Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Free Speech Confusions

The murder of French journalists that worked on the magazine Charlie Hebdo is totally unacceptable.
Public reactions, as reported in the media, seem perplexed in the face of such violent anger at cartoonists lampooning Islam and Muslims. But why is such anger so difficult to understand? Suppose the targets were Jews, African-Americans, or women victims of rape? Suppose the targets were Americans? What would public opinion in the US be if Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons about 9/11 or about the Marathon Bombing in Boston?
Surely, in that case, our anger would also been violent. But in our Western context killing people who do not imminently threaten your life is clearly wrong whether you are offended by what they say, about how they conduct themselves, or what they stand for. It is also against the law. ( Here we begin thinking about Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner. The parallels with the present case are thought provoking.)
Some public reactions reminded us that it is good to laugh, even at sacred cows. But what if the sacred cow is something that moves you deeply, that you treat with the utmost respect, that is as close to your heart as anything?
A lot of people talk as if these murders had to do with free speech. The First Amendment has to do with efforts on the part of the government to squelch critical opinions. We regard that as illegal. But we regard it as illegal only under carefully limited conditions. You may not, under penalty of the law, shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater where there is no fire.
In recent years we have adopted laws against “hate speech,” against speech that incites to violence, against speech that humiliates and insults persons for being women, Black, disabled, Native American.
But, if you think about this for a moment, you can see how difficult these matters are. On the one hand, we want to be able to utter opinions even if they are unpopular, even if they offend powerful persons.
Consider the case of Steven Salaita, appointed last summer to a teaching job at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champain. In the last moment, Salaita was informed that the Chancellor would not submit this appointment to the Board of Trustees as bureaucratic rules demanded. The reason: Prof. Salaita had tweeted intemperately during the latest attack on Gaza by the Israelis. Since the leadership of the University of Illinois disapproved of these tweets, the job offer to Prof. Salaita was withdrawn.
Most people—unless they were fanatic Zionists—would react with outrage to this case because we believe that citizens should be able to express their political opinions even if the opinion or the passion with which the opinion was expressed offends others. We should all be able to say what we believe, as long as doing so does not incite to violence or produce imminent harm in some other, serious way. We should not be punished with unemployment for our political views.
But now think of Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, who in 2002 addressed a meeting of a group associated with the KKK. A number of people have recently criticized him for this. He has apologized, but the Congressional Black Caucus, among other groups, is not satisfied with that. Giving a speech to a white supremacist group that has, for a very long time harassed, including lynched, African-Americans certainly gives the appearance of taking sides with the white supremacists against Black citizens. An elected Congressional Representative should represent all voters in his district, not only the supremacist whites.
Here the inclination is obviously to censor a political stand taken by a politician. They too have the right to express their opinions freely but, on the other hand, since they are elected to represent all voters in their district we expect them to use good judgment in choosing their associates, including what groups to address.
Considering these two cases, side by side, shows very clearly how fraught with controversy and uncertainty free speech issues are. We want speech about politics, religion, matters sexual to be protected. But we also want everyone to be thoughtful and restrained in using those rights. While abuse of free speech rights does not license killing anyone, of course, Americans have always been quite willing to persecute and prosecute people whose political opinions they regarded as potentially harmful to the survival of our republic.
In 1947, a number of screenwriters refused to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee trying to find out about Communist influence in Hollywood. One of them, Dalton Trumbo, who authored several Oscar-winning films, lost his job in Hollywood. His political position was punished by taking his job away. During those years, that appeared perfectly acceptable because the country was in the grip of a hysterical fear of Communists and “subversives.” Ten years or so later, firing Trumbo seemed to many liberals an abuse of free speech rights and Trumbo was reinstated.
Questions of free speech are complicated and in many cases, most of us have difficulties deciding whether a certain speech was justified or should be suppressed. Our assessment often depends on the affiliations of the person making a judgment as well as, as Trumbo's experiences show, on the most powerful public opinion of the moment.
But it, of course, also depends on who the target of political speech is. Charlie Hebdo made fun of “muslims.” But there are no muslims-in-general. In France where they constitute about 5 – 6% of the population and a sizable number of them are French citizens, they tend to be poor, unemployed and uneducated at much higher rates than white French citizens. They are, in other words, a vulnerable group.
One would have thought that they deserve some extra protection against being publicly ridiculed. They deserve protections even if groups of “radical” Islamists commit murder in their name.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

As we begin a new year, we make a list of the problems we carry along. Here are some of our domestic issues that we bring along unresolved from the year that ended: the minimum wage, immigration, police conduct, Obama care. These are not our only problems but they are important once.
You notice immediately the common element in all of these difficulties: racial conflict is important in each case. Many Americans imagine all poor people as persons of color. The minimum wage conflict affects poor people the most. Immigrants are largely nonwhite. Conflict about police conduct centers on the treatment of black people by white policeman. Obama care has to do with Obama and the opposition to his programs is racially tinged.
As we begin 2015, we encounter the old nightmare of the United States – the conflict between whites and persons of color, more specifically of African-Americans.
It is tempting to respond with some good advice to ourselves and our fellow citizens. We may admonish ourselves not to be prejudiced, not to believe stories that whites tell about Blacks that have no foundation in fact. We may remind ourselves of the signal contributions to our national culture may by African-Americans.
That sort of advice has often been repeated but it has proven useless. We are as deeply divided by racial animosity as we ever were. These common bits of advice completely misunderstand the powerful and dark forces that keep racial conflict alive.
There is nothing the matter with pre-judging persons. We cannot avoid pre-judging. When you need help clearing the leaves in your yard in the fall, and some young fellow offers to do the work for you at a reasonable price, you need to decide whether to trust him to do a decent job even though you don't know him at all. You look him over, you listen to how he talks and you decide that he is trustworthy. But that is, of course a prejudice because you don't know this person and you just go on the little bit of information you have about him, how he looks, how he talks. Perhaps you consider his clothes or the vehicle he came in. But you still prejudge him.
It is not useful, either, to admonish people not to judge others on the basis of poorly documented stories. It is totally astonishing what bizarre stories people believe when they defend their prejudice, say, against welfare recipients. The fact that some of those accounts are complete fabrications makes no difference to people who believe that every welfare recipient is a lazy cheat. No mountains of evidence will change their mind.
In racial and other conflicts, truth is not really at issue.
Racial prejudice is fueled by emotion, for instance by fear or anger. It does not have a lot to do with the facts and statistics and real histories of African-American families. It does not have a lot to do with who did what to whom. Discussing real history is pretty irrelevant to moderating racial animosities.
We need to face up to these often very deep-seated emotions. That is a difficult and large project.
Here I want to just look at two of these emotions, our fears and the anger those fears arouse.
I try to understand this better by making up a story. I imagine that a black family buys the house next to mine. My first reaction is panic. I feel threatened, I am afraid the value of my house will go down. Then I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. I remind myself that all I know about my new neighbors is that their skin is a lot darker than mine.
I try to imagine their feelings. Are they frightened? Are they afraid for their children, remembering Emmett Till or the four young girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church?
When I meet them, I am civil and welcoming. I try not to be excessively friendly, thereby showing how acutely I am aware of the difference in skin color between myself and them, while I'm pretending not to notice it at all, as white anti-racists, like myself, often do. Relations are uncomfortable until my new neighbors cease being the black couple next door and become the unique individuals that I know and like as my neighbors. I may also not like them very much but now they are known to me and the emotion of the first encounters subsides.
One strand in racial conflict is the fear of people we do not know. Racial conflict is fueled not by the relations between races but by my, and your unease in the world. It is easy for us to be afraid not of known threats, but of unknown persons who, we fear, are a danger to us. One source of racial conflict is our perception that the world is extremely dangerous and we are barely able, if at all, to survive in it.
Why does our world seem so precarious and threatening? White people may well feel guilty for their treatment of the descendants of African slaves. But we too have been badly treated. We have been bullied and made fun off as children. We have been neglected and abused. We have been victims of many different forms of violence. We grow up excessively aware of possible threats to our well-being, always expected to be harmed by strangers as well as by people we are close to.
The violence in our world leaves us and our children prepared to be fearful. That pervasive fearfulness fuels racial tension.
Racial conflict will remain an important part of our lives until we manage to construct a less violent society.

Monday, December 29, 2014

CIA Torture Report

Revelations of torture practiced by the CIA have set off a number of passionate debates.
There are some CIA employees who, when asked to torture prisoners, refused and left the agency. Their reason: “America does not torture.” Wish it were true! We do not have to go back to times of slavery but only pay attention to what happens in our prisons today, to know that that boast is empty. America does torture.
A more interesting debate goes back and forth about the efficacy of torture. Opponents assert that the information gained from torture is completely unreliable. The current and previous heads of the agency insist that torture yielded information which actually saved lives by preventing other terrorist attacks. Unfortunately the information on which such claims rest is classified and we have to just trust them.
This debate is interesting for its background. It only makes sense to argue about the effectiveness of torture if you are willing to say that torture that prevents other terrorist incidents is justified. If you believe that America ought not to torture—whatever the outcome -- it is pointless to argue about the actual results of torture. If torture is morally wrong and you will not sacrifice morality for security, the question of outcomes is irrelevant.
Here some readers will chime in and say something like “The ends do not justify the means.” But that only serves to muddy the waters. In all sorts of situations, we believe that the end does justify the means. Many people believe in the death penalty. We are willing to kill people for the sake of closure for the victim's family or for the sake of discouraging people from committing horrible crimes. Everyone is willing to have a life saving operation however painful. Many women are willing to go through the excruciating pain of natural childbirth for the sake of having a healthy baby.
In many situations we do believe that the end justified the means. Does national security justify torturing suspects?
In the conduct of foreign policy, not only the CIA, but the US government, as a whole, is completely unscrupulous. Here is a chilling example I came across recently.
The Ebola epidemic in Liberia got as bad as it is because the early warnings by the Liberian government were not heeded by the population. The Liberian government is widely distrusted by the population, not only for being massively corrupt, but even more because the President, Ellen Sirleaf, was involved with the different dictatorial regimes that wreaked havoc in Liberia in the 1980s and 1990s. These military insurgencies were sponsored and supported by the CIA because the Liberian government of the 1970s was thought to lean to the left and was therefore not acceptable to us. So the CIA unleashed a civil war that killed thousands, drove many more from their homes into exile in neighboring countries, and destroyed the political structure of the country. One long term effect is that the government is so unpopular that many Liberians believe that the Ebola epidemic was the work of the government.
Moral scruples do not inhibit our government.
Since we constantly present ourselves as humane, freedom loving, morally punctilious people, our actual behavior is hypocritical.
The blatant immorality of our foreign policy makes us fiercely hated and often ridiculed. It makes us ever less safe as it inspires fanatical hatred of the US and motivates more and more people to set out to hurt us.
Worse, we act as unscrupulously and morally reprehensibly as the worst of our enemies. For the sake of what we—often mistakenly—believe to be our interest we are willing to bring down the scourges of totalitarian regimes, civil war, massive killing and displacement of populations. We are indifferent to the suffering we impose on millions of people all around the globe.
Is there any doubt that that is completely unacceptable?
Here is a good resolution for the New Year: Congress must defund the CIA.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Are you happy?

For the last 20 years or so, social science researchers have studied human happiness by going around and asking many people whether they are happy. One thing they discovered was that most people draw a sharp line between the happiness of their life over all, and their current condition. Someone may be confined to a hospital bed in acute pain after a serious accident and complain about that while saying at the same time that their life, all and all, is a happy one. Someone else may be having pleasant experiences, lazing around on the beach without worries about money, in the company of good friends, but nevertheless feel profoundly sad and discouraged about life as a whole.
Happiness as a whole is different from happiness in the moment the social scientists conclude. They are confident that their results are reliable. They trust the information gleaned from their questionnaires.
But the project is misguided for two reasons.
What the questionnaires tell them is not about human happiness but about the pressures we feel in our society to do well, to succeed, to be happy. From the day we were born we are told that in the United States everybody can make their life better; everyone can make something of him or herself. The clear implication is that, barring extraordinary misfortunes, if your life does not turn out well it is because you didn't work hard enough or made bad choices. If you are unhappy you have, most likely, only yourself to blame.
In a world that raises these expectations you would not expect people to admit that their life is a disappointment to them. They may admit to current, temporary problems while insisting that they are nevertheless a happy person.
Asking people whether they are happy does not tell you much about what their life is like and more about what they feel they ought to think about it.
But asking people about their happiness is misguided for another reason. Once you receive answers to your questionnaires you are no wiser than you were before. What is someone telling you who says he is happy? He might be saying that his life is exciting. There is great promise of good work, of interesting collaborations. He is deeply embedded in his family life and marvels at his children growing up. But of course he might be telling you something very different. He might think that his life is not too bad, that it might have turned out a lot worse than it did, even though it is a bit of a disappointment. Someone else might say she is happy because she thinks that all the many troubles she is enduring now are simply the price she is paying for happiness in the afterlife, sitting near the throne of God and rejoicing with the choirs of angels.
Someone who tells you he is happy is not giving you a lot of information. He may simply not want to talk to about his life, or may be too indolent to think about it. The many questions thoughtful persons raise about their life are very different.
This person may think their life is monotonous; they are bored. They then need to try to explore what else they could do that would make their life more interesting, more varied, less predictable. They need to think about how much structure they need, how regular their days have to unfold. They need to ask themselves what seems to keep them imprisoned in their present condition, why they have not already spiced up their life.
Another may think that the days are too crowded, that they have no time to sit quietly and catch their breath. Which of the things they do are important, which of them are important to them? Which ones can be dropped? Can they get some help to unload some tasks?
There is a good deal of sadness in human life. One does not meet one's expectations in one's career. This splendid future one was anticipating does not materialize. A beloved partner dies. One becomes old and infirm.
It takes considerable wisdom and good friends to find one's way through all of that. But it is not as good a life if one does not try to face those specific difficulties.
One must attend to the specifics of each day to make one's life good. Talk about happiness is so general and indistinct that it obscures what it takes to live as good a life as one is able to and as good a life as one's circumstances allow one. It is a distraction to keep us from thinking.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thanksgiving and World Hunger

It is Thanksgiving time. Colleges all over the US have Hunger Day festivities designed to acquaint them with the facts of World Hunger. At best they might also learn that 14.5 million households in the US suffer from hunger. There are close to 16 million children in those underfed households.
But in these Hunger Day events no questions are raised about the causes of all this poverty. We are certainly rich enough that no one need go hungry.
Nevertheless poverty is rampant, at home as well and abroad. In my last blog I pointed out that domestic poverty is due to the failure of our brand of free market capitalism to create enough jobs and to create jobs that pay enough to allow people to have sufficient food.
Economists are fully aware that the free market system is imperfect. Markets provide all those commodities that some enterprise can make a profit producing. But some of our major needs are not met by for-profit enterprises: most of our schools are not for profit. The record of for-profit education is inglorious. While many health care providers—insurance companies, physicians, drug companies, and medical appliances companies make plenty of money, they cannot produce health care that the majority of Americans can afford. People have to go without health care or receive government subsidies. For-profit health care is not a success because it is not accessible for most of Americans.
Police and fire protection are not for profit, neither are bridges and roads. Parks, museums and symphony orchestras are non-profit. Building public monuments, Boy and Girl Scouts, Youth sports, the Ymca's and Ywca's are not profit making undertakings. Large parts of our lives are not serviced by the market.
We have known this for a long time. Corporate leaders and the “experts” in their pay are the only folks who deny this. But their opinion reflects self-interest, not facts. There is absolutely no evidence for their claim that the free market solves all economic problems.
But now we are discovering another market failure of our capitalist system: it does not provide enough jobs, let along enough jobs that pay enough for people not to go hungry.
These failures of the market account for poverty at home. Widespread hunger abroad is due to hypocritical and unscrupulous interference with attempts of other countries to feed their hungry populations.
Countries such as India and South Africa have food security programs that buy the farmers' crops at “administered prices” above market value, to stabilize prices and pay struggling farmers a living wage. Crops purchased by the government feed the poor.
The United States and other developed nations want to place harsh restrictions on these subsidies and on efforts to reduce the hunger of the poor. They decry it as restraint on the free operation of the market. Developed countries produce agricultural products more cheaply than small farmers in the underdeveloped world. They can undersell local farmers, put them out of business and add to the poverty in places such as India or South Africa. The developed countries try to prevent poverty reduction in the under-developed world because it hinders their unfettered pursuit of profits for themselves. Mass starvation is of no interest to them as long as they can make more money. In their pursuit of profit, first world agricultural producers are completely unscrupulous.
But their attempts to limit anti-hunger efforts in poor countries is also utterly hypocritical because the US and other developed countries also support agricultural prices through subsidies to farmers. At home they are willing to compromise their enthusiasm for the free market, at least when it benefits large agricultural corporations, but when it comes to saving the poor from hunger abroad, free markets come first.
Millions of people go hungry and die young because capitalist markets fail us in important respects. Pretending to be devoted to free markets and free trade when all they are looking to is their private profit, capitalists make their economic system even more destructive.
When they come around to tell you about the blessings of the free market, run the other way.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who is to Blame?
The killings of young black men in Ferguson and, more recently, in Saint Louis and in many other places, as well as the recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union that in Boston black men are much more likely to be stopped, and interrogated by police than whites, has once again drawn attention to racist practices by many police forces all over this country.
In their treatment of black men, especially young ones, many police forces are out of control.
Large scale, continuing protests by many Americans, black and white, show that many of us are appalled by this resurgence of anti-Black racism. Actually, it is not a resurgence at all. The racism has been there all along but lately it has been so dramatic that even we whites cannot overlook it any more.
Clearly serious changes have to be made. Racist police practices have to be stopped.
At the same time, as a white man, I worry that we will once again take the easy way out and point the finger at individual police officers and individual police chiefs and put all the blame on them.
Whites, liberals and leftists, do that to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the continuing racism that poisons our society. We blame the police, we blame “the government,” we may also blame mass media. Some are critical of the supposed Archie Bunkerism of the working class. But they do not understand that everyone, even white anti-racists, as members of this deeply racist culture, are implicated in its maintenance.
At the heart of racism is the belief that Black people are significantly different from whites, that, with very few exceptions, they share certain characteristics which are overwhelmingly negative. Black people are different, they share specific qualities, and those make them undesirable members of a white society.
The white anti-racist rejects that last belief: Blacks, anti-racists believe, are not inferior to whites. But what is very difficult for us white anti-racists to give up is the idea of a largely homogenous group--”Blacks” or “African-Americans”--which is significantly different from us whites. Growing up in racist America, white anti-racists are also imbued with this map of our society in which distinct and significantly different groups—Blacks and Whites—live together uneasily. Racist whites regard the others as inferior; we anti-racist whites regard them as equally as good as us, or sometimes as better, and at other times as victims of racism whom we, white anti-racists, need to assist in their struggle for liberation.
But that is a mental map that humiliates those regarded as different. There is great diversity among Black people, in bodily characteristics, in mental traits, in their emotional make-up, in abilities and interests. Blacks, just like whites, think and feel differently about their looks, their social status their histories as members of their families. Being white is essential for the Neo-Nazi. It is insignificant for many other whites. Lumping many, very different people under some common label manifests one's disinterest in knowing them for who they are. Not being interested in knowing a certain group of people is a way of showing contempt and disrespect. Approaching strangers and acting as if one knew them already—being prejudiced, pre-judging others—is profoundly insulting.
Some people respond to that difficulty by claiming to be “colorblind.” But ignoring the racial divisions that exist in housing, in education, in employment, in incarceration rates, and elsewhere is just another way of helping to maintain racist divisions. The evils you ignore can continue to exist without your opposition.
White anti-racists confront a serious dilemma. On the one hand we should treat each individual as the individual they are and not worry much about their group characteristics. On the other hand a racist society does lump people into groups and in so far as these distinctions are often unjust we cannot ignore them.
So our task is complex. We must resist the injustices done by racism and racists to a specific group of people. We must at the same time train ourselves not to think of these persons only as members of their group but take them individually as fully seriously as we want to be taken seriously ourselves. We must stop talking about “they”; we must learn not to notice their group membership as the outstanding characteristic of persons we meet. When you meet someone you do not know, you not an “African-American,” a woman, a white. You meet a person unknown and it is your job to find out who this person is. We demand from others that they see us for who we really are, and we hope to see others for the individual person they are, with their own history, and their own outlook on the world. We must learn ourselves, and teach others, not to allow group characteristics to come between us and the other person.
Racism will not disappear as long as we only see types and not unique human beings. Most of us find it quite difficult to get beyond the group traits through which our society defines us. We maintain the racial and gender and disabilities maps that are part of our culture. To that extent we are complicit in the racial injustices committed in this world, regardless of how hard and sincerely we are fighting them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The New Segregation 

 Fifty-four years ago, Ruby Bridges aged 6, marched into a white New Orleans Elementary school, flanked by US Marshals. Recently she returned to that school to assist in unveiling a monument to her courageous 6 year old former self. Yet, although the school, whose teachers resigned and whose students stayed home when she first entered it, today has erected a statue in her honor, her assessment of race relations in the US is very gloomy. Schools are progressively more segregated, she points out, often reflecting sharp segregation in housing.
The racial situation has changed in the last 50 years. But the condition of the majority of Blacks in the U.S. has not improved. As I wrote in an earlier blog, many black students attend schools with a seriously inadequate curriculum—there are no classes in Algebra II or Chemistry. In many of these schools up to 60% of the teachers are not officially licensed, and a large percentage of teachers are inexperienced because they are in their first years of teaching.
But today's segregation of blacks in urban ghettos with failing schools does not only have to do with skin color but with economics: Twice as many African-Americans and Hispanics are poor compared to Whites. Of Whites about 12% of the population are poor; the rate of poverty for African-Americans and Hispanics is double that.
Poverty is self-perpetuating across the generations. Whites used to ascribe that to a mythical “culture” of poverty, of generations of welfare recipients who hand down from one generation to the next an inclination to be passive, lazy, content to live on the dole.
But that was only a myth that blamed the victims. We now know how poverty persists in the real world. Careful studies show how white and black children enter first grade equally ready to learn mathematical skills. But the poor children soon fall behind. Their lives are too hard; often even their nutrition is inadequate. Their performance in school suffers. If they finish school at all, few of them are ready to go on to college. They will be as poor as their parents.
Their poverty accounts at least in part for their social isolation. White families choose schools for their children with fewer children of color. But white families also choose schools for their children with fewer children who are poor. The resegregation of housing and education seems to be significantly affected by black and Hispanic poverty. What was previously the result of racism is today, in part, a response to serious economic inequality.
Segregation is becoming an economic issue.
Of course, that was always true in some way. Old-fashioned racism was designed to hide the shame of slavery. But segregation today responds to very different economic facts. Foremost among those is the inability of our capitalist economic system to create enough jobs. A close second is the inability of this economic system to create jobs that pay a living wage.
The official unemployment rate in the entire country stands at 6.5. That is not counting the people who have become discouraged after failing to find a job, often for more than a year, and who have stopped looking. That rate is almost twice the official unemployment rate at 12.5. The economy cannot create jobs for a significant percentage of the population.
More than 5% of the labor force work more than one job. One job by itself simply does not pay enough to support a family. Only 35% of part-time workers who wanted more hours managed to get full time work. The remainder are forced to work less than they would like.
The result is massive poverty. Figures differ but about 15% percent of households in the US live in poverty as defined by the US government. Given centuries of racism in the US, a disproportionate number of the poor are African-American or Hispanic, Native American or Native Alaskan.
Poverty brings with it housing and educational segregation.
We are being told, daily, that our economic system allows everyone to make something of their life, while, in reality, the economic system is actually to blame for much of this poverty. It has failed 15% of us massively and more and more of us to a lesser degree. Instead of creating jobs, capitalism in the US first outsourced jobs elsewhere. Today that is no longer sufficient. So capitalists now have a new project, namely to replace human workers by robots. (The workforce in China is said to have already been reduced by 15% due to robots replacing human workers.) The system that creates unimaginable riches for some, creates massive misery for one in seven households in the “richest country in the world.”
Is it time for a change?