Saturday, March 4, 2017

While the Left Eats Itself Authoritarians Consolidate Power

In November the United States elected a true authoritarian fascist to the most powerful position in the land. Since then President has moved very quickly to enact a far right attack on every democratic institution that stands against tyranny. I'll spare the details for now as I have been covering these moves in a separate post.

As the authoritarian right continues to consolidate it's power across the country the left is slowly eating itself. Besides the moves being made by the Trump administration to destroy any semblance of liberal democracy Republican state houses across the country are following the administration in goose step lock step with their fascist agenda. 

In North Dakota a bill has been proposed that would allow drivers to essentially run down protestors. In Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, and Iowa other bills are being introduced which would further crack down on protestors that block roads. In Arizona the legislature attempted to pass a bill which would have essentially reclassified protesting as racketeering and allowed for the seizure of the assets of protestors and those planning them if any sort of violence occurred, regardless of whether or not the violence was committed by the protestors themselves. Fortunately this proposal has been killed. Lest you think that states where the worst of these bills have been struck down will not try again let's keep in mind the Republicans hold 33 out of 50 governorships and control both houses in 32 out of 50 state legislatures. And as David Graham clearly illustrates in this Month's Atlantic Republican legislatures have been making concerted efforts at preemption of local laws in favor of a conservative agenda. And unfortunately those state legislatures are well within the bounds of the Constitution to continue subverting the will of the people in America's urban centers.

Meanwhile the left it destroying itself with infighting and disunity. After Trump's first address to a joint session of congress last Tuesday left of center commentators such as Van Jones bent over backwards to try and normalize this fascist by heaping praise on him for sticking to a script in a mediocre speech. Outside of the world of punditry progressives and liberals on social media  in groups such as The Revolution Continues continue to squabble over the Clinton e-mail non-scadal and Bernie Sanders loss in the Democratic primaries, while ignoring or marginalizing the very real possibility that Russia sought to manipulate our election to favor Trump, as they have done in many Eastern European countries. And as a slap in the face to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party the DNC elected yet another establishment tool to be their chair.

To end on a slightly more positive note there are some signs of hope on the left. There were of course millions of people who marched in Women's marches around the world the day after Trump's inauguration. And groups such as Indivisible and the Justice Democrats are making concerted, grassroots efforts to take the Democratic party back from the centrists. But if the most powerful on the left continue to normalize Trump's authoritarian agenda, and the base continues to sacrifice the good for the perfect then the right will only continue to consolidate it's choke hold over our democracy.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

An Incomplete List of Trump's Authoritarian Actions

On CBS's Face The Nation Trump advisor Stephan Miller was asked by John Dickerson what the Trump administration has learned from their experience with the executive order banning Muslims from specific countries. He responded thusly:

"Well, I think that it's an important reminder to all Americans that we have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become in many cases a supreme branch of government . . . The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media, and the whole world, will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned."

Since President Trump's inauguration on January 21st he has taken a series of unprecedented actions to consolidate as much governmental power into the executive branch a he can.  Of course he is certainly not the first modern president to accrue more power to the executive.  Every modern president has done so.  This was the main thesis of Arthur Schlessinger Jr.'s classic The Imperial Presidency.  However, the speed and scale with which the Trump administration is consolidating executive power at the expense of the other branches is astonishing to say the least.  Furthermore, when this information is seen within the context of Donald Trump's unquestionably authoritarian mindset his moves do not bode well for the basic institutions and norms of our democratic system.  Below is an incomplete list of the things the Trump administration has done so far to turn our nation into an authoritarian state.

Colluded with an Adversarial Government to Manipulate the Outcome of the Election
As has been widely reported the Trump campaign appears to have colluded with Vladimir Putin's government to manipulate last year's presidential election in his favor.  Trump himself even acknowledged that the Russian government hacked into Democratic Party's computer systems during the election.  Additionally it was recently revealed that Michael Flynn, Trump's National Security advisor, may have discussed lifting sanctions imposed on Russia by the outgoing Obama administration in late December due to their interference in our elections.  Should these allegations be proven true then Michael Flynn will likely have broken the Logan Act which prohibits civilians from engaging in diplomacy with foreign governments.

Systematic Marginalization of the Free Press
During his campaign Donald Trump repeatedly accused the media of fabricating lies about him and his actions, without any evidence.  He took this tactic a step further in his first press conference as president-elect when he berated a CNN reporter who asked for a follow up question to Trump's statements that CNN and Buzzfeed had lied about a dossier that had been released about Trump's Russia connections.  Trump called Buzzfeed a "failing pile of garbage," and called CNN "fake news." Even more chilling, the White House Press Secretary threatened to remove CNN from future press conferences if they continued to ask tough questions.  Additionally he has recently take advice from Stalin and Mao in declaring our free and open press to be the enemy  of the people. Additionally he has recently take advice from Stalin and Mao in declaring our free and open press to be the enemy of the people The Trump administration has also shown a clear preference for less reputable outlets who give him flattering coverage, a classic authoritarian move.  From his forcing reporters into a basement with blacked out windows at Trump National Jupiter Golf Club and Spa while he golfed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to the D.C. Metropolitan Police arresting six reporters covering anti-Trump protests on inauguration day and filing felony rioting charges, to attempts to limit media access to the Whitehouse, Trump is taking every tip from the authoritarian playbook to limit and destroy the free press.

Suppression of Science that Challenges Ideology
The Trump administration has shown that it does not respect scientists and agencies that produce objective empirical evidence of global warming and its dire effects.  Trump has placed a "temporary hold" on agencies such as the EPA from releasing their research.  On top of that Trump himself has courted anti vaxxers such as Robert Kennedy Jr. to be part of his administration.  He even met with Andrew Wakefield, disgraced anti-vax physician, in August 2016.  The potential dangers of opposing scientific information on ideological grounds are myriad, just ask those that lived through the Stalin era in the Soviet Union.

Scapegoating and Vilifying Marginalized Populations
The muslim ban, the wall, calling Mexicans rapist and murderers, proposing a weekly report of crimes committed by immigrants, and physical assaults of Black Lives Matter protestors at his rallies are but a few of the ways in which the Trump administration is gearing up to deport, arrest, and harm members of marginalized populations for political gain.  Scapegoating never ends well.

Appointing a Political Operative to the National Security Council
In late January Trump issued an executive order appointing Steve Bannon, his chief political advisor, to the principals committee of the National Security Council.  Although previous presidents have had political advisors sit in on some NSC meetings, the act of appointing a political advisor, with no relevant experience, to the principals committee, while simultaneously reducing the role of the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence, is unprecedented and utterly chilling.  There is absolutely no reason why a political advisor should have anything to do with national security decisions, unless one is looking to suppress his political opponents.

Marginalization and Demonization of a Coequal Branch of Government
In late January Donald Trump issued his now infamous executive order banning immigrants from seven majority muslim countries several judges halted parts of the ban, with a judge in Washington State putting a stay on the order.  Despite these rulings in the days after Customs and Border Patrol was still enforcing the ban.  And in the spirit of saying "Fuck it!" to the whole concept of checks and balances Trump plans on issuing a new executive order ostensibly doing the same. Furthermore, the president has gone so far as to marginalize the federal courts in declaring that there were to be a terrorist attack then the courts are to blame. Setting such precedents is a direct attack on some of our most basic democratic institutions and values.

Using His Office for the Financial Benefit of Him and His Family
We have seen time and again that President Trump intends to use his office not to serve the American people, but rather to enrich himself and his family. At his January 11 press conference while still president-elect Trump revealed a farcical plan to separate himself from his business interests around the world, which most ethics experts agree do no such thing. And let's not forget that many have argued that Trump has been in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution since he assumed office. For example, since becoming president the membership fee at Mar-a-Lago has doubled from $100,000 to $200,000, presumably so that the wealthy can buy access to the president. Then there is the libel lawsuit filed by Melania Trump against the Daily Mail for reports by the tabloid that she may have worked as an escort during her modeling career. On the face of it this is completely rational, until the suit alleges that the story damages a "unique, once in a lifetime opportunity" to make millions of dollars off her position as First Lady. And who will ever forget Kellyanne Conway's impromptu "commercial" for Ivanka Trump's clothing line.

Keeping His Own Private Security Force in Addiction to Secret Service Protection
Donald Trump has not given up his own private security force despite having secret service protection since he became a serious candidate for office. As explained in the link above this seriously complicates the job of the Secret Service, and potentially puts him in harms way. However, what is even more disturbing is the question of loyalty. The Secret Service is charged with protecting and defending the Constitution form all enemies foreign and domestic, and by extension the President. What that means is that the Secret Service will always protect the president from harm, but not from dissent. By contrast his own private security force is loyal to Trump only. So when Trump says to his force "Get rid of those protestors" they will comply. The Secret Service, by their very mission, cannot suppress dissent in that way since their first obligation is to the Constitution.

Undermining The Very Notion of Truth and Reality
Ironically conservatives for years have lambasted liberals and progressives for their "post modern" relativism and questioning of truth. It seems that lately they've jumped onto that bandwagon with the rise of Trumpism. The list of lies and misinformation is long, but here is a small sample:
-Claims that over 3 million undocumented immigrants voted for Clinton
-Trump claimed that the murder rate is at it's highest in 47 years, when in fact the opposite is true
-He claimed that his inauguration crowd was six times larger than it actually was
-During the campaign Trump said that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the JFK assassination
-Quite dangerously Sean Spicer claimed that Iran had attacked US Navy vessels
-In an anti-China rant Trump said that China is purposely devaluing its currency and that the U.S. does not impose tariffs on Chinese imports

I could go on and on, but others have done a better job than I've done here. Here is a list of 101 of Trump's greatest lies.  Some of the lies are silly and benign, such as the claims about the crowd size at his inauguration. But others, such as claims of hostile actions from Iran or Chinese currency suppression can have real world and disastrous consequences, such as starting a trade war or an actual shooting war. This is right out of the authoritarian playbook. The purpose of spreading such ridiculous lies to to undermine any attempt to ascertain the truth. When so many lies and falsehoods are introduced into the either his supporters come to believe that lies from all sides are to be expected, and hence all claims to truth can be ignored. Among his dissenters a malaise and cynicism sets in which allows the regime to craft reality as they see fit while the opposition flounders under an avalanche of unreality.
 . . . . . .

As the title of this post suggests this list is far from exhaustive. Over the coming weeks, months, and unfortunately, years, I will be regularly adding items to this list.  Hopefully, with active and persistent resistance, I can retire this list sooner rather than later.  If not, then our democracy will be lost. Below you will find links to various organizations that will be doing the hard work of resisting, either directly or indirectly, the authoritarianism of Donald Trump. You can go directly to their websites to donate money or find ways to volunteer to help them in their important work. With each of these organizations see if you can find a local chapter to donate to or volunteer with. Please feel free to suggest other groups to be added in the comments section.

American Civili Liberties Union
The Anti-Defamation League
Planned Parenthood
The Southern Poverty Law Center
Committee to Protect Journalists
Council on American Islamic Relations
Human Rights Campaign
People for the American Way
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Union of Concerned Scientists
Internet Archive

Friday, March 27, 2015

Don't Hide Behind Your Religion to Justify Your Bigotry

Yesterday Governor Mike Pence of Indiana signed into law a religious objections bill which would allow people to deny services to others based on their religious objections to a potential customer's sexuality. For example, if you own a cake shop and a gay couple would like to order a cake for their wedding, you as an employee or owner of said shop have the right to deny your service to said gay couple if you can demonstrate a sincere belief that doing so would violate the basic tenants of your religion.

According to the Pew Research Center the following religious sects and or organizations sanction same sex marriage:

  • Presbyterian Church (USA)
  • Conservative Jewish Movement
  • Reform Jewish Movement
  • Society of Friends (Quaker)
  • Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches
  • United Church of Christ
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church*
*The Evangelical Lutheran Church allows each congregation minister to decide whether or not to marry same sex couples (ie; it allows it's ministers to be bigots).

The reason why I present this list is to show that there are a variety of religions, many of which are Christian, that do not believe that gay marriage violates their religious tenants. Herein lies the problem. If a person discriminates against a gay couple because of their religious belief it is very easy to show that not all Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) believe that serving a gay couple imposes any sort of burden on their religious belief. There is a real dissonance here. How could it be that some Christians believe that their religious beliefs are being violated when serving a gay couple, while others believe the exact opposite? Don't they all read the same Bible? Don't they all believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior? If so, how can they have such disparate beliefs? The answer is simple: our morals are not informed by the religious texts we read, they are confirmed by those texts. The Bible is an ancient text complied over the course of many generations, by many different peoples and groups. It has been edited and translated countless time over the past 20 or so centuries. As a result it contradicts itself repeatedly on questions of morality. As we have all seen over and over, one can find passages in the Bible to justify almost any belief that a person might hold.

With all of this in mind I firmly believe that those that view gay marriage as a sin (or any other non-heterosexual act or feeling) have not used the Bible to find their moral grounding. Their morality exists independent of the Bible. Those that oppose gay marriage on religious grounds are being completely dishonest. They oppose gay marriage not because they are religious, but because they are bigots.

Perhaps the most galling thing about this bill is that it places religious belief in s special place above all other forms of belief. Imagine that if instead of religious freedom that they were trying to protect ideological freedom (which they actually are). Let's say that I subscribe to a certain form of communism that calls for me to exclude gay people from my social circle. Furthermore I found passages from Marx and Engels that confirm the fact that no true socialist would ever associate with gay people. Therefore I use these passages to justify the fact that I will not allow gay customers into my communist book shop. I would not be protected by Indiana's new law because my sincere belief is justified by a political ideology, not by a religious ideology. I would rightly be called a bigot by the public at large, and I would be called out for hiding behind ideology to justify my bigotry. People would also point out that those passages I used came from a very different, less enlightened, less tolerant time and that such ideas have no place in modern society. Most likely someone would bring charges against me for violating state and federal civil rights legislation, and I would face swift justice. Nobody would be expected to respect my beliefs, despite the fact that they are deeply held and that I feel they violate the fundamental tenants of communism.

So, why is it that a moral system predicated on religious belief is elevated above all other moral systems? Those using religion to justify their bigotry should face the same harsh critique and social sanctions that any other form of bigotry would receive.

In conclusion please remember that you are not being oppressed when your right to oppress others is limited. What's really happening when we don't allow you to discriminated based on religious beliefs is that we are protecting the freedom of those you do not agree with, not oppressing yours. So from now on please stop using your religion to justify your belief that gay marriage is a sin. Stand up and proudly proclaim yourself to be the hateful, myopic, homophobic bigot that you are. If you need to shield yourself from criticism with a cross, then you are a coward who knows that there is something deeply wrong with your disgusting belief.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blue Lives Matter Misses the Point

There is a social media campaign going on in conjunction with pro-police themed rallies and protests
around the country known as Blue Lives Matter. This all started with a facebook page purporting to support the work of the New York Police Department. The page was created by an unnamed user, and according to Buzzfeed
The page’s creator insisted that the rally [in New York City] was not meant to be a response to last week’s anti-police protests and that he or she did not see the situation as a racial issue.“It’s just something to support the men and women who risk their lives for law abiding citizens against the criminals in our society,” the creator of the page wrote to BuzzFeed News. “Did you see the most common hashtag was #AllLivesMatter. Isn’t that really the point? Or is it just a black issue? Aren’t there black police officers?”
By appropriating #BlackLivesMatter the creator of the page is implicitly acknowledging that this issue is about race, regardless of what he or she says. By creating the hashtag BlueLivesMatter the creator is setting up a simplistic dichotomy that completely misses the point of #BlackLivesMatter and reduces it to police verses black people. That's not what #BlackLivesMatter and the accompanying protests are all about. This is the latest incarnation of the civil rights movement, it is not about disparaging the police. It is about recognizing the systematic injustices that an entire segment of the American population faces at the hands of law enforcement due to the color of their skin. Furthermore, the BlackLivesMatter movement is in response to incidents in which law abiding citizens were unjustly killed by police officers.

It is not that the lives of police men and women don't matter, it's about pointing out the fact that black lives do matter. The problem is that when young black men are murdered by police officers, and even by vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the perpetrators of those crimes are never held accountable for their actions. When police are shot or killed by civilians those perpetrators are always arrested, charged, and sentenced to jail time. The same does not occur when police officers murder civilians. Furthermore, often times police officers with dismal records are allowed to continue their work.

For example, look at the officers involved in the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. One of the two officers involved, Frank Garmback was just this year involved in a $100,000 settlement with a citizen resident who filed a lawsuit against the officer for excessive force. The other officer, Timothy Loehman, resigned from a short stint with the Independence Police Department after it was recommended that he be let go. As reported in USA Today a 2012 internal memo said the following of officer Loehman:

[D]uring a time on a gun range [Lowhman was] "distracted" and "weepy," while being "incommunicative," according to Deputy Chief Jim Polak.
 "He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections," according to a letter from Polak. "I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies."
Officer Loehman was hired as a police officer with the Cleveland Police Department after this memo came out. He should never have been hired in the first place, and at the very least officer Gambrack should never have been put back on patrol after the settlement for excessive force. He should have been permanently assigned to desk duty.

And of course, need I even mention the case of Eric Garner in Staten Island? Here we have a case where the medical examiner determined that the cause of Eric garners death was homicide. According to Time:
On Aug. 1, a New York City medical examiner determined that the cause of death in the Garner case was “homicide,” specifically the neck compressions from  Pantaleo’s chokehold and “the compression of [Garner’s] chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” according to spokeswoman, Julie Bolcer.
On top of that there is video of the incident in question:

 Despite the video and the conclusion of the medical examiner the officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a grand jury for his actions. 

This is exactly the problem. Police officers who beat and kill unarmed black men are not held to account for their actions. Yes, the police do have a very dangerous job, and they are given the right to use deadly force in certain situations. Unfortunately, when deadly force is used in a way that goes well beyond the authority given to law enforcement they are not held to account. Any criticism of their actions, any protest at the lack of accountability and the systematic injustices that lead to such incidents are treated as an attack on the profession of law enforcement itself. It simply is not an attack on law enforcement. It is a valid and justified critique of a corrupt and inequitable justice system that allows these things to occur. I have respect for authority, but I do not respect authority figures who abuse their authority and power. The very actions of certain police officers, along with a criminal justice system that excuses those officers for those actions is exactly why we need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We already know that blue lives matter. We see that in the fact that if you injure or kill a police officer you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Police dogs are even afforded more legal protections than black people as can be seen in the case of John Rush (and no, I am not excusing Mr. Rush's actions in this case). The same cannot be said if a police officer injures or kills a civilian, especially if said civilian is black.

The ideas that we can respect law enforcement and critique the system within which they operate are not mutually exclusive.  I'm glad that there are a lot of good people out there who are willing to risk their lives every day to bring law and order to our society. I am saddened  and angered by the fact that we do not hold these public servants to account for abusing their power. Police officers are given an incredible amount of power in our justice system, so they need to be held to a much higher standard when excessing that power. Police officers are charged with protecting and serving all civilians, not just some. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Just Because a Black Man Said it Doesn't Mean You're Not Racist

Editor's Note: I am not going to go into the complexities of the systematic racism and historical inequities that the unrest in Ferguson represents. Nor am I going to go into the nuances of white privilege and how our blindness to it perpetuates racism. And I will not address the efficacy of property destruction as a form of protest. Killer Mike, Jaeah Lee, Carol Anderson, Manic Pixie Dream Mama, Peggy McIntosh, Jesse A. Myerson and José Martín have all done a much better job of addressing these issues and I encourage you to look at what they have to say. Lastly, my pen name is Erasmus P. Sinclair, and my birth name is Brian Scott Lehrer. I stand by these words I write as both Brian Scott Lehrer and Erasmus P. Sinclair. I accept the responsibilities that I have to the public when exercising my right to free speech. 

With the decision by a grand jury not to bring charges against police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown I've seen the expected flood of vitriol, ignorance, and hatred coming from white people incensed by the unrest in Ferguson. The protestors are being called uncivilized, animals, criminals, and other such dehumanizing things. I see people commenting on social media about how white people never riot over anything and always work within the system to redress grievances. However, with this most recent development in the Michael Brown murder I'm noticing a lot of white people sharing posts and videos on social networks created by people of color who don't feel that racism is a systemic problem in America anymore, and that the onus is solely on African Americans to rectify their status in our society. I don't doubt that these ideas and feelings are well thought out and sincere. I don't presume to question the efficacy the myriad ideas and opinions being debated within the African American community. What I do question is the sincerity of those Caucasian Americans sharing these posts in their claims of not being prejudiced.

Unfortunately, the sharing of these posts does not strike me as being motivated by an honest attempt to spark a civil dialogue about racism in America. One need only look at the comment threads below these posts to come to such a conclusion. As a white person I've had more than my share of discussions with other white people in which they try to justify their biases with the old "I've got a black friend that agrees" trope. Sharing posts by African Americans condemning other African Americans strikes me as the same thing. This is the digital version of the 'my black friend' argument. The 'my black friend' argument is called the 'friend' argument by, and defined thusly:
The friend argument is an argument used by people who want to claim knowledge about and/or sympathy with a group, by referring to their "friends" belonging to this group. It is commonly used to clear and absolve oneself from suspicion of racism, xenophobia, or other kinds of prejudice. It is a particular form of the "Not prejudiced, but..." statement.
I don't believe that all people who use the 'my black friend' argument are actually racist. I think it is more likely that they are unaware of their biases and privilege. This is something that many white people experience, even those of us that have taken up the cause of social justice. Biases by their very nature are very hard to detect within oneself, so prejudices which arise from these biases are equally hard to detect. It's not a problem if you haven't yet worked to detect these biases. But it is a problem if these concepts have been explained to you and you choose to ignore their implications.

In this instance (the popular use of digital 'my black friend' argument on social networks) people are unaware of several dynamics that are occurring when using this argument. Firstly, the arguments made in many of the posts being shared are the same exact arguments that were used historically by whites in power to justify slavery and Jim Crow. They are the same arguments that are used today by the white supremacy movement. Just because some members of an oppressed group happens to agree with those arguments does not necessarily justify or support those arguments. It just shows us that this specific group is just as diverse in thought as any other. Secondly, by sharing these posts you are at the very least tacitly endorsing those ideas, unless you state otherwise at the time of posting. Hence, you are a member of a privileged group making the same old arguments made historically by past oppressors to justify their injustice; and you're doing it while wearing the mask of that oppressed group. Lastly, you're inserting yourself into a discussion you were never invited it to. Jamie Utt puts it very well in the post 4 Reasons White People Can't Use the N-Word. Although the author is speaking specifically of use of the n-word I think it's apt with regards to the 'my black friend' argument:

No matter how long that conversation goes on in Black communities, though, White people do not get to take part.  I’m sorry.  As the ones from whom the word of violence and oppression must be reclaimed, we do not get to have a word in that conversation.  Plain and simple. . . The question being asked is, in essence, the epitome of White Privilege.  As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should be ours, every space should welcome us.  We think this way because, when it comes to racialized spaces, that tends to be the case.  We have the privilege of having our voices heard and our presence recognized in just about every space there is.  Thus, we HATE IT when we are told that we are not actually welcome in a conversation.  But here’s what we need to understand: we’re the only people that get the privilege of access to whatever racialized space we want. . . Just because we are not welcome to use one word in the English language does not mean that we are being 
discriminated against.  It means that we, rightfully, need to shut up and listen.
Making the 'my black friend' argument does not necessarily mean you are racist, but it does reveal an ignorance of aspects of our history and of the lived experiences of African Americans, past and present. That does not mean you are dumb or bigoted. All it means is that you received the same poor education in history that most American's have received, and that like most white Americans you likely have not been broadly exposed to African American communities.

However, there is one post that is going around in the guise of the 'my black friend' argument that reveals not only bias and ignorance, but overt racism. Titled "An Old Black Veteran Speaks His Mind" this is a contempt filled, hateful, blatantly racist screed supposedly written by an 83 year old African American veteran on his death bed. The author uses the n-word practically as a form of punctuation and spews nothing but hate and contempt for black people. It's reminiscent of the worst filth spewed by the segregationists and Klansmen of the Jim Crow era. According to the source of this letter cannot be verified. The editors at concluded that:
By November 2014, it seems concerns about the anonymity of the e-mail hampered its spread, as a name became attached to the commentary: William G. Lillas. For months, the remarks circulated without attribution, and it's not clear how the name "William G. Lillas" adhered to it. It's possible the missive was reposted or e-mailed by a person of that name, creating the incorrect impression the reposter was the original author.  
While the words are aimed at the presumed failings of black Americans, we can't find one forward or notable repost of the item that didn't come from a white person. Most likely, the e-mail forward was authored by a white person who wished to express unpopular racial prejudices and felt the image of an elderly (and wise) black gentleman with a proud history of military service was the most authoritative candidate to deliver his list of grievances with a number of racial issues and general events. 
It is appalling to see people post this with absolutely no comment or disclaimer. One can only presume that by sharing this post with no comment that you in fact endorse the views expressed. I ask all those that are sharing this post, would you write these words and put your name to them? If you would not, then you know it is wrong. You might fear being ostracized by friends. You might even fear for your job. And you should. The rights guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights protect you from being stifled by the federal and state governments, but they do not protect you from the personal and social consequences of your words. Our rights are inextricably linked to responsibilities. I have a right to oppose an unreasonable search and seizure by agents of the state, but I have a responsibility to acquiesce to a warrant signed by a judge. I have a right to bear arms, but I have a responsibility bear those arms safely. One of the responsibilities that comes with your right to free speech is to stand by your words, not to hide behind the words of other's. If you believe in what 'William G. Lillas' has to say, then say it yourself, don't put on blackface and say it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Classism on the Left

I consider myself to be a progressive secular humanist. Broadly speaking my politics come from the political left. As an educator I take my pedagogic cues from radical and progressive pedagogues such as John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Johathan Kozol, and Maria Montessori. In high school I was part of a local punk/ska scene dedicated to anti-racism and inclusivity. In college I organized against the Iraq War and the Bush presidency, and in grad. school I marched with Occupy Portland. That is to say, most people would call be a liberal. Most of my immediate social circle is liberal and I live in a liberal city. I live in a gigantic echo chamber, and most of the time I enjoy the liberal cacophony.

Like all groups of people we liberals are not monolithic. For example, despite my politics, I am supportive of GMO technologies, skeptical of direct democracy, and supportive of the use and further development of nuclear power. All of that being said, I believe that there are core values that are fundamental to being a liberal. Among those is a belief in social justice and equity. Unfortunately, although many liberals speak the language of inclusivity, there is a minority who do not include low income white people in their egalitarian vision.

Please let me explain what this is not. This is not an argument against the concept of white privilege, it very much does exist. Low income white people still face far fewer obstacles in life than upper income black people. However, white privilege does not protect one from classism, it just makes it sting less. White people still have an easier time pulling themselves out of poverty than any other group of people. But that does not mean they are not marginalized when they are in the depths of poverty.

That being said, I have a message for my secular, progressive, and liberal comrades: when you call people white trash or rednecks you are being classist. When you share 'People of Wal Mart' posts on Facebook you are being classist. When you attend 'White Trash' parties or dress as a 'redneck' on Haloween you are being classist. When you cast aspersions on people for eating ramen and Big  Macs instead of organic food, or for liking NASCAR and country music, you are being classist. When you do these things you are marginalizing and dehumanizing poor white people. Not only that, but you are also trivializing very real, very difficult lived experiences of people. When you laugh at 'The People of Walmart' for being obese and wearing clothing that is way to small you are laughing at the fact that they don't have regular access to cheap, healthy food, and that they cannot afford new clothing that fits better. When you attend a 'White Trash' party you are making a costume out of a culture. You get to play poor for a few hours, then go home to your luxury condo. When you belittle people for their food choices you are ignoring the broader socio-political context that leads to food deserts.

In a thread on Facebook earlier today I saw one person call out another for using a homophobic term, and in the very next comment associated such terms with "rednecks/frat boys." To be fair, when I called this person out they quickly recognized this inconsistency and thanked me for pointing it out. I could go through a whole list of examples of such calssism I've witnessed on the left, but that would be redundant.

Not all liberals are classist, but there is a substantial calssist minority among the left. Classism hurts the left, especially since many of us on the left seek to make society more inclusive and equitable. If we are to create a more just, open, and equitable society we need to include everyone. We can not exclude people because of superficial signs of social class. Just because someone lives in a trailer park does not mean they are racist. Drinking Bud Light and watching football does not make someone homophobic.

We are living in a moment where the many liberal ideas are becoming more and more mainstream. With things like the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the rolling back of same sex marriage bans, and increasing environmental activism we can see that the left is slowly but surely dragging our country kicking and screaming into the 21st century and out of the dark ages. Let us not fall into the same depths of group think, othering, and confirmation bias that we so often warn others to avoid lest we lose our grip on this precarious moment in history.

Friday, October 10, 2014

In Defense of Compassion, Empathy, and Human Dignity

Over the last several centuries humanity has undergone a moral and ethical revolution. Despite the continued existence of warfare, bigotry, fanaticism, slavery, misogyny, poverty, starvation, and preventable disease, people across the globe are becoming more aware and less tolerant of these travesties, as well as actively fighting against them in ever increasing numbers. It will likely take several more centuries, if ever, to completely eliminate these stains on human morality. However, people like Malala YousafzaiEugenie Scott, and Edward Snowden are working every day to fight against ignorance, oppression, hatred, and the degradation of our minds and bodies. These incredible people, and millions others like them, are motivated not by greed, vanity, or a desire for power. They are motivated by compassion, empathy, and a respect for the dignity of humanity.

Unfortunately there is persistent and violent resistance to such efforts. Groups and movements such as ISIS and the PUA community seek to hold humanity in a perpetual state of ignorance, brutality, superstition, and hatred so as to protect or enhance their own power and privilege at the expense of the rest of humanity. Global hunger is rampant despite a global surplus of food. War rages in the middle east, Ukraine, and South Sudan, among other conflicts. Africa American communities across the Unite States face the constant threat of police brutality. We still face incredibly serious challenges to humanity, and it is not a given that we will not soon find ourselves in a global dark ages. Despite the progress made over the last several centuries we can still loose it all.

Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
As mentioned above those that seek to make life better and more fulfilling for all of humanity are motivated by compassion, empathy, and a respect for human dignity. Let's take a moment to define these terms.

Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress and a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person's emotions and experiences.

Dignity is the quality of being worthy of honor and respect.

The Importance of Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
In order to treat others well we need to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Compassion is what starts us on our way to taking action to relieve suffering. Empathy is what makes others' experience of suffering salient to our own experience, and thus facilitates compassionate responses to injustice. In order to feel compassion and empathy we need to accept that all persons are born with a basic, inviolable right to personal dignity. By virtue of being alive and having the capacity to feel distress and pain all persons are entitled to have their dignity respected by all others. Dignity is not earned, it is inherent in our very existence. Denial of one person's dignity is a denial of all human dignity.

The Maligning of Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
In contemporary American society these virtues are not only marginalized, they are often maligned and seen as signs of cowardice and weakness. This is perhaps best manifested in the persona of the 'Equal Opportunity Hater.' I've often heard people in my life justify their own racist, misogynistic, and bigoted humor on premise that they don't target any one specific group with their hate and invective, they target all groups (even their own) with their hate and invective. I used to be one of these people. I would make incredibly hateful and insensitive jokes and cower under the cover of equal opportunity hate. It unfortunately took more than one time for me to be called out for my insensitivity to realize that my sense of humor was hateful and bigoted, despite the fact that I dished it out to all groups. I thought I was being provocative, witty, and edgy, when in reality I was being ignorant, short sighted, and hateful. I know from my own experience and that of others that not all equal opportunity haters actually believe in the absolutely vile things they spread. But that still doesn't make it right. The fact is that in the end, regardless of intentions or justifications, such humor is what helps society to turn a blind eye to the real depravity and injustice in the world. The sting of hatred is not lessened by spreading it around more, it is only intensified.

As I have become more sensitive the world around me I've been called weak, overly sensitive, too politically correct, and all of the other terms people like to use to denigrate any feelings of compassion, empathy, and respect for the dignity others that I wish to express. Instead of asking people to stop being so sensitive, ask yourself 'What have I done to appear so insensitive?' Ask that person why they feel offended or slighted instead of telling them they should not feel that way. When you do that you are completely denying what they have experienced. Expressing feelings of empathy and compassion is not a form of cowardice as many would like to believe. I can say from my own personal experience that it is much harder, and for some people riskier, to call out bigotry than it is to perpetuate it though witless humor. If you feel a need to cloak your prejudices and biases in the guise of equal opportunity hate then you are the one displaying cowardice. To claim to be an equal opportunity hater is to shut down any critical examination of the intent and effect of your humor. The unwillingness to lay your beliefs bare to critical examination is a sign of intellectual and moral cowardice.

We live in a time where hatred, bigotry, and injustice is no longer invisible. More and more incidents of police brutality are documented on video, wars are streamed live on the internet, and corporate and government malfeasance are more readily exposed than at any other time in the past. Abolitionist, Transcendentalist, and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, said of the institution of slavery in 1857:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
We need to continue the work begun by so many other so long ago. Those of us that learn to feel and embrace compassion, empathy, and human dignity are on the right side of history. Let's not let the blights of our past and present blind us and pull us unaware back into depths of hatred, ignorance, and depravity which so many have fought, and continue to fight, to pull us out of.