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Todd Willingham’s witch trial: the ignorant investigation

Until his house burned down a few days before Christmas 1991, Todd Willingham lived with his wife and three young daughters in Corsicana, a small town in northeast Texas. He’d gone back to sleep, he claimed, after his wife left the house that morning. About an hour later a shout from the two-year-old woke him up. The house was full of smoke. He yelled for her to get out and made his way to the childrens’ bedroom but couldn’t locate the twins, who were about a year old. All three girls died.

In “Trial By Fire,” the masterful account of Willingham’s case that ran in the New Yorker last September, David Grann describes how injustice was piled on top of catastrophe. Fire inspectors quickly concluded that the blaze was arson and that Willingham’s story of waking up and getting out of the house was a fabrication. He had no compelling motive for either arson or murder but the authorities decided that he was nonetheless “a man without a conscience whose serial crimes had climaxed, almost inexorably, in murder.”

It was a witch trial that convicted Todd Willingham. The fire inspectors set the whole process in motion and gave it a veneer of rationality. Actually, though, they were priestly figures, and when they conjured up the crime and the defendant’s guilt, it was presented and accepted as a matter of faith. If there was ever a presumption of innocence, it went out the window soon after the inspectors walked into the burned-out house.

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Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 2)

Picking up from part 1, which is mostly an analysis of “Air and Simple Gifts,” the composition John Williams wrote for Obama’s inauguration (it was all a single post until I saw how long it’d turned out)… The negative reactions that I’ve come across tend to work the premise that we should have gotten a […]

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Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 1)

I was looking forward as much as any average Bush-loathing voter to the Change that finally became official week before last, but I wasn’t going to let myself get glued to the TV for the inauguration. And then it snowed, and schools were closed, and what could I do? I heard the first part in […]

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Stupid conservative tricks: metaphor madness, schizo Springsteen, specious Sowell

I don’t want to make it a habit, or at least not a major preoccupation, to ridicule stupid people. In fact, I’ve been telling myself that in 2009 I’ll concentrate on smart people. But then I ran across this ridiculous thing written by a guy named Rich Galen. The name didn’t ring any bells, but […]

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KC Johnson vs. the commonplace campus radical–Mr. Obama’s neighborhood

Until a couple of weeks ago we were supposed to be stocking up on information for “Decision 2008” (a lot of the best stuff seemed to be on “Indecision 2008”, though). According to columnist William Kristol, Sarah Palin was doing her part, “helping the American people understand ‘who the real Barack Obama is’” by raising […]

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I’ve looked at change from both sides now

The first time I voted was 1980, when Reagan knocked Carter out of a second term. I don’t even remember how I got my news back then, but I do remember that everyone was very grim around Reed College, where the unofficial motto was “Communism - Atheism - Free Love” and the hard-core set walked […]

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Postmodern conservative triumphalism rulz!

Kevin Mattson says that his new book, Rebels All! A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America, ends with a look at …the rise of what I call “postmodern conservatism”—how an almost poststructuralist embrace of diversity and criticism of universal values informs the wars against “objectivity” and the mainstream media, the dominance of […]

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The joy of not knowing very much

A few posts ago, a reader suggested that I’d “squeezed all the available juice out of DIW” (KC Johnson’s blog Durham-in-Wonderland, that is) and I might find some fresh material on David Thompson’s blog. The first thing I read over there was on an old familiar theme—liberal academics and their uncontrollable urge to indoctrinate. Not […]

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Run-of-the-mill stupidity

A few months ago I posted about the reactions when a Duke philosophy professor, interviewed in the campus paper, invoked a John Stuart Mill quote about stupidity and conservatives in order to explain the relative lack of conservative academics. More and more surfers have been finding that post with searches like this: js mill conservatives […]

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Rumsfeld goes, mess stays

Yesterday was Rummy’s last day. I heard some retired general interviewed on the BBC about his legacy. I find it completely incredible that there’s any sort of “on the one hand…, and on the other…” to that. The man is a complete and utter disaster. Everyone is dragging out his famous quotes, especially the one […]

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