Category Archives: Philosophy

“March for Life” and “Pro-Life” Are Misnomers

Every year since 1974, thousands of people have come to Washington, DC to rally against Roe v. Wade.  Protestors argue that pregnant women should be stripped of the ability to choose whether or not they want to have an abortion.  Referencing the unborn fetuses pregnant women carry inside their bodies, these anti-abortion advocates call their demonstration the “March for Life.”

Politicians who support these efforts use similar language.  Senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, for example, declared the “simple truth that all human life is sacred” to be the most recent march’s inspiration.

Yet neither Rubio nor the vast majority of marchers can credibly claim to have “pro-life” views.

I do not think fetuses should be viewed the same way as people, but let’s imagine you disagree with me.  Suppose, based on that disagreement, you believe an abortion kills an innocent person.  You think enabling the death of innocent people is wrong, and you thus think abortion must be opposed in all circumstances.  Isn’t that a “pro-life” view?

Well, it depends.  The logic of the ostensibly “pro-life” part of that reasoning is that, because X kills innocent people, and because killing innocent people is wrong, nobody should be able to choose X for any reason.

Here’s the problem with that logic: “X” could be any number of things.  Drone strikes kill innocent people.  More generally, war always does.  So does the death penalty.  And many other policies, while less active and direct than drone strikes, war, and putting people to death, effectively kill people.  Refugees are potentially given a death sentence when the countries to which they’re fleeing don’t let them in.  Thousands of people die each year due to inadequate access to health care.  And societies’ refusal to invest in substantial benefits for poor people both here and around the world leads to preventable deaths all the time.

People who truly have a “pro-life” position, therefore, oppose all of these things.  Those who are anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-inclusive immigration, pro-universal health coverage, and pro-substantial benefits for the poor in addition to believing that fetuses are people and abortions are wrong may have a coherent, “pro-life” philosophy.

Needless to say, that’s not a description of Rubio.  He, like so many other anti-choice Republicans, opposes aborting fetuses but none of the preventable deaths mentioned above.

That doesn’t mean Rubio wouldn’t offer a justification for his positions.  He’d likely argue that drones, refugee bans, and military actions save more innocent lives than they sacrifice, that the death penalty is reserved for bad people who deserve it, and that providing health care and money for poor people slows economic growth, discourages work, and harms the very people such measures are intended to help.  He’d be wrong about all of these things – the United States perpetrates far more violence than we prevent, there are innocent people on death row, and meeting the needs of poor people, which we have the resources to do, would be perfectly consistent with a strong economy and boost long-term economic mobility – but that’s not the point.  The point is that Rubio does not allow the idea that “all human life is sacred” to guide his policy positions.  Instead, he balances the sacrifice of human lives against other things he thinks are important and decides which he thinks matters more.

In the realm of abortion, Rubio and others have decided that a fetus’s right to be born is more important than a woman’s right to make a personal, intimate decision about her body.  Again, if you believe fetuses are people and that life starts at conception, that may be a defensible position.  But if you also oppose raising taxes on rich people to provide health care and other basic needs to kids after they’re born, or if you support war, or the death penalty, your position definitely isn’t “pro-life.”  If you contend that “human life is sacred” only when that belief deprives women of rights but not when it consigns innocent people to death or cuts a little bit more into your fortune, you don’t really believe it.

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Filed under Gender Issues, Philosophy

My Dadabhai, Ranan Banerji (May 5, 1928 to December 9, 2016)

My dadabhai (grandfather), Ranan Banerji, was an amazing person with whom I was very close.  He died on Friday, December 9 and I will miss him greatly.

I spent a lot of time with Dadabhai while growing up.  When I was really young, he’d often take me on the train to a nearby town called Lindenwold.  I looked forward to these train rides for days, thinking that Lindenwold was a special place called “Linden World” that specialized in ice cream, which I perceived to be the purpose of our trips.  I learned later that riding the train was actually the main reason for our excursions, and that the ice cream we got at a diner when we got to Lindenwold was decidedly mediocre.  But hanging out with Dadabhai was well worth it.

dadabhai-and-me

Dadabhai loved to tell stories and jokes and to play games.  A former professor of physics, mathematics, and computer science and an early leader in the field of artificial intelligence, he instilled in me a deep appreciation of the beauty of logic, strategic reasoning, and math. He taught me how to play chess in elementary school and precalculus in high school, tutoring me over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years.  We had many long talks about science and religion, which he felt were more compatible than is commonly thought.  After I went to college, he’d send me emails and handwritten letters about mathematical concepts that he had promised to prove, or about political conversations he’d been replaying in his head.

I looked up to Dadabhai in many ways.  For one, he was a great life partner to my didibhai.  My sisters, wife, and I never tire of hearing the story of how they originally met.  They were on a boat to Edinburgh, Scotland in 1952 and, after their first encounter, Didibhai’s brother raved about Dadabhai’s intellect.  Didibhai told her brother that she thought Dadabhai was a slob.  “And I thought she was a snob,” Dadabhai would say.  “And then, two weeks later, we got engaged.”

I still don’t quite understand how they got from there to here – life apparently moves quite fast on a boat – but I do understand how they had an incredibly happy marriage that lasted 62 years.  Their respect for each other’s thoughts, admiration of each other’s strengths, and enjoyment of each other’s company were always apparent.  I have learned much of what I think a healthy relationship is from them (as well as from my parents).

I also admired Dadabhai’s power-balancing instincts.  He sought to buy from high-road companies and introduced me to Working Assets, which donates to progressive causes whenever I use my credit card.  He’d recommend I read The Hightower Lowdown and Yes! Magazine, pulling out and sending me articles he thought I’d find particularly interesting.  I recently learned that, in the late 1960s, he openly advised his students to get higher degrees to avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War.  Having such outspoken, authority-challenging views couldn’t have been easy for an Indian immigrant of his generation.

Other traits of Dadabhai’s that will always stick with me were his thoughtfulness and open-mindedness.  During debates, he’d lay out his assumptions and listen carefully to what others said.  He had a clear perspective, but it was grounded in logic and evidence and open to compelling counterarguments; in fact, he’d express excitement when confronted with evidence that was in conflict with a preconceived notion he had.  I think of him whenever I need a reminder to carefully and fairly consider opposing views.

For the last six years, up until Dadabhai’s health no longer permitted it, I would talk to him on the phone on my way to work almost every morning.  It was one of the highlights of my day, as continuing to talk to Didibhai in the mornings will still be.  I hope to one day be as good a grandfather as Dadabhai was to me.

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Filed under Philosophy

Privilege: Many Jill Stein Voters Have It, and Many Hillary Clinton Voters Do, Too

As an outspoken supporter of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, I often get questions akin to the one Stein was asked at the Green Town Hall on August 17: “Given the way our political system works, effectively you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helped George Bush in 2000.  How could you sleep at night?”  More often than not, such questions are followed by the claim that voting for Stein in November is an act of self-indulgent privilege.  Only those with little to lose from a Donald Trump presidency can afford to risk it by adhering to a rigid set of principles that will never come to fruition, third-party critics argue; people who might suffer under Trump’s policies, on the other hand, understand the stakes involved in this election and that Hillary Clinton is the only practical alternative to Trump.

This formulation misconstrues privilege dynamics and misrepresents the identities and considerations of third-party voters and others who refuse to support Clinton, who are far less often White, affluent, heterosexual men than their detractors seem to believe.

The status quo is serving many people poorly.  Proclaiming that, because the alternative is “worse,” everyone must vote for Clinton – a politician who has championed policies that have actively harmed millions of people both here and around the world – is, at its very best, patronizing to those who are currently suffering.  It’s a promise of crumbs instead of a meal with the admonition that starving people better be thankful for crumbs, as the other candidate might take even those away.

This rationale plays on the fears of disadvantaged people and those who care about them in order to perpetuate current power dynamics.  Its use is in many ways an expression of the very privilege it critiques.

Third-Party Critics Misconstrue Privilege Dynamics

Privilege is a multi-dimensional concept, and very few people can claim to speak for the most downtrodden in society.  Individuals writing widely read articles about the privilege of third-party voters aren’t refugees from Central America who President Obama is currently deportingwith Clinton’s support, until recently.  They aren’t incarcerated for marijuana possession or sitting on death row, likely to stay locked up or sentenced to die if Clinton becomes president.  They aren’t living under Israeli occupation, or in deep poverty, or afraid of being obliterated by a drone strike, with little hope for change under the specter of a Clinton presidency.  As Morgana Visser recently noted, “many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton,” and those accusing nonvoters and third-party voters of privileged indifference to the plight of others have the privilege themselves not to be so marginalized that four, or eight, or indefinitely many more years of incremental change to the status quo is intolerable to them.

The thing is, the argument that the Democrats are the only actual alternative voters have to Trump – that the status quo cannot be radically improved and that incremental change is all that is possible – is one that many people cannot afford.  Those of us voting for Stein seek to challenge this thinking, to fight for a world in which the most marginalized people are not consigned to deportation, lifetime imprisonment, poverty, or death at the hands of Democrats who are better than Republicans but not nearly good enough.  Third-party voting and abstaining from the presidential election altogether are strategies designed to either change the Democratic Party or create an alternative in a political system that has failed disadvantaged populations for decades, as Sebastian Castro points out.

It’s perfectly fine to challenge the efficacy of that strategy, and I encourage everyone to read compelling cases for lesser-evilsism in 2016 from Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky and John Halle, Shaun King, and Adolph Reed.  I evaluate the risks of Trump relative to Clinton and a lesser-of-evils vote relative to third-party voting differently than they do, but I also have a ton of respect for where they and other social justice advocates like them are coming from.

It is wrong, however, for anyone to wield accusations of privilege as a cudgel against those with different electoral strategies, especially because this tactic ignores the voices of Michelle Alexander, Cate Carrejo, Rosa Clemente, Andrea Mérida Cuéllar, Benjamin Dixon, Eddie Glaude, Marc Lamont Hill, Jenn Jackson, Rania Khalek, Arielle Newton, Kwame Rose, Kshama Sawant, Cornel West, and numerous other members of marginalized groups who support alternatives to the Democratic Party and/or believe it’s fine not to vote at all.

Those who prioritize identity politics should also remember that prominent spokespeople for the Green Party (including Clemente and Cuéllar) tend to be less privileged than their Democratic Party counterparts, that a woman has been on the Greens’ presidential ticket every single year in which the party has launched a bid for the White House (beginning in 1996), and that the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates this year – Stein and Ajamu Baraka – are by far the least privileged candidates running.

Third-Party Critics Misrepresent Voter Demographics

Statistics on Green Party voters in the United States are hard to find, but it’s possible to back out some rough estimates from recent polling.  The graph below uses data from four different polls to compare demographic shares among registered Clinton supporters, registered Stein supporters, and all registered voters.

estimated-green-shares

The estimates debunk the notion that Stein’s base is especially privileged.  Her supporters are about as likely as Clinton’s to be women and seem to be a little less likely than Clinton voters to make over $50,000 a year or to have the privilege of a college degree.  The confidence intervals on these estimates are likely fairly large and the average differences between the candidates’ supporters in these domains, if there are any, are thus probably small, but other evidence also suggests that Green Party voters tend to have low incomes; as Carl Beijer has observed, Ralph “Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic.”

Beijer also makes an important point about the domain in which Stein and Clinton supporters differ most: age.  While age-based privilege is a complicated concept – both young and old people can be targets of discrimination – younger voters have to worry much more than older voters about “what happens over the span of decades if [they] keep voting for increasingly right-wing Democrats.”

Now, to be fair, Clinton voters are more likely than Stein voters to be people of color.  But Stein’s share of voters of color is similar to the share in the general population of registered voters; Stein voters are not disproportionately White.  Looking at the total population that won’t vote for Clinton, which is a larger universe than the set of registered voters who support Stein, provides an even more striking rebuttal to the those-who-oppose-Clinton-are-White-male-Bernie-Bros narrative.  As Visser shows, Reuters data actually suggests that over 40 percent of people of color do not plan to vote for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, neither do over 45 percent of the LGBTIQ community, nor the majority of women, “marginalized religious folk,” and people making less than $50,000 a year.

None of those statistics change the fact that I, along with many Clinton supporters, am privileged enough to have little to lose from a Trump presidency.  But like nearly all Clinton supporters – and unlike the millions of people who, as Visser reminds us, “do not have the privilege of feeling or being any safer under Democrats [as] opposed to Republicans” – I have even less to fear from a Clinton win.  Pundits and partisans would do well to spend less time alleging that third-party voters don’t care about the disadvantaged and more time reflecting on why large numbers of people are much more worried than they are about the status quo.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, Sports, US Political System

Truth or Politics

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose most recent book, Machiavelli in America, explores the influence of the 16th-century Italian political philosopher on America’s politics.  Machiavelli’s impact is particularly apparent today, as Block explains in the post below.  Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) is also the founder of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art in New York, where he works with artists and activists in building their social interventions along the lines of the activist theory he developed.

THOMAS

Tom Block

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all (through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom Hartmann, Glenn Greenwald, Rania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’s soothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Times columnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation) noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger observed, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outlet Media Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

What Unity Should Mean

If headlines about the Democratic convention (shown below) are any indication, the main purpose of the event is “party unity.”  Calls to “Unite Blue” have been intensifying as the Democratic primary process has inched towards a close and represent a pitch for Bernie Sanders supporters to rally around Hillary Clinton, helping her to emerge victorious in November’s general election matchup with Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein.

Unity Images

The brand of “unity” being pushed, however, is a corruption of the word.  It zeroes in on a narrow set of attitudes and behaviors – those towards Clinton and other Democratic party leaders – and makes a binary categorization: people who praise Clinton and other Democrats while pledging to vote for them in the fall are good, while those who protest Democratic party leaders at the convention and/or refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton are at best “ridiculous” (Sarah Silverman), “crazy” (Jonathan Chait), “pathetic” (Jon Favreau) “babies” (Amanda Marcotte) and at worst “whiny diaper babies” (Bob Cesca), “dickheads” (Imani Gandy), “garbage people” (Ian Millhiser), “shitheads” (Joan Walsh), or my personal favorite, from a Daily Kos blogger going by the name of LiberalCanuck, “Regressives [who] are commonly found in terrorist and quasi-terrorist circles [and] want misery [and] suffering [so a] revolution can occur.”

This brand of unity is so blinding that those espousing it often pile on and attack individuals who turn out to be with them on the very issue they deem most important (making sure Hillary Clinton wins in the fall).  It risks alienating Sanders supporters – who are more likely than any other candidates’ supporters to hold anti-racist views and support social justice policies – and undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to lean Democratic, thus sowing the very division to which those pushing party unity are ostensibly opposed.

There is a better kind of unity, one that actually brings people together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.  It is based on a shared passion for helping those in need, an openness to intellectually honest disagreement, and a commitment to respect and accountability.  This brand of unity has three major components:

1) Sticking to intellectually honest arguments: During the primary, pro-Clinton partisans propagated illiberal, misleading, and/or false claims about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Now, despite what the New York Times (hardly a Sanders-sympathetic media outlet) has called “undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” many pundits have responded, not by apologizing for mocking Sanders supporters’ suspicions, but by downplaying and diverting attention away from the evidence confirming that the primary was unfair and undemocratic.  It’s hard to develop a successful coalition when some members of that coalition can’t trust that others are engaging in good faith, and prominent Clinton supporters have a lot of work to do to show that they are.

To be clear, the behavior of these prominent individuals is not representative; most Clinton supporters already engage in good faith most of the time, and there are also Sanders supporters out there who distorted facts during the primary.  It is incumbent upon everyone who truly supports power-balancing policy to make sure we’re adhering to the truth.

2) Respecting intellectually honest disagreement about the strategy most likely to achieve a common goal: Third-party voting, for example, comes with pros and cons for those who believe in social justice policy. The main con, as its detractors are quick to point out, is that it increases the chances that the worse of two major-party candidates will win an election (though it is not the same mathematically as a vote for the worse major-party candidate and, contrary to popular belief, is not the predominant reason George W. Bush became president in 2001).  The main pro of third-party voting, on the other hand – one its detractors rarely if ever acknowledge – is that it increases voters’ leverage over the Democratic party and the likelihood of a meaningful challenge to America’s two-party system in the long run, a system millions of people continue to suffer under.

Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors, including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.  Reasonable people with very similar policy goals and visions for the world are going to disagree about whether third-party voting is worth it – some have even suggested alternative voting options – and rather than excoriating each other, we should have a robust and respectful debate.

3) Addressing legitimate concerns from coalition members and working together on areas of agreement: Third-party voting holds appeal because of the Democratic party’s very real failings, and those who wish to sway third-party voters should make their case not by belittling those voters’ concerns, but by working to make the Democratic party better. If Clinton gets elected and actively pursues the policies she borrowed from Sanders on the campaign trail, we will consider voting for her in 2020.  In the meantime, those voting for third-party candidates in the general election this year must both help push those policies through social movements and make sure to be actively involved in electoral processes at the city, state, and congressional levels.

In short, there’s no reason unity has to be so divisive.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.

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Filed under Philosophy, Race and Religion

A Response to Machiavelli: Three Legislative Proposals

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist.  In his last 34justice guest post, Tom described Niccolò Machiavelli’s influence on American politics.  He also laid out his proposal for a “Moral Ombudsman,” a nonprofit that would “offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of” politicians.  In this follow-up, Tom explains three specific policies a Moral Ombudsman might recommend.

Tom Block

Tom Block

Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt said of her friend Walter Benjamin (a philosopher and social critic) that he was a “clumsy theorist.”  Not that he couldn’t theorize and walk at the same time, but that he was only interested in developing theories which couldn’t be implemented, in the messy world of the public square.

I share this clumsiness with Walter Benjamin, and so I am transforming the theory for my Moral Ombudsman – proposed in my last posting in this space – into three very real proposals to begin implementation of this anti-Machiavellian political program in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary American politics.

Though these ideas might at first appear heuristic (theoretical or exploratory), they are in fact common sense responses to some of our most pressing social challenges – and ideas which could be implemented at the local, state or even national level.

I. Family Legislation War Act

My fascination with the socially binding attitude toward war was heightened while watching the build-up to America’s incursion into Iraq in 2003.  An “adventure” which still haunts our economy and foreign policy today, more than a decade later.

My morbid attraction to the subject led me to write a book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, which explored the conflation of war, spirituality and the state.  It investigated not only the religious language used in fomenting war fever in the country, but also the reasons why this framing of this deadly form of politics (which often amounts to genocide) resonated so successfully with the general public.

I also realized how ubiquitous war is, both in the United States and throughout human history.  By one count, the United States has been at war during 214 out of our 235 calendar years of existence.  Hardly surprising, however, when you learn that throughout the past 5600 years of recorded history, 14,600 wars have been fought, more than two wars for each year of human “civilization” (p. 17).

The American addiction to war has many causes: psychological (situating the generalized anxiety we feel inside in some far off “other” and then destroying it); economic (at least 50% of the American economy is dependent on the military-industrial complex) and political (nothing brings a population together or rallies them around a leader as does war).  As such, stemming this gruesome tide might appear nearly impossible.

However, for our psychic as well as social health, it makes sense to do everything we can to phase this activity out as a political option.  To this end, there is one simple legislative proposal which might help stop, or certainly slow, the pace of American wars – and if adopted throughout democracies and republics worldwide, could do much to stanch the bleeding around the globe.

If politicians were forced to vote a single member from their own immediate family into war at the head of the army, they might think twice about casting that politically expedient vote.   From Bill Clinton’s (42nd President of the United States) daughter Chelsea to President Barack Obama’s (44th President of the United States) daughters Malia or Sasha to one of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) twin daughters or even Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY – at this writing, the Minority Leader in the US Senate) children: we could do much to lessen the rush to war if the vote was modified in this manner.

By personalizing the vote for bellicosity, the noxious pattern of sending other people’s children (usually from the underclass, as the armed forces often provides the best employment option for those who have few of them) to die for our country might be halted.  While it is easy for the rich and powerful to send unknown bodies off to other lands to be psychically or physically maimed, even politicians might think twice about involving their beloved kin.  And if a particular representative didn’t have children?  A sacrificial brother, sister or first cousin would suffice.

This simple law would allow even the most stolid of politicians to appreciate in its entirety what it means to go to war.  Not to say that all wars would be stopped – World War II, for instance, might well have been fought under these pretenses – but the succession of wars of choice that we have entered (and often instigated) over the past 75 years (currently numbering 18 and counting) would have been considered far more gravely beforehand than they in fact were.

II. National Service

My Father (b. 1933), drafted into the army as all of his generation and then recalled during the Cuban Crisis (1961-62), tells many stories about his experiences there.  In particular, he relates how people from all strata of American life came together to live in the shared cultural environment of the armed forces.  Living as equals, these men from rural, suburban and urban America, some toothless and poor, others headed to Ivy League colleges, shared an experience for months, a year or more which would stay with them for a lifetime.  Most importantly, it deepened their sense of the American community as one which involves people from all walks of life, even though they might have disparate political and social views, as well as economic prospects.

This sense of a national citizenry – in which all Americans got to personally know people from every segment of our society – has been lost with the passing of the draft.  In my opinion, much of the political and social fracturing of our country that we have seen over the past two decades might be due to this loss of shared experience.  We no longer get to know each other as equals, in a common American endeavor.  Community members from the rural South to the urban Northeast have grown insular, identifying more with their local culture than with the country at large.  And as our political life has suffered, our social discourse has soured and the answers we so desperately search for concerning everything from global warming to unemployment have become more and more difficult to come by.

I do not advocate reinstating the draft.  As you can see from my first idea, I am far more in favor of fazing out the standing army, rather than getting more Americans to serve in it.  However, I do strongly feel that we need some kind of national program to help knit our American community – far more diverse now than when my father was in the army fifty years ago – together into a singly polity.

I propose a democratizing event that brings all segments of our society together.  A year of national service concentrating on public and social work – from environmental cleanup to light infrastructure jobs to helping the poor in cities or rural areas where there is need – would reinstitute this shared sense of American community.  Taking place for one year between high school and college, and perhaps modeled on an existent program like Americorps, Teach for America or even the Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA), this endeavor would help heal the fissures that have been appearing in our culture, and threaten to grow from cracks into chasms of difference between disparate segments of our population.

Not only would young adults at a formative time in their lives come to feel the warmth of working for the common good, they would also be forced to work with and perhaps even befriend people from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds.  This would do much to combat sectarian, economic and racial rifts that have yet to be healed (and sometimes seem to be on the rise) in our society.

III.  Into the Voting Booth

One of the unfortunately, though rarely remarked upon, concerns with our democracy is that such a small percentage of the voting age population votes in elections.  In presidential years, a bare majority of Americans vote – not even 60% of the voting age population in recent elections (since 1960, the percentage has ranged from a high of 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996).  In off-year elections, known colloquially as “midterm elections,” a little more than a third of the voting public casts ballots, allowing only a 20% minority of voting age citizens (the majority of those voting) to make decisions that affect the whole country!

According to Howard Stephen Friedman (a professor at Columbia University and economist at the United Nations), the USA trails virtually all advanced democratic, economically healthy nations in voter participation.  According to his graph, the United States of America lags far behind Belgium, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Portugal, Japan and many other industrialized nations, coming in with a paltry 38% of eligible voter participation, on average.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.02.34 AM

Different countries address voter participation concerns in different manners.  Unfortunately, in our country, legislative energy has recently been expended in depressing voter turnout even further, rather than encouraging it.  One party has realized that the majority of Americans do not agree with their political program, so the surest way to electoral victory is to make it more difficult to vote, not easier.

As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted:

For the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Voters in 22 states will face tougher rules than in the last midterms. In 15 states, 2014 is slated to be the first major election with new voting restrictions in place.

These changes are the product of a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities that swept into office in 2010.  They represent a sharp reversal for a country whose historical trajectory has been to expand voting rights and make the process more convenient and accessible.

It should also be clearly stated that these restrictive measures were passed in response to a problem (“voter fraud”) which has been shown time and again not to exist.  And that “of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed them through entirely Republican-controlled bodies.”

American democracy should not be about inventing fraudulent, though “legal” (in the narrowest sense of the word) means to assure electoral victory.  We should work toward the kind of voter inclusion of Belgium (93%) or Australia (80%), instead of being satisfied with a little more than half of a bit more than a third of our voting age population making decisions for the whole country.

To this end, I propose not only making access far easier, but also moving the election day to the weekend (or declaring it a national holiday); having voting laws administered by the Federal Government (instead of a patchwork of state and even local jurisdictions, allowing partisan election judges to make, shift and change laws to the best effect for their political party) and even go so far as to – like Australia or Belgium – pass a law making voting in this country mandatory, instead of attempting to restrict it to partisan friends, while discouraging others from participation.

Democracy (a system of government by the whole population) cannot be healthy if certain segments of the citizenry are discouraged or even prevented from voting.  Current election tightening – something, that Weiser assures, hasn’t happened on this grand a scale since Reconstruction, more than 125 years ago – is bad for the country, though certainly better for one of the major parties.

We must take the ballot box back for all Americans.  Twenty two countries in the world have some form of compulsory voting, including much of Latin America, Australia and Belgium.  The State of Georgia (USA) had such a law on its books in its Constitution of 1777 which stated: “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty,” though it was omitted from the State Constitution of 1789.

We cannot live in a democracy where some people control who votes, while more than half of the country doesn’t even cast them.  This leads to results which do not reflect the “will of the people,” but simply the will of the powerful.  As Joseph Stalin noted: “It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide nothing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.”

A participatory democracy must include the voices from the vast majority of its citizens, even if their voices are compelled to speak.  If we, as a country, can pass laws to narrow the vote, then we can just as assuredly pass one that will compel it.  And if we truly want to live in a “democracy,” we should do it sooner rather than later.

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Filed under Philosophy, US Political System

Machiavelli in America and One Response to this Social Illness

Tom Block is an author, playwright and artist, whose work spans more than two decades.  In this blog post, Tom introduces us to his political antidote to our Machiavellian political sphere.  Adapted from his book, Machiavelli in America, this piece is part of Tom’s greater exploration of how to bring spiritual and even mystical values to bear on contemporary society. His work is collected under a theory he calls “Prophetic Activism,” a model of using art, thought and other means to infiltrate (rather than simply oppose) the power centers of business and politics.  For more information about Tom’s work, please visit his website.

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Tom Block and his most recent book, Machiavelli in America

Nowadays, the Machiavellian notion that political arrangements may not be judged by any objective standards of right and wrong, that there is neither any natural or any divine law, but only the law of will, of success and failure, is almost unchallenged (p. xvi).

Many people are familiar with the controversial thinking of the Renaissance political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527).  His influence has been so widespread that the word “Machiavellian” has been incorporated into our language as a pejorative, defining a person who is cunning, duplicitous and operates in bad faith.

What might be less well known is the profound influence that Machiavelli has on contemporary American politics.  From state houses to the Presidency, Machiavelli’s ideas and motivations are central to building winning political campaigns and passing legislation, however un-democratic and antithetical to a healthy, pluralistic society.  As Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted (p.149): “Today, Machiavelli’s influence on political policy may be greater than at any time since he served the Florentine government.  Machiavelli has become American.”

The foundation of Machiavelli’s political ideology is straightforward: everyone in society is selfish, acting primarily for personal gain.  And for a politician to succeed in mastering this world, she has to either manipulate or frighten people into believing that their interests ally most closely with her own.

Machiavelli’s program concentrates on subjugation and mastery.  He does not concern himself with the common good, democracy or human rights.  For Machiavelli, the concepts of moral philosophers from Moses to the Sufis and the religions within which they operate are certainly important.  But only because these religious systems provide a fraudulent tool for the relentless, morally unhinged pursuit of power.  In terms of their direct relation to political reality, however, he considers them as meaningless as music.

Machiavelli’s central tenet is that the truth of any matter must be overwhelmed by two stronger factors: fear and fraud. In terms of inspiring fear in the populace, it is the surest method of gaining control over them:

I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others (p. 82).

He also noted that truth can be easily shunted aside, using fraudulent means to inspire fear, and then oneself offered as the palliative, inspiring a populace to follow the leader:

The great majority of humans is satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and is often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are (p. 182).

It is through inspiring fear in the citizenry, as well as using fraud as a tool to appear to be what the people want (i.e., safe, religious, moral, “like” them etc.) that political victory can most easily be won.

In terms of winning political office or legislative battles by immoral means?  Not to worry.  He noted: “When the act accuses, the result excuses” (p. 139).  Whatever actions undertaken to attain political victory are excused if the actor is successful.  Machiavelli absolved triumphant leaders of all blame or responsibility for any act necessary to attain and retain power:

A wise mind will never censure anyone for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic . . . when the result is good, it will always absolve him from blame (p. 139).

Machiavellian inspiration is not hard to discern, either throughout American history or even in our most recent political season.  A brief study of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) manner of attaining a very dubious electoral victory, and then his perverse political use of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 (on New York’s World Trade Center and other sites) would suffice.  But for our purposes, it is important to mention that George W. Bush was acting in a time-honored American Machiavellian tradition.

Neo-Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen (b. 1941) noted the similarities between the beginnings of America and the Florentine’s ideals: “There is much in Machiavelli that sounds like the American Founding Fathers…Machiavelli’s notion of the good state calls to mind The Federalist Papers” (p. 109).

Ledeen continued on to reference specific Machiavellian influence on James Madison (fourth President of the United States), Alexander Hamilton (first United States Secretary of the Treasury) and Benjamin Franklin (Founding Father and so-called “First American”).  The Florentine’s inspiration can also be found on the thinking of George Washington (first President of the United States); Thomas Jefferson, (principal author of the Declaration of Independence) and John Adams (America’s first Vice President, as well as the second President of the United States).  All of this has been outlined in more depth in my book.

The reverberations of the long-ago Florentine political philosopher can clearly be ascertained in the most recent electoral campaigns, which often are based in fear, character assassination and moral fraud.

For instance, in this current electoral cycle in North Carolina, Republican challenger Thom Tillis is ratcheting up the fear by linking Senator Kay Hagan (D) to terrorist threats.  A campaign advertisement of his notes: “Hagan and [President] Obama are to blame for the growing emergency linked to extremist groups like ISIS.”  And in keeping with the Machiavellian dictate that another sure way to win a political campaign is to assassinate the opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has undertaken a scorched-earth campaign against his challenger, Alison Grimes (D):

As many observers predicted, the McConnell strategy was to bring Grimes’ popularity down.  She has been bombarded by negative attacks over the summer by McConnell’s campaign and super PACs.

The reality of American politics turns away from the moral intentions of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution and toward a power-driven oligarchy, ruled over by the most pernicious, negative and fraudulent.

It should be noted that this problem infects one side of the aisle far more than the other.  Although the mainstream press would be loathe to appear anything but “objective” (defined as the midpoint between the two parties), it is the Republican Party, and even more so the right-wing “Tea Party” members of that party, who most clearly exhibit the influence of the medieval political philosopher.  Renaissance scholar Paul Grendler noted that this linkage between America’s right wing and the Renaissance philosopher goes back to at least World War II:

Machiavelli has been a theme in American conservative political discussion since the 1940s.  It is likely that the use of Machiavelli has contributed to the combative mentality that characterized American Cold War politics, the belligerency of American conservatism and the take-no-prisoners tactics and language employed against liberalism and the Democrats (p. 168).

In my book, I outline many specific manners in which Machiavelli not only influenced our Founding Fathers, but also can still be felt in the legislative, executive and even judicial branches of government, including the overwhelming power of money, the efficacy of character assassinations and the use of war-like language to the utilization of religious and moral fraud and war itself, all as immoral political tools.

Regardless of what we might wish, think or work for, it is the Machiavellian dictates of power politics which are accepted as “politics as usual,” while all other potential moral methods of political interaction are simply shunted to the side as the strategy of losers.  And time and again, the results of political elections confirm the view that Machiavelli is for winners.

Although this dynamic is well known and even remarked upon, we (as a society) haven’t developed effective responses to Machiavelli, specific manners of combatting this pernicious dynamic.  What I offer in my book, and will summarize here, is one manner of attempting to combat this social cancer.  And one which takes into account our zeitgeist, from the deeply religious nature of so much of America’s public life, to the unwillingness of American journalists to base their reporting on the truth, opting instead for some mushy middle between the positions of the two major parties, which they define as “objective.”  This lack of moral clarity in the press corps only allows fraudulent political actors more leeway in creating their own alternate reality, a vile combination of fraud, character assassination and amoral pandering.

Though at least one administrator of this blog might disagree with me, I feel strongly that God and religion must be taken into account when considering a palliative to the shared social illness exhibited in our public square.  Activist responses to social illnesses must take into account the reality of that society; and offer familiar (i.e., religiously-based for Americans) manners of infiltrating and changing it – instead of simply standing outside of the metaphorical walls to the city and lobbing well-meaning and ineffectual ideas toward a population that couldn’t care less.

A Response to Machiavelli: The Moral Ombudsman

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas put forward an interesting proposal concerning the insertion of truth into politics:

Before an election, have candidates take a lie detector test.  Put it on TV and/or the Internet.  A panel of reporters or other experts could ask the questions, just like they do in presidential debates.  In fact, this could be a five-minute segment at the end of the debates.  “And now, to the lie detectors…”

Ha, ha, ha!  The political participants on both sides of the aisle would never accept common sense remedies such as this one.  It would too easily and clearly unmask the whole pernicious system.  Lie detector tests are for criminals!  Not for politicians, they would assure.

And we certainly can’t rely on the press to offer us a reportage of current politics and events based on truth (instead of some bizarre combination of “objectivity,” generally held opinion and polling data – which itself only represents the desires of the most powerful propagandistic machine).

The unwillingness to base journalism in truth is well-noted, by the way.  As the Los Angeles Times noted in an editorial: “the canons of the profession [journalism] prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  And as Washington Post journalist Melinda Henneberger said, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting:  “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

So it falls to us, we the people, to devise our own method of inserting truth into the Machiavellian world of American politics, and what follows is one such proposal.  I have devised an idea that can be implemented within our political system, offering a muscular response to the ingathering of power and money by the top one percent of American citizens.  As Machiavelli noted (p.211): “So enormous is the ambition of the grandi that it soon brings that city to ruin if it is not beaten down by various ways and various modes.”

This response to Machiavelli offers one manner to “beat them down.”

Honest discourse and unimpeded knowledge is virtually impossible to come by in the American political panorama.  For this reason, I propose that clearly stated information itself represents the greatest potential tool supporting genuine democracy.  In a country where voter suppression, lying, cheating, stealing and all manner of fraud are accepted as “politics as usual,” the ability to come by clear and concise information on any issue is virtually impossible.

The Moral Ombudsman would operate within the parameters of 21st-century Washington D.C., acknowledging the manner in which power is won and imposed.  Specifically, this is the call for the creation of a non-profit organization of the same name: “The Moral Ombudsman,” to develop and insert a moral lodestar into politics.

The Moral Ombudsman would bring together a board of recognized religious and social leaders to form a non-governmental organization to provide moral oversight of our lawmakers, as well as the laws that they make.  This collective would be constituted of leaders from the following religious and spiritual groups, representing the breadth of faith and secular communities in the United States: Christianity (two each from Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterians, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox); Judaism (one each from Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox); Muslim (one each from Sunni, Shi’a and Sufi); Buddhism, Sikhism, Hindu, Mormon; Unitarian, Secular Humanist and Atheist.

Other potential board members might include an academic leader, an agreed upon politician (preferably at the end of his public career, and not at the beginning), a social theorist or perhaps lay leader who would add perspective to the conversation.  The final constitution of the board would represent the vast majority of American citizens.  It would also acknowledge the Christian heritage of our nation by weighting the board in that direction.

The board would first be charged with developing a social and political moral code that would be agreed upon by all members of the board.  Although at first blush, this step clearly seems to present a potentially insurmountable obstacle, it is not as difficult as it might appear.  At the core, virtually all religions are in accord.  There are moral values shared by all creeds, which inform the hearts of every sacred path.

In this response to Machiavelli, the common good will take into account such things as the obligation of those who have the means to aid those who do not; the right to adequate health care access to for every citizen (hardly revolutionary, as thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the lone exception); adequate shelter, a necessary amount of nutritious food, free education, freedom of religion and association and freedom from racist or ethnically deleterious laws and treatment.

Social issues such as the following would be discussed and agreed upon, becoming the bedrock formulation for the Moral Ombudsman.  These positions would help define the manner in which politicians, their actions and their laws, would be viewed:

  • Obligation of the rich to help the poor
  • Human right to health care
  • Human right to adequate, nutritious food
  • Human right to satisfactory housing
  • Forgiveness, restitution and rehabilitation as bases for the prison system
  • Minority rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from racism
  • Freedom from hate speech
  • Foreign policy based in respect and commonality
  • Truth as the basis for news reporting
  • Truth as the basis for political language and ideas
  • Truth as the basis for political campaigns

Each religion’s scriptures provides many different readings, from the suppression and slaughter of the “other;” veiling of women; polygamous and tribal laws to readings that emphasize peace, respect and open-mindedness.  Put bluntly, George W. Bush could find plenty in the Scriptures to justify his views, as could Martin Luther King Jr.

Leaders from the various religious creeds would be sought who believed in the opening and loving aspects of their creeds, not the close-minded, “us” vs. “them” manner of politicizing religion.  They would conceive of theirs as a valid path, and not the single road to spiritual grace.  They would be leaders whose views shared much with the contemporary zeitgeist in respecting the plurality of ethnic, social and cultural diversity and the worth of individuals (instead of holding that the religious system is more important than the rights of its constituent members).

The Moral Ombudsman would reach beyond social, economic and political barriers, speaking in the best interests of all Americans, all the time.  The Moral Ombudsman would be immune to fluctuations in the stock market, monetary reward, poll numbers or television ratings.

Issuing its decisions in policy papers, op-ed articles, newsletters, scorecards on the votes of members of congress, governors and the president and other like manners, this non-profit watchdog group would finally offer a true moral center from which to judge the legislation and actions of our elected princes.

Once the moral structure was set into place with the creation of a specific set of political virtues, the work of the organization would be to judge both legislators and legislation by its precepts.  Each law coming up for a vote in Congress would be compared to the moral principles agreed upon by the Board.  A grade would be issued, with a zero representing a completely immoral law (such as raising taxes on the poor so that the rich might have a lower tax burden), to a 100% (universal health care, for instance).  There would be a written release issued, as well as a rating.

Each legislator would have his votes analyzed, and would receive a sum-total number score for his moral centeredness.  This method is modeled on the scores issued by NGO groups from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy.

Additionally, the Executive Branch, military, State Department and actions of members from other governmental arms would be so judged.  Pilotless Drone attacks on other people’s soil?  Nope.  No matter how much verbiage there is about terrorism, eliciting the fear response of the population, this cannot be morally justified.  Secret Ops work in Latin America?  Presidential pandering, military posturing, and State Department dithering?  No, no and no.  The Moral Ombudsman’s job would not be to garner votes or make friends with the higher ups.  It’s job would be to begin the vital but nearly impossible work of centering American politics in a moral schema, instead of allowing it to continue to founder in the media created world of “objective reality.”

In the end, difficult though it might be, a moral middle would be carved out of the amorphous and amoral public and political square.  Finally, some manner of shared values would emerge that each of us, in our heart of hearts, might agree upon.

Is this solution easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it fraught with potential problems?

Yes.  Oh, yes.

But we are left with no choice but to try.

 

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The Political Lens: What Global Warming and Wright v. New York Have in Common

During the 2003-2004 school year, my chemistry teacher told my class that global warming wasn’t occurring.  I believed her.  When I attended New Jersey’s Governor’s School of International Studies in the summer of 2005, a professor told me the opposite – the evidence for global warming, and for the human contribution to it, was virtually incontrovertible.  Confused about what to think, I began to research the issue.  I also reached out to some of my other former teachers to ask for their input.

Three things became immediately clear.  First, most popular articles about global warming contained more empty rhetoric than useful information.  The mainstream media, as it far too frequently does, focused not on the truth but on grandstanding and a false sense of balance.  Second, I didn’t know enough climate science to look through a given study’s results and determine their legitimacy.  Third, I didn’t have to – a different approach could tell me everything I needed to know about each study’s likely veracity.

Global warming research falls into two categories: research by legitimate scientists and “research” funded by big energy interestsLegitimate scientists, who have no economic incentive to lie, conclude that global warming is a manmade crisis deserving our immediate action.  The few studies that suggest otherwise are normally sponsored by organizations like Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, interest groups with billions of dollars invested in the activity responsible for global warming.

As with global warming, knowledge of the individual and organizational incentives behind opposing “sides” of any debate provides us with critical information.  This “political lens,” though not completely foolproof, reminds us that certain claims deserve a larger dose of skepticism than others.  The agendas behind a movement are especially important to consider when we lack in-depth knowledge of a particular issue.

In education policy debates, “reformers” far too often selectively and inaccurately apply the political lens or dismiss its importance.  That dynamic surfaced after Stephen Colbert interviewed former CNN anchor Campbell Brown on July 31. Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, had filed Wright v. New York three days before the interview.  Wright, modeled after Vergara v. California, challenges several aspects of teacher employment law.

A small group of teachers, parents, and grassroots organizers showed up to protest Brown’s appearance on the show.  Colbert, responding to the protesters and the Twitter hashtag #questions4campbell, asked Brown about her organization’s funding sources.  Brown refused to disclose her donors.  Amidst the criticism that followed, various stakeholders have rushed to Brown’s defenseThey continue to argue that a focus on Brown’s donors and political affiliations is a “desperate effort to distract from the real conversation” about teacher employment law.

The truth of the matter, however, is that educators would love to focus on substantive conversations about teacher employment law.  Teacher “tenure” and dismissal and layoff procedures, though they are intended to protect both student and teacher access to a positive, productive educational experience, don’t always work as intended.  Unions recognize this problem and recommend legislative improvements that simultaneously address issues with the execution of the laws and preserve their important components.  We also frequently discuss the laws on their merits.  Additionally, student advocates would love to see reformers, unions, and legislators engaged in substantive conversations about how to unite behind and fight for causes that matter considerably more for the lives of low-income students: in-school causes like funding equity and improved teacher support and out-of-school causes like the living wage and immigrant rights.

Unfortunately, pro-Wright propaganda, featured much more prominently in the mainstream media than legitimate arguments for the defense, often drowns out these “real conversations.”  No teacher has a job for life, competent school districts can and do dismiss bad teachers, and there is absolutely no evidence that teacher employment law causes inequities between low-income and high-income schools***, yet relatively large swaths of the American public have bought Brown’s misleading narrative and harbor severe misconceptions about the statutes and their effects.  Brown isn’t leading her crusade with a rigorous analysis of the facts and sound logical argument; instead, she “addresses” the lawsuit’s substantive critiques by ignoring inconvenient statistics and logic and implying that disagreement indicates a disregard for the well-being of children.  It’s hard for the public to understand the nuances of education law and research when Wright supporters prominently and erroneously equate opposition to the lawsuit with the defense of horrible teachers.

Thus while education law and research is arguably less complicated than the science behind global warming, the political lens is equally important to consider in this debate.  It’s theoretically possible that the unions who defend teacher employment law do so to protect teachers who call students names and sleep in class.  And it’s theoretically possible that Campbell Brown and her unnamed donors care more about the lives of low-income kids than do the unionized teachers who work with them every day.  It’s also theoretically possible that Exxon produces more honest research about global warming than does the entire scientific community.  But these theoretical possibilities are all extremely unlikely.

Instead, it’s significantly more likely that Campbell Brown’s donors, like the people who funded Vergara v. California, actively exacerbate economic inequality.  That Wright v. New York and Vergara conveniently allow them to undermine organized labor and distract us from the ways their business and political activities harm the families of the very same low-income students they purport to help.  That teachers in unions care deeply about delivering an excellent education to their students, and that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from its negative narrative, erroneous claims and premises, and failure to provide solutions to the actual causes of teacher quality issues.  In other words, looking through our political lens reminds us that there are literally billions more “adult interests” in support of Wright v. New York than in its defense.

Educators must continue to clarify facts about teacher employment law and support responsible reforms.  Most proponents of challenges to the statutes are well-intentioned, and a focus on agendas alone would not do the issues justice.  It is also entirely legitimate, however, to call attention to the profit and political motives behind lawsuits like Wright and Vergara.  Knowledge of donors and allies helps us understand why, when unions and Campbell Brown present conflicting information about the law’s intent and effects, Campbell Brown’s claims warrant significantly more suspicion.

Campbell Brown graphic

***While the plaintiffs in Wright, unlike those in Vergara, do not erroneously contend in their complaint that the laws cause inequities between low- and high-income schools, the idea that low-income students are disproportionately impacted by bad teachers was mentioned by Brown in her appearance on The Colbert Report and still surfaces in discussions of the lawsuit.

Update: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on October 2.

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The 34justice Political Tool: Ethics, Truth, and a Case Study of Michael Brown and Ferguson

Seating arrangements during the French Revolution gave us the Left-Right political spectrum.  During the first National Assembly in 1789, the king’s supporters sat on the right and proponents of revolution on the left.  In contemporary American politics, we often consider liberals, who  “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” to be on the Left. Conservatives, who “generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems,” form the Right.

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

The Left-Right political spectrum (via http://www.stephenpratt.net/Politics/illusionOpposites.htm)

David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, found this one-dimensional political spectrum problematic.  Theorizing “that virtually all human political action can be divided into two broad categories: economic and personal,” Nolan believed that “political positions can be defined by how much government control a person or political party favors in these two areas.”  Nolan’s views laid the foundation for The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a ten-question survey which categorizes an individual’s political views on a two-dimensional chart.

If you take The World's Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

If you take The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, your views will be plotted on this chart.

Nolan’s categorization scheme, though more descriptive than the Left-Right spectrum, unfortunately suffers from the same major flaw: it presents opposing points of view as ethically and intellectually equivalent.  A better system would articulate how different degrees of attention to social justice and the truth drive competing political perspectives.

Published in 1971, the same year that Nolan released the current version of his chart, A Theory of Justice laid out an approach to determining ethics that is widely considered to be the most “fair and impartial point of view…about fundamental principles of justice.”  American philosopher John Rawls argues that we must consider a thought experiment in which each of us is behind a “veil of ignorance” in “original position:”

The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just…Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage…[A]ssume that [all people] are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like…They must choose principles the consequences of which they are prepared to live with whatever generation[, race, class, gender, disability status, sexual orientation, etc.] they turn out to belong to.

The veil of ignorance, by forcing us to consider the possibility that we will be anyone in society, focuses us on fairness and equality of opportunity.  Especially given human beings’ risk aversion, rational people behind the veil of ignorance would seek to minimize imbalances of power.  The ethics of a given policy proposal or viewpoint can be defined by the degree to which Rawls’s thought experiment informs our thinking, which generally means the degree to which we contemplate the circumstances of populations with low levels of power and privilege.

A better political categorization tool can capture this thought experiment with a horizontal “ethics axis.”  “Privilege-defending” viewpoints and policies that ignore the veil of ignorance – those that mainly consider the ideas, desires, and needs of people already in power – fall on the left side of this axis.  “Power-balancing” viewpoints and policies developed after reflection about the veil of ignorance – those that more ethically think through the concerns and needs of less-privileged people – fall on the right.  The vertical or “accuracy axis” of the tool orients us to the facts; it plots views according to the degree to which a combination of sound theory and empirical evidence informs them.

Political Tool.003

The ideal policy, developed with consideration of the veil of ignorance and using the most accurate interpretation of the facts, sits in the upper right hand corner.  This tool thus provides several advantages over the Nolan Chart and the traditional Left-Right spectrum.  First, it forces us to think about what matters; we cannot plot opinions on this tool without ethical and intellectual analysis.  Second, the tool captures that objectively good policy (policy in the upper right hand corner) is more desirable than the “center” of opposing viewpoints.  Third, it gives us a common framework to discuss policy ideas with people with different perspectives, orienting our conversation to two pillars – truth and justice – instead of normalizing disagreement as inevitable.

Applying the 34justice Political Tool

A case study of the Michael Brown shooting and related events in Ferguson, Missouri can illustrate how to use the 34justice political tool.

The Veil of Ignorance in Ferguson

Ethical considerations require us to imagine ourselves behind the veil of ignorance in original position.  We don’t know if we’re white or black, police officer or regular citizen.  We must ask ourselves what sort of policies rational people would adopt in that situation.  Given the power differential between police officers and citizens, rational people who knew they might end up as citizens would want a system that set high standards for police behavior.  They’d want to ensure that the police force acted with transparency, restraint, and the best interests of the community in mind.  Rational people behind the veil of ignorance would also want to make sure police officers could enforce reasonable laws and use force to protect themselves if necessary – they might end up as police officers, after all – but they’d set a very high bar for the use of that force.

Knowledge of institutional racism would also factor heavily into the calculation of the rational person in original position.  We are much more likely to harbor subconscious biases against and jump to negative conclusions about black people than white people, and black people routinely face both overt and covert forms of discrimination.  A rational person behind the veil of ignorance, knowing that he might become a black citizen, would be especially wary of mistreatment by police.  Nobody in original position would agree to a system that placed more responsibility on black citizens than white officers; a viewpoint that did so would consequently be privilege-defending and unethical.

An ethical and power-balancing viewpoint, therefore, approaches the actions of the Ferguson police force with more skepticism than the actions of the black community.  It begins with an attempt to understand the concerns and perspectives of black citizens.

We can thus categorize knee-jerk reactions about the Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson, all unsupported by evidence, as follows (as originally noted by Billy Griffin post-publication, the viewpoints described in the following sections are meant as an illustrative sample, not as a complete set of all possible viewpoints):

Viewpoint A (privilege-defending): The police behave responsibly, so the conflicts are really the fault of an unruly black population.  The police officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t have done so unless he was in danger.  Similarly, the police wouldn’t use force against protesters unless it was necessary to maintain law and order.  Race is not an issue.

– Viewpoint B (partially privilege-defending): The police may have acted inappropriately during the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, but Brown and the black community likely shoulder an equal amount of responsibility for what has happened.

– Viewpoint C (power-balancing): The police are in power and responsible for protecting citizens; police actions deserve intense scrutiny when they harm civilians.  We must avoid blaming the victim.  This situation is the likely product of systemic racism and institutional injustice.

Political Tool.004

The Accuracy Axis in Ferguson

Here are the facts from the Michael Brown shooting itself:

[NOTE: the information below, updated on 11/14/15, contains both what we knew at the time this post was published and updated information (from the DOJ report) to match the ensuing investigation (big thanks to a commenter on Twitter for pointing out the discrepancies).  Strikethroughs and bold italics indicate changes.]

– Brown was shot at least six times.  He was unarmed.

Eyewitness accounts following the shooting say that Brown had his hands up in the air and was trying to demonstrate that he was unarmed when he was killed.  Recent video has seems to have corroborated that Brown’s hands were, in fact, raised.

– The police did not release their version of events until the day after the crime.  The report, when released, said that Brown reached for the officer’s gun in the car and was shot as a result of the struggle for the weapon.  Forensic evidence confirms that Brown was first shot in the hand while involved in a struggle in the car, though it’s not clear how the struggle began. The department also did not release the name of the officer who shot Brown (Darren Wilson) for 6 days, despite repeated requests by the media and public (the police claimed that the delay was due to threats on social media).

Anonymous police sources have originally claimed that Wilson was injured and taken to the hospital after the shooting, but initial reports about the injuries turned out to be false (as did a photo circulated by a Chicago firefighter). The police did not originally provide have not provided independent verification of the injuries.  It was confirmed later, however, that there was “bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm.”

Commentators have also debated whether several additional facts are related to the shooting:

– Brown took cigars from a convenience store without paying about 10 minutes prior to the shooting.  He shoved the store clerk on his way out the door.  We know this fact because the police department released a video of these events (which, despite the police chief’s claims, the press and public did not ask for) the same day they released Wilson’s name (which the press and public did request).  Wilson almost certainly did not know about the robbery when he stopped Brown on the street.  Wilson’s radio transmissions confirm that he received a dispatch call about the robbery and had a description of Brown when he first encountered him.

– Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot (this information was released by an anonymous source and not in response to a specific request).  Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for over a month and there is no legitimate evidence linking marijuana use to violent behavior.

– The Ferguson police force has a (probably very long) history of unprovoked attacks on black people in the community.

Finally, the following facts relate to the protests in Ferguson immediately following the shooting:

– Across the country, numerous black citizens have been shot and killed by white police officers under suspicious circumstances.

– Unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have also been killed by white citizens in recent years.  Mostlywhite juries failed to convict the offending citizens of murder (Mike Dunn, Davis’s killer, was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder, while George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was acquitted).

Most protests were entirely peaceful, but a small percentage of people threw molotov cocktails and looted local stores.

– The Ferguson police, wearing military attire and sporting intense assault weapons, pointed guns at and used tear gas and other violent crowd control tactics on peaceful protesters.

– There is a clear pattern of racial profiling in Ferguson.  About 67% of Ferguson citizens are black, but black people comprise less than 6% of the Ferguson police force.  Over 85% of police stops and arrests are for black people.  Some police lieutenants in Missouri have been caught ordering indiscriminate harassment of black citizens.

– The city of Ferguson makes considerable revenue by routinely fining poor black people for minor offenses (like driving with a suspended license).  When they can’t pay, these citizens often spend time in prison.

These facts can help us categorize more evidence-based viewpoints:

Viewpoint D (privilege-defending): We’ll never know exactly what happened when Michael Brown got shot, and we must remember that police work is difficult and dangerous.  Our police officers need to be able to use their judgment when they feel threatened.  Michael Brown was clearly violent, as can be demonstrated in the video of him robbing a convenience store and the forensic evidence indicating a struggle with Wilson, and he was also probably high.  There isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to convict Darren Wilson, and it is a concern that black people on the jury might show racial solidarity instead of looking at the evidence.

The black community’s rioting and looting also necessitated police action.  Citizens who don’t want to experience police violence should avoid doing anything that appears unlawful and/or dangerous.  Nothing is wrong with our police system.

Viewpoint E (partially privilege-defending): The circumstances of Brown’s death look suspicious.  The police department certainly should have released its report sooner, so it’s hard to trust them over eyewitness accounts.  At the same time, the main eyewitness was a friend of Brown’s and the community is more likely to side with Brown than with the police.  Additionally, the fact that Brown and Wilson were engaged in a physical struggle before the fatal shot robbed a convenience store beforehand, shoving and intimidating the store clerk, suggests that Wilson had good reason to fear Brown.

The racial disparities in Ferguson are definitely something to look into, but police also probably don’t pull people over for no reason at all.  And while the police used excessive violence in some cases, the rioting and looting of black citizens was a large part of the escalation of the situation.  The citizens in Ferguson and the police must both reflect on their behavior.

Viewpoint F (power-balancing): The Michael Brown shooting and Ferguson’s response to it are a direct result of the effects of institutional racism.  Black people in this country clearly face challenges that those of us with white privilege never encounter.  We must listen to the black community and work immediately to correct the policies that lead to a justice system that unequally treats blacks and whites.

It’s pretty clear that Michael Brown’s death was an unjustifiable murder – not only was he unarmed and shot at least six times, but Wilson had clear alternatives.  Even though there was a struggle and it’s unclear how it began, multiple eyewitnesses consistently report that he had his hands in the air and was no immediate threat to Wilson.  Tthe police department’s behavior raises considerable doubt about their claims.  There was no legitimate reason to delay the release of Darren Wilson’s name and the police report for so long, or to ignore eyewitness testimony.  The release of the convenience store video was also in bad faith because Wilson almost certainly did not know about this event when he stopped Brown executed very poorly and without explanation, which led many people to fairly believe that the police department wasseems more intent on blaming the victim than on assessing evidence relevant to the shooting.  Wilson should certainly get a fair trial, and both the robbery and the physical harm he sustained are definitely relevant information to consider during the trial, but police behavior has made it harder to trust even the final account of events.that less likely to happen.  The trials in related cases raise doubts about whether the mostly-white jurors will deliver an evidence-based verdict in this case.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must remember that “it is as necessary…to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is…to condemn riots. [A] riot is the language of the unheard.”  These riots are caused by frequent police harassment, unfair treatment by the criminal justice system, and a feeling of powerlessness.  Addressing those root causes is where our focus must lie.  That the vast majority of protests were peaceful and the police were the aggressors in nearly every conflict underscores the need for rapid reform in the way law enforcement operates.

The ethics and accuracy axes aren’t completely independent.  It’s relatively difficult to find somebody espousing an unethical viewpoint that accounts for all the facts, for example, and Viewpoints D and E require selective interpretation of available information.  A privilege-defending but evidence-based viewpoint (Viewpoint G) would have to acknowledge unequal treatment of blacks and police misconduct but, harboring open racial animus, excuse it anyway.

Political Tool.005

Another category of interest might be viewpoints based on deliberate lies, rather than on a lack of information; they would fall below Viewpoints A, B, and C.

Assuming we agree that ethical considerations and the truth matter, Viewpoint F is objectively superior to the others.  Calling Viewpoints A, D, and G “conservative” and Viewpoints C and F “liberal,” as we might today, fails to identify fundamentally racist positions as unacceptable.  The traditional spectrum also ignores the importance of conducting thorough and accurate analyses.  Our traditional political categorization tools falsely suggest that truth and morality are relative.  In most cases, like the case of Michael Brown, they very clearly aren’t.

If we instead evaluate viewpoints using the veil of ignorance and a thorough analysis of the facts, we will more easily identify the root causes of disagreements.  We will also be forced to focus our conversations around ethical considerations and honest dialogue.  Over time, we could potentially revolutionize the way we discuss politics.

Note: The Huffington Post published a version of this post on Tuesday, September 23.

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Filed under Philosophy, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion