BR Blog

August 26, 2014 #Ferguson: Did Social Media Really Fan the Flames? Claude S. Fischer

Young people gather at a memorial for Michael Brown. Photo: Brett Myers, Young Radio.

Much of the meta-coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy has stressed the apparent importance of social media in focusing attention and fanning the flames. The NPR program On the Media had a story on August 14, 2014 which, in part, spoke in wonderment about how much Ferguson was a social media event and that because of social media people know so much more about the events and are therefore mobilized more than ever before. Maybe.

What is striking in historical perspective is that, however vast the media apparatus may be, the disturbances have not spread. Forty or so years ago, before the computer, internet, and smartphone, the fury in African-American neighborhoods spread from city to city quite rapidly. But not now. How come? (This post is partly a revisit to an earlier one on social media and protest.)

Back in the Day

In the 1960s, there were a few periods in which the nation witnessed a swarm of violent disorders—called riots or rebellions, depending on your politics—in African-American neighborhoods across a number of cities. While the...

August 25, 2014 Nameless Lake: Occupation and the Ear Nick Admussen

Riot police in Ferguson, MO, August 16, 2014. Photo: Jacob Crawford

Ferguson, #Ferguson; Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Euromaidan; Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street. Places are becoming more than themselves, and the ideas certain places represent are changing the lives of people inside and outside their physical limits. How does it happen? How does occupation create a place, rather than simply control it? The St. Louis County Police are using tear gas, armored personnel carriers, and live ammunition to occupy a burned-out Quik Trip whose importance comes almost exclusively from its political and conceptual potency as the site of Michael Brown’s death.

The violence of the struggle over this place raises many questions that center around the power to speak. The reason the community wants to come to the Quik Trip—and the reason the police refuse to allow them to do so—is that it is a site of great meaning, and a platform for powerful speech. How does a place like this, created by an act of violence against Mike Brown, become a weapon of resistance against the suppression of voices? Questions about creation and voice are also questions of poetics: there might be a certain kind of answer to these questions available in the work of poets,...

August 21, 2014 The Flip Side of Individualism Claude S. Fischer

Photograph: Kate Hiscock

The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.

To be sure, a healthy level of egoism—also part of the individualistic world-view—protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., herehere, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many...

August 18, 2014 Six Shots in Michael Brown Simon Waxman

Detail from the independent autopsy of Michael Brown, by former New York City Chief Medical Examiner Michael Baden, assisted by Shawn Parcells.


Nothing was more exposed than the fallen body of Michael Brown, lain for hours on the hot asphalt of Ferguson, Missouri.

Nothing was more obscure than the circumstances of his death on August 9 at the hands of a police officer.

Now that is changing, with the release of the officer’s name and the publication today of an independent autopsy prepared, at the request of Brown’s family, by the former chief medical examiner of New York City.

But with this emerging clarity comes continued ambiguity. The autopsy shows that Officer Darren Wilson put at least six bullets into the unarmed Brown, all in the front of his body. This conflicts with eyewitness testimony from Dorian Johnson, an associate of Brown’s who was at the scene and claimed that the officer shot Brown in the back while he fled. And now, courtesy of the Ferguson police, there is a video out that shows the two men stealing cigars from a convenience store a few minutes before Brown was gunned down, a petty crime of which Wilson was not aware. All of this occurs amidst unrest and curfew enforced by...

August 14, 2014 Reply to "Libertarianism Is Very Strange" Claude S. Fischer

About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review called "Libertarianism is Very Strange." Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.


The column argued, in brief, that libertarianism’s philosophical anthropology, starting with the claim that “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people” (Robert Nozick), is historically and anthropologically dubious. Most human cultures by far understood and understand the...