Saturday, December 2, 2017

Are We Powerless?

Some enterprising tech genius will invent a new device sometime in the future, and you will find yourself compelled to purchase one. Who knows, maybe it will look something like the cool machine depicted in the accompanying illustration by Emma and Lindsey.

This inventor will be motivated less to satisfy an actual human need or elevate the condition of human kind than by a compulsion to tinker and a desire to make a buck. See Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel, pages 242-243, on how “invention is the mother of necessity.” At first, lovers of new contraptions will buy them. Eventually a critical mass of people will own one and then the rest of us will begin to feel compelled to join the crowd even if we would rather abstain—even after it becomes clear that this new gizmo does more harm than good to human beings. I sadly find myself in the latter category now in the case of the “smart” phone. Some anthropologists have suggested that agriculture was one such invention that did more harm than good, but which we embraced anyway. James C. Scott’s new book makes this argument, as does Diamond. According to Scott, as recently as 400 years ago the holdouts had the advantage over the adopters.

Some years ago they started inventing telephones you could carry around outside the home. This seemed like a terrible idea to me, then and now. Bad enough you could be constantly interrupted by telemarketers at home, now they could follow you around all day. I resisted buying a cell phone as long as I could until not having one had become eccentric at best and irresponsible at worst. I bought the least expensive version I could find and used it as little as possible. I sometimes forgot to check it and this trained most people to avoid calling me. Around this time, spring of 2015, most other people had upgraded from mere cellphones to the mighty smartphone.

Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 I have felt, like this blogger, like a character in the film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which one by one, the people around him are replaced by aliens who look familiar but something is missing. “Every day, another friend, family member, or even stranger, succumbs to the inevitable, and becomes a blank-faced moron, staring into a tiny screen all day long,” he writes.

But it is hard to resist joining the pod people, even as evidence mounts that smart phones and digital technology in general are really bad for us (they are actually engineered to be addictive). In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle argues that smart phones and other modes of electronic communication are eroding our ability to communicate in person and generating feelings of alienation. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris contends that smart phones have destroyed a whole generation of American children.  There’s been a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety among our kids. Some blame the smart phones.   But we parents keep buying them for our kids, so as to spare them the fate of being a social non-conformist.

I’m old enough to know that life was better before email, that gigantic to-do list that anyone in the whole world can add to at any moment. Before email, you could come home sometimes and leave work behind. You could even go on vacation from work. Do we control technology, or does technology control us?  Apple has figured out how to annoy me into upgrading my Ipad’s operating system every other time I turn it on, it seems, even though I ever asked for an upgrade. Somehow, Ralph Waldo Emerson did not own an Apple product or know about artificial intelligence when he wrote “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”

It’s not just technology. Every high school math teacher I’ve talked to thinks that the vast majority of students should not take calculus until college. I’m told that the college professors agree. Yet some mysterious force called “college admissions” insists that every ambitious student take calculus before they graduate from high school.

That same force seems to be responsible for degrading childhood in a number of other ways in recent years. From competitive day care admissions to professional college counseling and SAT test prep, childhood has turned into one long exercise in competitive resume building. A parent once told me that summer is the time for school kids to do extraordinary things—internships, global travel, solving the world’s problems—so as to build the narrative that will get them into a “good” college or university. Surely all of this is another source of all the anxiety our children are suffering.

I remember a time when sports was a thing you did with your friends after school just for fun. Now, middle class families shuttle their kids to games and practices and summer camps, often in the same sport year-round. Sports, and it seems childhood, has become a job. I don’t know any reasonable person, including the coaches and PE teachers I talk to, who thinks this is a good thing. It would seem, contra Martin Luther King, Jr., that change DOES roll in on the wheels of inevitability. Resistance is futile. We are sheep. As John Stuart Mill put it:

Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. (On Liberty)

Somehow, in the face of all this, I continue to cling to a vague notion that humans aren't just helpless pawns altogether, or that, as Marx put it, “Men [and women!] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Some years ago I did a directed studies course on utopian thought and utopian living experiments with my friend and student Shannon Hou. In the old days—as recently as the 1960s—a lot of Americans spent a lot of time thinking about how we could perfect or at least dramatically improve our unsatisfactory societies. Novelists, communards, and philosophers put a lot of effort into that project. Utopian thinking seems to be out of style these days, replaced mostly by dystopian imagining—how things will inevitably turn out if current trends continue. Think: Hunger Games, a story about what we are doing to childhood. Dystopianism, however, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy if it breeds a sense of helplessness and nihilism.

As a teacher and a historian I feel an obligation to point to examples of people in the past who were agents of their own salvation, or paved the way for improvements to society—dreamers who imagined and brought about a better world.  King is one example. The long struggle for black equality, along with the labor movement, proves that regular people can take action and succeed spectacularly in making their own history—and our own present.  It's hard to feel a sense of historical agency in the dystopian present.  History needs to be taught in a way that counters the fatalistic narratives that are flooding the public mind and conveys a sense of optimism about what is possible and what good people can achieve when they work together. As James Baldwin put it, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.” It is up to us who are still living to dream hopeful dreams and fight to make them come true.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

James Baldwin on History and Optimism and Agency

"History is not the past. It is the present.  We carry our history with us. We are our history.  To pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals. . . . I can't be a pessimist because I am alive.  To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter.  So I'm forced to be an optimist.  I'm forced to believe we can survive. . . .  The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.  It is entirely up to the American people . . ."  From the film, I am Not Your Negro.  Photo by Allen Warren.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Exonians: Let’s Depolarize America

This is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Exonian, our school newspaper, and which appeared in the Nov. 16, 2017 print edition.

During Tuesday’s assembly, I moderated a political conversation between Amy Schwartz and Townley Chisholm (Teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy). One complaint I’ve heard from some students is that their views weren’t far enough apart. Students may have been expecting something like the political arguments we see on TV every day, between shouting pundits and party functionaries with diametrically opposing views. The networks have found that these kinds of conversations drive up ratings and bring in ad revenue (I recommend the film “Best of Enemies” to see the origins of this phenomenon).

But that is not how most people talk about politics. Think about it. The networks hire people to represent a particular point of view. Their livelihood depends on being able to stick to the party line. They are not paid to be moderate or change their minds. In real life people have all kinds of doubts and change their minds all the time and we don’t go through life with one rigid, fully formed ideology to guide us. We listen to what others are saying and consider new evidence. Political scientists and psychologists who study how people think about politics have found that when we talk to others with different viewpoints, our political positions become more moderate. When we talk only to like-minded people, our ideas become more extreme.

As Americans increasingly separate themselves into red and blue enclaves, they speak to fewer people with different views and the nation becomes ever more polarized. Consider just one of many headlines on the topic: this one from Vox: “We need political parties. But their rabid partisanship could destroy American democracy. We’re trapped in a frightening ‘doom loop’ of mutual distrust.”

In preparing for Tuesday’s assembly, Mr. Chisholm and Ms. Schwartz and I had a number of conversations over two or three weeks. The views you heard expressed on Tuesday were somewhat different than what I heard them saying at different times earlier in the process. Their opinions converged a bit. Like most thoughtful people, these two do not have opinions that are set in stone. They are open minded, intellectually flexible, and open to new evidence. Most importantly, they know that their own knowledge and perspectives are limited, that on any given question, they could be wrong. That’s something Harkness teaches us every day if we are doing it right.

Maybe we would become less polarized if Americans saw more of these kinds of political conversations and fewer of the politics-as-combat and politics-as-entertainment spectacles that the media and the two-party system offer up every day. Perhaps the home of the Harkness method has something to teach the country about how to conduct those better conversations.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A teacher’s confession: There ARE stupid questions

We teachers try to encourage our students to ask questions by telling them this lie: there are no stupid questions.  Here is proof that stupid questions exist:

TEACHER: The paper is due on Friday.
STUDENT: When is the paper due?

It's important to encourage questioning in our students, but lying to them will not help. It patronizes them and undermines our credibility.

Here's what we should say instead: Sure, there are stupid questions and we all ask them sometimes, because let’s face it, it’s hard to pay attention all day long, and it’s hard to pick up every important (and obvious) point in all the readings we did last night. We all have surprising gaps in our knowledge of this complicated world. One person’s valid question is another’s stupid question.  So go ahead and ask that stupid question so you get that paper in on on time.

Instead of pretending that all questions are equally smart, acknowledge that we all need to ask a lot of questions to banish ignorance, some are better than others, and if I tolerate your occasional stupid question you'll tolerate mine and at some point we'll share some really brilliant questions with each other.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Future is Ours to Make
This week, Ta-Nehisi Coates said he has no hope for the future of America
Historians are sometime asked to predict the future. Surely, the thinking goes, all that study of cause-and-effect in the past must give you insights into what present conditions will lead to in the future. The wisest among the tribe of historians will demure. They know two things for certain about the future.

1. It is hopelessly unpredictable. Historians have such a hard time pinning down the causes of things that have already happened that they know it is foolish to identify effects for which the conditions and causes are still in flux. There are too many variables and factors, unknowns and unknowables, even in the distant past. The course of history is marked by radical contingency.

2. The decisions and actions of human beings will play a major role in shaping the future, and these are the most unpredictable factors of all. 

But if historians can’t predict the future, they can play a role in shaping it.

It is not yet determined which human individuals and groups will play the biggest role in shaping the future, but it is likely that those who feel a sense of efficacy will be more likely to act. Certainly the presidents of countries and corporations, governors, legislators, bankers and billionaires will continue to feel a great sense of empowerment, and will in the future as in the past, have an out-sized impact on the course of events.

Less certain is whether the great mass of people will play a role, and whether people motivated by greed and prejudice or a sense of fairness and justice will get the upper hand. And here, the historians can possibly have an effect.

Most historians have ignored the role of average people in shaping their own history. Part of the problem is that while leaders left behind endless written records, most others did not. Since the 1960s, however, a revolution has taken place among professional historians who have found creative ways to uncover the historical roles of ordinary folks.

Historians who ignore or downplay or dismiss this new history perpetuate the great lie that only “great men” will shape the future. That fosters a feeling of cynicism and defeatism among the good people living today who might bend the arc of history toward a better and more just world, if only they believe it is possible.  They need historians to tell them inspiring stories from the past to show them how it is possible.

2020 UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has found reason for optimism. More recently, he expressed a feeling of hope after watching the George Floyd protests. When asked to compare them to the urban riots of the 60s, he noted that the people participating in those events were exclusively black but the riots of 2020 represent a giant interracial mix of people.  See Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is Hopeful.

As if to illustrate Coates' point, the Mayor of Washington DC had city workers paint, in gigantic yellow letters, "BLACK LIVES MATTER" on a street leading to the White House.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Coates, Race and the 2016 Election

Photo credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley
I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article on the Trump presidency and the 2016 election in the October edition of The Atlantic.  As always, his writing is provocative and enlightening in many ways. One of my frustrations in reading the exit polls was that they didn't break down the results by race and income—even though the dominant narrative about the election has been that white working class voters were largely responsible for Trump’s win.

Coates shows that all whites, in every income category, supported Trump. Perhaps surprisingly, given the narrative about the working class, Trump’s white voters were more affluent than Clinton’s, and his strongest margin was among voters who should probably be considered middle class, those making above the national median income, from $50,000 to $100,000.

Coates seems to be wading into the heated debate within liberal/Democratic Party/progressive circles about how to interpret the results and what they say about whether Democrats should emphasize “identity politics” (a category that Coates helpfully complicates), or economic/class issues. Coates is highly critical of many of the politicians and writers who are calling for a more populist emphasis on economics and class and a de-emphasis of “identity politics.” But then he voted for the party's stalwart class warrior, Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries last year, and there are subtle hints in his article that he understands the necessity of getting more white voters into the Democratic coalition.

For example, after excoriating Sanders for defending white working class Trump voters against charges of racism, he concedes that “candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths” (82). But Coates focuses mostly on the question of whether white Trump voters were motivated by race and he seems to conclude that Hillary Clinton was guilty only of underestimation when she said that half of Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist.... But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one,” he writes.

Since the TV show “All in the Family” premiered in 1971, liberals and the Democratic Party have been wracking their brains to figure out why working class white people would vote for Republicans. Why would Archie Bunker, “an old trade union man,” support the anti-union party? (Cowie 196). Norman Lear, Thomas Frank, Arlie Hochschild and many others have pointed to race as only one of the relevant factors.

More urgent questions less directly addressed in Coates’ article are these: How can Democrats form a winning coalition in the next election? And: Is it possible for an anti-racist party to attract enough white votes to form a winning coalition?

Coates's writings suggest three alternatives for winning white allies to the cause of racial justice. First, instill in white Americans a searing sense of guilt for their racist inclinations, for America’s racist past. Second, appeal to their empathy and altruism by teaching them the details of that horrifying past. Third, convince white people that racial justice is good for them too.  This last option is easy to miss in Coates’ writings, but it is embedded in his concessions to the importance of coalition politics and in his predictions of national disaster in the last three paragraphs of the Atlantic article (87).

For the past forty years—at least since Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern strategy”— Republicans have been making the case that racism is good for white people, that is, policies that help blacks and other people of color, hurt whites, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Democrats have done very little to convince white voters that racism is bad for all of us. Bernie Sanders’s campaign was a notable exception.

In the end, self-interest is a stronger motivating force than guilt or empathy or altruism, and so the key to the success of a party that is opposed to racist policies is to tie them to the self-interest of at least some part of the white majority.

Trump’s margin among all white people in the 2016 election was one point greater than Romney’s in 2016. A point that Coates failed to note, though, is that Romney won 59 percent of white voters and Trump got one point less—58. His increased margin was due to more white voters rejecting both major party candidates. And how about this: White voters liked Obama, a black Democrat, more than they liked last year's white Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Obama got 43 percent of the white vote in 2008 and 39 percent in 2012. She got only 37 percent in 2016.

Whatever sentiments about race lie hidden in the deep dark recess of white peoples’ hearts, one thing is for certain. The Democratic coalition cannot afford to lose any more white votes if the party wants to win any more elections. White people made up about 53 percent of Clinton voters. 

They also can't afford to lose any more people of color.  In 2016, 8 percent of blacks and 29 percent of Hispanic and Asian-American voters pulled the lever for Trump, a greater percentage in each case than Romney got in 2012. Coates does not mention this, but he should be disturbed that almost a third of non-African American people of color “felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to” a man he considers to be a white supremacist. 
The red triangles indicate percentage increase in  Republican vote for president from 2012 to 2016.
Demographers predict that future population growth will be greatest among Hispanics and Asians. Some party strategists thought Democratic victories would become ubiquitous and inevitable as the population becomes more diverse and whites become a minority. For these population trends to work out as Democrats hope, non-whites will have to be remain unified against candidates who channel racist feelings (probably even more unified than they are now) and it would help if they continue to consider themselves to be non-white.  But a big chunk of white voters will still have to vote for Democrats, especially in the near term.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Politics of Car Prices

The $150 car

These dollar amounts help to explain how Trump was elected:


Cheap cars were a key to the economics of my working class family growing up. In the absence of public transportation in our town, Dad drove to work and carted the family around in cheap, rusty, high-mileage used cars. I commuted to the nearest state university in a 1973 Mercury Comet that cost me $350; when that died, I splurged on a 1972 VW Beetle--$650.

I saved even more money by doing a lot of my own repairs, or exchanging a six-pack for a day’s labor from one of my more mechanically-inclined friends. That’s how I got the transmission replaced in my first car, a $150 Chevy Townsman. But cars have become so complicated that even the simplest repair is beyond most backyard mechanics, and even professionals have had to fight the car companies to get the computer codes they need to repair modern cars. And the complexity of those cars has led to skyrocketing repair bills. Have you had your ignition key duplicated lately?

About a year ago, the Car Connection reported that more than half of American families cannot reasonably afford to buy a new car. In 1977 the average new car went for $4,317 ($17,000 in today's dollars); today the average new car goes for more than $30,000. Edward N. Luttwak (whose TLS essay is well worth reading), sees in these statistics an explanation for Trump’s electoral victory last November.
Had journalists studied the numbers and pondered even briefly their implications, they could have determined a priori that only two candidates could win the Presidential election – Sanders and Trump – because none of the others even recognized that there was problem if median American households had been impoverished to the point that they could no longer afford a new car. This itself was remarkable because four wheels and an engine might as well be grafted to Homo americanus, who rarely lives within walking distance of his or her job, or even a proper food shop, who rarely has access to useful public transport, and for whom a recalcitrant ignition or anything else that prevents driving often means the loss of a day’s earnings, as well as possibly crippling repair costs.
The $150 key
Luttwak tells the story of how the back-up camera came to be mandated for all 2018 vehicles thanks to a campaign by a “wealthy driver” and “Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for more regulatory decrees.” Undoubtedly, backup cameras will save some lives, but they will also place new cars out of the reach of a few more families.

When liberal Democrats pushed for more and more safety and environmental regulations that have pushed up the prices of cars, they did nothing to mitigate the impact on family budgets. Just like when they promoted free trade and did nothing to mitigate the impact on blue collar workers who lost their good union jobs in the manufacturing sector. All of this comes down to a powerful example of how, contra Thomas Frank, working class people might not be voting altogether against their economic self-interest when they support Republicans who want to reduce regulations on industry.

Monday, August 28, 2017


On Fox News, Antifa is a grave threat to freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and liberal democratic values:

Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer said he and several "moderate liberals" preaching "love, unity and peace" had to cancel a rally in Berkeley after Antifa "stormed" the public park.
According to a Dartmouth Professor cited in this Vox article, they are nipping fascism in the bud, fighting fire with fire, etc.:  

The original fascist groups that later seized power in Europe started out very small. You cannot, they argue, treat these groups lightly. You need to take them with the utmost seriousness, and the way to prevent them from growing is to prevent them from having even the first step toward becoming normalized in society.
Antifa: scourge of free speech or bulwark against the rise of fascism?

Is Democracy Worth Saving?

Pundits and scholars have been wringing their hands of late over what they see as the decline of Democracy. The rise of authoritarian populists in many democratic nations is seen as a warning sign that democracy is in deep trouble. Opinion polls including a World Values Survey have shown a global decline in support for democracy.  According to Freedom House, 2016 was the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.  Maybe the 24 percent of millennials who said that “having a democratic political system is a bad or very bad way to run this country" have a point. Perhaps democracy is not worth saving.

In his best-selling book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates pins the blame for the plight of African-Americans in this country on democracy. Like slavery and Jim Crow, our contemporary race problems “are the product of democratic will. . . .  The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs” (6-7, 79). Do the police shoot black men because that is what a majority of the American electorate want them to do?

Coates seems actually to be in agreement with the founding fathers, who also did not have a high opinion of majoritarian democracy. As James Madison, the main author of the Constitution said, “in a pure democracy, there is nothing to check the inducement to sacrifice the weaker party or the obnoxious individual.” Thus, he and his cohorts at the Philadelphia convention inserted many features into their new frame of government to thwart rule of the majority and these features have worked as planned. Consider the electoral college. In the past 17 years it has given us two presidents who lost the popular vote. The Three Fifths Clause gave extra power to the slave holding class who made up a distinct minority of white voters in the antebellum South (as of 1860, 75 percent of white Southerners owned no slaves at all), but who controlled Southern politics. And while the House of Representatives is the only federal body based on proportional representation of the population, the Constitution gives veto power to three other less democratically selected branches of the government: the Supreme Court, the President, and the Senate, none of which was directly elected by the people in the original Constitution.

For an essay on Madison’s purpose in writing the Constitution, as outlined in Federalist Paper #10, see this piece by Richard Kreitner

Surely, Coates is correct, that the white majority cannot always be counted on to protect the rights of racial and other minority groups. But would a more democratic system of government have been any worse for African Americans? Consider the Tallmadge Amendment. In 1819 James Tallmadge, a Congressman from New York proposed an amendment to a bill admitting Missouri to the Union. It
provided, that the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited [in Missiouri], except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been fully convicted; and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years. 
Even though slave states had extra representation because of the Three Fifths Clause, the motion passed in the House of Representatives by a narrow vote of 82 to 78. But because slave states and free states had equal representation in the undemocratic Senate, the bill failed there.  The 18 Northern Congressmen who supported admission of Missouri as a slave state a year later under the Missouri Compromise “fared badly in the next election” (See What God Hath Wrought, 152).

According to Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, the problem with American democracy today is not polarization or an evil electorate, but that the people don’t actually control the government. “On every issue, the dominant reality is not public polarization, but broad public consensus,” he writes. Healthy majorities (60-40 or greater) support progressive policies on issues ranging from climate change to inequality. In a poll taken in 2016, 61 percent of voters supported requiring a special prosecutor to investigate killings by police—apparent support for the agenda of Black Lives Matter.

So why do we have a government dominated by conservative Republicans at virtually every level of state and federal government? Sachs blames lobbying and propaganda. Lobbyists from the finance, oil, military, and health care industries, he notes, spend about $1.5 billion annually in lobbying and another $1.5 billion funding campaigns.  If Sachs is right, instead of raising doubts about democracy, advocates for racial justice like Coates should focus on supporting reforms that would make the system more responsive to the actual will of the people.

And the problem is not just the Senate, the most malapportioned legislative body in the world, but also a host of other undemocratic elements built into the Constitution--like a court made up of nine unelected judges with lifetime appointments who can invalidate any law that has passed the House and Senate and gotten the president's signature.  Here is a book that looks at how the Supreme Court, the least democratic branch of the federal government, has been the most hostile to the rights of African Americans and the values of democracy:  Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.  The title says it all.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Free Speech or "Free Speech"?

In their reporting on the rally and counter-protest on Boston Common Saturday (Aug. 19, 2017), the Boston Globe and local TV stations covering the event put quote makes around "free speech" as in "free speech" rally (Fox News, by the way, didn't bother with the quote marks).

In the lead-up to the Rally I had been reading stories in the Globe about the 23-year-old organizer who insisted that it really was going to be a free speech rally, not a white supremacist rally.  But when I tuned in to watch coverage on Saturday I couldn't tell if it was a free speech or a "free speech" rally, because reporters and video crews were not allowed into the cordoned off area where police had contained the speakers.

In this country there has never been an absolute right to freedom of speech--but there has been an ever-expanding circle of protected speech.  You can still be sued for libel, but political opinions now enjoy almost complete protection--at least from limits imposed by the government.  In the past, restrictions on speech have been used most often against activists on the left--socialists and pacifists during and after World War I, liberals and other leftists during the McCarthy era.  We look back on those persecutions and prosecutions now as mistakes we have learned from.  We believe that in a democracy it is essential to listen to our political opponents.  In their influential book on the Political Classroom, Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy write "political discussions are an essential part of  learning to live in a democracy.  Mastering the ability to talk across political and ideological differences helps create an informed citizenry--an essential component of a democratic society--by teaching students to weigh evidence, consider competing views, form an opinion, articulate that opinion, and respond to those who disagree" (4-5).

Have Americans lost the ability to talk across political difference?  Where is the line between valid conservative opinion and racist hate speech?  When should we listen to our political opponents and when should we just try to shut them up?

The conservative Globe columnist, Jeff Jacoby, argued that the rally on the common really was a free speech rally and that police and counter demonstrators were wrong to stifle it. "It was not a 'good thing' that people with a right to speak were effectively silenced by the operations of the police. The ralliers did nothing wrong. They followed the city’s rules. They absorbed the slanders flung at them by the mayor and others. They didn’t try to shut their critics down, and they weren’t the ones hurling 'urine, bottles, and other harmful projectiles.'” Some of these Globe photos show counter demonstrators violently confronting free speech ralliers.  Joan Vennochi accepted the "free speech" interpretation of the rally, but she reminded us that the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that "speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend."  And the tactics of the counter protesters worried her.  She wrote:  "the sight of a young man wearing a red, white, and blue helmet, encircled by a crowd of protesters screeching 'shame, shame, shame,' raises questions about tactics. The last thing an anti-hate movement should want to do is stoke sympathy for those they identify as haters."

This piece in the New York Times by a critical race theorist took the ACLU to task for representing Unite the Right in their court battle for a permit to assemble in Charlottesville. The organization should focus its attention on more significant threats to free speech on behalf of more worthy subjects, the author says. That reminded me of something I had read a while back by Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker. In "Two Views on Speech" he compares America with other western nations in their approach to free speech.
The absolutist American view, let’s stipulate at once, still has much to be said for it. It says that once the state gets into the business of distinguishing acceptable dissent from unacceptable dissent then what we have is no longer dissent. Instead, we have state-sponsored and defined dissent, like that of the tiny “dissident” parties that were allowed to persist, once upon a time, in Eastern Europe, pendant to the chief Communist one. As John Stuart Mill said, in what is still the greatest defense of freedom of speech ever written, the free contest of ideas, even bad ones, is necessary to discover the truth of things. Or, to borrow a turn of phrase from the N.R.A.: it takes a good man with a pencil to stop a bad man with a pen.
But the view that governs the opposite position, in Canada and Europe alike, is not irrational or truly hostile to liberty. The laws and rules vary, but all have a simple distinction at their core, which is that criticizing an ideology, including a religious ideology, however vociferously, is different from inducing hatred of a people or persons. In plain English, hate-speech laws are based on the simple truth that there is a huge difference between an insult and a threat, and that it isn’t actually that hard to tell one from the other.
Should we move toward a more European approach?  Before we do, we might want to look back at the source of our view, Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dissent in Abrams v. United States, in 1919:
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.
 A recent book on Holmes' famous free speech manifesto/dissent is favorably reviewed in this Atlantic piece. Holmes' quote asks us to consider the question that I think is the most important question for citizens in a democracy to ask themselves every day: "Could I be wrong?" It's a question too many people seem increasingly unwilling to consider.

After the election, my liberal friends and I were shocked that so many of our fellow Americans could vote for Donald Trump, who just seemed so obviously unqualified and so retrograde in his views.  Many of us pledged to get out of our bubble and try to understand what was going on in Trump's America.  But Charlottesville suggests we are all still safely ensconced in our separate bubbles.   Diane Hessan has been in weekly contact with 200 Hillary voters and 200 Trump voters since the election.  A Clinton voter reflecting on Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville, said "there is just no one who can defend his behavior at this point."  Wrong.  Trump voters think the "media and elites" have blown Trump's comments out of proportion and that they assume "anyone wearing a 'Make America Great Again' cap is to blame for all the hatred."  Of her 200 Trump voters, only 4 now regret their vote and most of them feel that Trump is doing a good job of honoring his promises. 

More views on free speech and the Boston Common protests from Globe letter writers. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Our Divided Working Class

One of my favorite reads this summer was Sheryll Cashin's Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy.  She builds on Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, which argues that slavery and racism were invented by the ruling planter class of Virginia to prevent interracial working class rebellions like the one that ended in the burning of Jamestown in 1676.  Cashin focuses on just one of the many types of laws that were passed to elevate the status of poor landless whites and degrade blacks and to keep the races apart--laws banning  interracial sex and marriage.  She carries the story forward and shows how those laws stayed on the books after emancipation and helped to keep the working class divided by race in the Jim Crow era.  What is great about Cashin's book is that it ends on a hopeful note. Since the Loving v. Virginia case ruled those laws unconstitutional, more and more white and black people are getting married and forming mixed-race families.  These families and their friends and relatives, she argues, become "culturally dexterous" and she predicts that "the dexterous class will lead America to confront what most ails us in race relations: the social and spacial isolation of poor black and brown people" (187). It's already happening in a number of integrated enclaves around the country, she says.

But the non-dexterous are still strong enough to elect a president.

The well-respected political scientist Larry Sabato suggested in an interview with the Boston Globe that Trump's reluctance to criticize neo-Nazis and other white supremacists comes from a desire to maintain support of "the large block of racially resentful white voters."  "'Nobody is making this distinction,' Sabato said. 'Neo-Nazis aren't big enough as a voting group.  But whites with racial resentment, you better believe that's a big block."'

Since the election there has been a spirited debate about what motivated white people, especially working class whites, to vote for Trump. Some credit economic motives and frustration with two mainstream parties that failed to halt the outflow of good manufacturing jobs and presided over 40 years of stagnant wages.  Others argue that white voters were responding to Trump's subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to resentment and fear of various minority groups, including Mexican and other immigrants, Muslims, and blacks. The two things are related.

The Republican Party has used dog whistles and Southern strategies to redirect white economic anxiety toward racial resentments during this era of wage stagnation.  But Democrats, too, have helped to divide the working class. I was shocked by comments this week by Daniel Loeb, a hedge fund manager and big Democratic donor, suggesting that teachers unions had "done more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood."  In fact, the decline of unions has harmed blacks more than whites, since black people have had a higher rate of union representation than members of any other race (see the chart below).

But in the 1970s, Democrats started backing away from policies that helped workers generally at the same time that they embraced policies advancing racial justice. Jefferson Cowie documents this process in his wonderful book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.  "Many could see that placing affirmative action onto a world of declining opportunity was little more than a zero-sum game--and most likely a fast track to further racial resentment," he writes. Cleveland Robinson, a black union leader, was one of those who saw the problem.  "The basic ingredient to successful affirmative action is full employment," he said. If not, "you will have both blacks and whites fighting for the same jobs" (268). Recall that the March on Washington in 1963 was called a March for Jobs and Freedom.  Democrats failed to pass the full employment bill sponsored by Augustus Hawkins, an original member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in the 1970s.  They also failed to enact strong labor law reform that might have prevented the decline of labor unions then just beginning, and now nearly complete.  Cowie lays the blame for those failures at the feet of newly elected neo-liberal Democrats in Congress, but especially President Jimmy Carter.  In the defeat of the labor bill, Cowie writes, "one could hear the death rattle of American working class power." (298).

In a segment on the PBS NewsHour this week, James Bessenger of the South Carolina Secessionist Party and Jonathan Thrower of the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement said they were getting together to talk things out and work together for the public good. They looked and spoke like decent working class guys. Thrower, somewhat cryptically, said that in discussions about racial tensions in Charleston, "There are people who don't actually see it as a race issue, it is also looked at as a class issue, because classism is an issue also, more-so as race."  Cedric Johnson, who teaches in the African American Studies Department at Maryland University, argues that the best hope for black progress is an interracial working class alliance for common interests.  He cites historical examples such as the Readjuster Party in Virginia during Reconstruction, the Populist Party, and the Knights of Labor.  Perhaps Bessenger and Thrower will find some common class interests and a cause more significant than flags and statues to unite behind. After all, as Thrower said, "taking down a statue does not end systematic oppression, whether it's classism or racism."
From Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Should We Remove Confederate Monuments?

A facebook friend posted an article, critical of those who want to take down Confederate statues and saying it amounted to erasing history.  I replied like so: 

I think I found a typo in this article. It says: 'It would appear that said group who didn’t wish to see the statue of Virginian, General Robert E. Lee, who was a commissioned U.S. Army officer, graduate of West Point, and served the nation in the Mexican War, * taken down did apply for a permit to hold a rally." It left out the most important part of Lee's biography: *"and was a dirty rotten traitor." Benedict Arnold was also a part of American history. Should we put up a statue of him?

Well, as it turns out, there IS a monument to Arnold, though it's not a statue with his likeness, just a relief sculpture of the boot of the leg he broke in a heroic battle when he was still fighting on the American side. 

I later wrote this on another post: Monuments are not erected to provide history lessons. That's what books and classes are for. Monuments are erected to identify heroes. Most of the Confederate monuments were put up during the "nadir" of American history when the North and South came to see the Civil War through the eyes of the Confederacy as a Noble Cause and white people North and South conspired to take away most of the rights black people had gained during Reconstruction. The erection of these statues also happened to coincide with the height of the lynching phenomenon. Not a coincidence. I say, take down every last monument to every dirty rotten racist traitor. 

The Comedy Channel's Jim Jeffries made this point in a much more entertaining way, and added that the Germans don't have any statues of Hitler.  I assume that's true, but then I discovered, via Google, that Germans DO have a monument to the German World War II General Erwin Rommel, the "desert fox" who fought the British in North Africa.  The Germans are divided over whether Rommel deserves a monument, even if it's not a heroic statue.  Some say he was chivalrous and brave, and not a Nazi.  Others cite evidence of anti-Semitism.  The monument has been vandalized and covered with a banner saying "No more monuments for Nazi generals."

The case for Confederate monuments is more difficult to make than for Arnold or Rommel.  Both of those guys were fighting on the side of their own country.  Arnold's monument celebrates something he did before he became a traitor.  The equivalent would be a statue depicting Robert E. Lee during the Mexican-American War.  And while it seems that we don't  know for sure whether Rommel was a an anti-Semite, Robert E. Lee, like most of the Confederate heroes, did own slaves and was fighting to maintain a system of human bondage based on white supremacy.  Of course that doesn't stop Confederate apologists from trying to throwing doubt on those truths.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Charlottesville and the Violent Left

If you want to know what was going through Trump's mind when he condemned the actions of groups on "many sides" for the events in Charlottesville, look no further than this account in Breitbart.   Steve Bannon's old publication blamed the violence on poor policing and provocative counter protesters bent on using violence to stifle free speech and disrupt what would otherwise have been a peaceful gathering.  Critics have been rightly blasting Trump for drawing a false equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-racist activists (see this Boston Globe piece on the cynical strategy of whataboutism).  But . . . what about those counter-demonstrators?  This month's Atlantic includes a good essay on the activities of left wing anti-fascist groups that have been using violence against right wing extremists. The author poses this provocative question:

"If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives of vulnerable minorities [and I would add, the survival of democracy itself], how far are you willing to go to stop it?"

I pondered this question in an earlier post, when I was in Germany contemplating the history of the Weimar Republic and reading about the violent reaction to Charles Murray back home, at Middlebury College. Looking back, you wish the German liberals had used a little bit of violence against the Nazis.

In his excellent memoir of growing up in Oxford, North Carolina, during the turbulent waning years of the Civil Rights Movement when Black Power was ascendant, historian Timothy B. Tyson leaves the impression that the success of civil rights reforms depended on violent riots and protest.  One black militant told him: "When nonviolence did work, mostly it was because white people were afraid we was gon' burn the place down" (166).  Tyson adds: "The indisputable fact was that whites in Oxford did not even consider altering the racial caste system until rocks began to fly and buildings began to burn" (Blood Done Sign my Name, 204; see also, 250, 252).

So maybe the anti-fascists have a point.  Maybe political violence is justifiable in a good cause.  As the political scientist, James C. Scott, said in his book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, "Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompanied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreaking, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war.  Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about"  (16). 

Then again, it seems that polarization has gotten to a dangerous point when groups on opposing sides are seeking to prevent each other from exercising First Amendment freedoms.  In the lead-up to Saturday's rally, the ACLU of Virginia supported Unite the Right in resisting the city's attempt to move the rally to a different location.  Glen Greenwald said this in defense the ACLU's support of Unite the Right against state censorship: 
How can anyone believe that neo-Nazism or white supremacy will disappear in the U.S., or even be weakened, if it’s forcibly suppressed by the state? Is it not glaringly apparent that the exact opposite will happen: by turning them into free speech martyrs, you will do nothing but strengthen them and make them more sympathetic? Literally nothing has helped [Milo] Yiannopoulos become a national cult figure more than the well-intentioned (but failed) efforts to deny him a platform. Nothing could be better designed to aid their cause than converting a fringe, tiny group of overt neo-Nazis into some sort of poster child for free speech rights.
Could the same be said of the efforts of left wing counter-protesters' efforts to silence white supremacists?  And which is more troublingthe rise of a more vocal (and sometimes also violent) white supremacist movement or attacks on free speech, not only by anarchists, but also college students and administrators?