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?