The First White President

A very powerful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An excerpt:

"The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off 'moderate' whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump… The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it."

Welcome Home

Thought-provoking and well-written article on refugees, identity, gratitude, and "home." Nayeri's position is powerful and coherent, and in many ways I agree with her. Does national generosity of this kind come with certain obligations? What are they? Here's an excerpt:

"Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people don’t ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldn’t matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying “Welcome home”.

But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need."

Talk -- No Action

In the news this week, ladies and gentlemen, our President-elect:

"Donald Trump, the former host of Celebrity Apprentice and president-elect of the United States, referred to Georgia congressman John Lewis, one of the Big Six civil-rights leaders of the 1960s, who was once assaulted as a Freedom Rider testing a federal law banning segregation on public transportation, and who, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sex, as 'talk--no action.' Trump called NATO 'obsolete,' referred to Brexit as 'a great thing,' and said it was a 'catastrophic mistake' for German chancellor Angela Merkel to accept refugees from the five-year civil war in Syria that has killed at least 400,000 people."
-Harper's Review

Also of interest: Trump's Errors on Europe and Kompromat vs. Maskirovka

Gettysburg Address

I was reminded yesterday via twitter that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest and most consequential speech in American history, 153 years ago on November 19, 1863. As I read it again I was overwhelmed with sadness; I think I hardly have to say why (though I will soon, at length). But I also felt a glimmer of hope, because maybe those of us who believe in the great American project will work harder than ever before to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

A Time For Refusal

I can't quite get my mind around the reality of President-elect Trump, so I haven't yet written a post, but this NYTimes article on Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" sums up the "normalization" aspect nicely:

"Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone."

Ripe for Tyranny

The current American election cycle is equal parts baffling, depressing, terrifying, and embarrassing. "What is wrong with the electorate?" and "Where are all the statesmen and women?" I've asked time and time again. This article from the NYTimes on Condorcet's Paradox and Arrow's Impossibility Theorem makes me feel better -- "maybe the Republican primary results say less about the desires of Republican voters than they do about the tensions inherent in groups of people deciding what to do" -- and this one from NYMag on "end democracy" makes me feel much, much worse. Sullivan says:

"To call this fascism doesn't do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is a Weimar aspect of our current moment."

And what's worse, it shouldn't be surprising to any of us. American "liberals" of various stripes have rallied around women's right, "black lives," gays, and the politically correct. We've seemingly forgotten about large swathes of the population, namely, the white working class:

"For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome... much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well... and so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the Tea Party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life."

Sullivan tells us that to protect democracy from its own destabilizing excesses, we need the elites to step up. I agree. He also reminds us that we had it coming: "An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: 'We Respectables' deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force." And it's terrifying.

Laïcité et Liberté

In law school I wrote a paper on the concept of laïcité -- enshrined in the French Constitution -- which demands a complete separation of religion and government, such that religious expression must exist completely outside the realm of the state. In 2004, for example, the French government banned the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public schools because allowing overt religious signs in the public sphere was inconsistent with the concept of laïcité. Now, researchers claim that radicalization takes advantage of two central French ideas: laïcité and liberté. "France and Belgium forced secularization on Muslims, but also gave them the freedom to organize against it" (The New Yorker).

I've wondered about the French connection for some time now, and the idea that French political culture may be driving radicalization is fascinating. There's more here from Brookings, and an excerpt from The New Yorker article below. And if you were wondering, my argument in law school was that the American liberal conception of religious freedom is preferable to French laïcité because it supports individual rights and provides a framework for flourishing. The French model merely promises a minimalistic civic religion or fixation with national identity. I haven't changed my mind on that.

"Americans, by contrast, may find a kind of national relief in McCants and Meserole’s hypothesis. Compared to “the fashion police of Paris,” we are comfortable with religious diversity and religious expression, and perhaps this is a source of insulation against ISIS recruitment here. But the real pressure is not on the strength of religious freedom but on the possibility of hyphenated identity—on whether a person feels able to be both Muslim and French, or both Muslim and American. Formal enforcement of secular culture may be the force that works most directly against dual identity, but lower-amplitude advertisements of comfort and hostility, the daily interactions that a person has, matter, too. One common theme in the radicalization stories that foreign fighters told, Meserole said, was feeling ostracized at school for being Muslim."

Ideological Friends

Some good advice on seeing political adversaries as political allies (from this article that focuses on libertarians but which makes some universally applicable points):

"Do you know anyone who actually opposes human freedom? I don’t. It’s just that we all have different ways of understanding that idea and different levels of tolerance for its inconsistent application. We should see everyone as a potential ally in the great cause, regardless of sex, race, religion, or station in life.

Modern democratic politics divides people by interest-group affiliation. According to the prevailing ethos, women should prefer one set of politics and men another. Blacks want things one way, whites another — and Hispanics want yet another. Young and old are each opposed to the other, just as are the rich and the poor. In this way, as Frédéric Bastiat never tired of pointing out, politics divides people, creating a war of all against all.

But the classical liberals always emphasized that freedom means a harmony of interests between all groups. Only true liberals favor the common good of all, because they want to remove the major source of division in society. They favor allowing all groups and individuals to cooperate, associate, exchange, and produce to their mutual betterment. Society can manage itself better than any central planner can.

To see this today, in a time of cold war between groups, requires some high-minded thinking. Often, it requires acknowledging the justice of victim-group complaints and drawing attention to how the state has created the problem in the first place. This pertains to a huge range of problems in society, from unemployment to institutionalized racism to persistent poverty, exploitation, and war. It is not the case that we all have different goals; it’s that we disagree on the means to achieve those goals."

A President's Humanity

Last night, as we watched CNN coverage of the dismal New Hampshire primary and discussed some of the ill-advised policies of the leading candidates, a friend commented that he misses the Reagan years and another noted that even the Bush Gore election season was more civilized than this. There's so much fear-mongering and mud-slinging, and so little substantive debate and mutual respect. We're watching unprincipled clowns, not statesmen. After reading this David Brooks op-ed this morning, I had a think about the Obama presidency and Obama the man, and I agree with some of Brooks' main points, particularly that he "radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners, and elegance." Though I have not agreed with most of his policies over the past eight years, and have been exasperated by his foreign policy particularly, I certainly prefer him to Clinton, Sanders, Trump, and Cruz, and would be tempted to vote for him again given the current state of affairs.

". . .a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community. Could you say that comfortably about Ted Cruz? The quality of a president’s humanity flows out in the unexpected but important moments."

Centenary of the Armenian Genocide

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the massacre of approximately 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government. On this date in 1915, the Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul). A short time later, groups of Armenians were led on death marches into the Syrian desert.

Read More

Infinite and Infinitely Varied

Great article here on what libertarians are for. An excerpt:

"Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society—a vibrant, active society—that we resist the expansion of state power.

It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and political processes straitjacket independent thought—the essence of liberty.

We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations they have designed in their efforts to solve problems.

We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind. Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible. "

Born of the Will to be Free

Because the West Wing often says it best, in the words of Sam Seaborn, why I think privacy is so important and why the recent news about the NSA is more than troublesome:

"It's about the next twenty years... the next two decades are going to be about privacy. I'm talking about the Internet, I'm talking about cell phones, I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. Moreover, in a country born of the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this."


Senator Lindsey Graham is calling for Dzhokar Tsarnaev to be classified as an enemy combatant and "held and questioned under the law of war" without a lawyer. But why? In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (542 U.S. 507, 2004), the Supreme Court held that the US has the right to hold an American citizen as an enemy combatant when he is captured on a battlefield in another country. Tsarnaev is an American citizen who was not captured on a battlefield of any kind. The only difference between Tsarnaev and other domestic terrorists is that he is a Muslim, "and the United States has since the 9/11 terrorist attacks constructed a separate and profoundly unequal system of detention and punishment that essentially applies only to Muslims" (NYTimes).

Senator Graham's justification is as follows: "You have a right (to detain Tsarnaev) with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens all over the world are fighting with Al Qaeda." But there is no known evidence of "radical Islamist ties," and Dzhokar is an American citizen who has never traveled to Chechnya.

This kind of "reasoning" led to the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and to far worse acts of ethnically and racially motivated violence in other countries (NYTimes). Just read Korematsu v. United States (323 U.S. 214, 1944) for substantiation.

The capture of Tsarnaev last week by the Boston Police and the FBI shows that we live in a country where we are willing to spend millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to bring a bombing suspect into custody alive to be mirandized and put on trial in a court of law. A lesser nation and lesser people would choose the simple, callow, weak-willed expedient of gunning him down in the street because it's easier. To paraphrase a President, we choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. I hope we remain a country of laws, and that people will stop caving to their baser instincts.

Human Dignity

Given the ongoing events in Boston, it's hard to know what else to post about. I keep hearing sirens outside my window as I do everyday, but this afternoon I keep thinking something terrible is happening or is about to happen in New York, too. I also keep thinking back to an Israeli case we read in our law and religion class this semester, written by Justice Barak. In it he argues that people who engage in terrorist activities keep unlawful combatant status even when they are not taking a direct and active part in hostilities. Considering the nature of terrorism, that makes sense. But the most interesting part of the opinion focuses on human dignity. He emphasizes that unlawful combatants are not beyond the law: "They are not 'outlaws.' God created them as well in his image; their human dignity as well is to be honored; they as well enjoy and are entitled to protection. . . by customary international law."

I find it very difficult to forgive on a personal level. Half lies and small cruelties make me angry and resentful. They are so hard to forgive. But when I see that two young boys from a volatile region in Russia decided to fill pressure cookers with shrapnel and set them off at the finish line of a marathon with the intent to maim and kill, all I feel is sympathy for them and for their victims. I search for reasons to explain why they would do something so terrible because I want to forgive them.

Morality is often black and white in our personal lives but it is so complicated elsewhere. Terrorism can never be justified, but its roots often lie in the wrongs others see in the world. Perhaps they were motivated by American imperialism or Western values or drone warfare, things that are so personal to some terrorists but abstract for us. Maybe these boys were just angry. Maybe they were tired of not fitting in. Maybe they thought it would be fun to wreak havoc on a city. Maybe they're not guilty at all. The manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will eventually end and we will get the answers in the weeks ahead. As that happens, I think we should keep Justice Barak's words in mind: human dignity applies to every person.