Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic

…the tendencies operating in 1948 electoral decisions not only were built up in the New Deal and Fair Deal era but also dated back to parental and grandparental loyalties, to religious and ethnic cleavages of a past era, and to moribund sectional and community conflicts. Thus in a very real sense any particular election is a composite of various elections and various political and social events. People vote for a President on a given November day, but their choice is made not simply on the basis of what happened in the preceding months or even four years; in 1948 some people were in effect voting on the internationalism issue of 1940, others on the depression issues of 1932 and some, indeed, on the slavery issues of 1860.Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Voting (pp. 315-6)
I told ya’ll I didn’t vote, right? But if I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted [for] Trump. Kanye West

Donald Trump talked about his daughter in sexually explicit terms on a nationally syndicated radio program. In a leaked recording, taken shortly into his third marriage, Trump bragged that he could accost women without consequence as a result of his social status—and in fact, several women came forward over the course of his campaign detailing how he allegedly violated them. If an African American aspired towards the presidency with this kind of sexual baggage, his candidacy would have been dead on arrival.

Similarly, a black candidate whose business dealings were defined by accusations of nepotism, shipping jobs overseas, exploiting undocumented workers, stiffing U.S. contractors and exploiting bankruptcy and tax laws to evade financial and civic obligations would not be viewed as the kind of leader America needs. Indeed, an African American who seemed to lack basic knowledge about the major issues facing the country and possessed no experience in government would not even be on the radar as a serious candidate. He would never win his party’s nomination, let alone the general election.

Ta-Neihsi Coates makes this case in his latest Atlantic cover story, “The First White President,” to demonstrate that race matters a lot more in American politics than most pundits and politicians seem willing to acknowledge.

He goes on to highlight how Americans across the socio-economic spectrum often point to the plight of the “white working class” –a plight that white elites are themselves are often responsible for creating—in justifying policies that disproportionately harm blacks and other minority groups. Meanwhile, social problems like drug addiction, which have long plagued minority communities, only seem to grow worthy of an urgent and compassionate response when “working class” whites become affected.

Ta-Neihsi’s exploration of these topics is powerful, as is his condemnation of the President’s inadequate response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. However, a severe paradox emerges with regards to his central thesis:

Coates complains that it is reductive and misleading to “blame” Clinton’s loss on the “white working class” (as many have done) given that Trump decisively won among all whites–across the income and education spectrum, across gender and geographic lines, etc. True enough. But then Coates puts forward an alternative frame which turns out to be no less problematic than the one he is critiquing:  Trump was elected primarily because of racial resentment, and he maintains his hold on power by playing to Americans’ latent sympathies with white supremacists.

As an African American and a Muslim, like Coates I often find myself disturbed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies. However, as a social researcher I have also been consistently troubled by the near-total lack of engagement among pundits and scholars with the pretty robust data confounding the ‘white supremacy’ theory of Trump’s success. For instance: Continue reading “Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic”

Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence

On the night of August 11th, white nationalists held a torch-lit pride parade through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They were met with counter-protests, and the demonstrations descended into a melee.

The next morning, these same organizers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park, centered on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been scheduled for removal. Once again, battle lines were drawn, and a fight ensued. This time, the white nationalists were driven back by the counter-demonstrators and then dispersed by police.

While most of the others in the nationalist camp were retreating, one young man aligned with the movement rammed his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators who were celebrating their victory—killing one and injuring dozens of others. Two state police officers assigned to help contain the unrest also perished en route when their helicopter crashed.

The method of violence deployed against the counter-protestors in Charlottesville seemed to draw inspiration from a string of ISIS-aligned attacks involving motor vehicles. In fact, ISIS claimed responsibility for an incident that occurred days later, when terrorists piloted a van into a pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Spain—killing 13 people and wounding more than 100. It is a common tactic of ISIS to try and “one-up” atrocities committed by others while frenzy about the initial attack is at its height, in order to divert the massive public attention and outrage towards their own cause instead.

In this instance, ISIS was unsuccessful because President Trump’s subsequent remarks–which seemed to praise many of the ethnic nationalist demonstrators as “very fine people,” and to place ethnic nationalists and those protesting against them on equivocal moral standing—generated immense blowback from across the political spectrum and seemed to suck the oxygen away from all other stories.

However, for social scientists symmetrical incidents such as those in Charlottesville and Barcelona can often serve as the basis for “natural experiments”—for instance, to explore whether public reaction to terrorist acts seems to vary in systematic ways when one key variable is changed, such as the ideology or cause of the perpetrator.

My extensive research on this question shows that progressives and conservatives tend to respond to terror attacks in sharply divergent ways—with the biggest contrast occurring when the attacker is either a Muslim or an ethnic nationalist. Continue reading “Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence”

Gender Differences, Silicon Valley and that Controversial Google Memo

Google software engineer James Damore set off a firestorm with the publication of a company memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The essay criticized Google’s policies for promoting a more diverse and inclusive workplace, alleging that they instead fostered a company culture of fear and conformity which runs contrary to the company’s stated ethos–and likely its economic interests as well.

Upon being leaked to the press, the blowback against his memo was swift and fierce. A widely-circulated response from former Google employee Yonatan Zunger is emblematic of the prevailing consensus, reading in part:

“(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.  (2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.  (3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.​ I’m not going to spend any length of time on (1); if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.”

Well, I am a sociologist—and one who happens to specialize in social psychology and cognition. And I’d be happy to take up Mr. Zunger’s challenge and discuss the scientific evidence related to cognitive differences between men and women. But first, it is important to highlight a troubling aspect of his rejoinder, which was echoed in many other articles criticizing Mr. Damore and his claims

Scientific fundamentalism

Progressives often see themselves as the champions of science—and hold that scientific inquiry, rather than religious or other commitments, provides the most reliable source for knowledge and sound policy. Importantly, however, this does not imply that progressives are actually more knowledgeable about, or deferent to, scientific research in practice. Consider Mr. Zunger’s rejoinder: Despite acknowledging that he was not a specialist in psychology, biology or sociology, and was not himself fluent in the scientific literature on gender differences, etc.–the author was supremely confident that “all research done in the field for decades” would affirm his moral understanding of the world.

This mindset is not far removed from that of certain religious fundamentalists who lack a strong grounding in the scriptures—let alone the linguistic, historical and cultural backgrounds of their sacred texts and the broader religious tradition they hail from—yet nonetheless feel deeply certain that their moral vision of the world, as well as their lifestyle and actions, would be approved of by God, their ultimate arbiter of truth. They have faith.

And much like their brethren within religious communities, were these “scientific fundamentalists” to more rigorously engage with the relevant authoritative texts surrounding their pet causes, many of their most dearly-held commitments would be challenged, some would be disconfirmed and others would simply fail to find validation. For instance:

Differences in cognitive styles

Google’s diversity efforts implicitly concede that there tend to be important cognitive differences between men and women. If women didn’t generally solve problems, execute tasks or manage organizations any differently from men, there wouldn’t be much benefit to diversifying: it is primarily cognitive and ideological diversity which render other forms of diversity valuable to a company like Google.

Perhaps the most authoritative and accessible survey exploring how cognition tends to vary between men and women is from Diane Halpern, the former president of the American Psychological Association, entitled Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities—now in its 4th edition. This work, and most other research in the field, suggests that, men and women on average seem to have different cognitive styles. These cognitive styles are the product of a rich interplay between one’s inherent capabilities and dispositions, one’s particular life experiences, and how particular capabilities are valued and utilized in a given social context—all of which influence if and how particular capacities are developed.

One cognitive style is not intrinsically “better” or “worse” than others in any blanket sense. However, it may be the case that in any particular environment, or for some particular task, one cognitive style may on average outperform another. This is what researchers are referring to when they describe average differences in “abilities” between men and women–although in many cases performance disparities can be mitigated by simply tweaking the format of the task at hand.

In the case of jobs like engineering, the differences in average ability between men and women are more-or-less negligible. Mr. Damore could be faulted for overemphasizing these differences while underemphasizing differences in average preferences and dispositions across genders. These tend to be far more substantial, begin very early in life, and cut across cultures. In fact, perhaps contrary to many Western-liberal assumptions, it turns out that the freer and more equitable a society is, the more pronounced these differences become. That is, in societies where people have more options, they often carve out employment spaces where they work disproportionately with others who share their gender identity.

Of course, to recognize the role female agency likely plays in their over or under representation in particular fields does not require denying the prevalence or severity of sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation in Silicon Valley, which render many tech firms hostile work environments for women, likely discouraging many who would otherwise apply. Similarly, we can acknowledge apparent psychological and cognitive trends among men vs. women while remaining sensitive to the reality that stereotyping is often pernicious, particularly for those whose interests and abilities deviate from the group average. In some cases stereotypes can even help reify or maintain performance disparities between men and women in professional settings.

However, by recognizing that underrepresentation is not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, a function of unjust discrimination–but that these trends are also the product of differences in preferences and dispositions–then it becomes clear that a more ambitious set of policy interventions would likely be required to approach a goal of gender parity in Silicon Valley.

Achieving a diverse, inclusive workforce

For many, the most controversial aspect of Mr. Damore’s memo seemed to be his criticism of Google’s efforts at increasing gender diversity. While the author took great pains to assure readers that he staunchly supported diversity efforts in principle, he argued that his company’s particular approach was unlikely to be successful:

Given the radical disparities in the current applicant pool, attempting to have the makeup of Google’s workforce mirror gender distributions of the broader U.S. society would likely require the company to pass over otherwise more qualified men in favor of female candidates with more eclectic backgrounds and less direct experience or expertise. Mr. Damore suggests that this approach would be unjustly discriminatory, and would likely be suboptimal for the company’s productivity and profits over the long term.

He goes on to argue that if tech companies really view it as a priority to become more appealing and hospitable for women, the literature suggests they should be making far more dramatic reforms of their structure, policies and culture: increasing direct collaboration, emphasizing cooperation over competition, adjusting rules, regulations and expectations to allow for easier work/life balance, etc. However, while some of these changes would make organizations more attractive to women, they would often bring their own costs and tradeoffs for a company like Google. This may explain why some more commonsense reforms have not been implemented already. In any case, he asserts, the kind of marginal tinkering companies like Google have committed to so far are unlikely to meaningfully address the problem.

In fact, feminists have long articulated many of these same points: to the extent activism is centered on narrow questions of wage parity or proportional representation, the prevailing system of exploitation is not undermined, but instead, reinforced. They’ve argued that if women truly want to flourish in male dominated industries, they must demand much more than preference in hiring or promotion, or other marginal concessions of the sort—indeed, a fundamental rethink of the current capitalist system may instead be in order.

That is, while one can certainly dispute the merits of Mr. Damore’s particular suggestions for addressing gender inequality–or object to his uncharitable portrayal of tech companies’ efforts in this regard—there are elements of his argument that are worthy of being seriously reflected upon.

What did we learn from all this?

Mr. Damore’s manifesto does not fly “directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades” as his detractors have accused. While some claims were overstated, some nuances overlooked, some inferences ill-founded—and the whole thing delivered in a strikingly tone-deaf fashion–on balance, his claims were more-or-less in keeping with the preponderance of evidence on these questions to date: men and women do tend to have different cognitive styles—and this likely plays a significant role in driving gender imbalances in certain fields of employment.

Undoubtedly, this verdict will be jarring to many readers: Journalists overwhelmingly lean left, as do “hard scientists” and social scientists. None of these parties are particularly interested in trumpeting findings, however well-established, which would undermine their moral commitments or provide fodder for their ideological rivals. As a result, research which defies progressives’ preferred narratives tends to be treated as taboo in mainstream culture—as Mr. Damore found out the hard way. He was ultimately fired for his blasphemous line of questioning.

To be sure, from a public relations standpoint it was likely necessary for Google to fire Damore. But the reality is that after this particular story fades from the public view, the workforce disparities between men and women in Silicon Valley will remain roughly unchanged. What will clearly change is that from now on, all across the valley, indeed all across the country, employees will be far less likely to question, challenge, or even discuss diversity policies–even when those policies fail to produce the desired results.

Notwithstanding Mr. Damore’s ill-fated memo, if companies like Google truly want to become more attractive and hospitable to women, they would be well-served by more soberly and comprehensively accounting for the causes of gender imbalances in their industry–and by formulating more grounded and substantial approaches for reversing these trends.

And for the rest of us—especially pundits and those who claim to FL science—it would be good to consult actual scientific literature relevant to discussions before making grand pronouncements about what “science says” on a matter. Science being science, it will often fail to confirm our priors—even for progressives—but that’s supposed to be its charm, right?

 

Published 8/25/2017 on the Huffington Post.
Syndicated 8/31/2017 by Observer.

Want to shake up the status quo? Account for the default effect.

Observers typically assume that if people are dissatisfied with a state of affairs, they will work to change it. Cognitive and behavioral scientists know that this assumption frequently fails as a result of the “default effect

For instance, Americans have widespread concerns about how software and entertainment companies are collecting and using their data or manipulating their choices.

Yet, in most cases companies do disclose what data they collect and what they do with it. Typically, they allow consumers to adjust their settings in order to exert greater control over what gets disclosed and how it’s used—and even provide the ability to “opt out” of features that users find undesirable.

Nonetheless, only around 5 percent of users meaningfully adjust their default settings. In fact, most will never even read the terms of service agreement. This is because, for most, it would require a prohibitive investment in time and effort to effectively navigate the “legalese” of service contracts, or to understand what the default settings are, identify which ones they’d like to change, how to change them, and the implications of those changes.

Hence, we arrive in a situation where, despite people being deeply unsatisfied with the status quo, almost no one attempts to do anything about it. Continue reading “Want to shake up the status quo? Account for the default effect.”

Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections

Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent 2017 commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust chose to focus on the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech, arguing that it “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free speech protections.

Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.

Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color. Continue reading “Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections”

Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.

Everyone’s unhappy. Everyone’s ashamed.
We all just got caught looking at somebody else’s page.
Nothing every went quite exactly as we planned:
Our ideas held no water, but we used them like a dam Modest Mouse, 'Missed the Boat' (We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank)

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Nate Silver offered Trump a 29% chance of taking the White House–and was widely disparaged for being far too generous to Trump!

Obviously, the Donald won. So what should we make of all the professional prognosticators who incessantly and near-unanimously assured us that it was impossible (or perhaps just ‘totally implausible’ if they were feeling charitable) that this outcome could come about?

Perhaps we should cut them some slack? After all, sometimes things happen that are legitimately improbable. Indeed, events such as these are often key drivers of history (which, arguably, makes them all the more important to “get right.” But that’s another matter). There’s a case to be made that Trump’s election was just this sort of phenomenon.

I don’t buy it.

Some Black Swans are events for which there was truly very little warning, or involve forces which are so complex and ill-understood that reliable prediction is impossible. Other Black Swans are merely events that are inconceivable given a certain set of assumptions, references or manners of thought. Trump’s election falls into this latter category.

Most analysts and pundits were absolutely convinced all the way until that last moment that Trump would not be able to win the Republican nomination. After he won the nomination, there was a lot of talk about lessons learned. However, almost immediately after Clinton secured her nomination it was depicted as virtually inevitable that she would win the general election—probably in a landslide (here, here, here for example).

Yet there was ample reason to believe things would go the other way. This is not an incident of hindsight bias: I realized early on that that Trump would likely not only win the Republican nomination, but the presidency as well. I predicted that he would beat Hillary Clinton explicitly, unequivocally and “on the record” for the first time in March 2016, and spent much of the remaining year urging Trump’s opposition to take his candidacy seriously and to better understand and respond to the factors driving his success.  In vain.

After Trump won the general election, yet again there were avowals of lessons learned. But already narratives are emerging that 2018 and 2020 will be bloodbaths for the president and his party (if he even lasts that long in office). Rather than succumbing to this sort of wishful thinking, I decided to look for strong indicators as to how the race might go.

Polling this early in Trump’s administration seemed unlikely to be predictive—especially as the polls themselves proved somewhat unreliable in the 2016 cycle overall (particularly at the state level). Statistically speaking, it seemed the best way to start was to look at the base-rate for reelection in U.S. presidential races. Continue reading “Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.”

Trump’s Opponents Need to Stop Playing into His Hands

What gives terrorists power are the reactions they are able to elicit from their intended targets: hysteria leads to poorly-calibrated reactions that can be exploited to the insurgents’ advantage.

For instance, it is beyond the capacity of Islamic terror groups like ISIS to, themselves, meaningfully challenge the prevailing global order. However, they have been able to very effectively goad Western nations into undermining their own values, norms, institutions and interests—to curb their own freedoms, rights and civil liberties–and in the name of fighting terrorism, no less!

What does any of this have to do with Trump? A lot, it turns out.

Continue reading “Trump’s Opponents Need to Stop Playing into His Hands”

Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity

Beginning in the late 18th century, post-secondary education was restructured across Europe—in part under the auspices of accelerating the transition to an envisioned rational and secular age.[1] In order to enroll the broadest swath of the public in this enterprise, institutions and curricula were rendered more accessible, inclusive, and professionally-oriented. At the time, Nietzsche condemned[2] the “ubiquitous encouragement of everyone’s so-called ‘individual personality’” and the growing trend to curb “serious and unrelenting critical habits and opinions” at universities—discerning as astutely in his own time as Jonathan Haidt today that the use of educational institutions for promoting a particular social vision is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads.[3]

Yet across Western societies, and especially in elite circles, the 18th Century faith persists that a proliferation of education, science, and technology will help usher in a more rational and secular age[4]—one governed by expertise, and defined by worldwide peace and prosperity.[5]  Among adherents of this vision, universities are held in particularly high regard, as incubators of that better tomorrow—where our best and brightest hone the character, skills and knowledge to solve the world’s ills in an environment that promotes reasoned and civil debate, the free exchange of ideas, and an unflinching commitment to truth. However, contemporary research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests a much bleaker picture:[6]

For instance, rather than serving as an objective base upon which agreements can be built, evoking scientific studies or statistics in the context of socio-political arguments tends to further polarize interlocutors.[7] Both conservatives and progressives politicize science and evaluate its findings on an ideological basis: exaggerating conclusions when convenient while findings ways to ignore, discredit, defund or suppress research which seems to threaten one’s identity or perceived interests.[8] Rather than contributing to open-mindedness or intellectual humility, greater cognitive sophistication or knowledge often renders people less flexible in their beliefs by enhancing their abilities to critique and dismiss challenges, or advance counter-arguments, regardless of “the facts”—thereby exacerbating people’s natural inclinations towards motivated reasoning.[9]

That is, if one wanted to create an environment which actually promoted closed-mindedness, dogmatism and polarization, contemporary research suggests the following prescription: consolidate societies’ most intelligent, knowledgeable and charismatic people, at a time in their lives when their identities are just taking shape (which increases the perceived urgency of protecting and validating said identities[10]), and place them in a competitive environment focused largely (and increasingly) on the sciences. [11] In a word: universities.[12]

Perhaps then, it should not be surprising that the long leftward trajectory of U.S. institutions of higher learning seems to have culminated with conservative faculty, students and perspectives almost completely absent from many fields,[13] while dissent from progressive ideology is met with increasing sanctions and scandal[14]—from which even historical figures are not immune.[15]

However one may feel about these developments from a moral or political point of view, they are harmful for the practice and profession of science–especially for the social and behavioral sciences.

Continue reading “Social Research Will Benefit from Greater Ideological Diversity”

In the Trump Administration, Principled Civil Servants Like James Comey Are Critical

Let’s be clear about one thing straightaway: James Comey did not sabotage Hillary Clinton. If that had been his intention, it was well within his power to outright destroy her candidacy. In the wake of Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s improper meeting with former President Bill Clinton, the Department of Justice was scandalized. Under pressure, Lynch pledged to follow through on the FBI’s recommendation, whatever it was. The decision about whether or not the FBI would recommend charges was ultimately Comey’s to make, and his alone (indeed, Lynch was so vulnerable after her impropriety that she couldn’t even bring herself to order the FBI Director not to inform lawmakers about the discovery of new emails; she was in no position to deny his recommendations on prosecution). If Comey were out to sabotage Clinton, he would have recommended charges; the DOJ would have had little choice but to proceed with prosecution. Regardless of how the case ultimately fared in court, it would have certainly persisted throughout the entire election cycle—utterly decimating Clinton’s prospects.

Instead, Comey declined to recommend charges– despite the FBI having uncovered serious violations of protocol which would have likely landed a lower-profile civil servant behind bars. This decision outraged Congressional Republicans, and even many within the FBI, who accused Comey of playing politics on Clinton’s behalf.

This was not the only time the accusation was made: as the media began combing Wikileaks-released emails that strongly suggested inappropriate relations between the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and wealthy foreign donors (the latest of many apparent Clinton Foundation violations, see here, here, here, here, here, or here), Comey refused to so much as comment as to whether or not the FBI was considering an investigation into the Foundation—prompting a Breitbart conspiracy theory that he was on the Clinton payroll as well.

To assuage concerns about a possible FBI bias towards Clinton, he assured lawmakers that if new information arose which seemed pertinent to the investigation, he would notify them promptly. And multiple times after closing the investigation new evidence was found—and each time, Comey notified the relevant lawmakers. And after considering the new evidence, reiterated his recommendation against prosecution—despite enormous pressure to reverse course.

Continue reading “In the Trump Administration, Principled Civil Servants Like James Comey Are Critical”

The Big Debate About Microaggressions

The concept of microaggressions gained prominence with the publication of Sue et al.’s 2007, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” which defined microaggressions as communicative, somatic, environmental or relational cues that demean and/or disempower members of minority groups in virtue of their minority status. Microaggressions, they asserted, are typically subtle and ambiguous. Often, they are inadvertent or altogether unconscious. For these reasons, they are also far more pervasive than other, more overt, forms of bigotry (which are less-tolerated in contemporary America).

The authors propose a tripartite taxonomy of microaggressions:

  • Microassaults involve explicit and intentional racial derogation;
  • Microinsults involve rudeness or insensitivity towards another’s heritage or identity;
  • Microinvalidations occur when the thoughts and feelings of a minority group member seem to be excluded, negated or nullified as a result of their minority status.

The authors then present anecdotal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to microaggressions is detrimental to the well-being of minorities. Moreover, they assert, a lack of awareness about the prevalence and impact of microaggressions among mental health professionals could undermine the practice of clinical psychology—reducing the quality and accessibility of care for those who may need it most.

Towards the conclusion, however, the authors acknowledge the “nascent” state of research on microaggressions and call for further investigation. They emphasize that future studies should focus first and foremost on empirically substantiating the harm caused by microaggressions, and documenting how people cope (or fail to cope) with experiencing them. They suggest further research should also probe whether or not there is systematic variation as to who incurs microaggressions, which type or types of microaggressions particular populations tend to endure, how harmful microaggressions are to different groups, and in which contexts microaggressions tend to be more (or less) prevalent or harmful. Finally, the authors recommend expanding microaggression research to include incidents against gender and sexual minorities, and those with disabilities.

 

The State of Microaggression Research Today

In the decade following Sue et al.’s landmark paper, there have been extensive discussions about microaggressions—among practitioners, in the academic literature, and increasingly, in popular media outlets and public forums. But unfortunately, very little empirical research has been conducted to actually substantiate the ubiquity of microaggressions, to catalog the harm they cause, or to refine the authors’ initial taxonomy.

In “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” published in the latest issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, HxA member Scott Lilienfeld highlights five core premises undergirding the microaggression research program (MRP):

  1. Microaggressions are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation.
  2. Microaggressions are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.
  3. Microaggressions reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives.
  4. Microaggressions can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports.
  5. Microaggression exert an adverse impact on recipient’s mental health.

His comprehensive meta-analysis suggests that there is “negligible” support for these axioms—individually or (especially) collectively.

Continue reading “The Big Debate About Microaggressions”

An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.

 
What is at stake in the conflict over representations of the future is nothing other than the attitude of the declining classes to their decline—either demoralization, which leads to a rout….or mobilization, which leads to the collective search for a collective solution to the crisis.
What can make the difference is, fundamentally, the possession of the symbolic instruments enabling the group to take control of the crisis and to organize themselves with a view to a collective response, rather than fleeing from real or feared degradation in a reactionary resentment and the representation of history as a conspiracy. Pierre Bourdieu, The Bachelor's Ball (p. 189)
We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first. Frank Ocean, 'Nikes' (Blonde)

In 2008, Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain. This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an Emerging Democratic Majority that stood to reshape politics as we know it. The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men lean right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.

Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans comfortably control both chambers of Congress. They also dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide—bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government. Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican Administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most charismatic and successful Democratic President since LBJ.

In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold onto the faith that the Emerging Demographic Majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up. However, such optimism would be ill-advised–the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. Continue reading “An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.”

Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising

As an epistemologist, I generally avoid predictions in favor of trying to determine what is known and how to build upon or utilize knowledge. But when I do feel compelled to go on record with predictions, it is generally with a sense of urgency–to draw public attention to an approaching black swan.

Black swans are phenomena which seem inconceivable relative to prevailing assumptions and beliefs. Black swan events arise when our conception of the world becomes untethered from events “on the ground.”

In this election cycle, the broad consensus was that Trump was an amusing epiphenomenon with little staying power and few prospects. By contrast, since the declaration of her candidacy, there was a pervasive assumption that Hillary Clinton would coast to victory. This cycle seemed to turn conventional wisdom on its head at every turn, but nonetheless, as Americans went to cast their ballots even the most rigorous and gutsy of poll analysts predicted less than a 30% chance for a Clinton loss (and even this was viewed by many as being far too generous to Trump).

To be sure, prediction is a perilous game. But one of the biggest problems in the way we rely on predictions in our public discourse is that pundits are rarely held to account for their reliability. And even in those rare instances where someone actually issues a mea culpa for grievous errors, little seems to be learned in terms of how to approach subsequent developments.

For instance, “no one” saw it as possible that Trump would win the Republican nomination—even down to the final moments. When he did win, there was a lot of handwringing about humility and lessons learned—but then almost immediately the same narrative emerged again: Trump stood no chance at winning the general election. And not just he, the Republican Party was finished, perhaps for generations, as a result of his candidacy. Things look very different today, with the Democrats standing on the brink of irrelevance, while the signature accomplishments of their most charismatic and transformation leader in generations seem set to be erased.

The centerpiece of the Democrats’ (over)confidence was their supposed “electoral firewall”—a safeguard they were so sure of that they scarcely even bothered to reach out to these constituents who were supposed to serve as their last line of defense against Trump (ensuring that even in the unlikely event that they lost the popular vote, they would win the Electoral College). How’d that turn out? Clinton is shaping up to lose the Electoral College by a larger margin than those who were defeated in 1996, 2000 or 2004.

How could this happen?” was the refrain on November 9th. Here’s how: Continue reading “Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising”

Why Conservatives Must Reject Trump’s Homonationalism

In a RNC nomination acceptance speech widely maligned as dystopian, Donald Trump received rare mainstream media praise for asserting:

 

“Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted LGBTQ community. No good. And we’re going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”

 

While heralded as a “watershed moment” for the Republican Party, many failed to take note of what was not said in Trump’s speech. For instance, there was no call for the RNC to revise or reconsider its party platform, described by the Log Cabin Republicans as being “the most anti-LGBT” in the party’s history.

In order to realize his convention pledge, Trump would later propose the U.S. resort to “extreme vetting” of aspiring immigrants to prevent anyone harboring “bigotry or hatred” towards gender or sexual minorities from entering the U.S. However, there was absolutely no mention of restricting American citizens from going to other countries with the explicit purpose of spreading ideologies which the policy would construe as homophobic or misogynistic.

That is, in both cases Trump declined to challenge his supporters on their own attitudes or behaviors—instead, the “gay issue” was raised primarily as a means of attacking foreigners and, especially, Muslims.

In social research, this phenomena is referred to as Homonationalism: a bad-faith embrace of LGBTQ advocacy to justify hatred, discrimination or violence towards some “backwards” other. Before LGBTQ issues became the humanitarian vogue, “women’s empowerment” occupied the same position—with people who were, themselves, staunchly anti-feminist calling for war against Muslims for the sake of “liberating women.”

However, conservatives in the U.S. should beware of jumping on this particular bandwagon—because if the GOP follows Trump down this path, it is they who stand to lose the most in the long run.

 

Continue reading “Why Conservatives Must Reject Trump’s Homonationalism”

Racially Profiling “Jihadists” Sounds Like Common Sense. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work

Over the weekend there was a series of bombings, and attempted bombings, in New Jersey and Manhattan (where I live). Authorities have identified and arrested one Ahmed Khan in connection with the attacks, which injured dozens of people in the New York area.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was quick to seize on this incident as further proof of the need to “profile” people for terrorism. Verbatim:

“We’re allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country, and make it unsafe for people. We don’t want to do any profiling. If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person … because if he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.
Fox & Friends, 19 September 2016

Following media outcry at his remarks, Trump would (dubiously) deny that he was calling for racial profiling. However, the candidate has previously, and very explicitly, suggested the need this very tactic—for instance, in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:

“But look, we have — whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we’d better get smart. We are letting tens of thousands of people into our country. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
Hannity, 17 August 2016

The intuitive appeal of this strategy is obvious: it seems like a “certain kind of person” tends to commit these acts—let’s pay closer scrutiny to “those people” and we can probably nip a lot of attacks in the bud. In fact, the solution sounds so straightforward that many perhaps wonder why on Earth this practice is not already central to our law enforcement and counter-terrorism portfolio. I will briefly answer that question below:

 

Continue reading “Racially Profiling “Jihadists” Sounds Like Common Sense. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work”

Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?

In March 2016, the Green Party nominated Dr. Jill Stein as their candidate for President of the United States. They have had female vice-presidential nominees on every single ticket since 1996, and ran all-female tickets in 2008 and 2012. But unfortunately, the highest the Green Party has ever performed in a general election was in 2000, when they garnered nearly 3% of the popular vote. The party was relegated to obscurity thereafter—decried as spoilers who bear responsibility for the election of George W. Bush and everything that followed.

And while both the Democratic and Republican parties have previously nominated a woman to be their vice-presidential nominees (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively), Hillary Clinton is the first woman to appear at the top of one of the major party tickets—making her the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history. The U.S. has lagged far behind many other countries in achieving this milestone. For perspective, there have been 11 women from Muslim-majority nations that have served as PM or President, and about 1 out of every 10 contemporary governments has a female head of government or head of state.

The significance of Clinton’s achievement transcends mere symbolism: As a black man, the presidency of Barack Obama has impacted me in ways that are hard to describe, despite frequent political differences. Similarly, while adamantly opposed to Hillary’s nomination, I appreciate how meaningful it could be for a generation to grow up experiencing a woman as the “leader of the free world”—even more so at this moment, when women seem poised to simultaneously head up Britain, France and Germany as well (the implications of the fact that most of these are center-to-far right leaning politicians is a matter for a different essay). However, throughout this political season I have also found myself both perplexed and outraged by how little discussion there has been about the historic nature of Ms. Clinton’s principal Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

Now, with the Democratic primary officially concluded, following Sanders’ concession to Hillary Clinton and his full-throated convention endorsement—it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on just how significant his campaign has been, and what Sanders’ supporters can take from it going forward.

Continue reading “Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?”

One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)

Let’s start with all the usual caveats: while there may be, abstractly, a lot to like about Trump, in reality, he is proving to be a demagogue. Moreover, both he and his advisory team are painfully ignorant about Islam—and as a result, most of his policy proposals and rhetoric about Islamic terrorism have been ill-informed and counter-productive.

But for all that, Trump has repeatedly emphasized a point which many of his rivals and critics are perhaps a little too eager to gloss over—namely that in many instances, a would-be terrorist’s family, friends or religious advisors know that their loved one is heading down a dark path, but fail to report it.

Trump’s insinuation, of course, is that the reason friends and family fail to report it is because they are, themselves, sympathetic to ISIS or al-Qaeda and want to see terror plots succeed. And certainly, there are instances of this: the San Bernardino attacks were carried out by a husband and wife, the Paris attacks by two brothers and a couple they were friends with, the Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsarnaev Brothers. Often people travel to ISIS territory with their lovers, siblings or best friends, and typically people are brought into ISIS’ orbit by someone they know who has previously committed to the group.

Nonetheless, according to the New America Foundation’s records, 84% of disrupted jihadist plots were foiled as a result of someone “seeing something and saying something” (28% of the time information was volunteered by concerned family, friends, other community members; 47% of the time intelligence was provided by a paid informant; in 9% of cases authorities were given a tip by a stranger who observed suspicious activity). For comparison, only 42% of non-jihadist terror plots are disrupted by this kind of reporting—meaning the social networks of Islamic extremists are relatively more cooperative with authorities than those of non-Muslim extremists (about twice as cooperative, in fact).

However, these statistics just reflect the 330 Muslims (and 182 non-Muslims) who have been indicted over the last 15 years for supporting terrorism. There are thousands of other ISIS sympathizers within the United States—and law enforcement agencies are hungry for more fine-grained information to determine which of these are most likely to act on their convictions (or are actively plotting attacks). In order to close this intelligence gap, it is critical to understand why family, friends and associates who may be deeply concerned about a loved one’s trajectory are often also reluctant or unwilling to cooperate with authorities.

 

Continue reading “One Thing Trump Gets Right About Muslims, Terrorism (Kind of)”

Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.

 

In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.

Continue reading “Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice”

Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose

As the 2016 presidential primaries got underway, there seemed to be a couple incontrovertible truths: Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, and Trump stood no chance (it was going to be Jeb or Rubio). Yet, here we are six months before the election, and Trump has seized the Republican nomination while Clinton is still working to box out Bernie Sanders’ insurgency (without losing his voters, who it turns out, may be ripe for Trump to peel off after all).

Nonetheless, the prevailing narrative is that while there is now a chance that Trump could actually win in November, it’s basically Hillary Clinton’s election to lose. Pundits focus on “fundamentals,” like Hillary’s superior fundraising, analytics, or ground game; however, these haven’t proven terribly predictive this cycle. And by focusing on conventional elements, analysts seem to be overlooking novel dynamics which are likely more important—specifically, the public’s persistent and negative perception of Hillary Clinton, the incumbency handicap, and a phenomenon I call “negative intersectionality.”

  Continue reading “Why 2016 May Be Donald Trump’s Race to Lose”

Hillary Clinton Is No Friend of Black Empowerment

As an African American, I have struggled to understand why so many of my black brothers and sisters seem to prefer Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Some have argued that black people are terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency, and so they rally around Clinton under the belief that she is more electable in the November general contest. However, looking at the election results so far it seems clear that Bernie Sanders actually stands the best chance of prevailing over Trump, while Hillary would likely lose.

Then there’s the notion that Hillary Clinton is somehow preserving Barack Obama’s legacy: just a few short months ago she was going out of her way to distance herself from the Obama Administration because she believed it was politically expedient to do so. Now, under threat from Sanders’ insurgency, she is cynically trying to sell herself as Obama’s right-hand. But of course, the moment she locks down the nomination she’ll go back to drawing contrast–the Clintons have always been leaders at “vote capturing.”

But perhaps the most disturbing of all is the insinuation that Hillary Clinton has some kind of proud and storied legacy in the service of black empowerment. She doesn’t. Consider the comparative records of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:

The Chicago Years

While attending the University of Chicago, Sanders served as a chapter chairman for the Congress for Racial Equality. In this capacity, he worked to end segregation in schools and housing—activities for which he was arrested.

What was Hillary Clinton doing while Sanders was organizing sit-ins and demonstrations? Well, she was also living in Chicago at the time, but she was working for the other team: in 1963-4, Clinton was a volunteer and supporter for the campaign of Barry Goldwater.

For those who don’t know, Goldwater’s claim to fame is that he was the first Republican to win the Deep South since Reconstruction. He achieved this feat by vowing to undermine enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, and to prevent further erosion of white privilege. His campaign was so disgusting that many Republican leaders, such as George Romney and John Rockefeller, refused to endorse his candidacy even after he won his party’s nomination. A good deal of the Republican electorate, who had traditionally championed civil rights and civil liberties, also refused to support him. As a result, those aforementioned Deep South states were literally the only contests he won other than his home state of Arizona in one of the most dramatic landslide losses in U.S. presidential history. Yet, this is the man who inspired Hillary Clinton to get into politics. And she was campaigning for him while Bernie was campaigning for desegregation.

The trend continues: in 1984 and 88, Bernie Sanders endorsed and supported Jessie Jackson’s bids for the White House, which would have made him America’s first African-American president. Rather than endorsing this movement, Bill Clinton infamously sought to elevate himself among white Southern and Rust-Belt voters at the expense of Mr. Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition.

Of course, it’d be easy to write this off–after all, it was a long time ago. However, the Clintons’ tenure in the White House doesn’t look so great in hindsight either:

The Clinton Administration(s)

Bill Clinton’s deregulation of banks and Wall Street helped bring about the 2008 financial collapse that profoundly and disproportionately obliterated black wealth. In the wake of this disaster, and despite their long and sordid history of discrimination and predatory practices against people of color, Hillary Clinton continues to defend the institutions responsible (and is richly rewarded for doing so).

Bill Clinton’s welfare reform further contributed to extreme poverty—particularly for African Americans and other communities of color.  While Bernie strongly resisted these measures, Hillary staunchly advocated for them—referring to people on welfare as “deadbeats” who were largely responsible for their own continued poverty.

And then, of course, there are the Clinton-era “tough on crime” measures, which Hillary Clinton actively lobbied for. While Sanders ultimately voted for the bill for the sake of its assault rifle ban and domestic violence protections, he first took to the senate floor to passionately denounce the draconian sentencing provisions contained therein, which he aptly predicted would be exercised primarily against America’s poor, largely people of color. In contrast, Hillary Clinton referred to the criminalized as animals, describing them as “super-predators” which have to be “brought to heel.”

More Americans were incarcerated under Bill Clinton than any previous president–almost all poor people, overwhelmingly black and brown. Yet as late as 2008, despite the by-then obvious effects of these policies on communities of color, Clinton stood by this record proudly and actually mocked Barack Obama’s opposition to mandatory minimum sentences.

Later in that same cycle, it would be Clinton supporters who first began circulating rumors that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and might be a secret Muslim (launching the “birther” movement). Not only did Clinton fail to denounce these claims from her supporters (then later hypocritically bash Donald Trump for doing the same), her campaign actively attempted to capitalize on this paranoia, dog-whistling that Hillary was “born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century” and bragging about the edge she held over Obama among non-college attending white Americans.

Little Has Changed

Then again, 2008 was almost 8 years ago, right? What about today?

Consider that one of the people currently attempting to slime Bernie Sanders on Clinton’s behalf is her long-time friend and ally, David Brock, who infamously led the hatchet-job against Law Professor Anita Hill when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. For Hillary Clinton to sell herself as a champion of women and African Americans while closely associating herself with someone like Brock is deeply unsettling…much like Clinton taking foreign policy and national security guidance from the same consulting firm that formulates strategy for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

In a recent debate, Clinton reiterated confederate narratives about the origins of America’s racial dynamics. In the aftermath of Dylan Roof’s massacre at Emannuel AME in Charleston, she went to a predominantly-black church in Ferguson, Missouri—the site of the first Black Lives Matter uprisings following the death of Michael Brown—and went out of her way to emphasize that “All Lives Matter.”

One could go on and on. These are not instances of occasional misspeaking or malformed policies—instead, a consistent pattern of words and actions persisting over decades. This is not to suggest Hillary Clinton is racist, at least not any more than most white people, but the idea that she is or ever has been a stalwart advocate for black empowerment is absolutely ludicrous.

A Generational Divide?

Although black people do vote with more cohesiveness than most other groups, we are not a monolith. And the narrative that people of color unanimously back Clinton over Sanders is misleading, at best:

While much of the “old guard” of African American politicians has rallied around Hillary Clinton, newer leaders–like Rep. Keith Ellison and contemporary black revolutionaries like Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates–have aligned themselves with Bernie Sanders in the conviction that his policies, and his approach, stand the best chance of meaningfully redressing social inequality. Still others, such as Black Lives Matter Chicago co-founder Aislinn Pulley, are demanding substantive action over platitudes or token reforms, and are increasingly refusing to be part of the DNC farce at all.

This bodes ill for Clinton: The longer this race goes on, and the more black voters examine the comparative records, platforms and prospects of Clinton v. Sanders, the more likely it is that the former’s cynical identity politics campaign will once-again implode, as it did in 2008.

Hillary’s record on civil rights is indeed extensive, albeit inconsistent and often ignoble. By contrast, Bernie has a long, proud, consistent record on fighting inequality—often far ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard–and always far, far ahead of Hillary Clinton.

Published 4/3/2016 on Salon

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Conservativism

What do conservatives stand for?

One popular narrative is that conservatives cling to tradition and resist change. There is an element of truth to this description in that conservatives do value tradition–albeit not for its own sake. Rather, out of the conviction that systems and institutions which have proven themselves over the course of generations should not be hastily cast aside in favor of the untested (and typically ill-fated) vogue. But ultimately, this is a feature of conservativism rather than its essence.

Conservativism is a response to progressivism. The point of divergence between them relates to the (im)perfectability of man–a centuries-long debate with theological origins but profound political implications:

Progressives tend to view history in a more-or-less linear fashion. It is held that as a result of mankind’s essential goodness (or rationality), or else as a result of immutable suprahuman forces, humanity is on a trajectory towards some “end of history” (the notion of progress is incomprehensible absent an end-state. For instance, what would constitute “progress” on an infinite line?).

Insofar as this (implicit or explicit) climax is viewed as utopian in nature (as is usually the case), progressives believe it is their responsibility to hasten this outcome, or even instantiate their ideal in the here-and-now. They typically view governments as a means to achieve these ends, appealing to some conception of the Good which the state is supposed to realize, often by means of some presumed universally-superior mode of societal arrangement. It is this impulse which undergirded the Enlightenment, Marxism, and myriad other revolutionary movements—and its negation forms the basis for conservativism.

 

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The Myth and Reality of American Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is often hailed as a cornerstone of American society. From Mom & Pop stores to Silicon Valley startups, it has been held up as the key to self-reliance and social mobility. Unfortunately, as American society has become more stratified and social mobility has stalled, these narratives have taken on an increasingly mythological character.

For instance, today only 21% of America’s wealthiest families earned their income through entrepreneurship–about half the worldwide average. As compared to the rest of the world, Americans are far more likely to have achieved success by rising to the top of a large and established enterprise than by starting their own.  In fact, entrepreneurship is actually on the decline in America.

In a similar manner, politicians frequently assert that small businesses are responsible for most new jobs in America. While technically true, the claim is misleading: businesses with less than 50 employees only employ about a third of the labor force. And not only is the quantity of small business jobs overstated, so is the quality of these jobs. As compared to their large corporate competitors, jobs created by small businesses tend to be relatively low paying, have smaller benefits packages and little room for advancement. Moreover, they often prove temporary as only 1 out of every 3 business ventures survives for five years or more, and even fewer manage to “scale up” into large, expansive enterprises (which is how new businesses really add energy to the economy).

Perhaps most troubling is that rather than being a ladder for social mobility, it turns out most successful entrepreneurial enterprises are headed up by people who hail from wealthy families. In other words, entrepreneurship is generally not a means by which low or middle income earners can improve their station in life—it is primarily a path for the next generation of social elites to maintain or grow their wealth. However, by exploring why it is that the already-wealthy are so much better at launching viable business concepts, it may be possible to glean insight into how to extend these advantages to a broader swath of American society.

 

Continue reading “The Myth and Reality of American Entrepreneurship”

Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, and he will have the Democratic National Committee to thank for it. Much has been made of the “math” of the Democratic nomination, and how it favors Hillary Clinton—in large part due to her huge lead in unpledged “superdelegates” (whose decision will determine the election, given that neither candidate is likely to reach the requisite number of delegates to win outright). But for a moment, let’s set aside the math of the Democratic primary, and look at the big picture: What matters for the general election is who can win swing states and ensure high voter turnout and enthusiasm in solidly blue states. In this regard, Bernie Sanders is clearly the more electable candidate.

Swing States, Blue States

The 10 closest races in 2012 were in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Six of these have voted so far in primary contests. Of these, Sanders decisively won 3 (New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota), and they virtually tied in 2 others (Sanders narrowly losing Nevada and Iowa). So in terms of swing states, the edge appears to be with Sanders.

As for solidly-blue states, only a handful have voted so far, but the outcome is clear: Bernie Sanders decisively won Vermont and Maine, pulled a huge upset in Michigan, and virtually tied Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts. Clinton has not decisively won even one single solidly-blue state. Instead, virtually all of her pledged delegate lead comes from handily winning in solidly red states which she (or any Democrat) would be highly-unlikely to win in a general election.

Nonetheless, the constant presentation of these numbers (superdelegate votes almost always included in media analyses of the race) reinforces the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, and pushes many into her camp as the best choice against the Republicans; this further expands her lead and reifies the perceived electability disparity, ad nauseam. Hence the narrative that Bernie Sanders is the ideological candidate who inspires, and Hillary the pragmatist who can win. In reality, Bernie is both. However, barring a major grassroots revolt, Hillary Clinton will seize the nomination. And she will lose to Donald Trump.

Continue reading “Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton”

Why There Aren’t More Black Republicans

It is often remarked that the Republican Party was founded by Lincoln, who oversaw the defeat of the Confederacy, the emancipation of slaves, and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. But the Republican history of civil rights is much richer than this. Conversely, the history of the Democratic Party has been overwhelmingly pro-slavery and pro-segregation.

Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and strongly resisted the passage of the 14th Amendment (which ensured equal rights and protections under the law, championed by Republicans). The subsequent Republican Administration of Ulysses S. Grant saw the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 71 which helped dismantle the KKK and protect black voting rights. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In contrast, the next Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, won re-election in 1892 by campaigning against the Republican-sponsored Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have strengthened Grant’s civil rights legislation. Not only did Cleveland successfully kill that bill, he helped launch a movement to repeal and undermine civil rights legislation across the country.

His eventual successor, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, declared that “segregation was not a humiliation, but a benefit.” Commensurate with this thinking, when the Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect America’s own apartheid system (and Britain’s). This was one of the pivotal acts which helped push the Japanese out of the post-WWI international community, precipitating the Second World War.

While FDR’s “New Deal Coalition” advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly through the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover to direct the FBI—who would abuse his position to surveille, intimidate and otherwise undermine civil rights activists throughout his decades-long tenure. He actively supported the internment of Japanese Americans. And while FDR pushed for integration in government contracting jobs, because his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, he said little about ending America’s apartheid system altogether. In fact, black agriculture and domestic workers (i.e. the majority of black workers) were explicitly excluded from receiving benefits from the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This whites-only welfare system, in turn, exacerbated socioeconomic inequality over generations.

While Democratic President Harry Truman passed executive orders to eliminate segregation among federal employees, he faced a revolt from his Democratic colleagues and his electoral base as a result—and was largely unable to actually realize his edicts. It would be his successor, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw the implementation and enforcement of these provisions. Eisenhower would also champion the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960—the only major civil rights legislation passed through the Congress since Republican President Grant. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education rulings, Eisenhower federalized units of the National Guard in order to help force integration of schools and protect black students.

In contrast, President Kennedy’s advocacy for civil rights was lackluster and inconsistent due to concerns about alienating his party’s base. The first real moral leader for the Democratic Party on civil rights would be LBJ, whose administration would oversee the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 68, along with 1965’s  Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts, and the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Of course, all of these efforts were stanchly opposed by the Democratic coalition headed up by George Wallace, and only passed as a result of coalitions the Johnson Administration built with Republican legislators.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of these moves by LBJ’s Administration, Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would play to fears about the civil rights movement and the social unrest of the 60’s in order to consolidate support for the right among lower-income, blue-collar, and rural white Americans, particularly in the former Democratic stronghold of the south.  But they faced stiff opposition from the Republican coalition of George Romney, who relentlessly and confrontationally championed affirmative action, fair housing, and civil rights—arguing that the so-called “Southern strategy” was a cynical betrayal of conservative ideals and the Republican tradition.

It is often emphasized how Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped institute the mass incarceration state. Less known is that Reagan’s initiatives largely built upon a series of Democratic “law and order” policies (see Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America). Or that Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” laws were just as destructive as Reagan’s.  Similarly, while Republicans are often (rightfully) accused of gerrymandering districts to dilute or marginalize black voters, left out of the discussion is that for most of the country’s history it was the Democratic Party who pioneered these tactics. And of late, as the Democrats have increasingly come to take the minority vote for granted rather than seeing it as a threat, they have come to champion gerrymandering once again in order to concentrate the minority vote to create “safe districts.” The result of these bi-partisan efforts is a situation in which minority voters wield disproportionate influence in a small number of districts, and virtually no influence in most others.

 

The Elephant in the Room

Given this history, it seems almost incomprehensible that up to 95% of today’s African American voters are aligned with the Democratic Party (see Leah Wright-Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican). But then again, the GOP has largely abandoned its own proud legacy of civil rights activism:

Continue reading “Why There Aren’t More Black Republicans”

No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.

On Saturday January 2nd, citizens of Burns, Oregon held a rally protesting the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The local demonstration was co-opted by a militia, led by Nevada-native Ammon Bundy, now calling itself “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” Following its participation in the planned protest, the militia seized and continues to illegally occupy the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—vowing to remain there unless and until the Hammonds are granted clemency.

Many have been eager to brand Bundy and his militia as terrorists, referring to them as “Ya’ll-Qaeda,” “Yee-haw-dists” or “Vanilla ISIS.” And to be sure, there are similarities with Islamic militant groups. For instance, as with al-Qaeda, militants who drew inspiration from the Bundys have carried out atrocities that the family itself had to disavow.

Like Al-Qaeda, Bundy and his associates hold views which most would consider extreme. In fact, they share ISIS’ admiration for slavery—with Cliven Bundy (Ammon’s father, and the head of the Bundy clan) having suggested that blacks may be better off today if they were still in chains; others affiliated with (and many more who support) the movement harbor neo-confederate beliefs; still others from the militia are known members of designated hate groups and extremist organizations.

Moreover, while Bundy’s “resistance movement” is essentially driven by socio-political issues, chiefly land rights and perceived overreach by the federal government—their campaign is also religiously framed and motivated. This same dynamic holds true for ISIS, al-Qaeda and related groups.

However, holding controversial views should not render someone a terrorist. Nor does religious inspiration–after all, activists of many causes, including civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection have been driven by their faith and framed their movements in religious terms.

Ultimately, any similarities between the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and Islamic terrorists are vastly outweighed by the differences between them. 

Continue reading “No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.”

Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’

In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”).  In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands.

 

Continue reading “Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’”

On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.

 

Continue reading “On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations”

Creating Visionaries

Education plays a pivotal role in cultivating excellence—although its function is largely misunderstood. Consider the case of entrepreneurs:

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be both more intelligent than average, but also more confident. Perhaps for these very reasons, they are also far more likely to engage in disruptive or even illicit activity in their youth. Fortunately, wealthy children tend to grow up in an environment which helps them cultivate and productively channel these impulses:

Elite schools generally respect students’ drive and intelligence rather than teaching to the lowest-denominator; they are not afraid to challenge students’ pre-existing beliefs, even at the cost of creating controversy or offense—nor are they afraid to teach ignorance and uncertainty. At the same time, these programs tend to have less testing, less busy-work, and less memorization or regurgitation of trivia. This enables students to explore course subject-matter with far greater depth, breadth and rigor. Overall, elite institutions tend to be less-structured, to prize inter-disciplinary pursuits and collaboration, and to give students a good deal of latitude in forming their course of study. In other words, it is the virtual opposite of what the rest of us experience. Continue reading “Creating Visionaries”

Today’s Republican Party, neither Religious nor Conservative

Whistling “zippity doo da” as he stepped into the briefing room, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would be vacating his position as Speaker, and also his seat in the Senate, at the end of October—after pushing through a bill to fund the government and ensuring there will be no government shutdown.

The announcement followed the Papal visit to Washington D.C., including a powerful address to Congress that had a particularly profound effect on Representative Boehner. Of course, Boehner is known to be a sentimental guy—but what was written on the Speaker’s face at various points of the Pope’s address was absolute anguish. And indeed, in his press conference, Boehner acknowledged that his time with the Pope had been revelatory and cathartic—to the point where he considered resigning that very night. But he prayed on it, slept on it, and woke up even more resolute that his stepping down was “the right thing, and for the right reasons.”

So it’s worth considering what would have motivated him, not only to vacate his post as Speaker (which he claims he is doing for the good of the House), but to also so immediately resign his seat as a Republican Representative from Ohio—and the implications for the RNC.

 

Continue reading “Today’s Republican Party, neither Religious nor Conservative”

Don’t say Black Lives Matter, prove it.

Let’s be clear: for various reasons a large swath of Americans support institutionalized racism, both actively and passively. And in light of the pivotal role the police have played, and continue to play, in preserving the systems, institutions and dynamics which undergird racial inequality in the U.S.–powerful backlash against Black Lives Matter was to be expected, as was a corresponding countermovement supporting the authorities.

That moment has now arrived.

There have been concerted efforts to tie the killing of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth to Black Lives Matter; this despite the fact that the alleged shooter has not revealed any motive, and there is absolutely no evidence that he was affiliated with, or drew inspiration from, BLM (other than his skin color). Nonetheless, many are claiming that the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have given rise to a climate of hostility towards law enforcement in which these crimes are more likely, with some going so far as to brand the movement a terrorist group.

Even if it were true that policing has grown more difficult or dangerous in the wake of Black Lives Matter, it would be absurd to blame the movement for this. The problem is rampant abuse of authority and public trust by law enforcement, not that citizens have grown more vigilant against it. And the solution would be to reform these institutions and practices in order to address the causes of unrest, and for that matter, crime.

But it turns out that the narrative is completely false: thus far, police fatalities actually declined by 17% in 2015 over the previous year—commensurate with a steep downward trend that has been ongoing since the early 80’s.  The #1 cause of death for cops is actually vehicular crashes (responsible for 40% of police fatalities), rather than shootings (responsible for 28% of police fatalities). But what is particularly stunning about these numbers is that police deaths in 2015 have fallen despite the fact that the overall number of murders is up significantly. The trend is unmistakable: be it relative to the number of casualties last year or the broader social dynamics of this year, policing has grown less dangerous in 2015.

A total of 27 law enforcement officers were shot to death in the line of duty so far in 2015. Meanwhile, during this same period, the police have killed 762 civilians with their guns—overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minorities–more than 1 in 10 of which were unarmed. That is, for every 1 police officer shot to death in the line of duty, cops shot 28 civilians; police are nearly 3 times more likely to kill an unarmed civilian than a civilian is to shoot a cop.  About 1 out of every 13 lethal shootings in 2015 have been carried out by police.

In fact, given that there are 1.13 million full-time law enforcement officers in in the U.S., their overall homicide rate (3.4 per 100,000) is actually substantially lower than that of African Americans (17.5 per 100,000). Put another way, on average it is more than five times as dangerous to be black in America than to be a cop.

The data is clear: there is no war on police. To the extent that Black Lives Matter is responsible for the number of police casualties in 2015, given that policing has actually grown relatively safer this year, it seems as though law enforcement should be thanking, rather than condemning, the movement.

But of course, just because a narrative has no factual basis does not prevent it from being effective…or dangerous. It is clear that many are buying into the propaganda being manufactured to discredit BLM—and as we head into the election cycle the rhetoric, and the stakes, will only grow more dire. How Black Lives Matter navigates the upcoming 2016 race will have profound implications for the future of the movement and the reforms it seeks realize.

 

Continue reading “Don’t say Black Lives Matter, prove it.”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

Continue reading “Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People”

What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to  dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.

Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.

Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.

 

Continue reading “What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?”

Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)

I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.Confederate General Robert E. Lee

With the Confederate Battle Standard finally removed from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, many conservative commentators have expressed concern that the battle may not be over, that the movement to abolish public symbols of the Confederacy in may spread to other monuments—for instance, renaming streets and public schools which honor white supremacists, or re-appropriating landmarks and dismantling memorials which commemorate slave owners and segregationists.

Of course, these fears are not unfounded: there is such a movement underway. But what is perplexing is why anyone would find this to be problematic. Conservative claims that these actions amount to “whitewashing history” or “cultural cleansing” are beyond ironic:

It is whitewashing history, on several levels, to celebrate and honor the Confederacy independent of its subjugation of blacks. The so-called “states’ rights” narrative about the origins and meanings of the war are falsified by Declarations of Secession from the southern states, and the words of Confederate leaders themselves—who left no doubt that what they were fighting for was the continuation of slavery. In fact, had they won independence from the North, the vision was to build an empire by conquering and enslaving the denizens of Mexico and Central America as well.

While it is true that there were issues related to the proper collection and allocation of taxes and tariffs, representation in the Congress, and the extent of federal sovereignty—even most of these problems ultimately turned on questions about the legal status of blacks (especially given that slaves constituted the majority of the population in many southern districts, and the economy was heavily-dependent on slave labor).

The developments which provoked outright secession were principally the northern state’s general refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slaves Act, along with concerns that Lincoln and the Republicans might ban slavery in any new states which joined the Union (even if they allowed existing slave states to continue the practice, for lack of viable alternatives).

That “Southern culture and way of life” the Confederates were so eager to preserve? It was entirely contingent upon the subjugation of blacks. Whites in slave states rightfully viewed emancipation as an existential threat to their livelihood, their culture and their very lives. They dreaded reprisals by newly freed slaves, be they political, economic, or violent (they assumed the latter most often, given the “savage” constitution of blacks). For this reason, even those few southerners who supported the abolition of slavery generally proposed dumping blacks back in Africa, rather than allowing them to live free and equal alongside their former oppressors (even when the slaves were eventually “freed” they were kept separate from whites through America’s apartheid system).

Again, this is spelled out unambiguously by the very people who spearheaded the rebellion—so it is ahistorical to deny or minimize these realities. For elaboration on this point, see the video below featuring Colonel Ty Seidule, the head of the history department at the US Military Academy at West Point:

 

Continue reading “Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)”

America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing extremism–Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law-enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents (such as those affiliated with the Tea Party).

In order to help diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly grievances with the Internal Revenue Service (whose offices he struck). The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass-casualty event as a catalyst for political change—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for terrorism. And yet, the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such—and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!

 

Continue reading “America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East”

Change We Can Believe In

“It was like hamburger meat shootin’ out of his chest.” 

His burger was rare; blood & oil ran down his double-chinned beard, down his marshmallow-chain fingers, staining his freedom fries. Nirvana on his face. Brown on the outside, pink on the inside. Just like a nigger.

 

I.

That nicotine itch on the back of my brain. Dim lights, lukewarm coffee, waitresses preparing for the worst. Denny’s. Just after Friday, approaching 2AM, the bars letting out soon; the diner to be filled with drunk, obnoxious GI’s & 20-somethings who wished they didn’t live here anymore. All looking to fight or to fuck, some looking for both, maybe simultaneously. Our cue to leave.

Three of us: me, King, and Jones. This story’d be better if you knew ‘em. Hell, your life would be better if you knew ‘em. But I’m sure this story & your life will both be pretty good anyway, so let’s move on. We’re black, the three of us. I wouldn’t usually take the time to point that out, wouldn’t usually have to, but again, you don’t know us. Yet.

Waiting for the bill, got that paranoid itch on the back of my neck. Turn around — green eyes socketed into a blue-collar cracker, polo shirt that doesn’t fit on so many levels. Looks like he’s got something to say.

People stare at King. A lot. He’s not a fan of that. He engages our suitor, with a touch of menace in his voice:

“Yo, you need something man, or what?”

Guy picks up his burger.

“You ever seen that movie, Boondock Saints? Best goddamn movie ever made. They’re making a sequel. I killed a black guy once.”

Takes a bite; just like that.

Continue reading “Change We Can Believe In”

Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston

In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), analysts have been busying themselves with apparently self-evident questions as to whether the atrocity was racially motivated, or constituted an act of domestic terrorism. Americans have been focused on questions about gun control and the ubiquity of the Confederate Flag—with an emerging consensus that there will be little-to-no evolution on the former issue at this time, and token movement on the latter (while the flag will likely be removed from the S. Carolina capitol, most other Confederate icons will remain in place, both in S. Carolina and across the South).

But there has been one glaring absence in our public conversation about the tragedy—namely any meaningful acknowledgement of just how pervasive and dangerous the white supremacist views which motivated the Charlotte massacre are—and not just in America, but throughout most Western societies.

This omission is shameful, not only because the victims of this massacre had dedicated their lives to exposing these ideologies and dismantling the systems, institutions and practices built around them (indeed, this is why they were targeted for assassination)—but also because this silence enables further crimes, creating a culture of complicacy and complacency about the threat these groups pose to the security of Western nations, and also to the values which are supposed to define them.

 

Continue reading “Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston”

The attack on Emanuel AME was certainly terrorism

The Charleston Massacre was an act of domestic terrorism. Consider:

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was a historically black church founded by a freed slave who eventually tried to lead a revolt to free his people. In the aftermath, the church was burned down. Because predominantly-black churches like Emanuel AME were known to be hubs of activism for the oppressed, soon after the church was rebuilt it became illegal for congregates to gather there. They had to hold their meetings in secret until after the civil war.

Since that time, it has remained a seat of civil rights activism, hosting the likes of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. And for this, Emanuel AME and other predominantly-black churches were (and remain) frequent targets of domestic terrorists with segregationist and white supremacist leanings.

None of this was lost on the shooter—he chose this target precisely because of its symbolism. He drove 100 miles to get there, arrived during a Bible study, and asked for his primary target by name: Rev. Clementa Pinckney—the serving pastor of Emanuel AME, a tireless civil rights activist, and a sitting state senator. All said, the spree resulted in the deaths of four preachers and five others—almost all of whom were involved in various types of community organizing, civil rights activism and public service.

Mr. Roof committed this atrocity with political ends in mind: he wanted to restore segregation, and to ensure that whites continued to be the socio-economic and cultural majority in the United States. He was hoping that his massacre would spur a race war, from which whites would emerge victorious, reclaiming their rightful place in American society, and subjugating the vanquished minorities. He viewed pluralism, equality and tolerance as Trojan Horses, existential threats to his kind—and ideologies which would be abolished in the aftermath of the cataclysm he was hoping to provoke.

To indicate both the historical and global dimensions of the conflict, he wore a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. His car had a Confederate Flag license plate, and in the lead-up to the shooting he took a pilgrimage to notorious slave plantations and Confederate landmarks, photographing every step of the journey and disseminating these images online.

He participated in internet forums with fellow ideologues both in America and worldwide, and released a detailed manifesto explaining what how and why he chose his target, how he was drawn into the movement, and what his aspirations were for the attack.

It was a textbook example of domestic terrorism, and the single most lethal incident in the United States since 2009. It is disturbing that there is even controversy as to if it was a terrorist act, or if it was a racially-motivated hate crime. Disturbing, but typical of incidents of white terrorism.

Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay.
On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.Slavoj Zizek

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group. 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

Continue reading “Understanding ISIL’s Appeal”

What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)

Police brutality has been an integral part of the black experience since the birth of the modern law enforcement. Until recently, however, it was difficult to establish how stark or pervasive the problem was; this opacity plagues many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. In part, the data has been hard to come by due to the decentralized nature of policing in America: while the FBI attempts to collate national statistics on the use of force, they rely exclusively on voluntary reporting from America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies–the overwhelming majority of which (more than 95%) do not participate fully or at all.

However, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have trained the social consciousness on police use of force. And as a result of open-source data mining and some outstanding investigative journalism, a clearer picture of the problem is finally beginning to emerge…and it isn’t pretty.

By the numbers

An in-depth report from the Washington Post identified nearly twice as many fatalities from police than FBI estimates–and this investigation only considered shootings. Over this same period dozens have been killed by Tasers, in chokeholds, by vehicles, or otherwise while in police custody. For information on these, The Guardian has a more comprehensive and interactive database, updated in real-time.

Some troubling patterns elucidated by these studies include:

  • On average, three people have been killed by police every single day in 2015—this equates to 1 out of every 15 homicides in the country (by all means).
  • Gunfire is the cause of 87% of police killings, and 82% of non-accidental line-of-duty police deaths (vs. 73% of all national homicides).
  • As of the time of writing, 419 Americans have been shot to death this year by police. These amount to nearly 1 out of every 12 gun deaths in the country overall. Over this same period, 14 police officers were casualties of hostile fire: for every cop killed by guns, the police shot nearly 30 civilians to death.
  • Adjusting for census data, blacks are killed at more than 3 times the rate of whites or other racial groups: while whites are nearly 64% of the total population, they only constitute about 51% of the total gunfire casualties (49% of overall police killings). By contrast, blacks amount to roughly 12% of the total population in America, but total 26% of police gunfire casualties (28% of overall police killings).
  • Nearly 1/10 of police shootings (and more than 1/5 of all police killings) are against people who are unarmed. For whites, the ratio is 1/16 shooting deaths (1/6 total casualties). For blacks, the unarmed ratio is more than 1/6 for shooting deaths, and roughly 1 out of every 3 total casualties. That is, police are twice as likely to kill an unarmed black suspect as an unarmed white one. But even among those suspects who were armed, dozens were killed while running away.
  • Nearly a quarter of those shot to death were known to be mentally ill or disabled.

 

Continue reading “What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)”

On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct

The problem of police brutality and misconduct is uncomfortable for many Americans–in large part because it contravenes so many of our cherished narratives about social progress, and about the United States as a land of freedom & justice–not to mention our post-9/11 idealization of first-responders.

When forced to confront these kinds of issues, which we would rather not have had to acknowledge at all, there is a temptation to seek out some kind of simple solution which can be easily applied to the problem wherever it manifests–and which can thereby allow us to stop thinking (and talking) about it.

Perhaps the primary focus in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore has been on body cameras. Advocates point to the Department of Justice (DoJ) “Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” which suggested that among the precincts studied, officers wearing body cameras had 87.5% fewer incidents of use of force, and 59% fewer complaints than officers who were not wearing cameras. These reductions, they claimed, are in part due to the fact that both police officers and suspects behaved differently under the knowledge they were being recorded. However, while “observer effects” on behavior have been well-documented in myriad contexts, there are reasons to temper one’s optimism as it relates to reducing incidences of police misconduct:

Continue reading “On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct”

Police Reform Is More Important Than You Think

In the wake of Freddy Gray’s death and the uprising which followed in Baltimore, President Obama acknowledged the need to reform police practices and accountability, but insisted that the real problem faced by the black community in Baltimore, and around the country, is not the police—but a system of institutionalized racism, socio-economic polarization, and a public which has refused to confront and address these disparities.

This assessment is absolutely correct. The issues facing the black community are systemic, reinforced over the course of generations. At the same time, however, the President and others who express similar sentiments, seem to misunderstand the reason police are in the crosshairs of activists:

 

Institutionalized Racism

Relative to other groups who arrived in America, black people remained at an immense disadvantage as a result of slavery, neoslavery, and then Jim Crow and segregation. Exclusion from many sectors of the formal economy dramatically inhibited the ability of blacks to build wealth. Meanwhile, the political marginalization of blacks allowed whites to continue these exploitative policies more-or-less uncontested until the very recent present.

For instance, 2.5 million blacks volunteered for service in WWII—about half of whom were accepted into combat. They fought in segregated units, for a society that viewed them as subhuman, and they paid a terrible price—as they have in virtually every war in U.S. history. However, after the war many received GI Bill benefits which raised their economic position relative to white people to perhaps the highest level ever achieved previously or since.

But they returned home to an apartheid state, and housing policies from the 50’s through the 80’s prevented the wealth of blacks from growing or being transferred across generations at the rates of whites. And even the relatively small amounts blacks managed to painstakingly accumulate and maintain in the intervening time was wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis: a full 50% of the wealth relative to whites disappeared in a flash. Black families currently make about 60% as much income as white families (which is, of course, a problem on its own), but only have about 5% of the wealth of white families.

This calamity was in large part due to predatory programs which explicitly targeted blacks, encouraging them to refinance their homes for short-term cash to weather the crisis—and with sub-prime loans, even if they qualified for better ones. As a result, when the housing market imploded and interest-rates skyrocketed, black families more than any other group were forced to forfeit their property, and found themselves once again living in poor urban settings.

These housing disparities have profound ripple effects. For instance, funding and distribution of school resources is heavily dependent on property taxes in many areas. Because blacks tend to own substantially less property (and less valuable property) than whites—their schools were and remain often radically inferior: underfunded, understaffed, with insufficient resources for extra-curricular activities, vocational training, advanced placement courses, technological assets—or even basic school supplies, up-to-date textbooks or needed renovations and maintenance.

As neighborhoods are gentrified, schools improve. But blacks rarely reap these benefits: often the increased property costs, cost-of-living inflation, and other factors displace even longstanding residents into poor suburban areas—in the process tearing apart critical social networks which help people cope with poverty, and diffusing black voting power.

Imbalances in the criminal justice system exacerbate these trends.

 

Continue reading “Police Reform Is More Important Than You Think”

Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

Continue reading “Foreign Policy Fundamentalism”

If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change

In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:

 

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

 

The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).

It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.

But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.

So it goes.

While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:

 

Step 1: Sanctions Step 2: ? Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies

Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government Step 2: ? Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).

Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies Step 2: ? Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region

Step 1: Support dictators Step 2: ? Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).

Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes Step 2: ? Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated

Continue reading “If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change”

Drawing Muhammad, Civil Rights & Religious Liberty in America

At the height of the unrest in Baltimore, I wrote a piece for Salon pushing back against the kneejerk condemnations of the riots. In the piece, I argued that advocates of pacifism fail to understand the extent to which their own methods are reliant on violence—to the point where it may not even be feasible to refer to movements as non-violent at all. It may be more appropriate to say that pacifists enjoy a different relationship to violence than their revolutionary counterparts or their state interlocutors. Secondarily I argued that no social change occurs without coercion of some kind—be it economic, political, or something more literal. The idea that authorities will grant major concessions to demonstrators if they feel they have an option to ignore them—simply because they are, for instance, singing in the streets—this has no basis in historical or contemporary realities.

I was shocked to find these arguments cited in The Wall Street Journal, specifically in an attempt to compare Pamela Geller, orchestrator of the “Draw Muhammad Cartoon Contest,” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The WSJ argument was later repeated by Alan Dershowitz on Fox News, again quoting my description of Dr. King nearly verbatim. And the icing on the cake was when Geller herself decided to compare her actions to those of Rosa Parks. As a black American and a Muslim, and as an inadvertent progenitor of this toxic meme, I felt compelled to write a rebuttal in Salon, demonstrating that the aims and methods of Ms. Geller have absolutely nothing in common with those of the civil rights activists. And highlighting that just because an action is legal doesn’t make it ethical or responsible; similarly, just because an act is provocative doesn’t make it brave, intelligent, or productive.

This time, I was delighted to find a conservative voice was willing to engage my arguments in a non-cynical way: Ed Berliner from Newsmax TV. In fact, just as I was preparing my rebuttal, Berliner himself launched a rather scathing monologue against Geller and the AFDI on his show The Hard Line. After encountering my essay on Salon, I was invited to be a guest on his show and respond to some of the criticism from the Geller crowd. That exchange follows below:

Unfortunately, our segment ran out of time before I could respond to my interlocutor’s last point. In his closing remarks, John Griffing declared that even “moderate Muslims” are prone to radicalization. To substantiate this point, he quoted Omar Ahmad of CAIR, “directly” and “verbatim,” declaring that the goal of himself and his fellow believers was to “replace the Constitution with the Qur’an.”

Continue reading “Drawing Muhammad, Civil Rights & Religious Liberty in America”

Pamela Geller is No Rosa Parks

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

Pamela Geller

 

 “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.”

Rosa Parks

 

In the aftermath of the shootings in Garland, Texas New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi had the audacity to ask, “Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest?’” The question was met with widespread outrage and derision.

Wall Street Journal author James Taranto set out to answer that question more thoughtfully. In the process he cited an example from my recent Salon piece about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while advocating pacifism, would often deliberately stage his demonstrations to evoke a forceful response from the authorities or communities they were confronting. Likening the ‘Draw Mohammad contest’ to civil disobedience, he argued that despite the risk entailed, it is sometimes important, even necessary, to be provocative in order to, not only defend freedom, but resist (perceived) oppression.

Mr. Taranto tried to avoid conflating the struggle of Dr. King with the actions of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which hosted this event—albeit with mixed success. However, Alan Dershowitz would later repeat this comparison, again quoting my description of King almost verbatim on The Kelly File, comparing AFDI head Pamela Geller to MLK. Subsequently, Ms. Geller has also drawn from the WSJ arguments–comparing herself to Rosa Parks.

As a black American and a Muslim, I believe this comparison demands a response. And so, I have highlighted below a few guidelines for provocation which help illustrate the vast moral differences between how civil rights activists use(d) provocation, as compared to the AFDI:

 

Continue reading “Pamela Geller is No Rosa Parks”

Social Movement Requires Force

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard…And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity… And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 'The Other America'

On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace.   We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.

Continue reading “Social Movement Requires Force”

There Is No Iranian Nuclear Threat

On April 21, Iran and six world powers resumed the final phase of nuclear talks after a preliminary framework deal reached earlier this month. Iran and the P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — are expected to reach a final accord by the end of June.

Yet hawks in Washington and Israel argue that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, or even remain within “sprinting” distance of acquiring one. They argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, would be increasingly belligerent on the international stage, likely provoking an arms-race in the Middle East. In worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed Iran may even precipitate WWIII and cast the world into nuclear winter. Given these dire projected risks, hawks generally oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran which allows the country to continue enriching uranium—which is tantamount to saying they oppose negotiations altogether.

For the sake of argument (and simply for the sake of argument), let’s assume these fears are well-founded, and not only does Iran want a nuclear weapon, but they actually succeed in obtaining one. Moreover, let’s assume that the Islamic Republic may even be willing to use weapons of mass destruction against their adversaries. The brute fact remains that Iran would not actually be able to carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the U.S.; even the threat of a so-called “dirty bomb” is negligible.

 

Continue reading “There Is No Iranian Nuclear Threat”

Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions

Iran’s nuclear program was founded in 1957 as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. As part of this deal, the United States helped provide the training, technology and infrastructure allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. It was America that built Iran’s first nuclear reactor in 1967, subsequently providing them with the highly-enriched uranium to power it.

Soon thereafter, Iran began researching how to weaponize the technology. Ironic from today’s vantage point, Israel played a pivotal role in helping Tehran develop this capacity–much to the chagrin of the United States at the time. Washington would soon see further “Atoms for Peace” investments in India, Pakistan and Israel translated into weapons programs—with these latter three refusing to sign onto the U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and eventually obtaining the bomb. In a further irony, all three have emerged as critical U.S. allies in the region despite these maneuvers.

For his part, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did sign onto the treaty in 1968, although this did not end his ambition for weaponized nuclear capacity, which was ultimately brought to a halt by the 1979 Islamic Revolution which drove him from power.

Iran’s new religious leadership not only reaffirmed the NPT signed by the deposed dictator, but Ayatollah Khomeini disparaged nuclear weapons as haram under Islamic law–a binding fatwa reiterated and expanded in 2005 by Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Continue reading “Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions”

Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective

As the Israeli election results continue to be finalized, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has again emerged victorious—likely holding onto 30 of their current 31 seats in the government. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s primary opposition, garnered only 24 seats, with the Joint List of Arab candidates rounding out third place with a likely 14 seats. It was a decisive win for Likud and Netanyahu—one which could extend their mandate into 2019 and put Netanyahu on the path to being the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history.

In the international media, much has been made of PM Netanyahu’s brazen last-minute maneuvers to energize his right-wing base: His controversial speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Iran’s supposed nuclear threat was intended largely as domestic propaganda—a successful attempt to circumvent Israeli campaign laws. In the days before the polls, he also grew more transparent in his position on the Palestine, insisting that there will be no Palestinian State so long as he remains Prime Minister. In the final hours he resorted to race-baiting pleas that Israeli Jews go to the polls to prevent “Arabs” from having a meaningful sway in the elections.

None of these maneuvers should have been surprising. Benjamin Netanyahu has built his entire political career out of portraying Iran and Palestine as existential threats to the Jewish people:

Continue reading “Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective”

How Hardliners in the U.S. and Israel Empower Hardliners in Iran

For many, Hassan Rouhani’s administration seems like a breath of fresh air, an unprecedented moment of opportunity for reform in Iran. Many have pointed out that Rouhani’s progressive aspirations are in many ways restrained or undermined by Iran’s hardliners–but ironically, U.S. hardliners played a pivotal role in creating this dynamic.

Following the re-election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic Republic reached out to the White House calling for a dialogue–indicating a willingness to increase transparency of its nuclear program, to recognize Israel and even cut ties with Hamas.

But the Bush Administration rebuffed this offer, and even tanked Iran’s negotiations with Europe (also led by Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif) to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity to a mere 3,000 centrifuges. The White House at the time adopted Netanyahu’s position that any nuclear capacity for Iran was too much, and that the ideal was not just limiting Iran’s nuclear program but outright regime change. President Bush even went on to parrot Netanyahu’s line verbatim comparing the Islamic Republic to Germany’s Nazi regime in the lead-up to World War II–and analogizing those who want to negotiate as appeasers.

The failure of these bold efforts at diplomacy rendered Khatami unable to fulfill many of his campaign pledges–in turn, leading to massive gains by Iran’s conservative parties in the 2004 Parliamentary Elections, and the landslide victory of the much-more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 Presidential Elections. We should expect a similar dynamic to play out in Iran if the current attempts at rapprochement fail.

President Obama was right in noting how hardliners in the U.S. seem to have a common cause with those in Iran–but its hardly the first time. And if these zealots have their way, it won’t be the last.

The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction

It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the  assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam—one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most of IS’ critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups–often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam. Continue reading “The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction”