Saturday, July 23, 2016


I was recently fortunate to be with a group of young transgender persons who were explaining to a sympathetic audience how they thought about their position in the world.

Most often we think of transgender as persons who were born male or female and decided at some point to change over to the  “other sex.” The background assumption is, of course, that all human beings--all mammals, in fact--are either male or female. Yes, there are some whose sexual identity is unclear. But all “normal” mammals are thought to  have a clear sexual identity and it is either female or male.

The trans persons I listened to want to challenge that assumption. They point to the scientific discussions of what is called “intersex”--human bodies whose sexual characteristics are not unambiguously male or female. Intersex refers to a range of bodily conditions in which genitals are not clearly male or female, the result of uncommon genes, and other variations. The estimate is that one in a thousand births have such intersex characteristics.

We can think of this in two ways. We can say that 1 out of a thousand births display “abnormal” characteristics. But clearly the numbers do not justify this value judgment that only male and female sexual traits are normal, especially when we consider the wide variations of sexual characteristics, such as women with much body hair or men with breasts. Add to that the individuals who choose to leave their sexual identities indeterminate.
Why not say that there are more than two kinds of sexual identities?

“That would be weird” you say. The trans persons want to challenge that kneejerk reaction. They want you to ask yourself why it would be weird to recognize many variations on sexual difference.

And, indeed, why would that be weird? 

We take it for granted that there are only two “normal” sexual configurations. When a baby is born, the doctor, nurse or midwife who catches the baby looks between the newborn’s legs and pronounces “boy” or “girl” assuming that that is all there is. The sexual identity is imposed. It is a societal imposition.

Such societal impositions are familar. I met a woman who said she came from Poland, from a city called Gdansk. She considered hersself Polish. Until 1945, the end of World War I, that city was called Danzig  and it was a German city. The ancestors of the Polish woman may well have been Germans. Her national identity changes with the changes in global politics. What she thinks and feels about her identity, has nothing to do with it. Her national identity is socially imposed.

Male/female are external impositions, the trans person want to say. They remind us of the many little boys who want to play with dolls until adults wean them off that in order to make sure that they grow up to be “real” boys. They remind us of the many little girls who want to climb trees and fight and play with trucks but who are made to wear pink dresses and play with Barbies so that they can grow up to be “real” women.

A friend, a woman lawyer, who is exceptionally tall at 6’ 2” confesses that she enjoys playing male roles in her work and acting more in ways that men are expected to act than  playing a ferminine role. Many adults like to cross over in this manner.

It would seem natural to acknowledge that the sex/gender roles we play are often ambiguous, often flaunt the basic assumption that only being plainly male or female is “normal.” Is it then not rather “abnormal” to maintain that fiction of the two sexes in words and action forcing children and adults to hide parts of who they are or would like to be?

The plea of trans persons for tolerance of different sexual identities and by implication different of sexual practices is hard to hear for many persons. But that is what transgender persons are asking for. They are asking that their sexuality not be denigrated as "abnormal" but that they be allowed to be who they are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

And Liberty and Justice for All

It is the first week of July and once again time to congratulate ourselves on our love of freedom, on our democracy and dedication to equality. Reminding ourselves of our wealth and power, our preeminent position in the world, we can fill all our hearts with genuine satisfaction.

It is also a good time to reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in the Atlantic Magazine of June 2014, "A Case for Reparations." (You can easily find it on the Internet.) By telling the stories of a few African-Americans who succeeded in buying and holding on to their houses in spite of being all their lives exposed to fraud and robbery by whites, Coates reminds us that American dedication to liberty and equality has some large exceptions. It only very intermittently applies to African Americans.

Coates stresses the pain caused African-Americans, especially young ones, when they themselves are insulted and denigrated or when they see others treated without respect. It is extremely difficult to grow up with a healthy sense of your own capabilities and merit, if you find yourself, your family, your friends consistently treated shabbily and the society as a whole refusing to acknowledge that.

This psychological damage of racism reminds those of us whites who are trying genuinely not to participate or support anti-black racism, that the damages will continue to be done regardless of our resistance to our own racism. As long as American society accepts the denigration of African-Americans by some of its members and by its government, the best and most well-meaning efforts of some of us will not be enough to achieve genuine justice and equality.

You may point to the passage of civil rights legislation, you may point to a black president, but the second class status of African-Americans has not changed. If you have any doubt about that, read the stories told by Coates. 

If you have any doubt consider the consistent denial by white people that there is any problem for African-Americans, which is not of their own making. The diagnoses change over time: African-Americans suffer because they do not manage to form families in the same way as white middle-class Americans. They do not do well in school. They get involved with drugs. Black Americans are disproportionately imprisoned or under the supervision of the parole system. None of that, many whites insist, is our fault.

In his article, Coates documents impressively how housing segregation is the result of government regulations of the home mortgage market and the work of white real estate speculators. White home buyers cooperate, for instance, by buying repossessed houses cheap in this process of segregating where people live by race. Lanie Guinier offers example after example of municipalities, counties and states manipulating the rules governing elections so as to make quite sure that black voters will never elect a black representative. Amy Goffman and  Michelle Alexander demonstrate how the criminal justice system is set up to catch and absorb young black men, often when they are barely in their teens.  But whites keep denying their complicity. What else do lawsuits over affirmative action say but "the second-class status of African-Americans is not my responsibility. I have nothing to do with that." 

But we should know better.

To confront that consistent denial, Coates asks for reparations. By that he does not primarily mean that someone, most likely the government, should pay money to African-Americans, or support them in buying houses, or help them get a college education, or in other ways distribute money to them they have not earned by working. Instead the demand for reparations is intended primarily as an opportunity for all Americans to reconsider the history of African-Americans on this continent from their first arrival in 1609 to today. Asking for reparations is asking for white people to consider seriously whether they are in fact as innocent as they claim to be of the second-rate status of African-Americans.

Next year, on 4 July, we could perhaps dedicate the day to considering seriously whether white people, who deny that the condition of African-Americans has anything to do with them, are speaking the truth or are not rather implicitly admitting their guilt by protesting their innocence too much.

It is high time that we reconsider what it means to be generally dedicated to equality and what we need to do if we are to take equality really seriously.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Capitalism, populism and the revolt of the working class.

A few days ago, I was cooking dinner and listening to the radio. A talk show was on where the host invites professors and knowledgeable journalists to discuss current issues. That day the conversation concerned industries that, for years, have used inferior parts in their products even after they understood that these defective parts cost human lives. The examples where the GM ignition switch which malfunctioned and killed more than a hundred people. Other examples are the Takata airbags whose malfunction claimed a number of lives. The Volkswagen diesel engines that were set to give false emission information did serious damage to the environment and thereby increased human illness.

Why did these companies not improve their products once the evidence pointed to serious damage done to consumers? The discussions on the talk show pointed out that companies want to improve their profit margin and using cheap parts was one way of doing that. Were these companies--Takata, GM, Volkswagen-- led by particularly greedy CEOs? Here the discussants faltered. Increasing the profit margin in any way possible is the job of the CEO. These and other companies operate in a capitalist system where companies are primarily supposed to make as much money as possible and not to hesitate to injure consumers in order to improve their bottom line. But in this discussion no one wanted to say that.

I mention this as one example of the extreme reluctance of public intellectuals and pundits to point to the damages that capitalism does to us every day. Bernie Sanders who is willing to say this openly is characterized as "extreme" and most people don't want to be extreme.

To be sure, capitalism is enormously productive. But what no one talks about is that capitalist enterprises need constant supervision to make sure that they do not harm consumers. We need elaborate government supervision of food to make sure that the supermarkets does not sell us meat or vegetables that are no longer safe to eat. We need elaborate supervision of appliance manufacturers to make sure that our toaster or hairdryer will not electrocute us. Pharmaceutical companies cannot be trusted to produce medicines that are safe without careful supervision by the government. Workers need to be protected by the government against unsafe working conditions, against overwork. Their employers cannot be trusted to look out for the workers' welfare.

Why is capitalism so dangerous to our life and limb? Are capitalists less moral than the rest of us? Of course not. But they are under systematic pressure to make more and more money, or lose their job. The imperative to make more and more money is often best satisfied by producing unsafe appliances, saving a few pennies on an automobiles switch or airbag, or selling meat that is no longer fresh.

Instead of being very clear about this downside of our economic system, people on talk shows, people on TV, in the newspapers never tire of singing the praises of capitalism.
The Donald Trump phenomenon, the exit of Britain from the European Union, the growth of various right-wing organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan in the US, are a result of this misrepresentation of the facts.

In our country, in Britain and in Europe, many working people are genuinely suffering. Their wages are stagnant, while prices go up. Government support for people whose income is not sufficient for a decent life, is constantly being cut while businesses get better tax deals, or are allowed to not pay any taxes at all. In a recent poll, the majority of persons asked agreed that the economic system is rigged. Matters are arranged so as to increase corporate profits at the expense of ordinary working men and women whose economic situation is steadily deteriorating.

The explanation of this development is clear. The capitalist system demands greater corporate profits and is willing to achieve that goal at the expense of the public. But for most people that explanation is not available because they are being told every day how great capitalism is. So they are faced with the unquestionable evidence that their lives are becoming more difficult and their economic outlook is quite negative, but they don't understand how that could happen. The correct explanation that this is the result of capitalism is not available to them and so they are willing to accept any explanation whatsoever.

The favorite explanation is: Immigration. Working people in the United States and in Britain are being persuaded that their living standard is going down due to competition from immigrants and thus their enmity and wrath is is turned on immigrants. They support Donald Trump’s hostility to immigrants and his promises to keep them out. In England working people voted to leave the European Union because they too believe that immigrants are the source of their problem. They are willing to believe that Donald Trump will bring jobs back from Asia and Latin America because they don't understand that outsourcing of jobs is a central capitalist strategy for increasing profits. As long as capitalism is sacred, jobs will be outsourced to low-wage countries and to robots. Should immigration be reduced, capitalists will find other ways to lower their production costs at the expense of working people here and in Britain.

People in the know believe that England will be worse off once it leaves the European Union. Many of us in the US believe that we will be much worse off with Donald Trump in the White House.

But working people will support Trump in the US, as they supported an anti-immigrants stand in England, because the people whose job it is to inform the public have systematically lied and concealed the destructive effects of capitalism. If the voters are not well informed democracy will not have good outcomes.

It is high time that pundits, journalists, professors, so-called experts tell everyone the truth. Capitalism, however productive, needs to be very tightly supervised if it is not going to do large damage to the majority of the population. The fully justified discontent of working people in the Western capitalist democracies is largely the fault of capitalism and the failure of governments to regulate it much more tightly.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Questions after Orlando

After the Orlando shootings, MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project) asked a number of thoughtful observers for their thoughts about the shootings and the reactions to them in the mainstream media. (  These commentators seem to me to raise a number of difficult questions that all of us should think about.

Who is the Terrorist? Omar Mateen killed 49 persons at an Orlando nightclub. The US government stands accused of killing hundreds of civilians, including children, in drone strikes in Pakistan in the last few years. Similar accusations are raised in connection with drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia. These allegations are difficult to confirm beyond any doubt. The US government identifies all killed as ‘terrorists’ but there seems legitimate doubt as to the reliability of these identifications. 

These killings are not well known. They do not attract attention from media or the public. Should we not be much more vocal in condemning the killing of civilians abroad by our own government?

The victims of the Orlando shooting are being mourned in many vigils all around the country.
Do we not owe vigils to the victims of our drones in the Middle East?

How to identify Omar Mateen. The newspaper calls him the “Islamic terrorist.” But some of the comments in MERIP remind us no one one refers to Dylan Roof who killed 9 worshipers at a Charleston, SC church as a “Christian terrorist.” A terrorist who is a Christian is not a Christian terrorist. His terrorist acts are not to be connected with, let alone be blamed on his Christian religion. Did Omar Mateen kill in Orlando because he was a Muslim?

The question reminds us that “Muslim” has become more than a name for the follower of one of the world’s great religion, it has become the name of a derogative stereotype. It has become almost an insult much like the word “Jew” that does not only refer to the member of a religion but a stereotype of people who are said to be exclusively interested in making money. We must be very careful in using the term “muslim.” It serves too often as a racist stereotype.

Who was Omar Mateen ? He was born in New York City where he was an especially challenging student who was frequently suspended in the public schools. His parents, immigrants from Afghanistan, are represented as difficult persons. The question has been raised whether his troubled career in school was connected to serious conflict in his home. 

At any rate, he was an American, like Dylan Root, or the shooters at Newtowne School or Columbine and many other places. 

I am not aware of any case where the immigrant parents of any of the other American mass murderers played a role in the media accounts. Why is that different if the parents are immigrants from Afghanistan?

Why a gay nightclub? Some observers drew attention to the fact that many media stories contained references to the supposed opposition to homosexuals in Islam. Those comments were not accompanied by asides that reminded readers of passionate opposition to homosexuality on the part of many Christian denominations.

What is more, no one recognized the implications of there being gay nightclubs. What does that tell us about toleration of homosexuality in US society? Why is it more comfortable for gays to drink and dance among each other? Why are they less at ease in straight venue?

The narratives we encounter about this terrible event, shows that our media, the stories we consume and pass on to others, are everywhere infected with unthinking prejudices, derogatory stereotypes against people primarily from the Middle East whose countries and people we have ravaged mercilessly for twenty-five years and more.

Perhaps these questions will make us think about our role in the Middle East and the crude ways in which we defame its people who have been the victims of our terrorism.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What ails us?

When the police come to the wrong house, they are met by an old man with a shotgun aimed at them. A teenager coming home late is shot by his father who mistakes him for an intruder. A two year old reaches in his mother's purse and fires the gun that kills his mother. This is the stuff of the daily news. The guns that flood our society do not make us safer. They are not there for self protection.

Mass shootings reinforce that observation. Of the 300 people jammed into the Orlando nightclub apparently no one carried a weapon for self-defense. No one was able to protect himself as the gun advocates promise us again and again.

A population armed is not a safe population. The shotgun behind the front door more often kills loved ones than late night burglars. The population armed, again and again falls victim to mass shootings without being able to defend itself.

Why this fascination with personal armaments if they do great damage and do not make us more secure?

There are no doubt many answers to that question and none of them are very pretty. White Americans conquered this continent by making war on Native Americans. White Americans enslaved African-Americans and oppressed them with the whip and the gun. America has become "the most powerful nation on earth" by virtue of astronomical sums spent on sophisticated weaponry. We find violence wherever we turn in our own history.

Today that violence turns citizens against citizens. The latest mass shooting in Florida took place in a gay nightclub. On the same day police arrested a man, heavily armed, who was planning to disrupt a gay pride parade in California by shooting marchers. Violence against homosexuals has been encouraged in our country for a long time.

A significant number of voters are supporting Donald Trump whose message is largely a message of anger,  of the desire to hurt others, to injure them, to exclude them. Imagine what the country would be like if we were to deport 11 million of us, if 11 million were to be herded on buses, trains and airplanes. Imagine the families disrupted, the children and parents lost and in despair. Nevertheless many Americans resonate to the spirit of that plan. They too are very angry, they too want to hurt someone.
But they are very unclear about the sources of their anger and thus are willing to unload it on people they don't know--Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims.

Our nation is sick. Those of us who do not support Trump have nothing to offer the people who do, to ease their rage, to offer comfort or hope. Obama got elected eight years ago with the slogan of "Hope." He was unable to deliver on that if only because one person cannot give hope to an entire nation and only the nation as a whole can heal its own despair. And that despair takes many forms. One can support a very angry candidate for president. One can arm oneself and shoot people one loves. One can also buy guns and shoot a former girlfriend or wife, or kill one's children.

After the shooting in Orlando, some public officials exhorted citizens to love each other. But that is extremely difficult for those who feel  denigrated, exploited and, worst of all, ignored.

Making America great again would be to foster mutual trust that would not dream of arming oneself against one's neighbors. It would mean making us eager to work with each other to solve our problems rather than spending so much energy in obstructing each other. It would mean rekindling hope for a better future.

How can Americans learn to love each other again? That is the question to which we have no answer.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Plea for Common Sense

On his recent trip to Vietnam and Japan, Pres. Obama announced the founding of an American university, to be called "Fulbright University", in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey is  set to be its president.  Kerrey, was most recently the president of the New School in New York, previously a senator and governor of Nebraska. But as a young lieutenant during the Vietnam War he was involved in an incident in which he and the men under his command deliberately massacred more than 20 civilians, old people as well as children. Kerrey has admitted to being involved in this episode of murder of civilians. "I have been haunted by it for 32 years" he is quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Some Vietnamese have protested against his appointment on account of this episode of civilian murder. One can understand that. But during the 20 years of the Vietnam War, almost 600,000 Vietnamese civilians died. To this day there are hundred thousand Vietnamese seriously deformed by Agent Orange which we sprayed on the jungles in order to deny cover to the enemy. The United States has ravaged Vietnam in spectacular ways but it's government is willing to accept an American university.

It is genuinely puzzling to hear all the objections to Kerrey being the president but no one, apparently, objecting to the establishment of the university itself.

Kerrey's willingness to be the president is also not quite straightforward. The United States government put him in a position of murdering civilians, of killing innocents. But while he is "haunted" by that event he is perfectly happy to be the representative of the US government in Vietnam at the new University. We don't hear him complain about having been put in a position which compelled him to act really brutally.

Even more puzzling is the reaction of Pres. Obama to these controversies in Vietnam and, then, on his visit to Hiroshima in Japan where one small atomic bomb killed  140,000 civilians. Today there are close to 2000 survivors recognized by the Japanese government as suffering from radiation disease as a consequence of the atomic bomb attack.

Both wars claimed large numbers of victims but there is one important difference. The Japanese war was started by the Japanese, the Vietnam War was taken over by us from the French in 1955 and we fought it deliberately, doggedly for 20 years. One would have expected some recognition on the part of the President or of Bob Kerrey that the US was the aggressor in Vietnam.

The responsibility of the US for the injuries done to the Vietnamese and to their land are especially grave. Our leaders should finally acknowledge that in public. But the injuries we did to ourselves by involving ourselves in the war in Vietnam and, since then, in a series of other foreign wars also need to be acknowledged. Since World War II our foreign policy has been aggressive. We have not hesitated to use our military to attack and invade other countries. Without exceptions these adventures have ended badly.

In his speech in Hiroshima, Pres. Obama condemned war and especially war using atomic munitions. But we would have liked to hear him pledge that the US would end its history of aggressive war making. We attacked Vietnam and left it in a shambles from which the country still has not recovered. We attacked in Korea. We attacked in Afghanistan and Iraq. We sent Marines to Somalia. We are allies with aggressive war makers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact that all these wars we started have become major debacles, that we failed in every case to reach all objectives--if we had any clear ones-- our president in Hiroshima was not willing to promise that we would no longer go to war unless clearly and unmistakably attacked from the outside, unless foreign troops in substantial numbers had invaded our country.

That would not only have been a morally admirable commitment. It would have been the sensible conclusion to be drawn from the last 60 years of American military adventures. Imagine only the American lives that would have been saved, imagine the money we would have saved that would have enabled us to provide educations for all, that would have made it unnecessary for any American to live in poverty, that would have enabled us to find good work for everyone. There would have been resources to see that no one was forced to be homeless. We could see to it that our bridges are safe

Seeing the terrible damage we have done abroad and the suffering we have inflicted on ourselves in the process, a declaration that we would not ever again wage aggressive war, that we would never start a war would only  be plain common sense.

We wish that Pres. Obama had displayed some of this plain common sense on his trip to Vietnam and Japan.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

                           Slavery and the Holocaust

Twenty-four states in the US have Holocaust museums. In many of these 24 states there is more than one Holocaust Memorial. A Museum of American slavery is just about to open in Louisiana. It is the first one.

It is tempting to respond to this fact by comparing the suffering of slaves and the death toll of slavery to the suffering and deaths of the victims of Nazi genocide. But it is inhumane to enter into a debate as to which  group has suffered more.

Instead we need to recognize why memorials to slavery are so rare and of recent origin even though the parallels between slavery, between genocide of Native Americans and the Holocaust have been a familiar trope for quite a while. Book titles such as  American Holocaust are familiar.

But Americans are understandably reluctant to explore the terrific suffering imposed on slaves because white Americans imposed those sufferings. Whites alive today often refuse to have anything to do with slavery. They complain about affirmative action programs by saying that they, after all, did not own slaves. Slavery has nothing to do with them and, by implication, the aftermath of slavery, which is still very much with us, has nothing to do with them either.

Others, a large majority, simply do not pay any attention to slavery and to the centuries-old struggle of African-Americans for recognition of their humanity--a struggle that is still very much ongoing.

Liberals often acknowledge that slavery did exist for 300 years (if we include, as we should, the regime of Jim Crow between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, 100 years later.) and propose some wildly inappropriate remedy. Harvard University has placed a plaque on one of its buildings with the names of four slaves owned by a previous president of the University. Names or images referring to slavery and oppression are being changed.

But such acts have more to do with public relations than anything else. The incredible suffering imposed on slaves when they were sold away from their families, from wives,  from husbands and children, from fathers and mothers, the blatant brutality of enforcing quotas of pounds of cotton picked per day, the merciless flogging of those who did not meet their quotas, the rape of slave women by their owners or their families, the shame of being examined naked in the slave market, the denigration as savage when law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write--none of those are addressed by plaques and changed logos. Such public relation moves only trivialize the suffering of slaves.

This orgy of brutality produced immense wealth from the triangular trade to the cotton plantations in southern states. American wealth, the astonishing productivity of American capitalism owe their origin to the misery, to the ceaseless hard physical labor of generations of African-American slaves.

After centuries of repeated resistance in slave uprisings and in small acts of sabotage, in  national demonstrations and in quiet assertions of their dignity, some African Americans have gained good work and a middle-class incomes. But the majority is still struggling to get a decent education, to get decent work and to be accorded respect as human beings.
We probably need more museums of slavery. More importantly, we need a widespread recognition on the part of Whites in America that they are indebted for their high standard of living to the African-Americans who often do not share that standard of living. Whites in America owe a great debt. That debt is not paid by installing a plaque on a Harvard University building or by changing the logo of a university.

It is true that the present generation of white Americans does not own slaves. But it is also true that they are inheriting the wealth produced by slavery and are  for that reason under a heavy obligation to repay the descendants of slaves.

Reparations have been discussed for a long time. Obviously it involves money. One suggestion is that the gap in property ownership between whites and blacks--prominently the gap in home ownership-- be removed through payments to Blacks. There are many other proposals. For a number of years, Rep. Conyers has tried to introduce a bill in Congress to appoint a commission to study  reparations. Congress has never taken up that bill. The predominantly white Congress does not even want to think about reparations.

Congress does not want to consider reparations, even to study and debate, because they understand that “more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe . . .  [reparations involve] . . . a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history. (