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

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

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

Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color.

Notwithstanding President Faust’s uplifting statistics about Harvard’s growing diversity (driven largely by international students)–the reality is that, as compared to white Americans, blacks and Latinos are much more likely to attend public universities and community colleges than elite private institutions. The same goes with those from low-income backgrounds as compared to the wealthy.

This dynamic even holds with regards to faculty: female professors and professors of color are more likely than their white male counterparts to end up teaching at public universities as opposed to elite institutions like Harvard.

Here’s why this matters: In virtue of their heavy reliance on taxpayer funding and major donors, public colleges are much more receptive to calls from outside the university to punish faculty and staff for espousing controversial speech or ideas. Groups like Professor Watchlist, Campus Reform, or Campus Watch exploit this vulnerability, launching populist campaigns to get professors fired, or to prevent them from being hired, on the basis of something they said. The primary targets of these efforts end up being mostly women, people of color, and religious minorities (especially Muslims and the irreligious) when they too forcefully or bluntly condemn systems, institutions, policies, practices, and ideologies they view as corrupt, exploitative, oppressive or otherwise intolerable.

Those most vulnerable to being fired for expressing controversial views are the ever-growing numbers of contingent faculty—who also tend to be disproportionately women and minorities. Meanwhile, the better-insulated tenured and tenure-track faculty tend to be white men.

As a result, if progressives are concerned with ensuring a more representative faculty, if they are committed to protecting freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for women and minorities, then they need to be committed to protecting free speech across the board. Every attempt to censor Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos makes it easier to mount a campaign to fire someone like Lisa Durden (who made controversial comments about holding an “all black Memorial Day celebration” that excluded whites). Progressives lose the moral high ground they would need to defend radical and provocative speech—which is unfortunate because they are arguably the ones who need free-speech protections most.

Americans tend to be politically to the right of most university faculty and students—and as a result the public is more likely to be shocked and offended by views expressed by progressive scholars than by academic conservatives, who are few in number, generally rather moderate politically, and usually cautious about what they say publicly. Politicians are also more likely to throw their weight behind campaigns against left-leaning scholars, given that Republicans control most state governments, and thereby the purse strings of most public universities.

And if progressive scholars face a constant threat from the right coming from off-campus, they also face a threat from the left on campus. Many of the student-led campaigns that have made national news in the last two years have targeted professors who, themselves, identify as liberal or progressive—but who managed to challenge or violate some tenet of the prevailing activist orthodoxy.

Progressives, therefore, have reason to celebrate the fact that conservatives and their allies seem to be rallying behind the cause of free speech on campus. They can take advantage of this moment to institutionalize more robust protections, clearer standards and policies, and a healthier civic culture that turns disagreements into opportunities for learning. If progressives fail to embrace free speech, and if they cede this basic American value to the right, then, as Harvard’s  President Faust warned in her commencement address, any effort to limit some speech “opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own.”

 

Co-Authored with Jonathan Haidt
Published 7/8/2017 by The Atlantic

For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “For Social Science to Survive, It Needs to Expand”

The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History”

“What is at stake in the conflict over representations of the future is nothing other than the attitude of the declining classes to their decline—either demoralization, which leads to a rout….or mobilization, which leads to the collective search for a collective solution to the crisis.  What can make the difference is, fundamentally, the possession of the symbolic instruments enabling the group to take control of the crisis and to organize themselves with a view to a collective response, rather than fleeing from real or feared degradation in a reactionary resentment and the representation of history as a conspiracy.”

Pierre Bourdieu, The Bachelor’s Ball (p. 189)

“We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first.”

Frank Ocean, “Nikes” (Blonde)

 

In 2008, Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain.

This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an “Emerging Democratic Majority” that stood to reshape American politics as we know them.

The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men lean right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.

Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans comfortably control both chambers of Congress. They also dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide —bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government.

Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican Administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most impactful Democratic President since LBJ.

In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold onto the faith that the Emerging Demographic Majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up.

However, in this instance, optimism would be ill-advised: the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. If anything, it seems as though progressives may be on the “wrong side of history.”

 

Continue reading “The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History””

Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Conservativism”

No, Ammon Bundy is NOT a terrorist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Republican Party, neither Religious nor Conservative

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

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

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

 

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

Don’t say Black Lives Matter, prove it.

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

That moment has now arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Universal Values v. Universal Laws

The liberal notion of universal law derives its supposed normative force from an ill-defined notion of universal values. This notion of universality is tied conceptually and historically to Western imperialism—and many of the values taken to be “universal” are not.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we presupposed the existence of some set of universal values—this would neither entail nor imply that they could be realized through any universal law; and there is certainly no reason to think that liberalism would be the only, or even the best, way of realizing these values. Take, for instance, the value of respecting women: according to liberalism, the best way to show respect for women is to treat them exactly the same as men. However, this is not the only understanding of justice.

The classical conception is not “to treat everyone the same” but instead “to treat equally those who are the same”—according to which there are two forms of injustice:

  1. Treating people different when they are in fact the same, or
  2. Treating people the same when they are importantly different

In this spirit, traditionalists argue that the liberal conception fails to respect women qua women. Under the liberal conception, women are only valued in those aspects in which they can easily be interchanged with men (i.e. as a worker, a voter, a consumer, etc.).  It is rarely considered just how much is built into this discourse.

For instance, it is presupposed that the only (or in any case, best) ways of empowering women, and people in general, is to give them prolific professional titles, higher salaries, etc. That there are alternative, perhaps more contextually relevant, forms of power or significance is completely overlooked in favor of blind submission to capitalist interpretations of value (the truth of which is also presumed as universal and incontrovertible).

In defiance of this paradigm, a traditionalist would argue that the best way to respect women is to respect the differences between the sexes and to honor gender roles. This neither entails nor implies treating women as 2nd class citizens—instead, that women and men have reciprocal and complimentary (rather than identical) rights and duties. In fact, a more careful examination of social dynamics in traditional societies would reveal that women have a good deal more power than is traditionally assumed–much of which is lost in transition to “modern” paradigms of gender relations.

To this, the liberal would retort that recognizing any difference between the sexes is necessarily discriminatory: non-identical is synonymous with unequal.

While there are significant merits to either of these positions, there is no way to formulate universal policies which simultaneously treat men and women differently but also exactly the same. So, if there is a single body of laws to which all must submit, one of these conceptions has to be chosen. And whichever one is chosen, there will be a group of people who legitimately feels as though the law disrespects women. And in the case of societies in which most people, to include most women, reject liberalism–to impose upon them the liberal interpretation of what it means to respect women would alienate the bulk of society, including most of the women the liberals ostensibly wish to “honor and protect.” Accordingly, in these societies, if one conception of “respecting women,” had to be chosen, it would seem most just to adopt the traditional interpretation which the liberals would also have to be subject to (as opposed to subjecting the overwhelming majority to the will of an extreme minority). This does not entail a disregard for women’s rights (e.g. political participation, education, legal protection from violence/ exploitation)—but rather changes the nature of feminism.

Continue reading “Universal Values v. Universal Laws”