Tuesday
May232017

Trump's Middle East Tour: The Military-Industrial Complex is Alive and Well

President Donald J. Trump is in the middle of his International tour. He’s already sold $110 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia in a deal that is expected to providefighter jets, tanks, combat ships and anti-missile defense systems.”   His economic advisor, Stephen Schwarzman has made a deal for $20 billion in infrastructure investment between his own company and the Saudis. He managed to frame the difficulty with Islamic extremism in mostly military terms and somehow blame most of terrorism on Iran—a Shia nation who has been helping the Syrians fight ISIS. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda are fundamentalist Sunni terror groups, many of whose members and even leaders are from Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism, or Salafism, has been the official Muslim doctrine, endorsed by the country’s royal family, and the starting point for extremist views. Trump presided over a partial Saudi-Israel rapprochement, which is based on the two countries’ mutual hatred of Iran. During his speech to the Saudis and 49 other Sunni Muslim countries, Trump praised Bahrain’s fight against terrorism, which is composed as much of tyrannical imprisonment of opposition leaders and members of its Shia majority as of anything else, and Saudi Arabia’s fight against “terror” in Yemen, which has been condemned as war crimes by most of the world. All of this while Iran re-elected a moderate president, who staked his reputation on the success of the nuclear deal that Israel opposes and Trump has threatened to back out of.

President Trump has turned foreign diplomacy into deal-making in the interests of selling arms and bringing financial investments to his wealthy business cronies (we don't know if his own company’s business interests, or those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner have also profited from these types of deals). As his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has said, U.S. foreign policy under Trump is concerned with what profits America, not what agrees with American values. And profiting America means profiting big business and arms manufacturers.

There’s a lot wrong with the president’s approach to foreign policy. The Sunni-Shia feud in the Middle East is one which the United States has never understood and has a record of supporting whichever side allows us to buy cheap oil and agrees to say nice things about us or allow us to use its country for military bases. Never mind if their internal politics creates and in some cases supports the development of the very terrorist organizations that have attacked us in the past and continue to pose a threat.

Most Americans, even liberal media pundits applauded Donald Trump’s choice of Tillerson, Mattis, and McMasters for his chief foreign policy cabinet officers. But Tillerson represents commercial pragmatism taken to the extreme—a man who opposed acknowledgement of climate change when it served his company’s interests to do so and agreed with it when it served him to do so. He is a man who was adept at striking deals with Vladimir Putin and other autocrats and dictators in order to obtain oil rights for his company, Exxon Mobile. Generals Mattis and McMaster may have served their country honorably, but they see the world in terms of military strategy, not peaceful diplomacy. These points of view, combined with Kushner’s and Trump’s emphasis on negotiating shrewd business deals for the financial establishment, are what have determined our country’s foreign policy on this first presidential international trip. The danger is that this is both a morally bankrupt policy agenda and a short-sighted recipe for disaster based upon a narrow view of the Middle East and a desire for immediate financial profits.

Wednesday
May102017

American "Leitkultur"

An article about Germany in today’s New York Times by a German writer, Anna Sauerbrey, raises an interesting issue for those of us in the United States. Sauerbrey discusses an article published in a German newspaper, in which the author, Thomas de Maiziére, listed characteristics that define German culture (the concept of Leitkultur). Sauerbrey doesn’t publish the  list, but indicates that it contained such values (cited as “non-negotiable”) as “the priority of law over religion, respectful manners in everyday life, being part of the West, being proud ‘Europeans’, and being patriotic.” In addition, as if to emphasize at whom such a list was aimed, the article by de Maiziére also mentioned, “We shake hands” and  “We are not burqa,” these latter values directed toward Muslim men’s reluctance to shake the hand of women and Muslim women wearing face-covering clothing.  In other words, the  importation of Muslim cultural behaviors is not what de Maiziére meant by German Leitkultur.

Sauerbrey laments the delineation of German cultural characteristics that exclude the behaviors of immigrants, who have their own values based upon the cultures from which they immigrated. Partly, she says, such insistence upon discouraging cultural plurality is doomed. As she says, Germany “needs to accept that it will be less homogeneous.”  She goes on to say that, “Germany will have to accept that respecting the law is enough… In accepting pluralism, we will truly live up to our constitutional values.”

What is the relevance of this discussion to the United States? Although some claim that the traditional culture of America is “European,” that is only partially true, since it ignores Africans who were here since the beginning of the country as slaves, and it ignores Native Americans, both in North America and from what is now Mexico and Central America. Even from Europe, despite a predominance of British among the earliest settlers (excluding French in Canada and Louisiana and Spanish in Florida, Texas and California), with the increase in population coming mostly from immigration, the variety of Europeans and later Asians, led to varied cultural traditions becoming “American.” Culture continues to change with the influx of Middle Easterners, Africans, Asians, and Mexican and Central Americans into our society.

More so than in Germany, the “constitutional values” of the United States rest upon elevating the law above the sanctity of any other cultural practices, including the tenets of any particular religion, “traditional family values,” norms of dress, styles of social greeting or even of acceptable social decorum or self-identification. America’s “non-negotiable” values are all based upon the sanctity of individual freedom as guaranteed by law.

In America it doesn’t matter which day one goes to religious worship, or whether one goes at all. It doesn’t matter who one dates or even marries. It doesn’t matter whether or not one covers one’s head or face in public or whether someone follows strict religiously dictated guidelines for what one eats or whether one’s eating habits are good for his or her health. It doesn’t even matter which religious or philosophical figures one follows or even if one decides to follow none of them and denigrate all of them. All of these things are the subjects of individual decision because our constitution guarantees that they are, and we all agree that the central factor in our cultural identity as Americans is that we agree to live by our constitution.

In America our Leitkultur is the culture of inviolable individual freedom, which is not subject to the vagaries of whichever culture happens to be dominant in the local or national society, but is guaranteed by law.

Tuesday
May022017

Freedom Is Not About Ideas

I personally hold a number of social/political ideas: capitalism is creating increasing income disparity and undermining the public good; many law enforcement agencies treat minorities unfairly compared to how they treat Whites; it is immoral and unfair to send law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have established a stable life in the U.S. out of the country; everyone in the country should have free healthcare; the greatest threat to the human race is climate change and we need to use government regulations to control it; virtually all religions create more animosity than they do good; the greatest social challenge we have in this country is to improve the lives and economic prospects of people of color… I could go on.

There are many Americans who believe the opposite of me. America is not a great country because it contains citizens who hold both my beliefs and beliefs that don’t agree with mine. America is a great country because it allows its citizens to hold such diversity of beliefs and protects the right to hold them. We have laws that guarantee that one group cannot impose its ideas on another, except through the mechanisms of the democratic process. And even then, our Bill of Rights guarantees that the majority cannot intrude on the minority’s expression of its beliefs beyond certain limits.

What makes America free is that we all agree to abide by a set of rules, which apply equally to all of us. It is not that we believe a particular idea, it is that we cannot be restricted from expressing our opinion about it. It is not that we believe religion; it is that we are not allowed to impede its expression. It is not that we value the individual dignity of life, we are not allowed to take it or the opportunity to achieve it, away from others. It is not that we value any particular race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender; it is that we are not allowed to discriminate against people because of any of these characteristics. It is not what we believe about these values that matters with regard to preserving freedom, it is that we all agree that our laws must protect all of us by limiting the kinds of actions we can take, regardless of our positions on these values.

Today, there are many of us who believe that the ideas we either believe in or fear are so important that we are justified in setting aside the rules that govern our society in order to either achieve or combat these ideas: Certain ideas must not be allowed expression. Religion can be used as a basis of restrictions if it is a religion we think is harmful. Some gender identities can be discriminated against if we believe they are unnatural. Violence is a legitimate tactic to use against those who express ideas we believe are dangerous.

A democratic society delineates the mechanisms for achieving consensus so that actions can be taken by the society as a whole. Undemocratic societies use other methods that do not depend upon consensus or they use the power of consensus to restrict the rights of those who don’t agree with the majority. These other societies are not free. They are run by despots or by majority religious or ideological groups who are determined to allow only their own values to be expressed within the society and often employ Draconian methods of suppression of their opponents.

America needs to reaffirm the importance of living by the rules that protect its freedoms.

 

Sunday
Apr302017

What Democrats Can Say Instead of "No"

Democrats have failed to coalesce around a coherent political agenda. They seem satisfied with name-calling and voting no on anything the Republicans propose. In other words, as one pundit put it “there is plenty of energy, but no direction” in the approach of the Democrats.

The blame for congress’ lack of accomplishments has been laid at the feet of extremists in the grass roots of both parties. The voters on both sides, so the story goes, see any compromise as evidence of disloyalty. Democrats can’t do a lot about grass roots Republicans, but they can attempt to meet the needs of their own supporters with a program that satisfies a progressive agenda without its chief aim being to thwart their opponents. They have to stake out a set of positions that, if adopted, would make them support any politician, regardless of party, who agreed to them. Most importantly, such positions can be a yardstick against which to measure their own party’s candidates. Their elected politicians’ yays and nays can be completely determined by whether or not what they are voting on conforms to this progressive agenda.

Here is what such an agenda should contain:

Universal health care: Free health care should be provided to all Americans, either via government subsidy of insurance premiums (as in Medicaid and Medicare) or government provision of medical services. This can be achieved in one fell swoop or incrementally, by beginning with a public option.

Aggressive carbon emission regulation: Any progressive candidate or program must reinstitute Obama-era emission regulations and extend them. Long-term independence from the use of fossil fuels must be a goal, although transition to alternative fuel sources can be gradual and must be realistic.

Path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants: Those who have been in the United States without legal permission and have not broken any laws except minor ones (e.g. traffic laws, checking in with immigration), should be allowed to stay and pursue citizenship. Violent criminals should be aggressively pursued and deported if they are undocumented.

Reasonable and generous plan for refugees and immigrants: America should welcome refugees and make it possible for immigrants to come to America, join our workforce and become productive citizens. Public programs to support refugees once they arrive have been shown to produce stronger allegiance to the U.S. and need to be part of a refugee program.

Federal program to guarantee civil rights in criminal justice: Persons of color and other minorities are not treated equally by many local and state law enforcement agencies and the federal government must  take actions to insure the civil rights of these minorities when they interact with law enforcement.

Reinstatement of Dodd Frank  or similar controls on the financial services industry: Financial de-regulation risks another economic disaster.

Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United decision: So long as corporations can determine election outcomes the country will not be in the people’s hands.

Support for legislation and Supreme Court nominees that reaffirm abortion rights and equal pay for women: Women’s rights cannot be in jeopardy in the United States.

 

This is a bare-bones progressive agenda. It does not include foreign policy or international trade agreements, both of which are issues upon which progressives disagree too much to demand adherence to a single position.

None of the above positions is extreme. Most of them are supported by a large segment of the American population. Strict adherence to such an agenda is not a purist position that sacrifices the good for the perfect. By promoting such an agenda, Democrats can reassert their own aspirations for the country.

 

 

 

Saturday
Apr292017

100 Days of Trump

I faced three questions in evaluating President Trump’s first 100 days in office: why do it, can it be evaluated fairly, and should it be evaluated fairly?

The answer to why is that 100 days into a new presidency, it makes sense to take stock. Evaluating the Trump presidency fairly is much harder than deciding whether or not to do it. If anything has become clear since Trump’s election, it is that fair is in the mind of the person making the judgment. It matters from which sources one gets his or her news and opinion. Entire issues are either amplified or ignored by such media outlets as Fox News, the New York Times, CNN, etc. Non-mainstream sources are filled with fake news, biased news, retreaded news and extreme opinions. How one knows what is actually going on, much less what is important is a function of his or her tastes in news, which in turn is a function of his or her political leanings. Finally, the question of whether Trump’s first 100 days should be evaluated fairly is perhaps one that is unique to our times. Biased opinions are considered mandatory by many people on both sides. Deciding that President Trump may have done something right is considered disloyal by a large segment of the population, as is deciding that he has done something wrong by a smaller, segment of our country. A “fair and balanced” assessment of presidential actions is considered giving comfort to the enemy and undermining the movement to oust the current president (and his party) from power in the next election (and for some people, before the next election, through impeachment).

So with some trepidation, I will evaluate Trump’s first 100 days. With regard to one of my major concerns (and I would argue that it should be everyone’s), the climate and the environment, Trump has been a disaster and the only saving grace is that his de-regulatory actions may be relatively ineffectual. The country is moving toward alternative energy sources with or without the EPA. Forces within the White House, and even some within industry, are urging the president to remain within the Paris Climate Agreement. On the downside, the natural environment and wildlife will suffer almost immediately from some of his actions, which take away their protections. And the kind of real progress on slowing or halting climate change that is absolutely necessary for preserving life on our planet takes more aggressive actions, not fewer.

Trump’s health care efforts, his tax plan, his aggressive targeting of undocumented immigrants, and those who protect them, his actions on immigration are all onerous to the extreme, but, thankfully, partially mitigated by the president’s ineptitude in developing policy about them. All would, if implemented, cause untold suffering on the most vulnerable members of our population.

In foreign policy Trump has been bold, if not honest, in his approach to such adversaries as Syria and North Korea. Until a policy has been fully articulated, the jury is still out in this area.

Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was not as bad as it might have been and seemed a reasonable one, given the president’s party and campaign promises.

Then we have the president’s behavior itself, which by any standard has been unpresidential, impulsive, and downright embarrassing to the country, particularly his tweets, his lying and his bragging.

Finally, the Democratic Party’s response has been ineffectual and unwilling to provide a bold progressive alternative to the Republican agenda.

That’s Trump’s first 100 days in my opinion (and in 600 words or less).

Wednesday
Apr262017

Reflections on the Words of a Pope

 

Pope Francis addresses different issues than those addressed by the world’s political leaders. They talk about the uses of power to achieve their goals. His subject is our souls. I am an atheist, so when I hear Pope Francis speak about this, I must translate the idea of a “soul” into words I can understand. For me, he is talking about the inner, conscience-driven personality of each of us, which determines our behavior toward the world and toward others. Fortunately, the Pope makes such a translation easy, since he talks mostly about how we think about and behave toward each other in our daily lives, rather than the fate of an ephemeral “soul” in the hereafter.

The Pope’s recent TED talk provides a wonderful example of his message, and an example that deserves reflection from each of us. The essence of his talk was that we need to realize that the core of being human is being connected with other human beings. In particular, he urged each of us to feel connected to those who are less fortunate, who, in his words, have been “discarded,” and are being wasted while we pass them by, as did the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He urged us, and by us he meant those with power and wealth, but also each individual who was in reach of his words, to not see the world in terms of things and money, but in terms of human beings.

Francis pleaded for a “revolution of tenderness.” He asked us to open our hearts to those around us—and he meant those anywhere on the planet—and see them as our fellow human beings, as people we can care about. His words gave me both hope and inspiration.

It is easy to see the antithesis of tenderness in the behavior of our political leaders. As the nation with the most powerful military in the world, we approach most international problems in terms of how to use our military force to solve them. We address ideological differences in Afghanistan with an influx of troops to favor the side that favors us. We address a civil war in Syria with arms and military support for the rebels we hope will favor us if they win. We confront North Korea’s nuclear weapons aspirations with threats, sanctions, and our mighty navy. Hardheaded “realists” tell us that trying to recognize the humanity of our opponents in these situations is foolish, and that military power is the only message to which they will listen. We say this despite admitting that the real solutions to these problems will be political, not military, and in the face of the abject failure of our military solutions so far.

Pope Francis reminds us that tenderness starts in our own hearts. The first step is recognizing the humanity inside of those we oppose.  Many of us belong to partisan camps, which vilify their opponents. Calls to understand each other are labeled traitorous. It has become not only perfidious to listen to those we oppose, but even to allow them to speak. We have disparaging labels for everyone who disagrees with our point of view.

Those we vilify are persons like ourselves whose life experiences have brought them to a different point of view than our own. To distance ourselves from them with self-righteous wrath or even violence, is to fail the humanity inside of us, which we must seek within ourselves to allow us to reach out to our fellow human beings. That is what a “revolution of tenderness” requires.

Saturday
Apr222017

Ethics, Personal and Societal

 

At a recent psychiatric conference at Yale University, several psychiatrists made the claim that Donald Trump is mentally ill, necessitating his removal from office. Dr. John Gartner, a who is also a founding member of Duty to Warn, an organization of mental health professionals calling for Trump’s removal , said: “We have an ethical responsibility to warn the public about Donald Trump's dangerous mental illness.”

These psychiatrists are violating the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” formulated by the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics in 1973, which says, “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement. 

A psychiatrist occupies a special role in our society, which is circumscribed by educational, legal, practice, and ethical standards. When the average citizen hears the pronouncement of such a professional, he or she is assuming that the statement  is being made by someone who is following the dictates of his or her profession. This means that a psychiatrist can say whatever he or she wants as a private citizen, but, once his or her title as a professional is invoked, these statements must adhere to the rules that the public relies upon such professionals following. If the public takes a statement  regarding the mental health of a public figure the mental health professional  has not examined personally, nor known outside of his or her public persona, as implying the same clinical and professional standards that apply to other statements made by that professional, then the public is being misled and this is unethical.

The argument made by Dr. Gartner and others is that their personal ethics demand that they violate their professional ethics and that they issue a diagnosis as well as a recommendation for action with regard to President Trump. This raises a substantive issue about what kinds of situations justify one’s personal ethical concerns overriding what society has accepted as normative ethical rules of behavior.

This issue has similarities to the one in which those who claim that their adherence to the legal and ethical guarantees of free speech must be suspended in cases where someone’s exercise of the right of free speech presents a danger to society. In both cases, the individual is taking it upon him or herself to violate ethical (and perhaps legal) principles because of his or her personal ethical concerns.

The best way to think about this (and to distinguish it from cases such as Martin Luther King’s refusal to follow laws that mandated segregation) is to ask whether the ethical rule in question has merit. If the answer is no, the decision is easy. One should not follow a flawed ethical rule. But most mental health professionals and most Americans agree with the Goldwater Rule and the first amendment guarantees of free speech, respectively. 

The tendency for individuals to make exceptions to ethical guidelines when their own opinions and emotions are involved is the reason such guidelines were encoded in the APA Code of Ethics and the United States Constitution. Neither the profession of psychiatry nor a democratic United States would work if exceptions to the ethical rules were allowed whenever individuals decide they are warranted. Such rules are precisely what allows professions and democracies to function. Public statements made by psychiatrists and protests on campuses rely upon a substrate of rules that lend such activities legitimacy. If such statements and protests violate the rules that support them, they are undermining the social contract upon which they were built.

 

 

 

Saturday
Apr222017

Ethics, Personal and Societal

 

At a recent psychiatric conference at Yale University, several psychiatrists made the claim that Donald Trump is mentally ill, necessitating his removal from office. Dr. John Gartner, a who is also a founding member of Duty to Warn, an organization of mental health professionals calling for Trump’s removal , said: “We have an ethical responsibility to warn the public about Donald Trump's dangerous mental illness.”

These psychiatrists are violating the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” formulated by the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics in 1973, which says, “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement. 

A psychiatrist occupies a special role in our society, which is circumscribed by educational, legal, practice, and ethical standards. When the average citizen hears the pronouncement of such a professional, he or she is assuming that the statement  is being made by someone who is following the dictates of his or her profession. This means that a psychiatrist can say whatever he or she wants as a private citizen, but, once his or her title as a professional is invoked, these statements must adhere to the rules that the public relies upon such professionals following. If the public takes a statement  regarding the mental health of a public figure the mental health professional  has not examined personally, nor known outside of his or her public persona, as implying the same clinical and professional standards that apply to other statements made by that professional, then the public is being misled and this is unethical.

The argument made by Dr. Gartner and others is that their personal ethics demand that they violate their professional ethics and that they issue a diagnosis as well as a recommendation for action with regard to President Trump. This raises a substantive issue about what kinds of situations justify one’s personal ethical concerns overriding what society has accepted as normative ethical rules of behavior.

This issue has similarities to the one in which those who claim that their adherence to the legal and ethical guarantees of free speech must be suspended in cases where someone’s exercise of the right of free speech presents a danger to society. In both cases, the individual is taking it upon himself to violate ethical (and perhaps legal) principles because of his or her personal ethical concerns.

The best way to think about this (and to distinguish it from cases such as Martin Luther King’s refusal to follow laws that mandated segregation) is to ask whether the ethical rule in question has merit. If the answer is no, the decision is easy. One should not follow a flawed ethical rule. But most mental health professionals and most Americans agree with the Goldwater Rule and the first amendment guarantees of free speech, respectively. Some people want to make exceptions to them.

The tendency for individuals to make exceptions to ethical guidelines when their own opinions and emotions are involved is the reason such guidelines were encoded in the APA Code of Ethics and the United States Constitution. Neither the profession of psychiatry nor a democratic United States would work if exceptions to the ethical rules were allowed whenever individuals decide they are warranted. Such rules are precisely what allows professions and democracies to function. Public statements made by psychiatrists and protests on campuses rely upon a substrate of rules that lend such activities legitimacy. If such statements and protests violate the rules that support them, they are undermining the social fabric upon which they are built.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Apr192017

If Universities Can’t Allow Freedom of Speech, Who Can? 

The “Free Speech Movement” began in the 1960s on the UC Berkeley campus. At that time, the campus became the hub of anti-establishment demonstrations. These demonstrations were all liberal and concerned with anti-racism, anti-war, and anti-establishment themes, but the crux of the issue was the students’ right to express their opinions openly.

Fast forward to 2017 when two right-wing, professional provocateurs (Milo Yiannopoulos and now Ann Coulter), invited to speak on the Berkeley campus by the Berkeley College Republicans, both had speeches canceled by the university because of concerns about property damage and student safety. No one doubts that the university has an obligation to protect the safety of its students. But they also have an obligation to protect free speech. “Academic Freedom” has been a concept that has applied to what has been said and what has been taught at universities for decades and was formulated most convincingly by Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian born scientist and philosopher who argued for freedom of both inquiry and expression from the point of view of the need for science to be free to consider all ideas. He was making his arguments against Nazi, Soviet and even British attempts by the state to control scientific inquiry. The idea of academic freedom quickly spread to all things taught at universities and was the basis for many professors standing up to McCarthyism in the United States.

UC Berkeley maintains that it has not turned its back on freedom of speech or academic freedom (in this case the freedom of students to hear whomever they want to have speak to them). Nevertheless, they have now canceled another speaker (other universities have also canceled both speakers in the past). So if the university wishes to preserve freedom of speech, but is unable to, who is to blame?

UC Berkeley is partly to blame. In order to guarantee free speech on its campus, the university must make accommodations, which allow any kind of speech which meets the requirements of student sponsorship, to take place. After the debacle with Milo Yiannopoulos and recent clashes in the streets of Berkeley, as well as incidents at other universities, it is incumbent upon the university to make arrangements that will allow such speech to happen with minimal risk to students.

But those who disrupt campus speakers and who impose their will by threatening or attacking other students are also to blame, as are those among the faculty who acquiesce in “shutting down” speech they find offensive or dangerous. It is a weak society that combats ideas by not allowing their expression. That is exactly what Polanyi fought against in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Scholars of free speech are generally in agreement that what makes speech dangerous is the restriction of views that oppose it. None argue that certain ideas are so toxic, except those that involve a direct threat to another person or group, that they can’t be heard. Such ideas become dangerous when their opponents have no opportunity to argue against them, when those who hear such ideas have no opportunity to hear alternatives to them.

Universities should be the places where ideas are debated. A group of protestors are intimidating our universities so that only those ideas and speakers who meet with their approval are allowed to speak. That is wrong, and UC Berkeley and other universities need to figure out how to combat such forces so that Free Speech returns to our campuses. I don’t agree with Ann Coulter on virtually anything— except her right to express her views at a public university.

 

Tuesday
Apr182017

The Paradox of Free Speech

Recent events in Berkeley, California and on campuses across the United States have demonstrated a growing sentiment among some young people that speech by those who espouse certain views must not be allowed. The argument is often couched in terms of preventing views embracing or sympathetic to Nazism or Fascism, from being expressed. Defenses of movements such as Antifa or Black Bloc, both of which mount vigorous and often physical opposition to speakers and marchers perceived to represent Fascism, have cited the failure of citizens in Germany to physically oppose Hitler and his followers as contributing to the rise of Nazism.

Traditional liberals and progressives have been appalled by the confrontational tactics of those who prevent others from speaking, because such actions violate what is considered perhaps the most basic American right, which is freedom of speech. Their critics accuse them of intellectual dithering, allowing dangerous opinions to be disseminated, gathering more supporters and threatening groups such as Jews, Blacks, gays and women. These critics regard it as a moral imperative to prevent such opinions from being openly expressed.

The paradox of free speech is that it allows dangerous ideas to be expressed. There is no doubt that speech can lead people to do terrible things. Goebbels’ Nazi radio broadcasts in Germany in the 1930’s were a major factor in spreading anti-Semitism. Radio Rwanda urged people to hate and attack Tutsi “cockroaches,” leading to an eventual genocide.

If hate speech can be dangerous, how can it be allowed?

What makes speech dangerous is not just what is being said, but the social situation in which it is expressed. The greatest factor making speech dangerous is the suppression of counter opinions. In both Nazi Germany and Rwanda the only voices that were allowed were those preaching racial hatred. Freedom of speech was nonexistent.

Freedom of speech cannot be delimited by the content of speech. If saying some things is not allowed, then speech is not free. If one group decides that opinion X is too dangerous to be expressed, and can suppress its expression, then we open the door to another group, in the future, deciding that opinion Y is too dangerous to be expressed. In America, our constitution and our courts have determined that the only thing we can prohibit from being expressed are “fighting words.” SCOTUS defines these as those “which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace."

Justifications for suppression of speech are usually couched in terms of preventing Fascism. But mob violence or threats of it, sufficient to curtail speech or protests are today being used to prevent the expression of many opinions that only in some people’s perception could lead to Fascism. In some cases, the groups being attacked are blatantly racist or anti-Semitic, even neo-Nazi. But on campuses, speakers who have been “shut down” have included those who are pro-life who represent pro-Israel positions, who have worked in conservative administrations, as well as well-known racist trolls, such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.

Using mob violence or governmental (i.e. public university) authority to suppress speech is not a defense against Fascism, it is a form of Fascism. It is exactly the technique used in Nazi Germany and Rwanda as well as Soviet Russia and Syria to limit discussion of opposing points of view. Democracy allows even ugly, dangerous views to be expressed and to decide that it is “imperative” to suppress someone else’s freedom of speech, is a step toward losing our democracy. We must not delude ourselves that this is how we preserve freedom.

 

Wednesday
Apr122017

United Airlines and the Doctor: Our Society in a Microcosm

United Airlines didn’t overbook their flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY. The flight was full, but the airlines needed to transport a flight crew to Louisville for another flight, so they asked for volunteers to give up their seats. When no one volunteered, the airline offered $400 for anyone to give up his or her seat. When that got no volunteers, the airline offered $800. Still no one volunteered. The airline designated four passengers as needing to “involuntarily” give up their seats. Three complied, one refused. When he remained in his seat the airline called airport security to remove him. The result was recorded on other passengers’ cell phones. The man, a Chinese-American doctor from Kentucky, was dragged from his seat, down the aisle and escorted from the plane. He returned, his face bloodied from the encounter and again refused to leave and again was forcibly removed.

At the same time that Dr. Dao, the passenger on United flight 3411, was being forcibly removed (and injured in the process) from the plane, President Trump had just bombed a Syrian airbase in order to deter Bashar al Assad from using any more chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war and was also sending the USS Vinson, an aircraft carrier, as well as several accompanying ships to a location near North Korea in order to “send a message” to Kim Jong Un that the U.S. would not tolerate its further testing of nuclear armed missiles.

The response of United Airlines to the resistance of one of its passengers to give up his seat when requested to do so, was to rapidly escalate to the use of force to remove him. The result appears to be that their stock dropped precipitously and the doctor is now suing them. Their CEO has issued an apology and the security personnel involved in the episode have been suspended. With regard to President Trump’s ordering of an airstrike on the Syrian airbase, the result has been a deterioration in U.S. –Russian relations and in U.S. Russian cooperation in Syria. U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets have declined as American forces wait to see if they have anything to fear from the Russians. We have no idea, at the time of this writing, what will be the effect of sending more U.S. naval forces to the area surrounding Korea.

The U.S. options for responding to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria appeared to be confined to military ones. Our response to Kim Jong Un’s display of nuclear power seems to be confined to military options, despite the fact that all experts agree that using diplomatic means to secure China to pressure North Korea is the only way to deal with the situation that avoids a catastrophic outcome. United Airlines’ response to a recalcitrant passenger reflected a mindset that limited its options to the use of force.

We live in a confrontational world in which the conventional view of how to convince an opponent to change his mind is to use or threaten to use violence. The outcomes, when this viewpoint is employed, are routinely negative. The purveyor of violence suffers as much, or more, than the object of his violence. In international military situations, the result is usually that both sides suffer.

Isn’t it time that we changed our way of thinking about how to resolve conflicts?

Tuesday
Apr112017

A Plea for a U.S. Middle East Policy

The Trump administration doesn’t have a plan for the Middle East.

George W. Bush had a plan. It was based on neo-conservative thinking: bring democracy to the countries that don’t have it and which pose a threat to the U.S. The idea was that democratic governments don’t start wars (except our democratic government). That theory led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The result was chaos. Barack Obama had a plan, which was to exit from a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible. That plan got sidetracked by the Arab Spring, which led to the decision to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. As a result of the chaos left behind in Libya and Iraq, plus the extension of the Arab Spring mentality to Syria, where the resistance to protests by Bashar al Assad led to a civil war, a new entity emerged: ISIS. When Obama left office, the U.S. Middle Eastern strategy appeared to be to continue to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan—with no end in sight—to provide support to Iraqi troops fighting ISIS and to provide military support to rebels fighting Assad in Syria. Only George W. Bush had a coherent Middle Eastern plan and, because it was based upon a total misunderstanding of the Middle East, it destabilized the whole region, and led us into the mess in which we now find ourselves.

Donald Trump had a plan when he took office. He would let Russia and Syria play the major role in fighting ISIS, although he occasionally said he would “bomb the hell of out them.” For sure, we were not going to go down the road of involving ourselves in “regime change” in countries such as Syria.

Well, now we’ve taken direct military action against the Syrian regime in response to their alleged use of chemical weapons. We’ve threatened to mount more attacks if we feel that the way Assad is waging war does not meet our humanitarian standards. According to Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the U.N., we also are aiming for a regime change in Syria.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says we’ll let the Syrians decide who should rule them.

U.S. Middle Eastern policy is, if anything, fluid. No matter which direction we seem to go, when things don’t work out, which is usually, we take a different tack. Donald Trump is no different than Obama and both are less consistent than the (misdirected) Bush. At least Obama was able to articulate what he was doing and why, at the time he was doing it. Trump does not appear to be able to do so, and his cabinet members and spokespeople seem to go in different, often incompatible directions.

The U.S. has shown a consistent misunderstanding of Middle Eastern politics and culture, so let’s have a Middle Eastern policy that is simply pragmatic. Do what will most likely secure our interests. With regard to ISIS, we don’t want them to occupy land and we don’t want them to continue to mount terror attacks. With regard to Syria, we don’t want Assad using chemical weapons or killing countless civilians and creating more refugees. Do we have other interests in the region? No one has articulated any. We first need to decide if we can do anything to secure our interests. If not, then just sit on the sidelines and watch. If so, then develop a strategy for achieving it.

Saturday
Apr082017

Morality and U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

When Syrian warplanes allegedly dropped deadly Sarin gas on a village in northern Syria, and videos showed men, women and many children dying from the suffocating effects of the gas, President Donald Trump said he was horrified. Within days he ordered air strikes on the airbase from which the Syrian planes had reportedly taken off to drop their deadly load. The retaliatory strike was aimed at sending a message to Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, that, if he used chemical weapons, the U.S. would punish him, militarily.

I’m almost uniformly against using military means to send messages to solve problems, partly because they invariably involve killing, and partly because they almost inevitably lead to further military confrontation. As military strikes go, however, this was a relatively benign one. Probably due to the U.S. having communicated to Russians and apparently some others that the strikes were coming, the death toll from the strike was reported to be 15. The Syrian government reported that 6 military were killed and 9 civilians from surrounding villages, although those numbers are not confirmed.

It is important to know if civilians were actually killed and if, as the Syrians reported, the deaths were from errant missiles, since American reports from both official and unofficial, usually retired, military sources described the missiles as having “pinpoint accuracy,” and we have seen before that such accuracy is exaggerated by the military and collateral damage  almost always accompanies any air attack. While it is clear that the target was the airbase infrastructure not people, deaths of civilians modifies any assessment of the morality of such an attack and can even nullify it.

While rhetoric at home in the U.S. either applauds President Trump for “standing up” to Assad and defending the immorality and illegality of chemical warfare, or castigates the president for “escalating” the war by attacking Syria for the first time, the issue deserves more careful thought than knee-jerk praise or condemnation. A one-off, mostly symbolic attack to demonstrate a “red line” across which Assad should not again step, an attack that was aimed at military infrastructure and not people, may be a good thing, particularly if it is effective in stopping the use of chemical weapons, and if it does not lead to further escalation of U.S. involvement in the war. If, as some voices, including John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have urged, it leads to more attacks against Syria’s air installations, it is a bad thing, as they are both being used to fight ISIS and are protected by Russian air defenses. Degrading the Syrian’s ability to fight ISIS or starting a shooting war with Russia are not positive outcomes. Another danger of the airbase attack is that it furthers the premise that constructive U.S. responses to the Syrian struggle are confined to military options.

The only way for the U.S. attack on the Shayrat airbase to be a moral and effective tactic by our country is if the number of civilians killed was actually near zero and the effect on Bashar al Assad is to stop his use of chemical weapons. In addition, it must not lead to any further military engagement with the Syrians or Russians by the U.S.  If any of these conditions are not met, then the attack was wrong. Finally, this attack, since it was outside the AUMF under which Bush and Obama fought terror groups  and was directed at a sovereign nation, required congressional authority and the president needs to come to congress to explain how this fits our current military mission and what he believes that to be.

Tuesday
Apr042017

Nonsense in the Senate

Judge Neil Gorsuch is a smart, literate, conservative judge. His previous rulings and writings show a mix of decisions, primarily favorable to conservative sentiments (e.g. the Hobby Lobby decision), but sometimes to liberal ones (e.g. against disproportional use of force against a schoolchild, against police “knock and talk” rights). As far as conservative judges to replace Antonin Scalia go, he may be a pretty close match. If the president were a Democrat, Judge Gorsuch would never have been nominated for the Supreme Court. For a Republican president, he appears to be par for the course. So why is there such furor over his confirmation?

Part of the reason for Democrats choosing to filibuster Judge Gorsuch is to pay back Republicans for refusing to consider Obama’s SCOTUS nominee of 2016, Merritt Garland. Democrats are mad and unforgiving, so the story goes, and so is their base. The second reason—the one most often cited by Senate Leaders such as Chuck Schumer or Dianne Feinstein—is that Judge Gorsuch is not “mainstream.” In other words, he is too conservative. A third reason, is that the judge’s performance, in both one-on-one talks to Democratic senators and in committee testimony, was not forthcoming enough for senators to form enough of an opinion of him to be able to vote for his confirmation.

The consequence of a Democratic filibuster of the Gorsuch confirmation will be that the Republicans will choose the “nuclear option” and revise the Senate rules to eliminate the right to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. Gorsuch will be confirmed. The next Supreme Court Nominee will require only a simple majority for confirmation, with no possibility of filibustering him or her.

The rhetoric around the confirmation of Gorsuch vastly exceeds the reality. Democrats talk about the need to uphold the “sixty-vote tradition” for confirming SCOTUS nominees, although 60 votes is the number required for cloture (ending debate), not confirmation. Phrases such as “blowing up the Senate” have been used for invoking the nuclear option, with hand-wringing sentiments that the Senate “will never be the same.” The last time the nuclear option was used, it was the Democrats themselves who used it. Republicans are quick to point this out, and, while expressing reluctance to change the Senate rules, claim that they will be “forced” to do so by Democratic recalcitrance.

The arguments for a Democratic filibuster are supported by most of the Democratic base. It is in order to satisfy that base and continue a wave of opposition to President Trump and his policies, including his appointments, which will translate into votes in the next election, that is stoking the opposition to Gorsuch in the Senate. The cost is that, if another, more extreme conservative is nominated in the future, the use of the filibuster to oppose him or her would be lost. Of course the nuclear option would still be available on the next nominee, but if that person were more extreme, there might not be uniform Republican support for overriding the filibuster rule. 

The real cost of using the filibuster with Judge Gorsuch is that it continues the dysfunctional partisan approach to decision making in Washington. Both Democratic senators and their base are willing to put up with the dysfunction in order to satisfy their need for unrelenting partisanship. This is the same approach taken by Republicans for the last eight years and it is the approach that has left our country split into opposing camps that neither respect nor talk to one another. It’s not only not any way to govern, it is not any way to live together.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Mar292017

The Prisoner's Dilemma Revisited

Mathematician John Von Neumann, co-originator of game theory, famously urged presidents Truman and Eisenhower to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia before the Soviets could amass a large nuclear arsenal themselves. His infamous quote, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today…” reflected his assessment of standoffs in the Prisoner’s Dilemma two-sided, zero-sum game. The results of game theory experiments at the Rand Corporation indicated that when both sides have the capacity to destroy each other, they will not refrain from doing so forever. One side will “defect’ from the agreement and use its power to destroy the other. Von Neumann wanted the U.S. to be the side to defect and launch a “preemptive” attack on Russia. Ominously, he was a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, but both presidents refused to follow his advice.

Von Neumann’s arguments came at a time when the United States had substantial nuclear superiority over the Soviets, who had only recently exploded their first atomic bomb and were nearing development of the hydrogen bomb, which the United States already had. We are at a similar stage in our relationship with North Korea as we were with the Soviets back then. Kim Jong Un has viable nuclear weapons and is developing short and long range missile delivery capabilities.

Although Von Neumann’s so-called “proof” that someone would eventually use their nuclear weapons has not come true—yet—we are at one of the most dangerous times with regard to the use of nuclear weapons since the days when Von Neumann uttered his famous opinion. In response to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said, “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action then that option is on the table.” In other words, a preemptive war is again a possibility.

Retired Army Major Mike Lyons, a senior fellow for the Truman National Security Project, has predicted that the attack “would not focus on just military targets—there would be civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands as well.” If the North Koreans  responded by targeting Seoul or Tokyo using their nuclear weapons, we would be compelled to retaliate with ours.

With brinkmanship on the rise, Monday's U.S. boycott of a U.N. conference on developing a nuclear weapons ban treaty is dismaying. United States UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley cited the belief that such a treaty is not “realistic,” given that North Korea will not abide by it. This argument is a spurious one. Our possession of nuclear weapons has not deterred North Korea from developing their own, and nothing in the proposed treaty would immediately eliminate the weapons we now possess. The truth is that Donald Trump has no intention of allowing limitation of our nuclear weapons. As he said, "Let it be an arms race."

The United States has both a practical and moral obligation to join the U.N. discussion of banning nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons ban would affirm the commitment of the world to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free planet. America should be leading, not opposing such a goal. It would curtail nuclear proliferation by reducing the stockpiles and spread of weapons world-wide—a situation in which people even more dangerous than Kim Jong Un can get their hands on such weapons. Believing that we and others can possess nuclear weapons and continue to not use them is a dangerous test of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”

 

Read Casey Dorman’s cold war thriller, Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Deadliest Game, available from Amazon

 

 

 

 

Monday
Mar272017

Hateful Speech Begets Violence

We all seem to be at war with one another. On college campuses, when Israeli speakers are invited to speak, they are shouted down. When conservative rabble rousers arrive on campus they and their supporters are met with threats of physical assault. When those who oppose speakers or marchers use tactics such as assault, window breaking or setting cars on fire, they are applauded by so-called defenders of free speech. The question of whether it is OK to punch a neo-Nazi is debated as a serious issue among progressives.

Humanity has used violence and coercive force to impose the views of one group on another since the beginning of recorded civilization. Progress has often been gauged by indications of how far we have come from such practices as the tortures of the Inquisition, from genocidal wars dedicated to exterminating those who looked or believed differently. The behavior of ISIS, the tactics used by Assad in Syria, the inquisitorial methods of the Taliban have all been cited as evidence that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had in our progression from violence to civilized ways of solving disputes between peoples.

Recently, Russia and Syria were accused of war crimes for killing large numbers of civilians in their efforts to rid Aleppo of anti-government rebels. Last week, in Mosul, Iraq,  American bombs killed from 150-300 civilians in a building mistakenly thought to contain only ISIS fighters. In the week prior to that, U.S. airstrikes in Syria killed 49 civilians in a mosque and another 30 children in a school. The Guardian has observed, “America and the UK condemned Russian airstrikes that killed or injured hundreds of civilians during last autumn’s siege of Aleppo, accusing Vladimir Putin of war crimes. The question now is whether the US, backed by British air power, is committing similar atrocities against civilians in Mosul.” Such incidents, reported by the military as “collateral damage,” and “unintended consequences” are written off as the price to be paid for waging wars of good against evil. But are they not just the excuses of those who have massive military power  for using it to accomplish our strategic ends?

We have adopted a mindset in which we tell ourselves that the only reasonable, perhaps the only honorable, response to evil, is to use force to exterminate it—regardless of the damage the use of such force causes. We tell ourselves that this is a self-evident truth, But this is the mindset of the Inquisition, of the Crusades… of Jihad. How did we get to such a way of thinking about how we should deal with each other? Is there an alternative?

Gandhi recognized a continuum from hate speech (not defined only as speech directed at some groups, but rather the expression of hatred in speech) to physical violence and he refused to engage in such speech, even against his opponents. We all need to recognize this same continuum and the fact that one instance of violence leads to another. When we justify violence of any kind as a solution to problems, we not only promote greater use of violence, but we end up justifying atrocities committed in the name of good. I am accusing all of us of fostering the use of violence through our hateful talk and our demeaning conceptions of our fellow human beings. If we want a better world, it must start with our own behavior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
Mar242017

Tea Party Progressives

As I write this, the fate of the Republican replacement for Obamacare is unclear. The intransigent Tea Party group, which successfully led the opposition to anything Obama proposed, has held out on any compromise on the healthcare proposal championed by both their party’s leaders and their president. This faction threatens to make it impossible for the Republicans to govern. Are progressives trying to do the same thing to the Democratic Party?

Right now, progressives are more than happy to push the Democratic Party to become the new “party of no” in congress. The movement to filibuster Judge Gorsuch,  a doctrinaire, but seemingly reasonable conservative, represents this attitude and projects a picture of a Democratic Party that is vindictively obstructionist. Many Democrats, who otherwise might give in on the Gorsuch appointment, are reported to be afraid to do so for fear of alienating their “base.”

The Democratic base is more progressive than the rest of the country and even more than than those who routinely vote democratic. Most, but not all of them rallied behind Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Following Sanders’ defeat to Clinton, many progressives did not switch their support to Hillary. Those same progressives argued that there was no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both being equally dangerous for the country. Since the election we have seen that the malignancy of Trump was underestimated by nearly everyone, and his policy decisions, not to mention his temperamental inability to govern, have produced a national nightmare.

To beat Trump in the next election, it is necessary either to motivate a larger segment of the liberal/progressive electorate to vote for a rival candidate, or to woo Trump followers into that rival’s camp. These strategies are not mutually exclusive, but addressing both of them is a tricky task.

Many of President Trump’s policies run counter to the interests of those who voted for him. Seniors on limited incomes will suffer from the Obamacare replacement bill the president favors. Coal country workers and struggling southerners will suffer from his cuts in funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority, both of which provide federal assistance for development across much of Eastern and Southern America. As Wall Street and large corporations line their pockets under Trump policies, and the poor middle class workers become poorer, many former Trump supporters should be ready to defect.

The problem is that progressives have no interest in winning over disaffected Trump backers. Progressives see themselves as differing from those who voted for Trump on political and social issues which allow no compromise. But is that true? The majority of Americans support gay marriage, LBGTQ rights, a woman’s right to choose, and even favor allowing non-criminal undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. Following implementation of whatever Republican healthcare bill is eventually passed, and finding themselves with unaffordable or no health insurance, they may also favor universal healthcare. Among this majority are many who supported Donald Trump for president.

Perhaps progressives can muster enough popular support among themselves and new voters to take back the House and Senate in 2018 and defeat Donald Trump in 2020. But if they can’t, they must pay attention to the message that they are conveying to those voters whom they must attract if they want to achieve these goals. Adhering to a purity of goals and a resistance to compromise, as is happening now in the Democratic reaction to the Gorsuch nomination, seems to most Americans as another case of irrational self-righteousness, just like that of the Tea Party, which denies the fact  that compromise and consensus is necessary for a democracy to function. Voters in 2018 and 2020 may decide that they want politicians who are willing to govern, not just take political stances that continue the partisan stalemate in Washington.

 

Wednesday
Mar152017

“Can (or should) Multiculturalism Survive in America?”

(edited)

Iowa Republican Representative Steve King said some outrageous things recently. His comment, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and his praise of far-right nationalist candidate Geert Wilders in The Netherlands have been met with criticism from both Republican and Democratic spokespeople, as well as most of the media. While King confined the majority of his recent comments to illegal immigration, he has said other things which reflect the view that even legal immigration hurts America. Indeed, as a recent New York Times Magazine article detailed, not only King, but Trump administration figures such as Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions have argued that legal immigration, by changing the country’s demographics, is undermining traditional American culture. In past remarks, King has shown his agreement with this viewpoint. Within the general public, and some Western politicians, such attitudes shade into those of racism and anti-Semitism, whether connected to immigration or not.

Immigration has been central to cultural changes that have taken place in both Europe and North America over the last few decades. The movement of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East to the West has reflected a variety of factors, including war, drought and famine in the Middle East and Africa, increasing need for highly educated and trained workers from Asia, greater global information sharing about jobs and opportunities via the internet, and open border policies within European Union nations. In addition, violence and poverty in Central America, Mexico, and Caribbean nations has fueled immigration to the U.S. Most Western countries have responded with some kind of reorientation of their societies to “multiculturalism,” a philosophy that welcomes diversity in race, religion, ethnicity, and cultural practices. A part of multicultural philosophy has been an emphasis or at least a recognition of the importance of ethnic “identity,” a concept that has also been extended to gender identity and sexual preference identity.

In recent years, reactions against multiculturalism have been growing, more in Europe than in the United States, but the recent deluge of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa has strained European societies to the point that anti-immigrant reactions that focus on nationalism (some of the nationalism having to do with rejecting the EU open border policy), and the need to reaffirm traditional European culture are threatening to win the day. In America, the deleterious effects of an influx of poor, ethnically different refugees and immigrants on our system’s resources have been much less than in Europe and anti-immigrant rhetoric has focused on illegal immigrants from the south of us taking jobs and public resources and legal immigrants, such as refugees posing a terror threat. But underneath these arguments, lies the same fear as that harbored by many Europeans, that our culture is changing because of the presence of too many non-White, non-Western Europeans in our midst.

Multiculturalism is a tricky concept. Its former champions in Europe, such as David Cameron and Angela Merkel, have publicly rejected multiculturalism, calling it “failed” or a “sham.” Their about-face on the idea of multiculturalism was a reaction to what was perceived as the failure of immigrant groups to “assimilate” into the national culture of the countries in which they lived. They were primarily referring to Muslim groups and their revised opinions were spoken even before the onslaught of new refugees from the Syrian war turned such words into a populist roar in many European countries. Inherent in the idea of multiculturalism is that it is the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, without pressure upon minority cultural groups to assimilate to the larger society by abandoning their traditional values or practices. It is exactly this reluctance to promote (and for many, to enforce) assimilation into the cultural practices and traditions of the larger society that has been rejected by leaders such as Cameron and Merkel. It is the idea that such assimilation is a futile goal that has become the rallying cry for the far-right nationalists.

Within the United States, the same fears that are becoming vocalized in Europe are simmering just below the surface in the American consciousness. We have, of course, the outright bigots and the politicians mentioned above, who express their racism in terms of preserving a national culture. In the U.S., the issue that is discussed is “identity,” more often than multiculturalism and the arguments in favor of what used to be called multiculturalism are now phrased as arguments for the assertion of cultural identities, merging race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference and historical experiences into one’s personal identity based upon these intersecting factors. Unfortunately, this has led from what began as a "celebration" of diversity, to devolution into defenses against perceived slights to individuals' identities. We hear fierce attacks which argue that comments on the experiences of someone who has been the victim of racism or sexism or sexual preference bias by persons who themselves do not belong to that persecuted group are not valid, or that adopting practices, attire, speech or preferences in entertainment that reflect someone else’s background but not one’s own is “cultural appropriation.” Statements such as that “we are all one country with a common history and common goals” are viewed as intolerant and racist because they deny the different histories among us, based upon our race, gender or sexual preferences and the resulting different experiences and goals those may engender. These kind of statements are usually made by those who are not racist and who welcome diversity. But such pronouncements, especially when expressed in a tone of self-righteousness, create antipathy toward ethnic, gender and sexual differences among many citizens, who are confused by distinctions being drawn, which they didn’t even know existed. Such pronouncements, in fact, contribute to attitudes that are hostile toward increasing diversity within our society.

Can a multicultural society survive? Social science literature for many years was filled with both theory and research suggesting that, by increasing the proximity and social interactions of those with different ethnic backgrounds, tolerance, as an attitude, increased. However, beginning with Robert Putnam’s landmark, “Bowling Alone,” published in 2000, the focus shifted from personal attitudes to “social capital”: the value of "social networks" within a community and the strength of these networks in promoting “‘norms of reciprocity” among community members. In other words, the tendency for community members to be attached to and trust each other enough to do things for each other and for their community group. Social capital proved to be a powerful predictor of individual well being, whether the community in which one lived was poor or rich. This focus on the social capital within a community led to studies of the effects of ethnic diversity within a community upon indicators of social capital. In 2006, Putnam himself summarized the results with this devastating conclusion:

Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.

 

Putnam’s findings regarding the deleterious effects of community diversity upon social capital have been replicated by numerous studies in Britain, Europe and America. One of the most complete, an 18-year longitudinal study of 13,000 residents of British neighborhoods by Laurence and Bentley, in 2015, designed to remedy confounding factors from cross-sectional studies, found that those who stayed in neighborhoods that increased in ethnic diversity, “are likely to become less attached to their community.” They also found that “individuals who move from more diverse to less diverse [more homogeneous] communities are likely to become more attached…” Interestingly, those who moved from homogeneous neighborhoods into more diverse neighborhoods did not become less attached to their new neighborhood. The authors hypothesized that those who moved into more diverse neighborhoods did not have biases against living side by side with people from other ethnicities. In fact, the conclusion of their study was that biases held by community members about ethnicity and about living next to those of another ethnicity were a strong determinant of how they will react to living in a diverse environment in terms of feeling attached to their community. In other words, the undermining of social cohesion as neighborhoods become more diverse may be affected by the biases against other races  already held by members of the community.

Multiculturalism does not enhance, and in fact undermines, social cohesion within the larger community, i.e., the nation, but is this a necessary result of diversity? To the extent that multiculturalism leads to homogeneous ethnic communities within the larger society, those communities themselves may be cohesive and possess social capital. However, the presence of such homogenous ethnic enclaves leads to intergroup suspicion and hostility and is accompanied by overt prejudices that exacerbate social disadvantages already present for some racial ethnic groups and enhance social advantages for others. That was the point of desegregating schools and housing. But pre-existing attitudes toward those different from oneself and the idea of living side by side with them in a diverse community can have a determining effect on whether diversity undermines social cohession. What does this mean?

In America (Europe must figure out its own answers), we can either opt for a homogeneous society by limiting immigration, by insisting upon “de-culturalizing” those who differ from the majority of Americans, and by emphasizing what we have in common, instead of how we differ, or we can try to change underlying attitudes toward those who are different from each of us and try to create an environment in which differences are seen as positive, rather then negative characteristics. The answer is somewhere in between. The harsher the lines we draw between ethnic and cultural differences, the less likely we are to form a cohesive diverse society. Accepting diversity cannot mean simply minimizing differences. Yet, accentuating differences will lead to rejection of diversity. As Putnam found, “diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility,” but overt hostility toward ethnnic or other differences does undermine the achievement of social cohesion within a diverse society. Those who favor increasing the diversity within our American society, or even those who may not favor it, but believe it is inevitable, must work toward decreasing the hostility that currently surrounds issues of race, ethnicity, religion and national origin.

In order for a diverse society to work, not only must those who preach hate and suspicion toward other races and religions stop doing so, but those who continually attack, with anger, condescension, and self-righteous zeal, members of the community who do not show deference toward their personal/cultural identity, must change their aim to one of educating others in order for their identity to be valued within the overall community. A diverse society that also values multiculturalism can only achieve social cohesion on a national scale if individual attitudes toward living within a diverse society are shaped toward viewing it as something positive. Bigotry and prejudice are anathema to such accepting attitudes. So is the assertion of identity in such a way that removes any common ground for dialogue or sharing of experience between people who differ in terms of background, history, race, ethnicity or religion. In other words, we cannot elevate our differences above what we have in common. Both exist, and multiculturalism survives only if we acknowledge and accord value to both.

 

 

Friday
Mar102017

Immigration is the Heart of American Culture

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, France’s Marine Le Pen, Holland’s Geert Wilders and other rising political leaders in the West have a common purpose: to rid their countries of the influence of recent immigration on each country’s culture. Make America Great Again or Make France French Again both mean to return these countries to a time when White, Christian dominance, and the values and culture that accompanied it, determined the tenor of Western societies. The impetus for these movements is the increase in immigration, in Europe from the war-torn Middle East and drought-ridden Africa and in America from Asian countries that produce large numbers of talented scientists and engineers and from violence or poverty-ridden Central American countries and Mexico, and to a lesser extent from the Middle East and Africa.

For Europe, the desire to return to a culturally and racially pure earlier time is ironic, if not hypocritical for countries that, less than a century ago claimed the very regions from which they are trying to disassociate themselves as their rightful national possessions. Remember the opposition to Algerian independence by many Frenchmen, particularly those in the military, in the early 1960s, who claimed that (Muslim) Algeria was part of France? At the end of World War II, when the fears of Europe were about the aims of Russia to subjugate Eastern Europe as part of its territory-hungry Soviet Union, Western European powers held possession of virtually all of Africa. On the Arabian Peninsula, partly as a result of the war and partly as a result of previous colonization, Great Britain controlled Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine while French occupied Lebanon, with independence to these Middle Eastern countries only being restored or granted in the post-war years. And of course the French continued to occupy Vietnam (French Indochina) and the British, Cyprus, at the time. The right and importance to a people of having a national identity was a privilege that was only recently and reluctantly acknowledged by Western European powers.

At least with regard to Europe, the nostalgia for a national cultural identity is inextricably entwined with the idea of the white man’s dominance and the hegemony of Christianity. It is the same sentiment that, in the past, fueled empire building and allowed anti-Semitism to lurk as a potent social attitude until it exploded into the holocaust. In America, the genesis of such yearning is less connected to an imperialist history, and more related to recurrent disagreements over immigration and the long history of subjugation of non-white Native American and African-American populations by genocidal wars and policies, by slavery and by segregation. Colonial and later American governments and social institutions treated Native Americans similarly to the way Europeans treated Africans when they took over their native territories, undereducated them, removed them from the most desirable lands and developed draconian laws affecting their freedoms, all the while promoting racist cultural ideas and practices that disadvantaged non-whites. The attitudes toward the rights, dignity and worth of African-Americans relative to White Americans under slavery and segregation became deeply ingrained in the consciousness of many, particularly Southern (but certainly not limited to them) Americans and exists to this day as modern American racism.

Non-Native American and non-slave American society has rightly been called a society of immigrants. Initially, the bulk of these immigrants were from Northern European countries, particularly Great Britain, The Netherlands and Germany, but gradually other nationalities, such as the Irish, Scandinavians, Greeks and Italians came also, each new group seen as a threat to the established culture, and occasionally, as with Italians and Jews, to the racial purity of the society that existed. When Asians arrived in large numbers, as with the Chinese, the fear of polluting the White American stock became even greater, since Chinese resembled Northern Europeans much less than Italians had, and they were less likely to be Christians. America reacted by limiting immigration on the basis of national origin, as well as by further segregating immigrant communities and fostering racist attitudes that extended to Asian as well as African and Middle Eastern races.

Over time, Asian Americans have been more completely integrated into American society, as had Southern Europeans in the past, although, those from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. often encounter greater prejudice than do others, particularly since anti-Muslim prejudice has increased and they are often (and in many cases, incorrectly) identified as Muslims or Middle Easterners. Many immigrants for centuries, and particularly over the last several decades, have also come from Mexico, Central and South American, groups we often lump in the categories of “Latinos” or “Hispanics” and they have encountered prejudice, much of it recently as a result of being (often incorrectly) identified as illegal immigrants, based upon their appearance. It is fair to say that the darker one’s skin, regardless of the country one comes from, the less easily one is accepted into American society.

Over 60% of Americans are classified as non-Hispanic White. Hispanic Americans make up 18% of the population, African-Americans 12%, Asian Americans 6%, and Native Americans 1%. These numbers are changing because of differences in birth rates between racial/ethnic groups and new immigration. The birth rates of Hispanic mothers are the highest of any group and Native American and Asians the lowest, but all birth rates are relatively low and immigration is a bigger influence on changing American demographics than birth rate. Asians are the fastest increasing group of new immigrants. By 2044 it is expected that non-Hispanic Whites will represent less than 50% of Americans, although they will still be the largest single ethnic/racial group.

Changing demographics disturb nationalists who want to keep America White and Christian and preserve what they see as “traditional” American culture. Racially and ethnically it is very clear that the demographics of America are changing and that, for someone who is in the 50-60 age range, for instance, the America they were born into was very different from the one in which their grandchildren will live as adults, in terms of demography. Culturally, the difference may be more or less dramatic, depending upon a number of things, race and ethnicity being only one, and perhaps not the most important.  Changing attitudes toward gender identity, gender equality, environmental preservation, class stratification, the privileges of money, the types of art and music that are appreciated, the role of religion in society, the role of government, and not least of all the use of technology, may be more important in the future than issues of race or ethnicity in terms of shaping culture and values.

America has evolved into a society in which the ethnic/racial composition, the foods, the music, the type of dress, the attitudes toward family and the elderly, the importance of religion, attitudes toward gender differences and sexual preferences are extremely varied. In some ways this represents changes that have been taking place worldwide or at least across the Western and the developed world. It also represents the outcome of building a nation based upon immigration as the primary way of increasing both the number and variety of our citizens. Turkey at Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American tradition, but nearly all other celebrations and the foods and observances that go along with them were adopted from other countries. It is the relentless, though fitful, push toward acceptance of variety, an inevitable result of welcoming immigrants onto our shores that is the real tradition of America. The variety that comes from living shoulder to shoulder with people who come from ancestors who didn't look like one’s own, who follow a religion different from one’s own, who eat different foods and speak to their grandparents in a different language, is what America is about; it is what Americans can embrace as representing the uniqueness of America. It is the very culture we should be trying to preserve when we want to “keep America great.”

Anderson Cooper recently interviewed Marine Le Pen, the French presidential candidate on “60 Minutes”. During the interview, she stated that not only the “Burkini” should be banned from being allowed to be worn in public, because it “is not French,” but also religiously based headscarves and even Jewish Yarmulkes. This is part of her solution for keeping France “French” and preserving French culture. Can we imagine such clothing restrictions, particularly if they are based upon religion, being instituted in America? The reason we can’t is because it is the protection of individual freedom of expression and of religious expression, even, or particularly, when that expression differs from the majority, that is at the heart of our American culture. Allowing differences is what America is about. And in America, many of our differences have traditionally stemmed from our different national, ethnic, or religious backgrounds as immigrants.

We live in a country where tacos are becoming as popular as hotdogs, where rice is supplanting potatoes as our most popular starch, where it is usual for a restaurant to list a Vietnamese “banh mi” on their sandwich menu, where a women’s clothing catalogue that showed only white fashion models would seem an oddity, where an increasing number of our children are learning more than one language early in school, so they can prosper in a multilingual world. America  and Americans are better fit to live in a modern world because they have encountered variety in every aspect of their life as they have grown up. That’s the advantage of living in a “nation of immigrants.”

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions have it wrong when they believe that immigration is a threat to American culture. Immigration is, in fact, the heart of American culture. It is what American culture has always been about.

Wednesday
Mar082017

Trump's Tweets and Our Nonsensical Media

The American media, mainstream and otherwise, is filled with a lot of deliberate nonsense. The flap about Donald Trump’s tweetstorm, in which he accused former President Barack Obama of ordering wiretapping of his phones, is a prime example. On March 4, Trump tweeted,  “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” then,  “I'd bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” followed by, "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

 

The text of President Trump’s tweets indicates that he directly accused former President Obama of tapping his telephones. The phrase “Obama had my wires tapped” clearly means that the former president was instrumental (whatever actual chain of communication is followed in the White House to put such things in motion) in requesting the alleged wiretaps, to which President Trump is referring. Now matter how many times Trump apologists say that “of course he didn’t mean that Obama ordered the wiretaps” or “he just means that reports of these things deserve investigation,” or some such comments, the truth is that President Trump has made a direct accusation against former President Obama with regard to wiretapping his telephone.

 

Not only have Trump defenders, such as Sean Spicer, attempted to downplay the direct accusations in the president’s tweets, e.g. Spicer’s statement that, “I think that there’s no question that something happened. The question is, is it surveillance, is it a wiretap or whatever. But there’s been enough reporting that strongly suggests that something occurred,” or Kellyanne Conway’s statement, that there was “politically motivated activity all during the campaign,” but others, such as Sean Hannity and Newt Gringrich have offered “proof” by citing the fact that telephone conversations between the Russian Ambassador and Trump’s prospective National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn contained wiretapped information from Flynn. Their argument is that Flynn’s phone must have been tapped, or at the least, the FBI or whoever tapped the Russian Ambassador either obtained a FISA warrant to examine and transcribe Flynn’s end of the conversation or did so illegally. Hannity and Gingrich have a point with regard to the last issue. FISA warrants covering foreign suspects do not allow transcription of American citizens’ end of the conversation (although how one would listen to only one end of the conversation seems puzzling). But their argument misses the whole point with regard to Trump’s tweets. First of all, recording of a conversation on a tapped Russian Ambassador’s telephone would not require also tapping Flynn’s telephone and second, the whole issue of how the FBI obtained Flynn’s conversation has nothing to do with Trump’s assertion that Obama instructed someone to tap his telephone. The Flynn issue is a distractor, not so-called “proof” that Trump’s accusations are true.

 

The liberal media has not been faultless in this controversy. Stating that Trump’s twitter assertions are “unsubstantiated” may be correct, given that no direct evidence has been produced supporting their truth, thus far. However, claiming that the accusations in the tweets are “false” is just as unsubstantiated, since no evidence has been presented that no FISA warrants were issued or that no wiretapping occurred. The day after the tweets were made, CNN headlines screamed “Trump’s Baseless Wiretap Claim.” The article described the tweets as “unsubstantiated claims bellowed off the cuff.” While CNN and the New York Times have been eager to link President Trump’s source for his allegations to a Breitbart article of the day before, reporting on conservative talk show host Mark Levin’s on-air rant about efforts of the former Obama administration to undermine the Trump presidency, including using electronic surveillance and have been quick to assert that the new president appears to be getting his information from online alt-right sources, they have mostly failed to mention the New York Times article of January 20, which is at the heart of much of the conservative defense of Trump’s allegations. That article, headlined, “Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides” detailed federal law enforcement actions that involved “intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump,” according to “former senior American officials.” The same article went on to say, “One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.” Although the same article included the statement, “It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Mr. Trump’s campaign, or Mr. Trump himself,” it at least gave substance to the suggestion that President’s Trump’s associates, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, might be both under investigation and the subject of federal wiretaps. This is important information that should not be omitted from media stories that deal with where President Trump might have gotten his information and this information contradicts the assertion that the accusations in his tweets came out of nowhere. On the other hand, just as with the issue regarding General Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador, the Times story provides no evidence that Obama directed wiretaps of Trump’s telephone, which is what the tweets actually said.

 

Presumably there is a record of FISA court warrants or requests for warrants and of actual wiretaps carried out by federal law enforcement. While such records may be classified, they are available to the president, who can declassify them or simply look at them in their classified state. In other words, there is an answer to the question of whether what President Donald Trump asserted on Saturday morning, March 4, is true. Given the tendency for the media to spin the news either toward the left or toward the right, I am pessimistic about media reports ever providing a straight answer about the truth of Trump’s accusations, despite the truth being a fairly simple thing in this case. I suspect that we will be told from the left that the fact is that no federally ordered surveillance of Donald Trump’s telephone was ordered by former president Obama and none took place. That report will be countered by the claim from the right that surveillance of Trump’s associates, some of them having been part of his campaign, did take place and was reported to the Obama White House. Both sides will claim that their information proves that they are right: from the left—that Trump’s tweets were false, and from the right—that Trump’s tweets were correct.

 

It will be important for all of us, as consumers of information, to see through the spin and arrive at a conclusion for ourselves, although at the rate that news is developing these days, by the time the information is available, most of us may no longer care.