Commentary Magazine


Topic: Frederick Humphries

Pop Culture, Violence, and Shoddy Social Science

One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

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One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

I haven’t read the paper, for a journal called Information and Culture, but here’s the precis: 

Although there have been persistent concerns about the clinical evidence Wertham used as the basis for Seduction, his sources were made widely available only in 2010. This paper documents specific examples of how Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.

This kind of thing happens all the time when social scientists attempt to show links between consumption of popular culture and human behavior, though it’s often skewed by means such as ridiculously small sample sizes for studies or questions so outrageously tilted they can only be answered as the researcher would wish them to be.

This is no way to make public policy, but here we are, yet again, following inexplicable massacres, looking to video games or shoot-em-ups or some other supposedly causative factor when the simple fact is that when 99.9 percent of those who consume the offending material do not harm others because of it, it cannot be a determinant.

This also allows me to link to one of the greatest essays ever published in COMMENTARY, by the peerless Robert Warshow, who died tragically at the age of 37 in 1955 and whose posthumous collection, The Immediate Experience, remains the best example of how to write well and seriously about popular culture in a way that does not overrate its artistic value nor underrate its emotional power. The essay, “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” is an examination of Warshow’s uneasiness both with Wertham’s approach and his young son’s love of the comic books Wertham was gunning for. It’s a masterpiece. Read it here.

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“Shirtless FBI Agent” Photo Was a Joke

The Seattle Times got its hands on that much-hyped “Shirtless FBI Agent” photo, and it’s not at all what we were led to believe. Apparently the photo was a joke the agent sent out to multiple friends, including Jill Kelley and a Seattle Times reporter, back in 2010. It shows the agent outside of MacDill Air Force Base, posing in between two SWAT target dummies that look a lot like him. The caption reads: “Which One’s Fred?”

The Seattle Times, which also interviewed the shirtless agent (real name: Frederick Humphries), reports:

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The Seattle Times got its hands on that much-hyped “Shirtless FBI Agent” photo, and it’s not at all what we were led to believe. Apparently the photo was a joke the agent sent out to multiple friends, including Jill Kelley and a Seattle Times reporter, back in 2010. It shows the agent outside of MacDill Air Force Base, posing in between two SWAT target dummies that look a lot like him. The caption reads: “Which One’s Fred?”

The Seattle Times, which also interviewed the shirtless agent (real name: Frederick Humphries), reports:

The picture, which was sent to a reporter at The Seattle Times in 2010, was taken following a “hard workout” with the SWAT team at MacDill Air Force Base. He’s posed between a pair of target dummies that have a remarkable likeness to the buff agent. The caption on the photo, which was sent from a personal email account, reads, “Which One’s Fred?” …

Humphries, 47, said he sent the photo to Kelley and others in the fall of 2010, shortly after he had transferred to the Tampa office from Guantánamo Bay, where Humphries had been an FBI liaison to the CIA at the detention facility there.

Indeed, among his friends and associates, Humphries was known to send dumb-joke emails in which the punch line was provided by opening an attached photo.

[Retired FBI agent Charlie] Mandigo confirmed he received a copy of the photo as well and described it as “joking.” The photo was sent from a joint personal email account shared by Humphries’ wife. Humphries said that, at one point, his supervisor posted the picture on an FBI bulletin board as a joke and that his wife, a teacher, has a framed copy.

Unless there’s more to this, the FBI has some explaining to do. Not only is Humphries being investigated for by the Office of Professional Responsibility for what now appears to be a non-issue, but anonymous FBI sources have also spent days dragging his name through the mud by implying the photo was inappropriate and a sign he was “obsessed” with Jill Kelley. Again, maybe there’s something we’re missing, but it’s starting to sound like his infraction was simply being a whistle-blower to Congress. Considering President Obama’s professed support for national security whistle-blower protection, it will be interesting to see what the White House has to say about this.

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