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.

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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.

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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:

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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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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:

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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. 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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”

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

 “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it 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—most of these problems also 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”

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.

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”

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.”

-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”

The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless

On Dec. 30, the United Nations Security Council rejected a proposal put forward by coalition of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority calling for “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” from all Palestinian territories seized after 1967, and full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza by December 31, 2017.

The resolution needed 9 votes to pass, but ultimately garnered 8, with United States and Australia voting against it and 5 abstentions — an outcome achieved by Washington cajoling Nigeria to abstain at the last moment. But even if the measure passed, the U.S. had already signaled plans to exercise their veto and override the vote—as it has already done 41 times on Israel’s behalf since 1972. Continue reading “The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless”

A Brief History of Palestinian Statehood

Although they have not yet been given full-membership in the U.N. (and would not have gained membership through Abbas’ proposal), the body has affirmed Palestinian statehood numerous times, most recently with a 2012’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 67/19, which passed with 138 votes in favor, 9 votes opposed and 41 abstentions, recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state. Continue reading “A Brief History of Palestinian Statehood”

Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter

In 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty forbade signatories from carrying out torture or related practices, or from deporting to detainees to other places where they knew these acts would be carried out. It would be ten years before the U.S. Congress ratified this agreement, which would then take on the force of law.

In light of the U.S. signing onto the convention against torture (and also, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the activities revealed in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program constitute clear violations of international law, perhaps even crimes against humanity. But it unlikely that anyone will face justice:

Violations would typically be investigated and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States struggled to prevent from coming into existence. While President Clinton eventually signed onto the Rome Statute which established the court towards the end of his term, his successor would withdraw the U.S. commitment before the agreement was ratified by Congress—precisely out of concerns about American policies in the wake of 9/11. And as Undersecretary of State (and future U.S. Ambassador to the U.N) John Bolton underscored at the time, because America is not a member of the ICC, it is not accountable to the court unless referred by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. would simply veto.

Because the perpetrators will not be held to account in international forums, the United Nations and human rights groups have called on the White House to prosecute those involved in American courts, compliant with U.S. treaty obligations to prevent and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States helped condemn to death Japanese soldiers and leaders who committed or approved of these very same acts against American forces during WWII.

However, contrary to these international obligations (or even the U.S. Bill of Rights which repeatedly prohibits torture), Bush Administration officials approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. As a result of this clearance by White House and the Department of Justice, prosecution in U.S. courts would be difficult. Moreover, President Barack Obama has already de facto pardoned those who took part in the program, even those who stepped outside the permissive framework laid out by the Bush administration. In fact, the only agent who has been jailed with regards to the “enhanced interrogation” program to date is the CIA whistleblower who leaked these abuses to the press.

Reforms to rein in U.S. intelligence agencies seem highly unlikely as a result of the partisan way in which the report was received on Capitol Hill—with some Republican lawmakers going so far as to defend the torture program and even its continued use. And across polls, a plurality of the American public seems to agree with these torture apologists.

This leads one to question whether the SSCI report even matters. Continue reading “Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter”

Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

Continue reading “Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve””

Musa al-Gharbi “interviews” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser

(Try to spot the fundamentalist)

 

Apparently Dr. Jasser is a fan of my work…or in any case, he likes to skim it. Over the course of the following exchange, my interlocutor and I go through a good deal of my catalog–the dialectic is basically him systematically misrepresenting what I was arguing, and myself correcting those misconceptions and highlighting that he is either not reading my work, not understanding it, or else engaging in bad-faith.

For the sake of simplicity, I have put primarily the direct tweets between myself and Dr. Jasser–as we went on, there grew to be a number of side participants, generally offering vacuous trolling (primarily on Jasser’s side, although a bit on mine as well) which would distract from the primary conversation. But of course, the entire conversation is public record, just follow me on Twitter!

For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Jasser, his American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) is notorious for receiving funding from overtly Islamophobic action committees and patrons of the neoconservative wings of both parties—and the good doctor is known for espousing views that said funders would like to hear coming out of the mouth of someone who is ostensibly Middle Eastern and Muslim.

It’s not every day one gets to expose these charlatans for the empty intellects that they are in such a direct manner. Would love to do this face to face and very publically with exchanges longer than 140 characters…someday soon, God Willing. In the meantime, enjoy!

Continue reading “Musa al-Gharbi “interviews” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser”

Reclaiming Jihad

In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to a “greater” struggle, which is inside oneself v. the “lesser” struggle, which is in the world.

Ultimately, all of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.

 

Continue reading “Reclaiming Jihad”

Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States

America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home

Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:

While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.

But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.

Continue reading “Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States”

Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution

Throughout the current crisis, Israeli apologists and spokespeople have attempted to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, for the wanton carnage and destruction unfolding in Gaza. One of their consistent talking points has been that, following Israel’s 2005 retreat from the Gaza strip in the wake of the Second Intifada and Hamas’ 2006 electoral landslide victories, the organization could have built a “Palestinian paradise” in Gaza—but they instead chose to squander their efforts and resources on terrorism, at the expense of the Palestinian people, “forcing” Israel to kill thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, for the sake of its own continued existence.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. Continue reading “Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution”

It was Israel which sought out this war with Hamas

In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the dominant discourse is that the Palestinian militants provoked the hostilities — while Israel, as President Barack Obama affirmed last week, is acting in legitimate self-defense. Many have attempted to problematize this narrative, for instance by arguing that Israel, as an occupying power, does not have a legitimate legal or moral claim to self-defense. Others have argued that rockets fired by Hamas do not constitute an existential crisis for Israel or its citizens and certainly did not warrant the killing of more than 500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including women and children.

While these are all valid and important points, the broader narrative remains largely unchallenged: Hamas began firing rockets at Israel first, triggering Israel’s latest military incursion. This is not true. In fact, far from acting in self-defense, the crisis is the result of deliberate actions by Israel over the last few weeks — first to stir up anti-Arab sentiment among the Israeli population and then to provoke Hamas into open conflict.

Continue reading “It was Israel which sought out this war with Hamas”

“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions. Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic”

A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program

“Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?  The question of being ‘effective’ – if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.”
Phyllis Bennis, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

 

“I’m really good at killing people.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Barack Hussein Obama, reflecting upon the U.S. drone program

 

Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. While primarily used in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia—using them for surveillance  across much of the world, including within its own borders; America has been relying upon  unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama Administration.

Due to the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently; this has not prevented many from airing bold and largely unsubstantiated claims regarding the program and its effectiveness. However, to their credit, largely as a result of these activists’ persistence some reliable data is beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced:

Continue reading “A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program”

Implications of America’s Evitable Decline

Generally speaking, change is inevitable—however, most specific transformations are not.

Virtually any prediction can be defied; in fact, most are. That people are pretty terrible at forecasting in most (especially sociological) domains does not inhibit many from making grandiose claims about the “inevitability” of American decadence—often relying upon ill-formed analogies with empires past. If only analysts dedicated more attention to the decline and fall of their own projections. Although the so-called “End of History” is little more than a neoconservative eschatological fantasy, the “American Empire” may well persist for some time… and that’s probably a good thing.

Contrary to the assertions of President Obama, the U.S. has long been a de facto imperial power–albeit one that has consistently refused to see itself for what it is. For this reason, the United States has often been unwilling or unable to design and implement its foreign (or domestic) policies with the vision or commitment of other historical empires—further hampered by America’s political system which often imposes government shifts in 2 to 4 year intervals, driving policymakers towards short-sighted and populist positions in the interim, even as it renders them beholden to competing constellations of lobbyists and special-interest groups in order to finance their ever-impending campaigns (increasingly resulting in total dysfunction).

And of course, America’s track record of promoting socio-economic justice, or the rights, freedoms and sovereignty of others across the globe has been inconsistent, to put it mildly—despite the incessant and lofty rhetoric of its leaders, and the U.S. public’s general lack of awareness of the scope and profundity of this dissonance. That said, critics of U.S. foreign policy have been, perhaps, too eager to celebrate the apparent decline of America’s unipolar order—in particular, they have not sufficiently reflected on what is likely to follow. Continue reading “Implications of America’s Evitable Decline”

An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

A week after carrying out his ultimatum to depose President Mursi, General al-Sisi delivered a new 48-hour ultimatum to those alienated by his actions to end their protests against the military coup.  Even as the general demanded that the protesters end their demonstrations, he called upon his own supporters to take to the streets nationwide in order to give the army a “mandate” to confront its critics, whom he referred to as “terrorists.” This call to action was later parroted by Egypt’s interim president (a high-ranking member of the disgraced Mubarak regime, hand-picked by Gen. al-Sisi) and the tamarod “rebels.” Of course, this supposed license is ironic given that one of the common criticisms of President Mursi is that he overstepped his popular mandate—despite the overwhelming victory of his party in parliamentary elections, and its subsequent win in the presidential race. Apparently, while democratic elections do not empower their victors with a strong mandate, protests can give the SCAF legitimacy to do anything—first to commit a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term, and now it seems to restore the Mubarak-era police state.

Empowered by the opposition rallies (although apparently not disempowered by those who were protesting the coup), scores of peaceful protestors were killed in the streets, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the majority of victims were shot in the chest, neck, or head—indicating that the security forces were shooting to kill.  Later, these forces stormed and attempted to dismantle the protest camps. The interim government would go on to announce that the despised Mubarak-era “religion police” were to be re-activated, even as  al-Mansur gave the army renewed legal grounding to arrest civilians. It is likely that these will be just the first of many “necessary” authoritarian measures in Egypt’s new “War on Terror,” a campaign which will increasingly jump from propaganda into reality as a result of the SCAF’s actions:

Throughout the protest movement which preceded the military coup against Husni Mubarak, and in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, the Islamists were overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding participants in the democratic process—and they would prove to be its primary beneficiaries. However, the actions by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) throughout, culminating in the removal of President Mursi and the subsequent persecution of the Brotherhood—these sent the message to many Islamists that the democratic and legal process is a dead end: the deep-state and its international supporters have no respect for the popular will.The state’s institutions have continued to be dominated by the SCAF, the deep-state and the fulul (high-ranking members of the former regime who were ostensibly cast out of government when the dictator was deposed, but who were also given blanket-immunity from prosecution for the regime’s crimes and often retained significant wealth and influence). This corruption has been so long-standing, and runs so deep, that the state apparatus is incapable of being reformed; instead, by any means necessary, it must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced—and by something other than Western models of governance. Although not inevitable, extremism is certainly a natural response to these convictions.

The army claimed that the coup was necessary to prevent Egypt from descending into chaos—predictably, their intervention brought about the very outcomes it was supposed to prevent; however, by feeding into sectarianism and violence, elements from among the protesters are inadvertently supporting the SCAF’s narrative in the name of resistance.  Exploiting these developments, it is likely the army will continue to serve as a destabilizing force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future.  And while the army’s actions have been widely depicted as a forced response to extraordinary circumstances, this is actually the third major attempt by the SCAF to seize “legitimate” total control over the state since the military coup which deposed Mubarak. Accordingly, the notion that the SCAF is acting in the interests of democracy is absurd– and the belief they will transition real authority to a civilian government seems naïve at best:

Continue reading “An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt”

Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey”

When people read analyses, they typically interpret them in terms of popular narrative frameworks which are currently in circulation. This heuristic is usually reliable—most analyses explicitly draw from these competing interpretations; accordingly, reading things in this fashion allows one to much more quickly understand what is being said in the analysis and why it matters. However, as with any heuristic,  this method also imparts various biases and blindspots, which can at times be problematic. For instance, if one is dealing with an analysis which avoids reliance on these frameworks because they are ill-formed, or one that explicitly sets out to undermine them, or a work that shifts between various interpretive strategies—in all of these cases, it is common for the intent of the analysis to be totally overlooked, and for the work to be misconstrued as arguing in favor of the very thing it is trying to work against.  Often, audiences will read things into a work which the article itself does not mandate. Such has been the case with reactions to my recent essay, “How to Avoid Being a Turkey: Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests.”

This piece motivated two excellent response articles—however, neither of them were very successful at undermining what the author was actually trying to argue. In both cases, my interlocutors seemed to believe that I was taking a position against the protests and/or in favor Prime Minister Erdogan—neither of these are true. Instead, I set out to complicate a number of problematic narratives which were taking hold in the popular discourse—the point of this analysis was to get the reader to step back and reflect upon what was happening more carefully, undercutting “black & white” dichotomies that polarize the discourse and result in ham-fisted policies.

Dr. Gramling’s article can and should be read in complete harmony with mine—we make many of the same points, and the differences between us are entirely matters of emphasis. A careful reading will reveal that there is actually no outright contradiction anywhere between Dr. Gramling’s work and my own.

There are substantive differences between my article and that of Dr. Silverstein—however, even his analysis begins by conceding agreement on a number of key points, and many of the outstanding differences are not as drastic as my interlocutor seems to believe. And in the places our views authentically diverge, my critic has generally failed to undermine my position or substantiate his own.

Continue reading “Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey””

The Semantics of Revolution

Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of  September 11th (2001).  However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms:  consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:

First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and  Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty,  to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.

In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the  “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.

Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses  pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”

The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.  And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.

While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:

Continue reading “The Semantics of Revolution”

Irreligious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is not exclusively, or even primarily, a religious phenomenon.

The classical conception of liberalism includes, among other things, a commitment to free markets, universal law, democracy, pluralism, and secularism. While often held to be universal values, these ideologies are not intrinsically compatible or necessarily intertwined—in fact, these ideas were not even historically compatible. In many contexts, they diverge and conflict. Individually and collectively, they are neither necessary nor inevitable ideologies; they may even be inferior to alternative social arrangements (such as state capitalism, illiberal democracy, legal pluralism, etc.) at realizing the will and interests of a given population.

While much of the narrative regarding the “Arab Spring” has focused on the supposed tension between Islamism and Liberalism—these false-dichotomies overlook the essential problem, which is a conflict internal to liberalism in simultaneously promoting democracy, secularism, and universal law in many contexts, to include the MENA (Middle East & North African) region. Accordingly, Western attempts to instantiate or promote their own values and institutions in these societies is likely to foster instability and sectarian strife rather than pluralism and cooperation.

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Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism

In the wake of Egypt’s historic democratic elections, Islamist candidates won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament. A Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, would go on to win Egypt’s inaugural presidential elections. Recently, voters ratified a new Egyptian constitution which is perceived to grant Islamic institutions (such as al-Azhar) significant influence over the government.

As it is in Egypt, so has it been throughout the MENA region: at first glance, it would seem as though Islamists have been the primary beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. However, contrary to the popular discourse, the challenge facing these governments is not in reconciling Islam with liberalism.  Instead, the problem is internal to liberalism itself: in the MENA contexts, there seems to be tension in simultaneously promoting authentic democracy and a universal body of laws. There are historical reasons for this:

Colonialist powers, in an attempt to keep the peoples of the MENA region divided against themselves, carved up state boundaries in such a way as to fragment and alienate the various ethnic and religious groups—creating weak majorities which would be unable to drive out the occupiers, while patronizing minority populations (entendre intended), who would thereby be dependent upon their colonizers to ensure continued protection and influence. These tensions were exacerbated by the colonialists’ insistence on a series of universal laws governing these states, which created a zero-sum political game. Under such a system, governments are forced into a democratic dilemma; they can either:

  1. Foster a government which is unrepresentative of the majority of its citizens in many critical aspects, for the sake of protecting minority groups, or
  2. Allow minorities to be held ransom by the tyranny of the majority.

Neither of these seem particularly appealing; however, these two options need not be exhaustive. It may be that the best way to allow for a government to be representative and responsive to the popular will while empowering and protecting minorities is to reject the notion that there must be a single body of laws which governs all citizens. Continue reading “Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism”

The Arab Spring’s Third Wave

Insofar as it is helpful or accurate to understand the “Arab Spring” as a meta-movement which began with the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, we can break it into a few significant “waves.” The first wave of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were quick, peaceful and orderly, relative to the second wave with the much more protracted, chaotic and violent uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As these movements continue to evolve, some have argued that much of the Arab world would lose their appetite for civil disobedience once the revolutions got bloody, were radicalized or descended into civil war. It was even proclaimed that the Arab Spring was dead because a few similar authoritarian regimes remained quite unscathed.

While secular dictators have been overthrown, the Arab monarchs seem to have weathered the storm through a potent mix of token gestures of reform, fear-mongering, internal repression, historical/cultural hegemony, and geopolitical maneuvering.

For their part, Western nations and the international media have tired of championing popular democratic change in the region – especially as the monarchies in question are some of the West’s closest regional allies. In spite of all of these countervailing forces, however, there has been a recent renewal and escalation of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan. We are witnessing the formation of a third wave of the Arab Spring uprisings, wherein protesters target monarchs instead of dictators.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring’s Third Wave”

Resist Overly-Simple Narratives About Syria, Asad

While one would never know it from the news, the reform process in Syria is actually going smoother than it is in Egypt. If this might sound crazy to the everyday headline reader, think of it this way:  Syria has a popularly approved new constitution, a democratically elected parliament that the state actually recognizes and one with clearly defined powers and responsibilities. Egypt, on the other hand, has no constitution, a parliament which is not recognized by the state and a president whose role is ambiguous.  While it would be easy to view the reforms in Syria cynically, the reality may not be so simple. In fact, throughout the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Asad has made substantial moves to resolve the conflict.

Prior to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Asad was hailed worldwide as a reformer.  Indeed, only several years ago the very pundits and policymakers that are now calling for his overthrow portrayed Asad as being committed to liberalizing the Syrian economy, normalizing relations with the global community, protecting women’s and minority rights, and gradually instituting democratic reforms. When the protests began, Bashar moved quickly to signal to the protestors that he had heard their concerns: he dismissed his cabinet, vowed to lift the emergency laws in Syria (which curtailed certain civil liberties), lifted 3-year old government bans on YouTube and Facebook and promised to increase the speed of the democratic transition in Syria.

And then, he actually came through on that promise. In February 2012, the President submitted a new constitution for Syrian approval. This constitution included serious concessions: it eliminated the Ba’ath Party’s guaranteed majority in parliament (for the first time in more than 40 years) and limited presidential term limits to seven years, with the potential to be re-elected only once.  It is not an understatement to say that these concessions marked an end to Bashar’s hegemony over the country. And despite opposition calls to boycott the referendum (and occasional voter intimidation), more than 57% of the electorate turned out to vote, and more than 89% of these voters approved the proposal.

The opposition refused to acknowledge this new constitution, despite the ostensive purpose of their protests being to ensure respect for the popular will. American policymakers immediately called the referendum a “sham,” although they provided no evidence of ballot rigging or fraud. Thereafter, President Asad opened up Syria to the UN, the Red Cross, and the certain members of the international press.  He also promised to quickly hold free parliamentary elections in accordance with the new constitution, and in May 2012, he came through on this promise as well.

Again, the opposition called for Syrians to boycott the elections; again, the majority of the electorate ignored that call.  The election, which occurred in the presence of UN observers, had a participation rate in excess of 51% (despite the fact that voting was virtually impossible in rebel-held areas). And while the Ba’ath Party and its allies won the majority of seats, this is largely because most of those who would have voted for other candidates (i.e. the opposition) largely refused to take part in the process. But even without their participation, the parliament was elected by a majority of the electorate.

In Syria, as in all of the “Arab Spring” countries, the protestors represent a minority of the population ( typically, less than 1% of the population). And even within this group, the armed insurgency  is an extreme minority— a minority of a minority. By all indications, to point to  the aforementioned elections and the lack of involvement by most Syrians in the insurgency and/or protests uncovers that a sizeable population of Syrians want a diplomatic solution to the uprisings and seem content to leave Bashar al-Asad in power, provided he remains committed to the reform process (there are even substantial civilian counter-protest and counter-insurgency movements in Syria—although these, of course, get no media coverage).

Beyond all of the concessions highlighted hitherto, after agreeing to Annan’s Six-Point peace plan, the President ordered a cease to shelling in the rebel areas, and withdrew as many forces as he felt he could without jeopardizing security/stability—  especially for endangered minority groups. And he held by this cease-fire. Unfortunately, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and the SNC (Syrian National Council), neither individually nor collectively, have authority over many elements of the opposition, which increasingly include foreign fighters/ terrorists.  Even regarding their own forces, the FSA/SNC leadership is decentralized and somewhat chaotic; and so, the agreement gradually disintegrated as a result of consistent infractions.

However, the President returned to the negotiating table, proposing a new approach which focused on deescalating problem zones first and then building outwards from there. The opposition was quick to reject this plan, bombing Damascus and killing members of the President’s cabinet. The opposition has since attempted (and failed) to take over Allepo.  These actions by the rebels have radically escalated the conflict. Unfortunately, the only way to bring the opposition more seriously to the negotiating table would be for their primary state allies (Turkey, Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia) to force them. They have no incentive to negotiate as long as the foreign aid keeps flowing, and  the state actors fueling the resistance have been placing their geopolitical interests over the security and desires of the Syrian people.

In short, these moves on the part of the opposition, which defy the popular interests and the popular will, are an ominous sign for democracy in Syria, should the rebels prevail. In fact, armed and/or military revolutions like the one being attempted in Syria have virtually no precedent of establishing democracies, especially in the Middle East.  The al-Asad family took power in Syria through just such a revolution, as did Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Hosni Mubarak’s military government, the Gaddafi regime, and the Afghani Taliban (who were armed, trained and funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in much the same way as the Libyan and Syrian rebels).  And the coups which ushered in these authoritarian states also typically took place under the auspices of restoring power to the “common man.” It is no wonder that so many Syrians view President al-Asad as a more trustworthy and reliable partner for instituting democratic reforms— he probably is.

 

Published 7/28/2012 by SISMEC.

Will Egypt Vote to Re-Install the Regime It Just Overthrew?

On 6/14/2012, just days before Egypt’s runoff presidential election, Egypt’s High Court announced the dissolution of Parliament. Rather than the (elected) Parliament appointing representatives to draft a constitution, the entire process will be overseen by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). We can rest assured that this constitution will ensure the Army a prominent place in power, and limit the power of the elected government.

Simultaneously, the Court affirmed the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under former President Hosni Mubarak, despite the post-revolution law which explicitly barred former Mubarak-administration officials from running in civilian elections. These developments come on the back of a number of rollbacks of post-Mubarak reforms. How did we get here?

After Hosni Mubarak refused to step down on February 1, 2011, the Army removed him from power (later, placing him under arrest). The next day, Vice-President Suleiman announced that Mubarak had, in fact, resigned (although these words never came out of Mubarak’s mouth); it was also declared that the SCAF would assume “temporary” control of the government, until a constitution was drafted and elections were held.

In November 2011, the SCAF authorized the “Selmy Document,” which contained the following significant provisions:

  • Any forthcoming civilian government would not have tactical control of the military (unlike the American system where Congress and the President set the agenda, which the Army is bound to execute).
  • The elected government would have no oversight/control over the military budget
  • The Army would forever serve as the “Protector of Legitimacy,” with the right to remove any elected government, at any time.
  • The Army had ultimate approval/veto power for the forthcoming constitution, and any laws passed by the Parliament.

Thereafter, the Islamists (specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party, and others) were overwhelmingly elected to Parliament (despite the consistent portrayal of the Revolution as liberal and secularist), winning nearly 70% of the available seats . While the powers of the President and Parliament are still vague, absent a constitution – with a Muslim Brotherhood president (Muhammad Morsi, who won the first round in the presidential election) and such a strong majority in Parliament, the civilian government could be unified in such a way as to be a legitimate counterweight to the army.

However, running against Mursi in the presidential runoff is the Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under Hosni Mubark (whom Shafiq has described as his role model). Shafiq ran on a platform to ensure stability with an “iron fist,” to roll back some of the reforms of the revolution, and to purge the government of Islamists (who have been a problem for the military from the time the government was instituted).

In order to win the presidency, Shafiq aims to stoke the fears that liberals, secularists, and religious minorities have about such a strong Islamist influence on the state; should he get enough of these to turn out for him, he could easily win the election (towards that end, he recently asserted that he would be happy to appoint a Christian woman as his vice-president).

Following the presidential election, and the drafting of the new constitution, the SCAF will oversee another set of Parliamentary elections (this action should also be understood in light of their March 2012 expulsion of foreign NGO’s from the country; the SCAF will have much more control over the democratic process, with less oversight and influence from external parties). It seems to be the SCAF’s hope that the Islamists will have a weaker showing, and the aforementioned alternative factions will do better.

The result will be a divided Parliament, thereby ensuring that whatever powers the Parliament has will be difficult to actually exercise— at the very least, the SCAF can hope for an alternative alliance sufficient to act a foil for the Muslim Brotherhood. The result would be a total erosion of checks and balances on the military by the civilian government—a de facto coup: the Regime would be back (sans the Mubaraks), and not a moment too soon.

Published 6/15/2012 by SISMEC