Sunday, February 28, 2016

                            Abuses of free speech


An important aspect of our political culture is the protection of speech. We are justly proud of those institutions and practices, even though they involve us in much conflict and controversy and there are many cases where speech is, in fact, not protected. Free speech allows of many different interpretations and in any given situation the interpretation held by the more powerful party wins out.

A recent example is a body of complaints by faculty and students in universities who claim to have been harassed on social media and elsewhere, and to have been subject to very close and quite illegal supervision by university administrations. The complainants are all supporters of the Palestinians, many of them animated by horror over the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2014. Most of them are members of an organization called "Students For Justice in Palestine (SJP)" who, among other things, support the boycott of Israel, of Israeli products, and of Israeli universities (BDS). The purpose of the boycott is to pressure the Israeli government to come to some kind of fair accommodation with the Palestinians.

Members of SJP have a long list of grievances. An SJP report states:
“University officials routinely erect administrative obstacles or abruptly alter school policies so as to hamper student organizing for Palestinian rights. These measures include creating impediments to reserving rooms and forcing students to obtain advance approval for events, pay security fees, and attend mandated meetings with administrators. Though seemingly neutral, these policies sometimes target and frequently disproportionately burden speech in favor of Palestinian rights. For example, in 2014, administrators at The City University of New York’s (CUNY) College of Staten Island repeatedly called members of Students for Justice in Palestine and their faculty advisor into meetings to question them about events and social media postings, urged the group to hold events alongside Israel advocacy groups, and instructed members to submit promotional flyers for official authorization.”

The bitterness and acrimony of this conflict reflects the bitter intensity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Many human lives are endangered. People on both sides die almost daily. American supporters of Palestinians as well as of Israelis reflect the intensity of that conflict in their intransigence.

But here, once again, protecting the free speech of one-side violates the free-speech rights on the other side. The groups supporting Israel want the supporters of the Palestinians to be silenced. They don't acknowledge the free-speech rights of SJP on the grounds that SJ P is a terrorist organization.

But that only raises another problem in free-speech controversies. Frequently each side wants to deny free speech to the other on the grounds that the other’s speech serves criminal purposes and is therefore not protected by the First Amendment.

Granting that we would not regard the recruitment efforts of ISIS as speech protected under the First Amendment, the big question facing the supporters of Israel is: who determines whether SJP is a terrorist organization and whether their speech is in the service of the terrorist activity. It surely cannot be acceptable that one party may be silenced on the merest say-so of their opponents that they are terrorists.

Striking in this and similar cases is that one or both parties are using free-speech protections not in order to protect their own speech or that of their opponents. Supporters of Israel allege that members of JPS are not entitled to free speech because of their terrorist connections.  Rules regulating free speech are (mis)used to silence opponents.   One or both parties are actually indifferent to free-speech rights and treat them only as a weapon in their war against their opponents.

I consider such a suppression of opponents’ speech a clear violation of First Amendment rights and their spirit. These rights and protections of speech are intended to clear the space for free and mutually respectful conversations about very difficult political disagreements. They are not intended as a weapon to barricade that space of disagreement by silencing the opposition.

Authorities in universities or at various levels of government should distance themselves from any organization that uses free-speech rights in order to silence others. They should make very clear that such campaigns are violating the spirit of the First Amendment and are clearly contemptuous of our American attempt to maintain a free society. Any support for such campaigns in the name of free-speech is hypocritical.

    Sometimes university administrations demand that the events of one party to such a conflict be open to participation by the members of the opposing group. Supporters of Palestinians are admonished to invite Israel supporters to their public forums. Such a move is laudable if, at the same time, some ground-rules for the participation are laid down and agreed to before the event. It is irresponsible for administrators to demand participation of hostile groups and then turn their back on the predictable mayhem that ensues. Administrators must be serious about encouraging and promoting respectful discussions. They must promote meetings, provide facilitators and mediators and whatever resources there are for replacing shouting matches and almost violent confrontations with intelligent conversation.

    Free-speech rights are about having useful, mutually respectful, reasonable conversations even in situations of great emotion, of fear, of anger. Attempts to use free-speech rights as weapons against one's opponents should be roundly condemned by everybody. Defenders of free-speech rights must always be focused on the goal of useful conversations. That goal must be pursued with all the resources at our disposal.

Saturday, February 20, 2016




It is a media cliche that Donald Trump is the Bernie Sanders of the left and Bernie Sanders the Donald Trump on the right. They are angry at different things. But the essence of both candidacies is their anger.
But that does an injustice to Bernie Sanders and it profoundly misunderstands the Trump phenomenon.

Trump shouts out anger. He does not hesitate to insult anyone. He has a foul mouth. He is all about Trump. Bernie, on the other hand, has a clear program. He is not just angry he is arguing for definite economic change, for a reorientation of the political system from being a system that caters to the rich to one that provides participation and attention to all Americans.

What is striking about Trump is not the Donald himself but the significant number of people who support him vociferously, often cruelly when they support his aggressive rhetoric against Muslims, against women, against all kinds of people.

Trump's supporters clearly are animated by vast angers and that is, of course, a real worry. Who the president is of our country does make a real difference. People disagree sharply about Obama's policies, for instance, the nuclear treaty with Iran, or the changed relationships with Cuba. But these and other initiatives are very likely not to have been undertaken had Romney, or even Hillary Clinton, been president in these last four years.

The choice of president makes a difference for all of us. It is an important choice.

Everyone knows that it is a bad policy to make important choices primarily on the basis of strong emotion. Many people believe that "being so in love" is a good reason for getting married. As a result the divorce rate is around 50%. (That is the common wisdom. Some people think that number is exaggerated. As a matter of fact it seems very difficult to come up with any very reliable numbers on divorce.)

Businesses that merge, businesses that split up into separate organizations, investors that move money from one investment to another, cities that tear down neighborhoods in order to build a road-a myriad decisions every day are best made on the basis of available information about the present and the future. The decisions are more likely to be good decisions when the evidence is being considered carefully, calmly and with a major effort to set one's emotions set aside.

The same is true of the choice of president. American presidents are very much involved in matters of war and peace. Many of us may die prematurely if we make a poor choice of president based on emotions rather than on rational consideration of what we know about the  candidates.

But Trump supporters are not involved in thinking as calmly as they can about what is good for the country. That is not impugning their ability to make rational choices and to think clearly about their situation and that of their fellow citizens. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense for them to be utterly irrational in their adulation of their favorite reality TV actor.

Statistics have recently been cited of a high rate of drug overdoses among white men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. These are people who were told, when they were younger, that they would be better off than their parents. But that has turned out to be false. Getting work has been difficult. Getting good work has been very difficult. All the while they were being good persons, working, hard paying their bills. But that has not been a successful strategy for them. They are always short of money and their work sucks.

These people feel they have been lied to. The political system has not paid attention to them. Politicians constantly talk about job creation, but it is mostly talk. Welfare goes, they think, to people who are lazy. Welfare, in fact, goes to the rich and the large corporations. No one speaks for working people. No one is seriously concerned about their plight and their disillusionment.
There are a significant number of Americans for whom our system is not working. They are by no means all persons of color. 

The white working class that feels ignored has given up on that system. When they cheer for Donald Trump, they are not participating in the electoral campaign to select the next president because as far as they can see, it makes absolutely no difference who gets elected to any office. Whoever it is, in their perspective, will not pay any attention to them. So they might just as well express their alienation by cheering for a big clown who is very entertaining because he plays to their secret, and not so secret prejudices.

I obviously cannot prove that most Trump supporters are not participating in the electoral process but, instead, are expressing their disgust with the political system which, they feel, has completely overlooked them. But I think it is a hypothesis worth  considering.

If this analysis is at all reliable, we can see that the neglect of what we today call "the middle class" is not only a gross injustice but it has serious consequences for our political system.

To the extent that significant portions of the population feel that the political system is not responsive to their significant needs, they conclude that political participation makes no difference. So they do not participate in the political system. They participate in public entertainments. The unfortunate fact is, however, that what is entertaining to them, may get us stuck with a totally incompetent president.

No democratic system that neglects significant portions of the population will remain democratic because the people left out refuse to participate. Hence only half the people in the US will vote for president and many, many fewer will vote in more local elections. It makes no difference for them. Why lose half a day of work to participate in a ritual whose results are of no interest to you.

The support that Trump continues to garner so far from showing how healthy our democracy is, manifests once again the precariousness of a political system, where going to mass rallies is fun and has nothing to do with politics. It is at most a protest against the failures of this political system.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Modern electioneering

Most of the time, when we vote, we vote for representatives. Voting on referenda is fairly rare and many of them are not binding on the legislature. We give different justifications for having a representative democracy. Most often people say we do this because there are so many of us and we cannot all get together to legislate. Therefore we have to give the job of legislating to a small number of people and pay them so that they have the time to frame the laws the country needs.

This, actually, does not work out. These days elected representatives spend 30 or more hours a week asking for money, raising campaign funds, soliciting donations--the larger the better--to their political bank account. There is not  much time left for legislating.

Another reason for representative institutions weighed heavily with the authors of the Constitution and other theorists. Some people, the framers thought, are much better equipped to legislate than others. There are some specially gifted, sage, and politically perceptive persons whom the rest of the electorate chooses to run the country. Not all of us are well suited to make laws and policies. But all of us have enough insight and knowledge to choose the persons best suited to be legislators.

What would such candidates for public office be like? Quite obviously they would be persons seriously concerned about the well-being of their fellow citizens and of the country as a whole. They should not be particularly interested in their own popularity, and how people think about them. They should certainly not be willing to fight for being elected. The legislative representatives we want should focus on our well-being and on the well-being of the country. Getting elected should never be their primary concern. If they are not chosen, they will be glad to see that somebody else even more competent has been selected.

Electoral campaigns, today, are quite different. Everybody considers them as contests in which some lose and some win. Running for election is more like running a business and trying to force one's competitors into bankruptcy. Or it is like a sporting event in which there is one winning team at the end of the season and all the others lose.

However critical I may be of politicians and government bureaucrats who, together, run the country, I have no doubt that I would not be competent to do their job in their place. I sometimes imagine myself being elected to Congress or to run a government agency and being totally unable to decide what needed to be done and how I was supposed to go about it. The people we elect must have certain competences which most of us do not have.

One competence that is clearly necessary is to cooperate in positive ways with other elected officials and officials appointed to the administration. If the different branches of the government do not work together, a great deal of time, energy, and money will be wasted and very little accomplished. The poisoning of the water in Flint Michigan is a horrifying example of that.

Candidates that are out to win the election do not promise to be good cooperators. They may be brave fighters or they may be people who fight dirty but they do not promise to run the country cooperatively as it needs to be run.
Candidates running to win are under tremendous pressure to be less than completely honest. They exaggerate their own qualifications and tell lies about their competitors. Persons who are willing to bend the truth for their own advantage do not promise to be good promoters of what is good for the people as a whole. They are not prepared to serve because their own interest is always threatening to overwhelm their dedication to the public good.

Candidates who are willing two spend two years or more saying "Me, Me, Me, Me!" must have powerfully egos and be largely focused on themselves, on their own desires and needs. Will they have the energy and attention to dedicate themselves to the people who voted for them and even to the people who voted against them?

Yes, at some point the campaign is over. People vote and somebody is elected. But if we consider the process preceding the elections it is extremely unlikely that the candidates that emerge will be servants of the people rather than servants of themselves.

Sometimes we get good presidents--albeit not very often--and we are really lucky. More lucky than we deserve. If we had any sense, the people who are shouting "Me, Me, Me, Me!" the loudest should be automatically disqualified. The people who are willing to spend billions on getting elected should not be considered.

The candidate that should be selected is the one who offers him or herself for a particular office but who refuses to engage in the self-aggrandizing speechifying that we expect from our candidates. It must be someone who is modest, who would be horrified to brag of past accomplishments as our current candidates do every day. That person must be profoundly public spirited, not a raving egomaniac like most of our candidates.