Archive for the ‘history’ Category

What does “systemic racism” mean?

June 15, 2021

Black Republican Senator Tim Scott said America is not a racist country. I used to agree, seeing our few remaining racists as backward people who didn’t count for much. If anything, anti-racist affirmative action now held sway. And then we elected a nonwhite president.

However, that actually intensified racial antagonism, by newly threatening the caste dominance some whites saw as their birthright. And the next president played those racial anxieties like a fiddle. Now Republicans harp on academic “critical race theory” as a bugbear somehow threatening whites; and even “replacement theory,” a supposed conspiracy to swap them out for nonwhites.

Yet most Americans are not actually racist. It’s still only a small minority, and they’re still not our society’s movers and shakers. They’re losers. That itself partly accounts for their attitudes.

So why all the talk of “systemic racism?” Can you have systemic racism without (many) racists?

The answer is yes. “Systemic racism” does not mean whites are systematically racist. Instead it refers to societal structures that incorporate the lasting effects of ancient discrimination.

Our local Times-Union recently reported on past “redlining” in Albany. A 1938 Map with literal red lines around areas warned banks that mortgage loans there would be risky. Not necessarily targeting Black neighborhoods as such — rather, economically problematic ones. In fact, that map’s redlined zones were populated mostly by poor white immigrants. Only later did Blacks move in; mainly because of affordability, while being unwelcome in most white neighborhoods. And redlining did deny mortgages to Blacks. Such maps have been gone for decades, but their effects on where people live persist.

Then take education. For a long time “separate but equal” really meant separate and very unequal, by design. The Supreme Court outlawed that in 1954, yet separate and unequal is still widely the reality. The separateness is partly due to factors explained above. That’s hard to undo. The inequality manifests in rotten schools compared to white neighborhoods.

That should be more fixable. Yet the system is very resistant to such reform. So instead of ameliorating the disadvantage with which many minority kids start life, the education system actually worsens it, perpetuating the impact of past bias.

All this exemplifies what is meant by “systemic racism.” It doesn’t require anyone today actually being racist. It’s in the system.

Then there’s policing and criminal justice. Some say Blacks on average just get in trouble more. That has to be acknowledged. But (contrary to racist stereotypes) trouble is not in their biological DNA. Instead it comes with their social and cultural territory — not dictated by DNA either. It’s left behind when Blacks live in better neighborhoods. But for those who don’t, their environment is another lasting reverberation of a past landscape full of disadvantage.

And they get treated even worse by police and the criminal justice system than the foregoing might predict. Can’t say there’s no outright racism at play, but it’s more a matter of unconscious assumptions about people. Without being consciously racist, many have negative gut reactions toward Black faces, culturally implanted in ways often too subtle even to pinpoint. But when tested for it in the lab, even many Blacks themselves show it.

It’s very hard to overcome. I don’t consider myself some enlightened higher being, but nowadays, in most contexts, encountering Blackness gives me a positive rather than a negative vibe. Partly this is a reaction against their nemeses on the racist right. And I admire most Blacks for being good people despite all they’ve endured. Yet occasionally an opposite unconscious response is detectable.

I keep coming back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of one’s conscious mind as a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. We think the rider is steering, but it’s really the elephant in charge. Our challenge is to get control of that beast.

Republicans’ deranged war on Fauci

June 8, 2021

Just when you thought Republicans could not get more insane . . . .

Now they’re rabidly focused on demonizing, of all people, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of America’s disease control agency since 1984. They hate Fauci for being the pandemic’s antithesis to Trump.

How crazy is it to intentionally spotlight the difference between the two? Trump fumbled for two crucial months while the virus spread; admitted downplaying the danger; his briefings were orgies of self-praise, misinformation, and divisive insults; pushing conspiracy theories, quack cures, and injecting bleach; encouraging resistance against his own shut-down guidelines, masking, and social distancing. All this utter idiocy surely caused most of our 600,000 deaths. While Trump disparaged and tried to sideline scientists like Fauci — a contrasting voice of reason and responsibility.

So what’s their beef against Fauci now? A trove of emails from early in the pandemic they say show he misled the public about its origins, to protect the Chinese government. Of course that’s a ridiculous lie. Of course. Republicans no longer even remember how not to lie.

Scientists, in the pandemic’s early days, scrambled to get information, so naturally their messages evolved as knowledge increased. To concoct from that a case that Fauci lied is itself despicably dishonest.

Central here is the “lab leak” theory for Covid’s origin. Originally dismissed because the virus fit a familiar well-understood pattern of jumping from animals to humans. The “lab leak” theory is lately getting a second look, even while the scientific consensus still deems it highly improbable.

Republicans now accuse Fauci of deliberately downplaying it. Why would he? A Chinese shill? But anyhow the emails actually show the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. In fact, as scientists go, Fauci was unusually open-minded toward the “lab leak” idea, refusing to join others in dismissing it.

Yet undaunted by truth and reality, Republican “stars” like Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Steve Scalise and Elise Stefanik are thundering for a full-blown investigation of Fauci and his emails. (While opposing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 violence against the very institution they (supposedly) serve in.)

They seem desperate to find some way to undermine the Biden administration’s credibility and support. The broad American public is comparing Biden’s honesty, decency, competence and leadership against his predecessor’s total shit-storm. Guess which they prefer? No matter how often Republicans screech the word “Socialist!” Yet instead of trying to run away from their shit-storm, they somehow imagine winning the next election by mythologizing it.

Note: this piece practically wrote itself. So clear is the reality. Long accustomed to genuine political debates about genuine issues, I can’t help despairing that so many Americans fail to see what are so obviously lies and nonsense from what are so obviously bad people. Fauci versus Trump on Covid? Are you fucking kidding me?

The Republican party is insane. Supporting (almost) any Republican is insane. Returning them to power would be insane.

The power imbalance between good and evil

May 21, 2021

I literally wrote the book on optimism. Seeing people, and the world, improving over time. But that seems to have gone into reverse.

The power of good is considerable. Most people are better served when good prevails over evil, so work to achieve it. But the power of evil is stronger.

How so? Good is inherently self-limiting, ultimately bound by the golden rule, an iron law for people who do truly strive for goodness. The wicked are not so bound. The good have scruples and restrain themselves; the wicked do not, that’s their wickedness.

Thus the power imbalance between good and evil, recalling Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis. Humans, in mass, have indeed grown better, but it’s an ironic consequence that this means more moral restraint, and hence more vulnerability to the depredations of those without restraint.

We see this playing out all over. Some capable of anything to gain their aims, while resistance is handicapped by inhibitions on fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, Putin, Xi, Maduro, Lukashenko, Orban, Ortega, Assad. India’s Modi headed that way. El Salvador’s Bukele newly in the club. Trump tried. Myanmar’s generals willing to slaughter as many as necessary to keep power.

Willingness to kill is the top rung of the ladder that starts with flouting democratic norms, rule of law, and people’s rights. Killing is the ultimate denial of rights.

If any country ever embodied the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights, it was America. Don’t start in about our crimes. We’re not perfect — nothing human ever is — but we strove toward living up to those ideals, and progressed.

Until 2016. Then the power imbalance between good and evil hit. A president without restraints, compunctions, or scruples. Good did manage to prevail, but only just barely, and without finality.

America’s crisis has deep antecedents and is continuing. It was brutally exposed when Republicans blocked the Garland Supreme Court nomination, because they could. A classic instance of lack of restraint, defying democratic norms to get their way.

Behind it all lay the Obama-inspired crisis of white identity. Fears of losing demographic dominance were suddenly brought to a boil by a non-white president. Rather than Obama signaling a post-racial America, now many whites felt besieged, and that they had to make a stand. This is the elephant in the room of American political culture.

Successfully blowing through rule of law, democratic norms, and others’ rights requires the support of a critical mass of people willing to junk those principles for the sake of something that feels (to them) bigger. Such ideals once loomed large in the American imagination. But now, for many, they’re trumped by white tribalism. It’s a more primordial impulse. Democracy and rule of law are not instinctual ideas. If it’s a choice between them and white dominance, many pick the latter. They’re a minority, but a big enough one that they don’t need many additional dupes to win. Especially if unhampered by scruples.

Few of them consciously confront the reality. But white revanchism über alles is what today’s Republican party really represents. Making it an existential threat to American democracy. As seen in cultish devotion to a malign monster; propagating his big “stolen election” lie; excusing the January 6 insurrection; voting in Congress to overturn the election; and working everywhere to make voting harder. Far from being chastened by defeat, they’ve since actually gotten worse, more willing to shred democratic principles. All in service to their larger (albeit rancid and usually unspoken) tribalist cause. They’ve passed the ladder’s first rung. And their very lack of restraint confers a power advantage.

Trump finally lost because he was an incompetent fool. We may not be so lucky next time.

My optimism reality check

May 10, 2021

When I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2008, that case was powerful. My innate optimism intensified by observed reality. The big global story seemed to be progress toward greater human flourishing. Writers like Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, explained it. I was proud of my own contribution, making the case across the whole waterfront of human concerns.

I’ve followed up with my blog. Naturally, bad things have commanded attention, but I’ve tried to highlight good news, countering pessimists and cynics. However, looking back, I must acknowledge that my positive outlook too often proved misplaced. In a spirit of humility, I present a catalog of instances:

Egypt: a very democratic coup” (July 4, 2013). Ouch. Mubarak’s overthrow led to an election producing a Muslim Brotherhood government. It was an undemocratic disaster. I welcomed the coup that ousted it, seeing it as hopefully presaging a “do-over” putting Egypt on a sounder democratic path. I should have been more cynical about coup leader Al-Sisi, who became a more repressive autocrat than Mubarak. 

Democracy wins in Thailand” (July 14, 2011). Well, it did. For a while. Then here too the army ousted the elected government, and has settled in to stay. 

Modi for India” (December 27, 2013). Here I did have misgivings, over Modi’s rotten history on Hindu-Muslim relations. But he seemed to instead stress economic liberalization, which India desperately needed. He has initiated some good reforms. But that’s overshadowed by running a Hindu nationalist regime, enflaming intercommunal antagonisms — and following what has become the standard authoritarian playbook, giving India’s democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Plus now he’s much to blame for India’s Covid disaster.

Great news: Sri Lanka blows off authoritarianism” (January 15, 2015). I was delighted by the unexpected election ouster of another autocratic regime, under the Rajapaksa clan. Unfortunately the new government proved feckless. And guess what? The latest vote produced a Rajapaksa landslide. 

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil” (May 10, 2018). Similar story. The longtime ruling party was so corrupt and awful that extensive election rigging didn’t stave off defeat. But the successor government seems a mess. The tale is still unfolding, but the old lot’s reprise would be no surprise. 

Good news from Kenya” (September 2, 2017). Its highest court overturned President Kenyatta’s dodgy election victory. But guess what? He prevailed anyway in a second go.* In the wings: William Ruto, an even stinkier candidate.

Myanmar — On April 5, 2012, I wrote, with tentative hopes, about President Thein Sein’s democratization moves, after decades of military rule. On October 15, 2012, came my gushing paean to Aung San Suu Kyi. Who subsequently destroyed her heroic aura by making herself complicit in the Rohingya pogrom. And now the army has come back — with a blood-soaked vengeance. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story” (October 12, 2019). This new prime minister seemed a dream of an African leader, doing so much right. Even got a Nobel Prize. But hardly was the ink dry (so to speak) on my tribute when things went to to hell, the regime prosecuting an internecine war with appalling human rights abuses. 

All this begins to look like a pattern. And then:

America. Just after the 2008 election, I wrote in my book that “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and good will. . . . So we are becoming far more united than divided.” Ouch again. I did not foresee how Obama’s presidency would produce not just a racist backlash, but an intensification of racial disaffection by whites seeing their loss of caste more real. Which led to Trump — an optimist’s ultimate nightmare — America’s collapse as the avatar of Enlightenment values.

Thankfully we’ve reversed that — by a hair’s breadth — and how fully remains to be seen. A Trump return (could America go that insane?) would fit the pattern of cautionary tales I’ve related above.

Before he took office, I wrote (November 16, 2016) that power does not make bad men better. That, at least, proved prescient. And that is also a through-line in my recaps here. Lord Acton’s famous quote was “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can actually leave off the last five words. Power corrupts. A proposition whose importance grows the more I observe the world. Not only does power not make bad men better; it can turn good men bad. 

But I keep saying that progress does not go in a straight line. For a time, liberal democratic values were on a roll; now, they’re in a bad patch. And China looms as a huge and growing anti-democratic center of gravity. Nevertheless, where the world will be in half a century is hard to foresee. It’s been documented that people are, on average, becoming smarter. I have to hope tolerance for repressive rule will wane. And while the political realm does have much to do with human flourishing, it is far from the whole story. All across the planet, lives continue to improve in countless other very important ways.

Finally — while I’m eating humble pie — on March 9, 2020 I posted:

Coronavirus/Covid 19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

*In 2020, Malawi’s courts similarly ruled the president’s re-election illegitimate; and there, the decision seems to be sticking. So far.

Covid and the social contract

May 6, 2021

Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government’s role in people’s economic lives.

For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany’s pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader “social safety net.”

This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there’s been the rise of “social justice” rhetoric targeting inequality.

Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing; some people being rich is not a problem as long as everyone has enough to live decently. And secondly, “social justice” is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of “justice” but simple humaneness. Helping people for no other reason than they’re fellow human beings. 

Meantime, inequality is blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. While capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich, it’s wrong to see their wealth as “taken” from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That’s not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others. Wealth is not evil.

And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism’s critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.

However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology’s efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. And despite predictions that Covid would accelerate automation, there’s actually zero evidence so far. But can this go on forever?

Good question, with artificial intelligence ultimately likely to replace human work like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it’s still doubtful there’ll be enough productive work for everyone. Perhaps if we can at last produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.

All of which brings us back to the governmental response to Covid’s economic fallout. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people’s hands. Arguably this has gone too far, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in our view of the social safety net — in the direction of a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem okay with it, shrugging off such concerns. 

A recent David Brooks column reflects this: “Ten years ago, I would have been aghast at this leftward shift. But like everybody else, I’ve seen inequality widen, the social fabric decay, the racial wealth gap increase. Americans are rightly convinced that the country is broken and fear it is in decline. Like a lot of people, I’ve moved left on what I think of the role of government and income redistribution issues. We surely need to invest a lot more in infrastructure and children.”*

So far at least, actual wealth redistribution is limited. President Biden is proposing tax rises only for the richest, and for corporations. But most of the new spending is being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we’re doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don’t know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says the lack of fiscal discipline in all this spending is totally unprecedented. In the longer term, we have to face up to paying the bills. (Which Brooks too worries about.)

We could instead inflate away the debt, shrinking the value of the dollar, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. But again, it shouldn’t be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a re-envisioning of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.

That could be Covid’s most lasting legacy.

*Brooks mirrored my own thinking; similarly pushed leftward; partly by how utterly vile American “conservativism” has managed to make itself. 

Police brutality shocker in Albany, NY

April 24, 2021

Faced with protesters against police brutality, how did the Albany police respond? With brutality.

I supported Mayor Kathy Sheehan when she first ran, against an old-style pol. I wrote about how great it was to attend her inauguration. Even sent her my book about Albany politics. 

Then the city sent a sizable bill to the “Poor People’s campaign,” for policing during a protest. I was no left-wing fan; but wrote Mayor Sheehan objecting to this atrocity against free speech. The kind of thing a Putin regime would do. Pointing out that the city hires police to do, well, police work. 

A delayed reply said a document was enclosed. It wasn’t. My follow-up letter got no reply. When, meeting her, I asked Sheehan about it, she promised to get back to me. Never did. Anyhow, the whole episode showed her mindset about freedom of expression.

Alice Green

I’ve also pointed out that Albany’s police review board is a toothless travesty. Lately the city has conducted a rather opaque “reform process.” Dr. Alice Green, Albany’s well-known head of the Center for Law and Justice and longtime advocate on such issues was — incredibly — not included. Not surprisingly, the process seems to have produced . . . nothing much. 

On April 14, a BLM demonstration at an Albany police station might have gotten a bit rowdy. Police broke it up with what seemed to me needless brutality. Afterward, a group of protesters encamped by the station, seeking a dialog with the Mayor about their demands. She did not respond. Barriers were erected in front of the building, and state troopers brought in to guard it.

Chief Hawkins

There’d been no violence. The protesters were doing nothing except keeping vigil. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Police Chief Eric Hawkins, with Mayor Sheehan’s backing, launched an assault to clear the area. Demonstrators were given just 15 minutes warning. The police wore full military gear. At least some had their badges covered by tape. Hiding their identities. You know something real bad is going down when officers do that. 

It was brutal. Some protesters were injured, others carried off to jail. Much property, including chairs and heaters (it was wintry cold), was bulldozed and destroyed.

And why was this violence necessary? Chief Hawkins said, “Protesters may continue to peacefully demonstrate, but they must do so in a space that is safe and lawful.” Excuse me: bullshit. If there was something problematic about what the protesters were doing — and I can certainly believe that — surely there was a better way to handle it. Like, maybe, talking with them? To work something out? Before launching Armageddon.

People living in the neighborhood had complained about the encampment. Sometimes rights clash. But anyhow, again, surely there was a better way to resolve the situation without going straight to ultra-violence.

Right-wingers bleat about “freedom” from over-mighty government. But where are their voices when government sends armed men to brutalize people peacefully exercising free speech? They bleat “law and order” but excuse police violations of law and order. Today’s American right has only prejudices, not principles.

This week’s Minneapolis verdict struck a welcome blow for police accountability. This is what democracy looks like. Justice is never perfect, but in a free society, we try our best, and we showed it in Minneapolis. A real milestone in America’s march toward a more perfect union. How disheartening that only days later my own city became a poster boy for continuing police brutality. 

Goodbye, Afghanistan

April 23, 2021

She’d gotten a new job offer, our daughter Elizabeth said on the phone from Jordan. Asking our opinion. A nice surprise, that she’d ask. 

“It’s in Afghanistan,” she explained.

A lot of parents would have blanched. But we encouraged her to go.

Afghanistan is an afflicted country. I was proud of America’s helping, and that my own kid would be part of that good effort (albeit with a French organization). She didn’t stay there long, moving on to other jobs in the region, but would frequently return to Afghanistan working on development projects there. When asked to suggest a birthday present recently, she encouraged a contribution to an Afghan library-building initiative.

The modern cycle begins in 1978 with a pro-Communist coup. Insurgent Mujahideen guerrillas fought the new regime; the Soviets invaded to back it. America helped the rebels (including Osama bin Laden; a lot of thanks we got). When the Russians quit, the regime fell, ultimately replaced by the Taliban, a repressive extremist one, that harbored bin Laden’s al Qaeda. After 9/11, we invaded to go after them. Successfully at first. We managed to shepherd into being a more or less democratic government. A new day of freedom — especially for Afghan women, brutally repressed under the Taliban.

But we failed to fully exterminate the Taliban, leaving them to regroup, and torment the country ever since. So our troops kept fighting.

President Obama campaigned calling this “the right war” and ramped up our military involvement. That achieved nothing. So then Obama ramped it back down. Trump went back and forth; eventually the Great Deal Maker got a “peace deal” slating a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for, basically, nothing.

So finally this mess landed on President Biden’s desk. He made the decision to pull out.

I probably would not have. I’d cancel Trump’s crap deal. Unlike in the past, what Afghanistan is costing us now is actually very small in relation to the great risks and certain harm of withdrawing. Nevertheless, I give Biden much benefit of the doubt. In contrast to Trump, he acts responsibly, trying to figure out what’s really our best course, drawing from a well of deep experience. The military was against this decision, but I am sure Biden heard them out and gave all due consideration to their input. It was indeed a very difficult decision, and he faced up to it.

Originally, Afghanistan was our first front in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Fighting there to prevent more attacks here. But what we wound up spending there, in lives and money, was out of all proportion to any terrorism risk. Which in the great scheme of things is insignificant. Yet we let it warp our entire foreign policy, the tail wagging the dog. President Biden is right to see that and stop it. (Meantime our biggest terrorism threat is home-grown, as we learned on January 6.)

I’m not one of those who say we can’t be the world’s policeman; can’t fix every problem; have plenty to do here at home. Well, your neighborhood could be a nasty place with no policing; we have to live in the world; we can fix some distant problems; and can do it without neglecting our own. It’s not an either-or choice. And like the Bible’s “good Samaritan” we have a human responsibility toward even people not like us. 

But there’s also the “serenity prayer” — the wisdom to know what we can fix and what we can’t. And the principle of “enough is enough.”

We did try hard to fix Afghanistan, and it’s painful to kiss off the huge investment we’d made in that effort, coming out with nothing to show for it. Our leaving is very bad news for Afghanistan. International help, not just of the military kind, will ebb away. Violence will escalate. Taliban power will grow and will probably wind up taking over the country. Women will lose all the freedom and dignity they’d achieved.

Malala Yousafzai was a teenager shot in the head, by the Taliban’s Pakistan branch, because she was an advocate for girls’ education. More recently, in Afghanistan itself, the Taliban has been conducting an extensive, methodical campaign of assassinations specifically targeting women with prominent societal roles — legislators, judges, journalists, etc.

Afghanistan is also full of ordinary people, fellow human beings, who just want to live decently like you or me. But alas, also many very misguided, ignorant, backward people and, yes, very bad people. It’s one of the tragedies of human life that the kind of situation that exists in Afghanistan is a playground for bad people to act out their badness. Worse yet when they’re imbued with the insanity of believing they’re doing God’s work. All this will make for untold harm until people finally grow up and free themselves from it. We can help show the way, but in the last analysis, it has to come from Afghans themselves.

Another thing I don’t believe is that people never change, cultures never change. History is full of examples of people and cultures that did change. Look how much America changed, in a very short time, with regard to gay people. But another thing we learn again and again is how tough it is when you’re facing hard men with guns.

Tucker Carlson and “replacement” racism

April 20, 2021

United Airlines announced a program to get more diversity in its pilot training. Fox’s Tucker Carlson went on a rant saying all that should matter in the cockpit is competence and safety, not skin color. And if that’s no longer true — planes will crash.

Wait, what?

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah slammed Carlson. My wife objected that all Carlson said was that only competence should matter. What’s wrong with that?

It falsely confuses issues of safety and racial fairness. Did United ever say color would trump competence? That it would accept less capable pilots? Of course not. That would be absurd. So what was Carlson on about?

Nobody can openly say, “We don’t want more Black pilots.” Saying we want capable pilots seems fine. Except for the unstated premise that Blacks will be worse pilots. Carlson was giving his racist fans another way to think they’re not racist. Even while thinking an America with more Blacks in prominent roles is a worse America.

A recent Michael Gerson column also demystifies Carlson, as epitomizing today’s Trumpian Republican right. Big there is “replacement theory.” Remember “Jews will not replace us?” Gerson quotes Carlson: “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Carlson denies this is a racial issue, calling it instead “a voting rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

As if white voters like him have a birthright entitlement to their political dominance. And in Carlson’s eyes, Western civilization itself is under attack: “rotting from within because the people in charge don’t think it is worth preserving.” Welcoming in people who make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided,” Carlson said in 2018.

There you have it. Dirtier. The ancient racist purity trope. Those other kind are polluting. Darker skin is dirtier.

Oh, but it’s not about race, he still insists. Yeah, as if voting restrictions like Georgia’s are about ballot integrity — not making it harder for Blacks to vote. As if it’s not racist to say that with more nonwhite pilots, planes will crash.

Not only is all this racist, it’s dishonest. And such is the core of today’s Republicanism.

For the record: Democrats do not somehow “import” new voters. That’s not what’s behind people immigrating here. And studies prove that immigrants do not make America “poorer,” but richer, being net contributors to our economy. “Dirtier?” I know of no studies, but strongly suspect they’re actually cleaner on average. And “more divided?” Who’s more divisive than Tucker Carlson, demonizing some of our citizens as civilization destroyers?!

The idea that Carlson and his ilk are just defending lofty civilizational values is very insidious; another way to sugar-coat their racism. And what is it, exactly, about immigrants, that supposedly corrupts our civilization? Trump said other countries don’t send us their best. Like they pick out their dregs to get rid of. Idiotic. Immigrants are not “sent,” they choose to come. And willingness to leave behind everything familiar and battle all the obstacles to immigration takes enterprise, drive, and capabilities far beyond what the average American possesses. They improve our country. 

But I too believe America, and Western civilization itself, are under assault — from the likes of Carlson and his sick fans. Their “replacement” by an electorate less white, with more newcomers who understand what America is really about, cannot come soon enough.

And if I see a Black pilot on my flight, I’ll risk it. 

The Minneapolis trial — what kind of nation are we?

April 8, 2021

“All men are created equal.” The Supreme Court pediment proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.” The Constitution begins, “We the people.”

We’ve had four years of trauma, testing this country’s heart and soul. The Minneapolis trial is another test.

Cops have long gotten away with brutality and crime. The Rodney King trial a prime example. Our society cloaks police officers with a powerful mystique and deference. Many idealize them as our bulwark against the abyss. There’s also the traditional “blue wall” of cops circling wagons to protect their own.

The Minneapolis trial presents a supremely important counterstory. Here the blue wall has resoundingly fallen, with officer after officer taking the stand to denounce what their man did. A virtually unprecedented blow against police impunity.

A guilty verdict would cement the trial’s positive societal import. The evidence seems damning. The parade of police witnesses blew away the defense that Chauvin was following his training. And to claim Floyd died from other causes is ridiculous. Chauvin seemed to want him dead; or else simply didn’t care; and shows no remorse.

But juries can be unpredictable.* As salutary as a conviction would be, a failure to convict would be a devastating setback to our collective progress.

I do not want to see people having to take to the streets, yet another time, to protest yet another such outrage. Which can begin to feel pointless and futile. There must come a time when the hammer of justice finally prevails. If it does not prevail here, in this most extreme of cases, when could we ever hope for it?

The right keeps bleating “Freedom!” and about government overreach. But no threat from government is more immediate than its armed representatives who can kill you. No freedom more important than the freedom to go about your life in peace and security. Why isn’t police accountability a conservative rallying cry? (Well, America’s “conservative” movement has simply lost its mind.)

They also bleat about law and order. Floyd’s killing was the antithesis of law and order. If you want law and order, start with the people we hire to enforce it. What does it say if a society condones those very people themselves violating law and order?

That’s not my America. In my America, those people — even those people — especially those people — are accountable to the rule of law and to the citizenry they are entrusted with protecting.

Too often we have failed at that. And, yes, at many other aspects of our foundational ideals. Humans are imperfect. But America’s great virtue is constant improvement. The last four years were a ghastly swerve from that trajectory. The Minneapolis trial can help us return to it, can be a key milestone in our larger story of progress toward a “more perfect union.”

** In the one trial where I sat as an alternate juror, the verdict shocked me. 

Freedom of speech and lies

March 28, 2021

“Are Jews hidden in your attic?” You answer with a lie.

Kant had a categorical take on morality, with lying considered always wrong. John Stuart Mill’s view was consequentialist — lying is wrong only when someone is harmed unjustly. You don’t owe the Nazi officer the truth. But a public official owes citizens the truth.

Does freedom of speech include lying? Republican have been turning freedom of speech into a political bludgeon. The puritanical “woke” left enables this by persecuting the slightest verbal boo-boo, letting the right posture as though they’re defenders of free speech under dire threat.

Recently a Republican congressman said anyone criticizing racist comments violates freedom of speech. And Trump’s defenders in his second impeachment argued that he was merely exercising his free speech rights when he lied about the election being “stolen” and encouraged insurrection.

Our constitution protects free expression more strongly than in any other country. Yet no right is ever so absolute that it overrides all other societal considerations. The Second Amendment doesn’t allow nuclear weapons. And Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said the First Amendment doesn’t cover falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Yet in 2012 the Court ruled quite differently in U.S. v. Alvarez. Striking down the “Stolen Valor Act,” which criminalized lying about military awards, saying that if Congress could outlaw one sort of statement, it could outlaw any.

A strange anti-Holmesian rationale. Nobody imagines the First Amendment protects lying in all contexts — we punish perjury. Because we consider that inimical to important societal values. Why couldn’t Congress, for similar reasons, punish lies about military medals? 

Such is not what the First Amendment mainly aims to protect. Rather, it’s expressions of opinion, especially political opinion. It’s really about free public debate. And it only bars government restraints. Not public criticism of your racist talk, Congressman. (To the contrary, it’s that criticism that’s protected.)

Inciting violence has always been considered another appropriate exception to free expression rights. Like perjury, another example where those rights bow to valid broader societal concerns. Thus Trump’s pre-January 6 incitements were not protected free speech.

That includes the “stolen election” claim, the biggest and most harmful lie in U.S. history. It’s at the center of a larger phenomenon, the corruption of American civic discourse by severing it from truth and reality. This Republican onslaught undermines the very thing — public debate — the First Amendment aims to protect. Thus their invoking freedom of speech is itself dishonest.

So what is to be done?

One obvious response is to vigorously counter lies. Well, many have been trying. It’s not working. As Mark Twain said, a lie can run around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on. Especially when it seems weak tea as against a lie’s bracing brew. And when the latter is what some people relish swallowing.

In past times, responsible gatekeepers kept the infosphere reality-based. Of course those news media had their own interests — making money — but that actually required maintaining public trust by reporting accurately. It worked pretty well. The public knew to trust the likes of Walter Cronkhite. Debates were about interpretations and consequences of facts, not facts themselves.

Today too many get “informed” by sources having very different incentives, flourishing by catering to discrete niche audiences wanting their opinions and prejudices flattered. The more a factoid does that, the better. Truth being irrelevant.

Twitter and Facebook have justifiably banned Trump. Violating his free speech? No. They are not the government. He can still say what he likes, on his own dime — with no constitutional right to use a platform provided by someone else. Last year, Facebook’s Zuckerberg said his site wouldn’t vet for truthfulness; but it has gotten intense criticism for all the garbage it disseminates. Now Facebook has started blocking anti-vaccine lies and some QAnon lunacy. But purveyors of such bilge just go elsewhere. And as a society we cannot look to private actors like Facebook to solve the bigger problem for us.

So should government step in and outlaw political lying after all? Ohio actually tried, with a law against campaign untruths. That was struck down — it surely did tread the slippery slope the Supreme Court feared in Alvarez. So lies in political advocacy do get some First Amendment protection. And what public officials should be entrusted with deciding truthfulness in political discourse? Laws like that have been introduced by several authoritarian regimes, as handy tools for stomping on pesky critics. Social media sites can block you but not jail you. 

There was actually a time, believe it or not, when being caught in a lie was fatal to a politician’s career. Trump glided through 30,000. This tells us America has changed in a very important way. Political tribalism now pre-empts everything — at least on the right. Among Democrats a major lie would still likely be devastating. But Trump famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. Thus a little peccadillo like lying doesn’t matter. Because his voters have other fish to fry. For some evangelicals, it’s the abortion obsession; but for most Trump voters it’s defending their tribal turf of white nationalism. And for them, literally, nothing else matters

Their amoral scorched earth politics jar against the Christianity they also purport to defend in this culture war. But for many, that Christianity is just an identifier, no longer truly a belief system. Such conventional religious belief is crumbling, and to feed their thirst for religious fervor, a lot of people now instead look to politics. It’s mirrored too in the left’s sanctimonious intolerance. When politics takes the place of religion, no wonder resolving issues through compromise becomes impossible.