What’s wrong with this picture? Ronald Reagan and the Taliban


Here’s another version of the same:


Well, a number of things.

  1. This isn’t the Taliban.
  2. Reagan was never reported to have said those words about the Afghan resistance groups.
  3. This meeting (picture above) took place in 1983 (February 2nd, to be precise), not 1985.
  4. Someone misspelled “Ronald”.

Numbers 2-4 are embarrassing, but not super-important.

Number 1 is more of a big deal.

I hope that the folks who prepared this photo didn’t label these Afghans ‘Taliban’ just because they looked Afghan.

There are a few obvious clues that this isn’t the Taliban. First, there is a woman in the foreground, sitting with the men, with her hair visible, her face is not veiled, and she is speaking and the men are listening. So, not the Taliban.

Also, this photo is from 1983. The Taliban was formed in 1994.

Mullah Mohammed Omar started the Taliban along with 50 armed madrassa students from Kandahar. None of them were at the meeting pictured above. Several smaller right-wing militias joined with the Taliban. None of the eventual leaders of those other pro-Taliban militias were at this meeting.*

Strangely sexist: The tough part here is that the folks passing these photos around tend to label themselves as ‘Progressives’ (I am a liberal Democrat, but I am wary of calling myself ‘progressive’). Progressives are supposed to be extra concerned about women’s rights. Yet, Progressives are increasingly vulnerable to the charge that they are willing to ignore right-wing repression of women’s rights if that repression comes from groups that are critical of the West in general and American foreign policy in particular.

This is especially true for Progressives and Islamists. Islamists are pathologically oppressive of women. Progressives tend to downplay these elements of Islamism, and instead focus on the anti-Western views of Islamists which Progressives find attractive. It is as if, when it comes to Islamist oppression of women, Progressives just don’t see it.

So, it’s bad for Progressives to miss the obvious fact that this can’t be the Taliban because there is a woman participating in the discussion. That’s an incriminating mistake.

*There is no denying that the CIA helped start and fund training camps where many Taliban, including Mullah Omar, learned how to fight. The U.S. had a better record with the Afghan leaders who were directly backed. U.S. supported guys like Massoud and Abdul Haq emerged as the primary anti-Taliban leaders (and both were assassinated for it). Hekmatyar, who received a lot of American arms via Pakistani intelligence services during the 1980s, was a destructive force in Afghanistan but was anti-Taliban and had to flee when the Taliban took over.
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Language barriers and police homicides

It is true. African Americans are far more likely to be killed by the police than whites, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans.

Until now, the magnitude of that problem has been hard to gauge. In previous years, statistics on homicides (justified or not) by police have been incomplete or speculative.

This year, thanks to The Counted (a project of the Guardian newspaper) we know (or, soon will know) how many were killed by police in the United States. While the year isn’t over, and more than a hundred homicides have yet to be classified by race, we already know more than we did before.

As of today (November 3), 960 people have been killed by police in the US. Of those:

  • White: 442
  • Black: 232
  • Hispanic: 144
  • Asian: 17
  • Native American: 12

The rate, police murders per million population, is:

  • Black: 5.55
  • Hispanic: 2.66
  • White: 2.23
  • Asian: 1.16 (my calculations)
  • Native American: 4.13 (my calculations)

By these numbers, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police.

If we go beyond raw population numbers, and look at arrest numbers, the story changes. By looking at arrest numbers we might be able to gauge the risk faced by a member of a racial or ethnic group per encounter with the police. We have comprehensive FBI arrest data from 2013. We have good data for police homicides for 2015. Not perfect, but a start.

In 2013, according to the FBI, there were 5.80 million arrests of white suspects. According to the Guardian, we are on pace for 596 white people killed by police in 2015. That leads to a rate of 103 whites killed by police for every 1 million white people arrested.

Here is how it looks for other racial or ethnic groups. By race or ethnicity, the (likely) number of police homicides (by race/ethnicity) per 1 million arrests (again, by race/ethnicity):

  • Whites: 103
  • African Americans: 103
  • Hispanics: 122
  • Asians: 186
  • Native Americans: 107

For all races combined, 108 people are killed by cops per 1 million arrests.

Compared to the overall rate, Whites, African Americans, and Native Americans are less likely than average to be killed by the police in the process of being arrested.

By this same comparison, Hispanics are more likely than average to be killed by police in the process of being arrested.

And for Asians, the rate of homicides by police for every 1 million arrests is 70% above average, and more than 80% above the rate for whites or African Americans.

What is going on here?

I think it is safe to say the following:

  • Hispanics and Asians are more likely than the other groups to have limited English skills.
  • While some (but only some) cops speak Spanish, very few police speak an array of Asian languages.

Total speculation, but here it goes: In high-tension situations involving police, where clear communications with officers is most important, some Hispanics and Asians with limited English skills may find themselves at a disadvantage. This may, on occasion, have deadly consequences.

This is not a statement about how the world ‘ought’ to be.  It is a guess about how to explain some unexpected data. 

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How did margarine surpass butter?

1. Margarine surpassed butter as the preferred American table spread in the late 1950s.

2. There are several popular theories explaining this shift. None of them are supported by the data. Specifically, they are either too early (‘war rationing’) or too late (‘taxes and market distortion,’ ‘counter-culture,’ and ‘health claims’).

3. Americans chose margarine because it was cheap.

It is often said that Americans switched to margarine during World War II, as butter was scarce and rationed (starting in 1943).

Butter WW2

AUGUST 13, 2014. The Butter Wars: When Margarine Was Pink. National Geographic




Others suggest that unfair taxes on margarine distorted the market and artificially depressed demand for the product. When those taxes were lifted in 1950, margarine sales took off.

Taubes. Science. 2001

Taubes. Science. 2001

Another theory is that Americans abandoned butter in the 1960s. A growing counter-culture led a large segment of the public away from things ‘traditional American’, including the traditional American diet of red meat and heavy cream.

Others would point out that this change was supported by a growing chorus of (mistaken) advice, from health experts, telling Americans to avoid dietary cholesterol, or maybe fat, or maybe animal fat, or maybe saturated fat.

This formulation no doubt explains a number of shifts in the American diet. But it doesn’t work for butter.

In fact, none of these theories work. Look for yourself:

101 years of butter and margarine




Americans margarine consumption spiked after WWII. Margarine sales spiked before the repeal of margarine taxes. And margarine surpassed butter long before the rise of the counter-culture or broad public concerns about animal fats and heart disease.

Why did margarine sore in the late 1940s and 1950s? Cost, mostly. Look at postwar retail food prices in the United States:Retail Prices of foods

Dairy prices were even worse, nearly doubling between 1946 and 1948. Meanwhile, margarine was cheap and plentiful.

margarine text

Retail Prices of Food, 1948. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The lifting of margarine-specific taxes had a limited effect. Before the repeal of the taxes, margarine was still half the cost of butter. With repeal, in 1950, margarine prices relative to butter stayed low, but the repeal of the taxes didn’t significantly change the market.

Quality and appearance improved as well. The early 1950s saw the roll-back of American anti-margarine laws that prevented manufacturers from dying the product yellow. Manufactures also improved their recipes, making the product creamier.

24010005 6

Lloyd. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics. Australia. 1955

In the UK and Australia, laws that capped margarine production also fell away. By the mid-1950s, in all three nations, the product was cheap, attractive, and heavily advertised. And more popular than butter.

Time Magazine. Cover story on fat and heart health. January 1961

Time Magazine. Cover story on dietary fat and heart health. January 1961

Remember, we also don’t see broadly accepted health claims about margarine over butter in any of the contemporary materials from WWII, the late 1940s, or the mid-1950s. These (ultimately illusory) health concerns wouldn’t become conventional wisdom until the 1960s, several years after margarine was already America’s preferred table spread.

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Who says dogs are “pack animals?”

Well, there’s always this guy. And many laypeople believe that dogs are pack animals. The logic goes like this:

  1. wolves are pack animals;
  2. dogs descended from wolves; thus
  3. dogs are pack animals (with maybe a bit of their wolf-ish tendencies bred out of them by generations of domestication).

But, uh…

Wolves aren’t really pack animals. The concept of the wolf-pack suggests that wolves come together to patrol a certain territory, compete for their place in a rigid hierarchy, and are ruled over by an “alpha wolf.” Recent research repeatedly shows that wolves in the wild do not live in these sorts of packs at all, but instead live in extended family units (where the “alphas” are just the parents). One leader in the study of wolves now calls the very notion of an alpha wolf “outmoded” and “outdated”.*

Dogs did not descend from wolves. It is a popular notion that dogs descended from wolves, but it is not supported by genetic research. Dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, but dogs and wolves are two different species that split from that common ancestor a long time ago like 30,000 years ago. Saying that dogs descended from wolves is about as accurate as saying chimpanzees descended from humans.

Dogs are not pack animals. Dogs – observed living wild in cities and the country-sidedon’t assemble into packs. They tend to form small groups (2-3 dogs) that come together easily and last for very short periods of time, with no clear leader or hierarchy.

In ideal situations, dogs are family animals. They are very good at picking up delicate clues about behavior, modifying their actions based on what is happening in the family around them, learning norms (like house-training), figuring out boundaries (I can lick the forks in the dishwasher when there are people in the kitchen, but if I want to grab raw hamburger off the counter I need to do that when people are not around), and tolerating the occasional clumsy violation of personal space by humans – especially children.

These domestic situations all require subtle reads and an elastic sense of social order. A rigid pack hierarchy, as imagined in early wolf studies, wouldn’t help you here. What we imagine as normal pack behavior – snarling and snapping at a smaller pack member (like, say, a toddler) who starts eating your dog-food – might well get a domestic dog euthanized.

The point is that the “dogs as pack animals” mumpsimus is worse than inaccurate. It threatens to blind us to the astuteness and flexibility that makes domestic dogs so wonderful.

* Wolf packs do exist in zoos, like prison gangs exist in penitentiaries. But  to say that wolves are “pack animals” is like saying that all humans outside of prisons sort themselves into violent gangs and compete over control of drug trafficking. Not always untrue, but it wouldn’t help you understand how to navigate your way through normal life in, say, Bethesda, Maryland.
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There’s one contemporary account of Lou Gehrig’s full 1939 farewell speech. And we can’t trust it. V

How closely did Jonathan Eig follow Rosaleen Doherty’s 1939 transcript of Lou Gehrig’s speech (aside from that tell-tale fourth line that could be directly corrected by reference to newsreel footage)?

Judge for yourself. Here is Eig’s version of the speech. And here is Rosaleen Doherty’s version, stripped of editorial comments about Lou Gehrig wiping his brow and the roar of the crowd.

Now, obviously, this isn’t plagiarism. Doherty was capturing the words of a public speech. Eig wanted to present his readers with that speech. And there the speech was, in its entirety (except for that fourth line, which Eig revised to fit with the newsreel footage).

If we take with a grain of salt any claims about the current record of Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech being “pieced” together in “snippets” from “various” sources, then we more clearly see that Rosaleen Doherty is an unsung historical hero.

Other contemporary observers didn’t even come close to capturing the fullness of the words we now associate with Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech.

Rosaleen Doherty’s version remains the only complete, contemporary source for Lou Gehrig’s speech that day. And without Doherty’s account, whatever it’s provenance or accuracy, the words we recognize as constituting the greatest speech in sports history might well have been confined forever to the dustbin of history.*

She deserves a little more acknowledgement.


Now let’s get back to the problem. Doherty’s version is the only complete version that emerged from that day. It is almost too complete, too perfect, to reflect the mad scribblings of a reporter, soaking in this incredibly powerful moment, working from a stadium chair, listening – without audio recording equipment – over an echoing public address system that made the word “break” sound like “brag” (listen to the audio yourself).

Doherty’s account is entirely – in its completeness and sensitivity to phrasing – unlike any of the other contemporary accounts. This is THE contemporary source for Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech – for Jonathan Eig certainly (though he may have been trying to obscure this fact), and maybe even for Eleanor Gehrig and Joseph Durso in 1976.

And Doherty’s account is problematic. Let’s not forget that it contains an obviously erroneous line, the tell-tale fourth line that reflects what the Gehrigs may have planned to say that day, but that Lou Gehrig did not in fact say. Put another way: if Doherty didn’t know exactly what Gehrig said that day, then Eig doesn’t know either.

If Eleanor Gehrig allowed Rosaleen Doherty to copy the script that Eleanor and Lou Gehrig prepared the night before, then Doherty’s version would certainly reflect what the Gehrigs meant to say that day.

What we know: Doherty (and thus Eig) don’t have a fully accurate record of what Lou Gehrig actually said that day.

What we don’t know: How the words came out; what phrases Lou Gehrig garbled, or forgot entirely; which extemporaneous phrases might have come out of his mouth as he looked out over that field and packed stadium; which words were actually said during the greatest speech in sports history.

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There’s one contemporary account of Lou Gehrig’s full 1939 farewell speech. And we can’t trust it. IV

Sadly, Eleanor Gehrig is long since passed-away (as is her co-writer Joseph Durso). We will never know how, in 1976, they recreated Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech of July 4, 1939. Perhaps Eleanor Gehrig simply saved a copy of the script she and her husband wrote before he spoke. E. Gehrig and Durso might have used that as the basis of the speech that appears in their book.

One note about the speech that appears in E. Gehrig’s book – she gets the fourth line wrong. She claims Gehrig said:

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?

Surviving newsreel footage of the day records Lou Gehrig saying something more like:

When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in the ballpark today?

It is a (seemingly) minor error.

We can ask more questions of the version of the speech reproduced by modern Gehrig biographer Jonathan Eig. Of special interest is his claim about “piecing together the snippets I found in newspaper reports.”

Consider this: if you look at newspaper reports of the day, you see that there was little agreement among contemporaries about what Gehrig said, and no agreement about how he said it.

How did Eig (writing in 2005) wind up using nearly identical phrases as Eleanor Gehrig (writing in 1976)?

The simple answer, I believe, is that Eig found a remarkable article published on July 5, 1939 by a Daily News reporter name Rosaleen Doherty. Doherty, normally a society-pages reporter, sat with (and interviewed) Eleanor Gehrig in the private stadium suite where they watched the game that day. And Doherty somehow emerged from that afternoon with what we now believe is a complete transcript of the speech. Doherty’s version has all those odd little phrases that appeared both in Eleanor Gehrig’s 1976 and Eig’s 2005 versions of the speech.

How did Doherty capture the whole speech, including all those unusual phrases?

Who knows? She passed away in 1950.

Might Eleanor Gehrig have given to Doherty the script of the speech she wrote with her husband, allowing Doherty to copy it?

If so, that raises another question. If Doherty worked from a paper script handed her by Lou Gehrig’s wife, does that mean Doherty didn’t actually capture what Gehrig said in front of the crowd at Yankee Stadium?

Well, we know of the four recorded lines of text in Lou Gehrig’s speech that the tell-tale fourth line of the speech is very different from the version Doherty produced. And that this same fourth line is also incorrect in Eleanor Gehrig’s official 1976 version (Eig used the newsreel footage to ensure his version got the fourth line right).

What other discrepancies exist between Doherty’s version and the speech Gehrig delivered on the field? We may never know.

But let’s get back to Eig.

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There’s one contemporary account of Lou Gehrig’s full 1939 farewell speech. And we can’t trust it. III

So what do we make of this mystery? We have two, nearly identical versions of a speech, one version published in 1976, the other in 2005. The first version claims a sort of personal authority – Eleanor Gehrig said she helped Lou Gehrig write his speech, and perhaps she held on to the script they developed together.* For the second version, Jonathan Eig claims that he “pieced together as much of the speech as I could from newspaper accounts of the day.”

* Though we know Lou Gehrig did not bring notes with him when he addressed the crowd, and if he followed the script that would have been quite a feat for a man who was both shy about public speaking and was visibly overwhelmed with emotion almost to the point of being literally speechless.

I take Eig at his word about a contemporary source for such idiosyncratic lines as “Sure, I’m lucky” and a host of other unusual lines that are identical in both Eleanor Gehrig’s and Eig’s versions, phrases like:

  • builder of baseball’s greatest empire    
  • little fellow 
  • that smart student of psychology    
  • you can have an education and build your body    
  • been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed
  • When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles against her own daughter— that’s something.    

It really is something. Such idiosyncratic phrasing. Yet identical in both versions.

What happened here?

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