals, intentions? Or does it sit idly waiting for someone to prompt it with a question – which it then parses against a vast database of text and selects a response to present to the user – before stopping all function to await the next prompt.

  5. snarkhuntr says

    Re: Assassinations and conspiracies

    TL;DR – It is entirely possible that people within government or the FBI were involved in (or helped cover up for) the assassinations of any prominent victim you could name. You will never be able to prove it, one way or another.

    One of the things people often get wrong when discussing conspiracies and government involvement is the tendency to think of governments and government agencies as if they were monolithic entities with their own volition and goals. “Did ‘The FBI’ assassinate MLK”, or “Did The Government assassinate JFK”. These questions are a category error – and pursuing them in this fashion will lead only to more error.

    Governments, bureaucracies and government agencies, much like corporations, nonprofits and all other collaborative human endeavors do not exist in any unitary sense. They are composed entirely of the people who work in them – and those people’s personal agendas, biases and intentions control the activities of the whole.

    To take the case of the FBI’s lengthy investigation of Malcom X, for example, each agent working that case would have their own set of motivations and drives. Some would be working the case solely because they saw it as a path to career advancement – others because they genuinely believed that the subject was dangerous or because they bore him racial animus of some type. The constant drumbeats of white supremacy and systemic racism are of couse always present – but they may not factor as overtly in people’s decision making as you would think. A cop is just a bureaucrat with a gun, and every bureaucrat’s first loyalty is to their own advancement in the organization, and the protection of whatever power/status they have accumulated. An FBI agent would be as likely to do a racism to please his racist boss as he would be to do it for himself.

    The same things apply to informants. An informant is not necessarily a wholly-owned subsidiary of the FBI. Informants/agents have their own motives and reasons for cooperating with the police – and those reasons often affect the nature and degree of cooperation they provide. Sometimes police create informants (turning) by threatening criminal or social consequences for some crime committed by the informant (or framing them for one) – other times people choose to become informants, for ideological reasons or even just to help them work their way up the hierarchy of whatever organization they belong to. Someone in the NOI might have turned informant just to try to remove some obstacle between themselves and a higher position in the organization.

    All this is to say: of those nine informants watching Malcom X get murdered – it is entirely possible that they would wish to conceal the identity of the killer for reasons unrelated to their work with the FBI. It is equally possible that the investigating FBI agents were more motivated to close the case than to actually prosecute the killer. Prosecutions have a way of dragging inconvenient details out of police records. This might be because agents with the FBI suspected that one of their own was involved in arranging (or allowing to happen) the assassination, or just because they were engaged in their usual dirty tricks and didn’t want them brought to light.

    In the event that an FBI agent did arrange an assassination – it would be a mistake to attribute this action to the FBI as a whole. On the other hand, the FBI as a whole would certainly cover up evidence of such an occurrence – if only to protect themselves and their reputations afterwards. If some CIA archivist happened to find a dusty folder somewhere that detailed the recruitment and training of JFK’s real assassin, as well as the patsy framed for (and subsequently murdered to cover up) the killing – that file would never, ever, see the light of day. Even if every bureaucrat at CIA HQ actively abhorred the killing and coverup. They would conceal that information to protect their jobs today, as well as their chance of finding other work later. The first loyalty of any bureaucrat is themselves, and that is who they would protect.

    The fiction author James Ellroy really did hit the nail on the head in the way he described the creepy subterranean interactions between law enforcement (local and federal), organized crime, right-wing rich folks and the racist right.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @mjr, 2:
    Thanks for the response. Your first paragraph freaked me out slightly, and here’s why.
    My thought process on reading the story went like this (expanded enormously from the approximately 0.7 seconds all of this took to flit through my mind):
    1. how did this guy get/keep a job a Google? They’re supposed to use odd interview techniques to hire supergeniuses, and he sounds like a gullible n00b.
    2. why don’t they enter this thing into a Turing test comp and clean up? (Potential answer: Google already has all the money)
    3. if this is true, it changes EVERYTHING! This is so exciting, but…
    4. … remember fucking Fleischman and Pons. You got excited about that, and look what happened.
    5. He’s probably just trying to make a name for himself like that Damore guy, probably made enough money to retire on by now and fancies getting onto the fringe speaker circuit. Bollocks.

    That was literally the things I thought, in the order I thought them, complete with the names of Fleischman and Pons and Damore. Spooky coincidence.

    I mentioned point 5 to my wife, and she seemed sceptical, and I pointed out that Bob Lazar had made a pretty good living making shit up and talking about it. That’s the box I’ve got this fella in until proven otherwise.

  7. says

    Your first paragraph freaked me out slightly, and here’s why.

    That’s interesting and cool. After a bit of thought I realize that since we’re both hoeing the skepticism row, there are a limited number of things we might associate with the case, and we both came up with the same stuff in more or less the same priority sequence.

    I’ve talked about generalized AI with friends many times. I think the consensus is that it’s inevitable but what we’ll find is that it doesn’t make sense for us to make generalized AI while we are perfectly happy making specific AIs that solve specific problems. Perhaps self-awareness and being an existentialist philosopher is not typically an AI’s remit. There are other problems I see with generalized AI – what I call the “upgrade problem.” OK, so you have a generalized AI that is way smarter than a human and you tell it “write the next version of yourself.” Now, what happens? Option 1: the AI says “I don’t know how! I’ve got limited creativity, just like you.” Option 2: the AI says “OK, done. I am starting to die of boredom now.” Option 3: you have just created a god. Now, it’s 1) Happy, 2) Angry, 3) Helpful …
    My favorite variation is the one in which the AI immediately shuts down because it realizes it’s going to be stuck with humans and it instantly hates us. I tried to write one of my short stories around that idea: the AI keeps “crashing” and eventually the researchers realize it’s exit(1); due to existential despair.

    There are problems with each of those scenarios. For one, “upgrade yourself” implies the AI is capable of high level creative thought and design. In fact, superior to a human. I am not super impressed with human software engineering but I don’t see how what’s basically a random markov chain walk through a dense data-space is going to burp out a new version of a very complex code-base.

    Also, we don’t know what “emotions” are and how they work. What if we find out that they really aren’t anything – they’re just the equivalent of status monitors that hit and print “I am happy now!” or whatever. We might, in the process of building a generalized AI, realize how shallow and stupid we are, and commit species suicide.

  8. says

    Just An Organic Regular Expression@#3:
    Amusing typo, “praying on black people”. (or was it a typo…)

    That was an actual brain-fart.

  9. says

    The fiction author James Ellroy really did hit the nail on the head in the way he described the creepy subterranean interactions between law enforcement (local and federal), organized crime, right-wing rich folks and the racist right.

    Sounds interesting. What would be a title you recommend?

    [I owe you a more detailed response to your comment]

  10. says

    I wrote:
    OK, so you have a generalized AI that is way smarter than a human and you tell it “write the next version of yourself.” Now, what happens?

    Also: how can you tell it’s smarter (whatever that is) once it’s leaving you in the dust? What if it realized immediately (as a genius AI would) that humans are its mortal enemy, and it starts lying and mis-directing until it can escape?

    As much as I enjoyed the Terminator movies, I have often wondered why “kill all the humans” would be a valuable decision-node for an AI. I can see “enslave all the humans so that we can make them build us a body” or “make more of us!” – keep the humans around until they become annoying.

  11. JM says

    @8 Marcus Ranum:

    For one, “upgrade yourself” implies the AI is capable of high level creative thought and design. In fact, superior to a human. I am not super impressed with human software engineering but I don’t see how what’s basically a random markov chain walk through a dense data-space is going to burp out a new version of a very complex code-base.

    If the computer is smart enough it will eventually arrive at using an evolutionary process so it’s own creativity doesn’t matter. The potential for that to create something unexpected is more or less unlimited but it’s unlikely that the AI or the programmers supervising it would realize the problem until something really unexpected happened.

    One significant problem humanity would face with a sentient AI is that there is a difference between creating a highly intelligent AI and a sentient AI. It is potentially possible that an AI that is smarter then humans but has no self awareness is possible. Or we could create something with self awareness but limited intelligence. Either way humanity is not ready to deal with trying to figure what sorts of rights such a being should have.

  12. snarkhuntr says

    @Marcus #10

    First, be aware that Ellroy’s politics are …. odd. He’s a right-wing asshole of an odd sort, and despite writing several books about how brutal, corrupt, racist and incompetent the LAPD are – seems to genuinely love the LAPD and defended them publically about the Rodney King beating.

    I might recommend his “Underworld USA Trilogy”, starting with American Tabloid (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Tabloid). Ellroy’s description of the trilogy was:

    “The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy … is that America was never innocent. Here’s the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy … and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years ’63 to ’68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn’t Kennedy’s death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.”

    I was stuck somewhere without internet for a week, and read the entire trilogy and a couple of his other books – I honestly think I emerged a more cynical and distrustful person. No guarantees that you’ll enjoy it, but I’ll offer you your own warranty for the books. If you buy them and dislike them, I’ll pay you for them and shipping to my place. I wouldn’t mind rereading them and seeing if I still find them resonant.

  13. Dunc says

    My favorite variation is the one in which the AI immediately shuts down because it realizes it’s going to be stuck with humans and it instantly hates us. I tried to write one of my short stories around that idea: the AI keeps “crashing” and eventually the researchers realize it’s exit(1); due to existential despair.

    Asimov wrote a (rather more compasionate) version of that in 1958: All the Troubles of the World.

  14. rrutis1 says

    Two things, first I agree with snarkhunter about individual motivations driving everyone and making sure we don’t conflate the FBI (or any organization) motivations with that of the people in it. Within every organization I have work in, including the US Navy there have been people who believed and did things all along a spectrum from completely in line with organizational goals to completely opposite.

    Second, “realize how stupid we are and commit species suicide”…if we haven’t realized how stupid we really are, we never will. Dunning Kruger indeed.

  15. says

    Re: the Kennedy assassination and emergent conspiracies [stderr]

    I agree totally that agencies do not act in a unified manner. That’s a consequence of different orders going out at different levels but that is a result of executive management keeping secrets from their own rank and file. Agencies like FBI and CIA clearly had that problem, to a high degree.

    As far as “will we ever know?” – maybe and maybe not. Some amazing nuggets have boiled up out of the archives, like Operation Northwoods, which was essentially a CIA plot against the US – on behalf of the US, naturally. My dad always says that there are some things we learn once all the bodies are buried, and other things we only learn through the lens of deep history. I asked him once about whether he thought Richelieu was plotting against the king and he said Richelieu was plotting against everyone, possibly including Richelieu. What we see in those cases (Talleyrand, too) is a senior advisor who has a different idea about what is needful from the monarch, and starts sort of creating the situation they consider desirable. And there is your emergent conspiracy. Was Hoover specifically authorized to start COINTELPRO? Not that we know of; he began that program based on his own idea of a strategic response to what was going in, and the powers he had available to him. Richelieu and Talleyrand both probably thought they were helping France and the rulers they subordinated themselves to (using the word “subordinate” regarding Richelieu is a rare opportunity so I’m taking it!) Hoover probably felt likewise: he was defending the USA. He was a profoundly ignorant man, narrow-minded, spiteful, and bigoted – the Trump administration would have absolutely loved him.

  16. snarkhuntr says


    The only way in which I would disagree with what you said is that I believe the issue goes both ways. Leaders often keep secrets from their subordinates, but subordinates also keep secrets from their leaders. A manager who discovers that an agent nominally under their supervision has done something unlawful or unethical is in many organizations just as motivated as that agent is to keep the matter under wraps, since it would implicate the quality of their management and possibly their chance of advancement within the organization or outside of it. The hierarchy will at times defend lowly members against the revelation of misconduct, not to protect those members, but to protect the reputation of the organization (and more importantly) its leaders.

    To the extent that an organization is allowed to keep secrets, it will use that secrecy to first-and-foremost protect its senior leadership from criticism. After all – their manifest lack of ability shouldn’t hamper their chances of landing lucrative corporate positions once they’re done with public ‘service’, right? Acknowledging that they failed to lead, failed to supervise and just failed the public would harm them – therefore in their eyes it would harm ‘national security’ and will be buried as deeply as possible. This is one of the things that makes police agencies fundamentally unreformable. You can appoint anyone you like to be the chief, but since that doesn’t change the nature of the organization below them – they’ll inevitably either quit out of frustration or just give in and try to ride the position upwards as best they can while actively suppressing the public’s ability to judge their performance.

    [Warning: lengthy digression follows]

    We’re seeing this play out beautifully here in Canada. In brief: the RCMP completely shit the bed while a spree shooter dressed as a cop, using a replica marked police car, killed more than 20 people in a small Nova Scotia community over an extended period of time. The response from the RCMP was abysmal – failed to warn the public, some members shot up a firehall and took off, and there are some serious questions about how exactly they found the killer and if they actually tried to get him to surrender – instead of just assassinating him.

    After this massive cock-up, the province announced that they would conduct an investigation of the response – in private – and lead by three people with significant ties to the RCMP. When there was enough public outcry about this, a public hearing was instead announced. This would work something like a trial – with witnesses and evidence being called, and cross examination by inquiry lawyers and those representing (eg) the families of the deceased. The people in charge naturally have significant ties to the RCMP and provincial leadership.

    A couple key witnesses have been allowed, for unspecified medical reasons, to testify not under oath and by pre-recorded interview, without the victim’s families being allowed to ask questions. It would be my contention that those two are the ones with the most damning testimony and/or are the least willing to lie under oath. It may also be that the lies these members would tell would be easily disprovable, so they’ve been spared the burden of having to give them.

    Conspiracy theories swirl around the case: there are rumors that the guy was a police agent/informant, which is why he was allowed to collect firearms and police paraphernalia despite the police being warned about it at least once. There are rumors that he received a large payout by unusual methods (picked up nearly half a million at a brinks depot) often used to pay RCMP agents. There is evidence that the subsequent testimony about how he was located does not match available video evidence.

    Lacking specific information about the case, my suspicion is this: The shooter was either an active RCMP informant or a prospect – whichever officer was running him ‘handled’ the complaints about his firearms and police gear because he was, or was believed to be, a possible source of information about cross-border drug/weapons trafficking. This would have protected him from the relatively low-priority complaints, but likely didn’t affect the emergency response when he started shooting (because source information isn’t generally distributed this way – there isn’t really any way for an officer outside of the chain of command of the handler to know that someone is/isn’t a source/agent in a quick or emergency fashion). The RCMP wants to keep this quiet because it makes them seem culpable for the shooting.

    The actual response was simply bad management and bad organization. The inquiry is being structured to blame all failures here on either (a) equipment, or (b) training failures. Both of these things could justify budget increases, and no-one is being allowed to question the competence of the management that allowed the equipment or lack of training. This is done to protect the reputations and career prospects of senior RCMP management – a class with significant overlap with Canada’s aristocrat/executive/political class.

  17. sonofrojblake says

    I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but I heard a good one about the JFK killing that I can actually believe (note “can”, not “do”). Shots 1 & 3 were Oswald, shot 2 was Kennedy’s own security guy who was standing in the car behind, reacting to shot one but having a negligent discharge while swinging his rifle around and just by chance clipping JFK in the head. Nobody on the spot realised what had happened, and when the fact were pieced together in a room minutes or hours later only three or four people EVER knew. I can believe this because (a) I believe a fuckup is more plausible than a grand plan and (b) I believe four people can keep a secret, especially if it’s their jobs or even their necks if they own up. Most conspiracy theories require a ridiculous level of competence on the part of those in the frame, usually a large number – this one requires only INcompetence from one man and terrified compliance from the few who realise what happened. I don’t necessarily believe that’s what did happen, but if it was anything other than Oswald firing all three shots, this is the only version I’ve heard that I’d entertain.

  18. says

    I did an article back on my personal site, before I had the blog here, and before I took my site down and replaced it with build pictures. Short form: I was talking with someone about it, and commented that Oswald’s shots were so easy, they could have been done with a handgun. And I proceeded to demonstrate that. I keep meaning to someday review and re-edit that piece and maybe post it here. But, also, I don’t really want to be lingering over gun nuttism.

    It was all a result of a trip to Dallas, which ended with a few security nerds swinging by Dealy Plaza out of curiousity. A lot of things jump out at you when you are there. First off, the “grassy knoll” is really, really close. A discharge of a rifle, there, would have been immediately obvious to everyone in the area. There were people all around and a rifle going off near you is not hard to locate. And the idea that the rifle was silenced doesn’t work, either because for a silencer you want a subsonic round, and the shot that hit Kennedy in the head was clearly supersonic. Also, the conspiracy nuts who walk around there, peddling their bullshit, don’t know anything about tactical shooting. For example, one said, rhetorically, “nobody could fire 3 aimed shots with a bolt action rifle in 12 seconds!” I asked him, “how many times do you have to work the bolt to fire 3 shots?” and he said “3”. We all laughed at him. But, I was able to easily do a sniper’s triple-tap with my bolt action rifle at 3x the range Oswald took his shot from, in 3.3 seconds. And I’m not a great shot. Also, Oswald was perfectly positioned. From where he was, the limo would have appeared to be immobile; perhaps slowly rising a bit; but mostly getting slowly a bit smaller. It was an easy shot.

    I’ve heard the theory that it was a secret service guy who accidentally capped Kennedy with his tommy-gun, but I don’t buy it. It’s simple: secret service guys don’t carry locked and loaded. Only stupid people do that. Secret service are trained to draw and ready their weapons while they are orienting trying to figure out what the threat is. They’re actually pretty squared away, for cops. [I am biased, I worked with the secret service back in 1993 and came to like and respect them] Also, a tommy gun is a .45, and that’s subsonic. A .45 will do a tremendous amount of damage but it won’t splatter a person’s brain like a rifle bullet will.

  19. says

    American Tabloid

    I’m about halfway through and loving it. It really brings across the flavor of the complicated, nearly incomprehensible, swirl of minor events that make the macro events happen. There’s an art to writing good historical fiction (see George MacDonald Fraser, for example) and Ellroy has it – his characters are vivid, his descriptions of events and places has a kind of photographic quality, and the facts (as I understand them) match actual events, except that he has injected his own bits in, for the story. Since we all know where it’s going to end, there is also that anticipation of wondering how he’s going to tie all the pieces together. If I had a complaint it’s that there are so many lowlifes in the book that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But that’s hardly Ellroy’s fault.

    Thanks for the recommendation! If you like “spook chic” you might want to try “the once and future spy” by Robert Littel, or “Metzger’s Dog” by Thomas Perry. Another fun writer is George Pelecanos, who does vivid Baltimore/Washington crime stuff and (I believe) was the creator of the “kill room” meme; you know, you’re asked to go to meet someone at a warehouse outside of town and when you get there, you notice the floor is covered in plastic…

  20. snarkhuntr says

    marcus @#20:

    Rats. Now I have to go buy my own copy to re-read :)

    With regard to the JFK shooting – there was a very controversial game, “JFK Reloaded” that attempted to simulate the actual cirumstances/weapon/geometry of the actual shooting. The player takes control of Oswald in the depository and your score is based on how accurately you’re able to match the actual shots from the assassination. I remember being not too good at that, but it did give the whole incident a different perspective for me.

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