Category Archives: Politics

The West Wing, and politics today

Surfing the internet this morning, I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post. It’s a provocative piece, by Robert Kuttner, arguing that liberals need to become much more radical in their proposals going forward. He identifies several major economic issues that have become part of the political conversation in the Democratic party–the cost of college and student debt, income inequality, low wage jobs, and the loss of career paths; the emergence of part-time ‘gig jobs.’ Kuttner then examines the various proposals that people have been suggesting. He takes a careful look at Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on the economy, which he quite likes, and thinks represents a step forward in our understanding of the economic difficulties faced by American workers. And then he says this:

The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.

To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation.

Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.

Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

This is all as radical as, well… Dwight Eisenhower.

And none of the changes Kuttner proposals even begin to address the biggest issue of them all; the potential spectre of global climate change, and the economic changes that would be necessary effectively to cope with it.

Here’s the thing: I agree with Kuttner right down the line. I think he’s right on every particular. Unfortunately, he’s also right in suggesting that how difficult passing any of this would be. As he says, “the reforms needed to restore (Eisenhower era levels of shared prosperity) are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.” And Sanders is already being dismissed by the Beltway, by the mainstream media commentators, by Democratic strategists and pollsters, as a wild-eyed radical. Frankly, he’s seen as kind of a crazy person. And he’s actually probably quite a bit too conservative.

Lately, my wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing. It was dismissed in its time as a fantasy show for liberals. Stuck with George W. Bush in the actual White House, we got to spend an hour once a week imagining a better President. Jedediah Bartlett was a Nobel Prize winning economist, unapologetically liberal, though, of course, flawed as all humans are flawed; in his case, by MS, and also by a bit of a temper, and a kind of pompous windbaggery that drove his staffers nuts. I liked the show; I’m not blind to its flaws.

But this time through, binge-watching all those great episodes with my wife, I’ve been struck by the actual issues that the show dealt with. After all, the heart of the show were all these impassioned conversations about public policy by smart, policy and political wonks, Josh and Toby and Donna and CJ, as they walked around the halls of the West Wing. The show’s been off the air for ten years; I would expect that it would deal with a lot of issues that aren’t actually issues anymore. What’s fascinating is how many of the issues the show deals with are still with us today.

They spend a lot of time, for example, talking about the Iran problem; Bartlett’s always trying to curb Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. One whole episode was about an effort by Leo, acting as Bartlett’s emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. Climate change gets mentioned, but only a couple of times, in passing. Republicans are forever talking about tax cuts, which Bartlett has to consistently bat back. Economics in the show are sort of weird; Bartlett is never a particularly popular President, but we’re told that the economy is humming along, with five and a half (or seven, or nine, depending) million new high paying private sector jobs. Plus a balanced budget, plus low inflation? And an approval rating in the 40s? It’s like they had to have him be good at economics (he’s a Nobel laureate), but unpopular (conflict!), and sort of hoped we wouldn’t notice; Presidents with humming economies are really really popular.

Gay marriage gets mentioned a lot, but always as a kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that only the most wildly liberal politicians ever even mention. Barlett’s (quietly) in favor, but can’t say so publicly. Too preposterous a pipe-dream to ever become reality. But raising the minimum wage is not actually a big deal; Barlett negotiates a minimum wage hike with Arnie Vinick (the Republican Presidential candidate, played superbly by Alan Alda) and it passes without fuss.

Now, I’m not saying that The West Wing was a particularly prescient show, and oh, if we’d only listened! or anything like that. I think that Aaron Sorkin and (later) John Wells reflected the big political issues of their day, and the mainstream thinking on those issues. They tried to position Bartlett in perhaps surprising and provocative ways in relation to those issues, but those were the issues. And I look at Obama’s second term, ten years after Bartlett ‘left office,’ and it’s interesting. We have an Iran deal. We have normalized relations with Cuba. We don’t have a balanced budget, but the world-wide financial crisis of 2007-8 came after the show left the air. (It would have been interesting to see what Bartlett would have done about it. I assume he was a Keynesian (he was a macroeconomist; they’re all Keynesians); probably he would have rejected austerity). But John Wells was show-running for seasons 5-7, the last three seasons, and Wells was clearly less interested in economics than Sorkin was. The whole last season was about the campaign to replace Bartlett, Matt Santos v. Arnie Vinick, and it would have been nice if Santos had ever attacked Vinick’s tax cuts on substance, not because Vinick’s a Republican and we’re rooting for the Democrat to win, but because Vinick’s tax cuts are bad economics.

Whatever. Here’s my larger point: there are issues that were raised on The West Wing that have since been resolved, mostly, of course, because that show was ten years ago and the world moves forward. Liberals favor change; conservatives oppose it; that’s the difference between the two philosophies. Both are necessary. But right now, voters are angry, because they can see how our country’s current economic successes aren’t benefitting ordinary Americans. Economic inequality should be the key issue in this campaign, and it’s starting to happen on the left. (The Right’s all obsessed with nonsense issues, like border security and cutting rich guys’ taxes).

But. But. If we don’t talk about issues, even far-out, will-never-happen-in-my-lifetime issues (like marriage equality), then people won’t think about them, and they’ll never come to pass. The only way to affect change is to start talking about affecting change. That’s why Bernie Sanders is so valuable in this race. He’s not going to win, and there are issues where I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s talking about economic issues that need to be talked about. He’s willing to position himself as a radical, even though actually he’s not radical enough.

Jed Bartlett, of course, never existed. But that TV show was part of the political conversation. If what’s replaced it is another TV show (Veep, say, or House of Cards), well, those are both terrific shows, but not much interested in policy. But there remain fora where conversations about policy can happen. And we need to speak up.

The Iran deal: way better than you’ve been led to think

We got a deal with Iran. Iran wanted something; an end to the economic sanctions that were crippling trade and holding back their economy. The West wanted something too; for Iran to stop trying to build nuclear weapons. My wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing; Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear program were an issue President Bartlett dealt with repeatedly, on a show that’s been off the air for ten years. He was a fictional President; now the real one has announced a deal. And it’s terrific.

Meanwhile, the Republican party has found an issue more unifying even than Obamacare. Every single one of the 67 (est.) announced Republican candidates for President has denounced the deal. 47 Republican senators wrote an insultingly condescending letter to the Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (a guy with multiple advanced degrees in Foreign Relations from various American universities) explaining the American system of government and, oh, adding ‘we’re not going to ratify any deal you make, so don’t bother negotiating one.’ And their views were tepid compared to those of Bibi Netanyahu, who essentially staked his entire political career on his opposition to it. And who got invited to the US to explain his objections to our Congress. Massively inappropriate, to be sure, but the Right was desperate.

So this week the deal got signed. The negotiations worked. Iran agreed to conditions they had previously rejected. Of course, this is Iran, super-sneaky, terror-sponsoring, Islamic-fanatic, utterly untrustworthy Iran. So newspapers across the country, searching for that ever desirable middle-ground, are calling it ‘deeply flawed,’ in terms that make it clear that, in their view, it’s a lousy deal, but probably the best we could come up with, all things considered.

You want to know who thinks it’s a terrific deal, much better than you’ve been reading? Actual experts in nuclear proliferation.

Here’s Aaron Stein, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Royal United Services Institute. (The entire interview with Stein is here.)

It’s a very good nonproliferation deal. If you want it to focus on the problems with Iran running around in Iraq or Syria, this deal is not for you. If you are focused on the nuclear issue specifically, it’s a very good deal. It makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote. It would require a Herculean effort of subterfuge and clandestine activity.

It’s important that it puts inspections in place. Inspections are not always designed to catch you red-handed but rather to elicit a response about what it is that you are up to. The threshold for pain is so high that you don’t want to break the rules, and I think this puts that in place while also making it extremely difficult to cheat.

It’s certainly true that the deal allows all economic sanctions against Iran to be lifted. That was what Iran wanted, and it’s in our best interests too, to allow Iran to engage with other nations, including opening diplomatic relations, eventually, with the US. As Klein puts it: “the policy change we wanted was to put limits on Iran’s nuclear program in perpetuity. We got that.” It’s certainly true Iran is currently holding four American citizens, and that we would like them released. But that becomes easier, not harder, now. This negotiation was about one issue, and only one issue. But diplomatic channels now exist to resolve other differences.

Okay, so that’s one guy. What about other nuclear proliferation experts? Well, 30 of them published a letter praising the deal, calling it a “vitally important step forward.” One of the favorite opposition talking points had been that the deal did not call for international inspections; in fact, such inspections are the centerpiece of the deal. And it concluded that “the agreement reduces the likelihood of destabilizing nuclear weapons competition in the Middle East, and strengthens global efforts to prevent proliferation.”

Want some more? How about the non-partisan “The Iran Project,” a group of former analysts and diplomats who have been skeptical about previous diplomatic efforts. After reading the details of this deal, they enthusiastically endorsed it, and called upon Congress to “take no action that would impede further progress.”

You want another opinion? How about Jeffrey Lewis? Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, with a regular column in Foreign Policy? He’s been a skeptic all along; thought the process was flawed, and doubted Iran would agree to a sufficiently robust inspection regime. But he stayed up all night to read the details when it was released on the internet, and he declares himself pleasantly surprised by it: gave it an A. Can Iran be trusted? Here’s his response:

What you want is to feel like the administration has maxed out what they could have reasonably hoped to achieve. You can’t know that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will be deterred. But I don’t know that there’s any way to make him more deterred than this.

As President Obama put it in his press conference yesterday (I’m paraphrasing here), we had two choices. One was to negotiate an end to sanctions (which Iran wanted) and an end to their nuclear program (which we wanted). The second was to unilaterally invade or attack Iran. Without necessarily always saying so, the idea of invading Iran was in the subtext of most neo-conservative criticism of the administration’s efforts. The magazine National Review has been particularly rabid in their insistence on military action.

And they’re wrong. They’ve always been wrong. The United States of America can’t just invade other countries and impose our will. It doesn’t work, and it’s also fantastically immoral. Instead, the Obama administration engaged with Iran diplomatically. The deal we got is terrific. It’s not ‘deeply flawed,’ and anyone who says it is doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It’s first-rate, excellent. It’s a terrific deal. Well done, Secretary Kerry. Well done, diplomatic corps. Well done, Mr. President.

Illegal immigration

A friend of mine sent me a link to some site called The Revolution, called What if Illegals Left. It’s sort of gone viral on social media and certain conservative sites. I’m not going to link to it here; don’t have much interest in driving traffic their way. I will quote a bit of it, though.

In California, if 3.5 million illegal aliens moved back to Mexico, it would leave an extra $10.2 billion to spend on overloaded school systems, bankrupt hospitals and overrun prisons. It would leave highways cleaner, safer and less congested. Everyone could understand one another as English became the dominant language again.

In Colorado, 500,000 illegal migrants, plus their 300,000 kids and grandchilds would move back “home,” mostly to Mexico. That would save Colorado an estimated $2 billion (other experts say $7 billion) annually in taxes that pay for schooling, medical, social-services and incarceration costs. It means 12,000 gang members would vanish out of Denver alone.

Colorado would save more than $20 million in prison costs, and the terror that those 7,300 alien criminals set upon local citizens. Denver Officer Don Young and hundreds of Colorado victims would not have suffered death, accidents, rapes and other crimes by illegals.

Denver Public Schools would not suffer a 67% dropout/flunk rate because of thousands of illegal alien students speaking 41 different languages. At least 200,000 vehicles would vanish from our gridlocked cities in Colorado. Denver’s 4% unemployment rate would vanish as our working poor would gain jobs at a living wage.

I’m not going to quote any more; honestly, I feel like I need to take a shower. This entire viral post is nothing more than ridiculous nativist nonsense.  None of it’s true, and none of it contributes helpfully to the debate. May I also urge you to not to post anything disagreeing with it on social media. I’m about to do just that, and I’m already dreading the response. A friend of mine did, and 4000 replies later had to shut it down. The anti-illegal radicals are not reasonable people. They’re conspiracy theorists, basically. And you can’t argue with conspiracy theorists.

And don’t be misled by these ridiculous ‘statistics.’ It doesn’t take much fact checking to realize how phony these numbers actually are. Denver Public Schools don’t have a 67% drop-out rate, for example. It’s closer to 23 percent, for graduation within 4 years of completing eighth grade. But the actual drop-out/flunk rate drops to less than 3% if you count students who finish their degrees a year after their graduating class finishes. And Hispanic students do just fine; track about the same as Caucasian students, a few points behind, which vanishes if you project the numbers out a year.

In fact, every econometric study of the issue of immigration has concluded that Hispanic immigration, legal and illegal, has been a net positive for the US economy. Expel ‘illegals,’ for example, and say goodbye to 2 million entrepreneurs. Illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate than any other category of Americans, and illegal immigrants pay taxes, earn wages, spend money, all of which boost the US economy. Those are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

Plus, honestly, I have no idea why illegal immigration is an issue in this campaign season. Illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle. In part, this is because the economy of Mexico has been growing. In part, it’s because the US has started issuing more green cards, around a million a year. As for the ‘we need to close the border argument,’ it’s difficult to see how much more could be done. The Obama administration spends 18 billion on border control, more than it spends on any other federal law enforcement agency.

In other words, when people in bordering countries are desperate enough economically that they decide to come over to the US, they first apply to do it legally, through a green card. If they lose that lottery (and many do, of course; it’s basically a matter of luck), some risk their lives to come over illegally. Once here, they are far more likely to start a business and hire other people than any other American ethnicity. They commit fewer crimes than most people. They can’t collect ADC, food stamps, unemployment, social security, the EIC, Medicaid, or most other social services. They pay taxes, and do not consume tax dollars. And their numbers are dwindling.

And I’d do it. So would you. If I were desperate to feed my family, if I couldn’t find any gainful employment where I lived, and if a fantastically wealthy country was close by, to my north, I wouldn’t care about immigration laws. The moral thing to do isn’t to obey some persnicketty rule, it’s to feed your kids. I’d Jean ValJean it. So would you. Be honest with yourself, and you know that’s true.

So yes, I can totally see why stopping illegal immigration needs to be a major national priority, or an issue in a national election campaign. Not.

 

Why Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America

It’s July, 2015. The first primaries won’t happen for six months; the first debates begin next month. Businessman Donald Trump is either in first, second or third place among Republican candidates in the latest polls. I think this is great. I hope this trend continues. Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America.

Here’s why. The American political process is, and should be, funny. It takes forever. In the early stages, it disproportionately focuses on two small states that couldn’t be less representative of the American populace, and if four guys careening around Iowa pandering to voters is funny, 22 is even funnier. Our election cycle gives candidates ample opportunity to say and do ridiculous things. This is all to the good. The President of the United States is a very important job, and it does, absolutely, matter who wins. But in the meantime, let them entertain us! Laughter’s good for the soul. And there’s no one more entertainingly foolish than The Donald.

And the ranks of first-rate political satirists has been a bit thinned of late. Jon Stewart is retiring in three weeks. David Letterman has already retired. Jimmy Fallon seems more interested in having celebrities do impressions of other celebrities than in scathing social commentary–not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Stephen Colbert has vanished into the wilderness, taking his character with him, though I suspect that his return will dazzle.

But Trump is something special to these guys. Stewart has expressed regrets over his (he now thinks) pre-mature retirement. David Letterman actually showed up at an event with Steve Martin and Martin Short, Trump-oriented Top Ten list in hand.

Plus, best of all, Donald Trump has helped inspire the return of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. That’s right; after twenty five years, we’re getting more Bloom County; Opus the Penguin, Milo, Oliver Wendell Jones, Steve Dallas, and best of all, Bill the Cat. Who will be the Trump stand-in.

And I haven’t even mentioned the #trumpyourcat instagram phenomenon, wherein people give their cats Donald Trump hairdos.

And in a serious vein, Donald Trump’s candidacy is also revelatory with respect to the Republican electorate. I mean, he announced his candidacy (before a heavily papered house), by stating categorically, as though it was one of those things that everyone knows and just doesn’t want to say aloud, that Mexican immigrants were pretty much all of them rapists. When that led to absolutely justified howls of outrage, Trump doubled down. He does that. He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t apologize. He says ludicrous and offensive things, and then he insists that what he said was simply the unvarnished truth, and he won’t walk it back.

And then his poll numbers go up.

Now, I don’t want to fall into the ‘all conservatives are racists’ trap. For one thing, I know a lot of conservatives, and they are not, for the most part, racists. Plus ‘racist’ is a nasty thing to call someone. I will say that Trump’s recent success does indicate that a substantial part of the Republican electorate is clueless and uninformed about the realities of immigration, legal and illegal, in this country. And that maybe some inchoate, unacknowledged, more-felt-than-articulated racial or cultural prejudice may also be at play.

Also, the Trumpites seem clueless and uninformed about a whole range of important policies. Take, for example, Trump’s ‘secret plan’ for dealing with Isis. He hasn’t told anyone what that ‘secret plan’ might entail. Just that it’s going to be ‘beautiful.’ And his poll numbers keep climbing. Which suggests, again, that the problem with Isis is just a matter of will, that all we have to do is insist strongly enough that Isis go away, and they will. And that feckless clown Obama (who is probably mostly Moslem anyway, and may well be from Kenya) just doesn’t want Isis to go away badly enough. In other words, the notion that a secret-but-easily-implemented plan to get rid of Isis might actually succeed ‘beautifully’ suggests, again, an electorate stunningly clueless and ill informed. At least in this sense: a substantial number of people, asked by pollsters who they favor for the Presidency, are able to bring themselves to say ‘Trump.’

Trump seems to think that the Presidency is about making deals. He called the recent Iran deal ‘terrible,’ saying ‘we gave them billions of dollars.’ In fact, ‘giving them billions of dollars’ has nothing to do with the Iran deal, unless you consider a gradual easing of sanctions some kind of giveaway. But that’s Trump. He sees everything through the prism of a business deal. This was a bad deal, because the US didn’t get everything it wanted. Neither did Iran. It’s diplomacy. But that’s not something Trump understands.

Trump’s a celebrity; people have heard of him, which is one reason he stands out from a Republican field that otherwise includes the likes of John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. (People have heard of Jeb Bush, but I don’t sense much excitement there; he’s just ‘the next Bush.’) He’s spectacular ill-informed, but so are most voters on most issues; nothing new there.

But he’s also such a splendid comic stereotype. The bombastic oaf. The comically vain womanizer. He’s a character Moliere would have had a ball with. We have our own Molieres, and they’re licking their chops.

Donald Trump is not going to become President. He polls around 10% in a crowded field, with 58% of the electorate saying they would never vote for him, ever, under any circumstance. That number’s not likely to moderate much. He can’t possibly win. Meanwhile, it’s a hot summer. We need a good laugh. I’m glad he’s running.

Starving Greece, bleeding Wisconsin

I just read on-line that Greece has agreed to terms with the European Union in exchange for another financial bailout. The alternative was something people were calling a ‘Grexit,’ which would mean the expulsion of Greece from the EU and from the Eurodollar currency. I’m not entirely convinced that a Grexit would be such a bad thing; certainly not for Greece, which, if it controlled its own currency, could devalue, as the first step in climbing out of the mess it’s in, following the example of Iceland. Instead, they agreed to more ‘reforms,’ including more austerity.

The Deseret News recently published this op-ed piece about Greece. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t link to a newspaper like the DN for an international story, but the piece was such a fine example of conservative thinking about this issue, I thought I would include it. Greece needs ‘austerity measures’ to ‘shore up its floundering economy.’ Greece has a problem with debt. So, goes the argument, what’s needed is a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes to get their fiscal books in balance. Then, and only then, can their economy grow.

Except it won’t. The EU demands are so draconian that I can’t imagine how a Grexit could possibly be worse. I’ll grant that Greece’s creditors would very much like to be paid. But sometimes you make a bad investment and lose your shirt. Default, devalue, rebuild. That’s what the two closest national models, Iceland and Argentina did. Greece has Argentinian levels of debt, in an economy about the size of Miami’s. Here’s the larger point: austerity doesn’t work. It’s never worked. Debt is bad; austerity is worse. When an economy is mired in recession, what it needs is to have more money circulating, not less. The idea that austerity spending will ‘shore up Greece’s floundering economy’ is the equivalent of saying that bleeding patients will help them get over their pneumonia.

Second case study: Wisconsin. Their governor, Scott Walker, just announced his candidacy for President of the United States, touting his economic record. My conservative friends were rapturous. He’d reduced a two billion dollar state deficit! They’re now nearly a billion dollars in surplus! What a dynamo!

In fact, Wisconsin’s economic record is not doing at all well under Walker. Job creation lags well behind the national average, and well behind his neighboring states. Their deficit was reduced due to increased tax receipts, entirely dependent on the national economic recovery. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a private/public partnership that Walker counts as one of his administration’s finest creations, has had a dismal record, and is hemorrhaging staff. Wisconsin had a 1.5% growth in private sector jobs in 2014, lagging well behind the national average. But that’s also the state’s best year since Walker became governor.

The non-partisan publication The Hill published a scathing review of Walker’s performance, especially in comparison to Minnesota’s Mark Dayton’s performance. Essentially, Dayton pursued a number of policies–an increase in the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, a tax hike for the wealthy–that had the effect of putting more money in the hands of poor people and the middle class. Walker, on the other hand, cut all spending intended for poor people, refused to increase the minimum wage, and tried to destroy public sector unions. The results couldn’t be clearer; Wisconsin continues to struggle; Minnesota is thriving.

That’s the bottom line. Austerity doesn’t work. Wealth doesn’t trickle down. The way to revive an economy is to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it–increasing demand–and not to put more money in the hands of people who will invest it. Greece is on the wrong track. So is Wisconsin. Minnesota, on the other hand, is doing just fine. Scott Walker is running for President. Let’s not let him win.

The Death Penalty

Let’s talk about death.

Amidst all the hoorah about marriage equality and saving Obamacare, SCOTUS had another major decision, the inelegantly titled Glossip v. Gross. In that case, the death penalty survived a challenge based on the unreliability of the one of the drugs, midazolam, used to execute people. There have been some horrific botched executions recently, and that problem was compounded by the fact that death penalty drugs have become increasingly difficult to obtain. The companies who make them don’t want to support death anymore. So, did executions using midazolam constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The court answered ‘no.’

The access to drugs problem remains. In fact, that’s why Nebraska, shockingly, voted to eliminate the death penalty back in May. In fact, the Nebraska legislature passed the law getting rid of the death penalty by a veto-proof margin. Had to, as their governor threatened to veto it.

Most advanced nations on earth have eliminated the death penalty. 140 countries have abolished the death penalty, The countries that still have the death penalty is essentially a list of countries you don’t want to live in: Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. And the USA.

So what do we think about the death penalty? As a civilized people, what do we think? It’s not an easy answer. Does the death penalty have a deterrent effect? That’s a hot topic in the criminology academic literature, and most peer reviewed studies have concluded that no deterrent effect exists. 88% of all criminologists believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. But that also means that 12% do believe in deterrence, and some recent studies have concluded that deterrence exists.

The well-known (and famously liberal) legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in an oft-cited 2006 study, made this compelling suggestion:

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect. But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment–potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew–do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve. The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

If, in other words, capital punishment deters killer from killing, then opposing the death penalty requires that we trade a life for a life; that we may be privileging the life of someone predisposed towards violence over the life of his future victims. If it can be proved that the threat of the death penalty is sufficient incentive for a killer to not kill, then governments that refuse to administer the death penalty may committing a very serious sin of omission.

That’s pretty abstract; let me make it more concrete. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then went to a summer camp on Utóya, an island in the Oslofjord, and murdered 69 others. Children. Breivik was, and is, an ideological extremist. He’s Islamaphobic, anti-Zionist, and ruthlessly anti-feminist. He murdered 77 people. He’s not remotely repentant. He was tried in 2012, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence possible in Norwegian law, 21 years in preventative detention, 10 of which are to include incarceration.

That might strike you as being a fairly mild sentence for a ruthless mass murderer. I wouldn’t disagree with you. It strikes me as pretty typically Norwegian. The responses, from King Harald, from Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister, from the opposition parties, was ‘this is not going to change us. This is not going to change our commitment to democratic or humanist values.’ One girl, who was at the camp while Breivik was rampaging through it and who saw her friends murdered, said, in a widely quoted statement “if one man could show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.”

So. Inspiring? Or dangerously naive? One response to Norway’s response might well be: ‘Typical weenie liberals,’ right? And let’s suppose that some other ideological extremist found Breivik’s actions as heroic, not horrific. Let’s suppose there was a copycat wannabe. Would that person be deterred by the astonishing sentence Breivik received? If there were more killings, would Norway’s continuing commitment to opposing the death penalty also mean that Norway would have blood on its hands? Does Sunstein have this right?

In fact, there haven’t been copycat killings. Not yet, at least. But let’s take Sunstein’s argument seriously for a moment. Certainly, the death penalty does deter any further crimes that the guy we just executed might have possibly committed in future. It also deters any possible good the guy might have done, so there’s that. But can we as a society take the chance that deterrence works? Wouldn’t that be irresponsible of us?

Here’s the thing: most of the arguments I’ve heard for the death penalty strike me as atavistic. Whenever there’s a mass shooting–Charleston’s the most recent big one–the reaction of a lot of people, not just in media but in everyday conversations, is ‘fry the bastard.’ Break out Old Sparky; electrocute him. Shoot him. Hang him from the highest tree. We like that. We love Hollywood revenge fantasies. We love the idea of vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. All that.

Set that aside. That’s our lizard-brain talking. We do actually know better, especially those of us who profess Christianity. And let’s also leave off all the other objections to the death penalty–racial bias, inadequate representation, the unreliability of witness testimony, DNA proof of innocence claims. Let’s leave all that out of the equation. Let’s confine ourselves to Sunstein’s argument, and let’s assume, as he does, that deterrence is a real-world possibility.

Should we execute murderers? Should we do it to save the potential lives of their potential, eventual victims?

I spent the afternoon going back and forth on this. Finally, I concluded: No. We should not. Justice remains an essential societal value. But the death penalty does not serve the cause of justice, because it leaves off the single most important element in criminal justice, the possibility of redemption. We can ask juries to determine what happened, who did what, who is responsible. We cannot, and must not ever ask juries to determine the worth or value of any human soul. I say, let’s put ourselves on the same moral plane as Norway, not Libya. Let’s say no to death.

July 1, 2015: the Presidential race

We’re a solid year, three months and change from 2016 Presidential election, and the campaign to replace President Obama is in full swing. It’s obviously way too early to make predictions. Today’s newspapers wrap tomorrow’s fish. But trends are emerging, candidates are just starting to separate themselves from the pack. And we’re probably learning more about the electorate than about the men and women vying for their votes.

Republicans first: here’s the latest polling data: CNN’s most recent has Jeb Bush as the frontrunner, at 19%. Guess who’s second. No, seriously, take a guess: I’ll wait. It’s Donald Trump, at 12%. The Donald. The guy whose campaign song is ‘We Shall Overcomb.’ The Bloviating Buffoon. Donald Trump. In second. And rising. Rapidly.

Look, the Republican race is going to be a roller-coaster, and it wouldn’t surprise me if all 57 candidates took turns at the top. But this is truly amazing news. I mean, seriously, did you see his campaign announcement speech? First of all, the size of the crowd was shockingly large. Was there really that much enthusiasm for Trump? Well, no. He paid people to show up. Then he gave this speech. Our country was falling apart, the unemployment rate is 21%, Mexicans are all rapists, so what we need is the most amazingly successful businesssman ever, me. Trump. It was truly something special.

His comments were offensive enough that NBC fired him from his reality show, The Apprentice. And that’s truly amazing. When people running for President announce their candidacies, the idea is to present themselves as positively as possible, to persuade people to vote for them. Trump’s announcement was so bizarre, it cost him the one gig that has made him a household name. Of course he’s a joke candidate, and of course he won’t win. But 12% of the Republican electorate, right now at least, support him. So, okay.

Hey, at least he is actually successful. The Republican field is littered with people who are most known for being bad at their jobs. The most unpopular governor in America, Bobby Jindal, and the second most unpopular, Chris Christie, are running. (Jindal’s campaign announcement consisted of a video he posted on-line, in which he talks to his utterly unenthused kids about his plans to run. Funny stuff). Former CEO Carly Fiorina is running; she’s mostly known for running Hewlett-Packard into the ground. The rest of the field seems to be one-term-and-out guys like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Rick Perry is running despite being under federal indictment, and Scott Walker is as hated as any governor in any state in the country, except possibly Maine’s Paul LePage, who is not running for President, thank heavens, but who is currently facing impeachment hearings.

Why is Jeb Bush leading? He’s a Bush. People have heard of him. He’s got a lot of money behind him. But he’s got tremendous baggage, which is already weighing him down. His brother was not a good President (bottom five, I’d say), and Jeb hasn’t been able to distance himself from W’s biggest folly, the invasion of Iraq. He is, at best, the meh candidate, the guy who gets the nomination because, well, we’ve heard of him, how bad could he be?

It’s the Democratic side that’s getting kind of interesting. Hillary Clinton has clearly made the bold decision to actually run for President as a Democrat. That is to say, she’s staking out policy positions to the left of the kind of centrist New Democrat stuff her husband stood for. She’s made some early gaffes, but she’s got money, an organization, and a resume. I like her; always have. I think she’s going to win, and I’ll think she’ll be a good President.

Here’s the case I can make for Hillary: she’s prepared. She’ll be effective from Day One. And that’s important. Because the issues candidates run on are rarely the issues they face in office. George W. Bush did not anticipate that the central moment of his Presidency would be when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Centers buildings. Jimmy Carter did not expect, when he ran, that his Presidency would be defined by Iranian jihadists taking over the US embassy in Iran. The Presidency is about coping with the unexpected, not effectively shepherding orderly legislative initiatives.

But all the energy in this campaign, so far at least, has come from Bernie Sanders. That’s right; a 73-year old socialist from Vermont. But his campaign events are overpacked with wildly enthusiastic followers. He’s used social media brilliantly. His political persona is fascinating; he’s not remotely ingratiating. He seems impatient, unimpressed. He stands up and speaks; no jokes, no pausing for applause lines. He wants to get on with things. And that’s appealing. He’s the Occupy candidate, the anti-corporate class warrior. Everything about him screams authenticity and integrity. The political class doesn’t take him very seriously; the Beltway thinks he’s a loon. But so far, his campaign has been brilliant.

And I think his success, and Trump’s success, are emblematic of where the electorate is right now. I think people are afraid, and I think they’re angry. I think people believe that politics is broken, and that they’re getting screwed, and they want to lash out. So if conservatively inclined, they go for a bomb-throwing business mogul, a guy who promises to fix things. And for people of the liberal persuasion, they go for this tough old truth-teller, a guy who talks about income inequality and economic policies that favor the rich and unapologetically promises to raise taxes.

I think Trump’s campaign is going to fizzle; he’s just too egotistical. And I think the Republican electorate will flirt with every dancer on their card, before finally giving up, sighing in frustration, and giving their nod to the latest Bush. But the Democratic nomination is going to be, if anything, more volatile than that. I think Hillary is in for a tough fight with Bernie, and though I think she’s still the favorite, she’ll know she was in  a scrap.

And what then? Who knows. Predicting anything this far out is a fool’s errand. But checking my crystal ball, I think the nominees are Clinton and Bush, and that Hillary will win 54-46. Now let’s see how accurately I can prophesy.

Obergefell v. Hodges: two sides of the same debate

And so, now Obergefell v. Hodges has come down. Not a shocking result, honestly, though I did think the vote would be 7-2 or 6-3, and not another razor thin 5-4 margin. I wonder if it’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts was hoping for a more conciliatory and moderate draft from Justice Kennedy, one he might be able to join, and was taken aback by how sweeping Kennedy’s decision was. But it’s done, and is unlikely to be undone. SCOTUSblog has lots of outstanding expert legal analysis on the decision; time for me to weigh in with my decidedly inexpert parsing of it. (As always, I am just a playwright with wifi; I do not claim any legal or scholarly credentials).

What strikes me, reading both Kennedy’s decision and the dissents from Roberts and from Scalia, Alito and Thomas, is the degree to which they’re writing at cross purposes. They’re not even addressing the same issues. That’s been true throughout this debate. One side insists that the central issue here is a radical redefinition of marriage, that it’s about how marriage even gets defined and who should define it, even, on the margins, calling this particular redefinition a potentially catastrophic and certainly radical social experiment. What that leads to, frankly, is federalism. Conservatives are generally fonder of federalism than liberals are, and that’s the main issue that Roberts addresses; whether unelected judges should define something as fundamental to society as marriage, or whether The People should define it, through their elected officials, state by state.

That’s a reasonable position. But if, in fact, citizens of the United States have a fundamental right to marry, then to deny that right to members of an unpopular minority is a wrong that needs to be redressed. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens receive equal protection under the law. If some citizens of the United States are denied legal equality by the states in which they happen to reside, then that becomes a matter for judicial intervention. Citizens are being harmed. Citizens are being discriminated against. And it’s not just appropriate for courts to step in; it’s necessary. That’s their function.

Put another way, does Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell bully the states? Is this a situation where courts unfairly tell states what they can and can’t do? Or is this a situation where states are bullying gay people, and the court is telling them to cut it out?

So: do citizens have a right to marry? The Constitution never mentions marriage; the word ‘marriage’ never appears in the Bill of Rights. So how can Justice Kennedy insist that there is a constitutional right to marry? Here’s Justice Roberts final paragraph:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.

So let’s talk about rights, and let’s talk about history. What is a ‘right worthy of constitutional protection?’ And what I write next may seem simple-minded and foolish. It may be presumptuous of me to say that my status as a layman, my lack of legal credentials, could also give me a different, and dare I say, needed perspective. But here goes. Rights are fundamental areas into which government cannot intrude. And rights are basically what most people believe to be rights. You believe that something is a right because, come on, of course that’s a right. Why wouldn’t it be?

It’s certainly true that the Framers never mentioned marriage. But then, their understanding of marriage was very different from ours. The primary legal requirement in 18th century America involved the posting of the banns, which took place three weeks before the wedding. (And I suspect that was mostly for well-off families). You could register a marriage with the county clerk, but this was rarely done. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage itself was a subset of property law.

More to the point, though, the Bill of Rights did not include a right to marry, because nobody thought to include one. I mean, fathers might forbid their daughters marrying some wastrel n’er-do-well (leading, at least in novels, to spectacular elopements), but the idea that a government entity would forbid some marriage or another was just nonsense. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that ever happened.

But soldiers were quartered in people’s houses without the owner’s consent. The British had done that, and it was bitterly resented. So the Third Amendment is in the Bill of Rights, though today it’s mostly just considered a charming anachronism.  And states and communities did insist that men form militias, and drill periodically with their muskets, and so we have the Second Amendment, though its meaning has morphed weirdly into a right to buy a hunting rifle at Cabela’s.

Most particularly, the Bill of Rights does not include a right to vote. That’s because the Framers wanted to limit the voting franchise. But today, we believe that all adult citizens have the right to vote. And getting those rights into the Constitution required further amendments; the Fifteenth and Nineteenth.

Not long ago, a friend of mine proposed on Facebook this: that there existed a fundamental right for all children to be reared by their biological parents. Would I support calling that a right? I’d never thought of it before; never considered it. So I thought about it. And after some somber reflection, I decided that that idea was crazy. I couldn’t have disagreed more. The simple reality is that some biological parents are terribly neglectful and abusive, enough so that they’ve forfeited their parental rights. And other people just can’t deal with kids, and give them up for adoption, and that’s terrific, that’s a great thing, adoption is a wonderful human institution giving kids in tough situations a chance. So there you are. Someone proposed that something should be considered a right. I disagreed, and I think most folks would disagree. That’s a decidedly minority position. So it’s not a right.

So, okay, what about marriage? Do citizens, consenting adults who have decided to commit their lives together, have a basic, fundamental, human right to do that, to marry?  Should we consider that right as basic and fundamental as the right to free speech, or freedom of the press, or the freedom to worship freely? The Obergefell decision lists lots of case law precedents to support the majority’s claim that marriage is a right, but let’s instead just be, you know, people. What do we think? Don’t worry about legalities; is the right to marry a fundamental human right?

Man, I can’t imagine how anyone could say that it isn’t. I mean, not everyone gets to marry, and not all marriages work. But we think divorce is a tragedy, and feel compassion for our unmarried friends, precisely because we think marriage is so important.  Think about it. Is anything more basic than our society’s commitment to marriage? Is there anything more intrinsically, fundamentally important than marriage? Is there a choice we make, ever, that’s more important?

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and there’s terrible heartbreak and sorrow and pain involved. But that fact only shows how important it is, how essential we regard it as being. For two people to say ‘I choose you, I commit my life to you, I have decided that you are the one person on earth I want to be with for the rest of my life’ goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. And in our culture, in American culture in the 21st century, the main way people make that kind of public declaration of that commitment is through the institution we call marriage. Of course, some people choose not to marry; that’s also their right. But it basically comes down to this: are gay people fully citizens of the United States? And if not, why not? That’s the question that Justice Kennedy answered so eloquently:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

This is not to say that the concerns of the other side aren’t worthy of our consideration. But I would suggest to you that marriage is a right, and that the more you think about it, the more you’ll agree that it has to be. And that’s why I say, after careful reflection, that Obergefell was rightly decided.

King v. Burwell decided. Yay.

This morning, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Carter v. Burwell, otherwise known as the Obamacare decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, and ruled against the plaintiffs in the case. Essentially, the arguments made by the Obama administration won. And great rejoicing was heard throughout the land.

Actually, that’s kind of true, the great rejoicing part. Oh, sure, there were ill-tempered rumblings in the tiny village of Scaliaville, and presumably the twin cities of Thomas and Alito were less than entirely gruntled. But the muted response from the GOP suggests the corner into which a different decision would have painted them. Ten million people are currently enrolled in the Affordable Care Act insurance policies available to them, most of whom would, in all likelihood, have lost their coverage. Republicans in Congress would have had to come up with some alternative plan, some new ideas, which they frankly don’t have. Republican Presidential candidates can go back to safely denouncing ‘Obamacare’ without facing unpleasant consequences (until they have to face the general electorate, which is coming around on the ACA).  Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief right now, because the ACA, like Keanu Reeves, has dodged another bullet. Listen carefully: you can hear John Boehner’s quiet ‘whew.’

Here’s what King v. Burwell is about, best I can understand it. (And, as always, remember, I’m not a legal expert in any sense. Not a lawyer, not a law professor, just a playwright with wifi, and an addiction to SCOTUSblog).  The way Obamacare works is that people who couldn’t have previously have afforded health insurance were able to receive a federal subsidy to help pay for it in a health care exchange. States were supposed to set up those exchanges, which are sort of on-line insurance stores. But in fact, 34 states didn’t set them up. Another provision of the ACA allows the federal government to set up a national exchange, which is, in fact, where most people got their policies. But the bill was awkwardly worded. It’s possible to read one small section of the bill as saying that the only people eligible for subsidies were those who bought their insurance in state exchanges. Here’s the relevant passage, from Section 36 B of the ACA: subsidies could go to those who purchased insurance in “an exchange established by the State.” Well, did that mean that people who bought theirs in the federal exchange were therefore not eligible for the subsidy? That was what the plaintiffs argued.

Right at the beginning, Chief Justice Roberts tells us his approach:

If the statutory language is plain, the Court must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context. So when deciding whether the language is plain, the Court must read the words in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.

I mean, obviously. I’ll grant that the statute’s language was unclear. But could Congress seriously have intended to limit so drastically the scope of the subsidies? Isn’t it obvious that someone just screwed up? The whole point of the bill is to allow people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to get insurance. Obviously, subsidies had to be available to everyone. The kind of exchange, state or federal, you bought it from is clearly unimportant and irrelevant.

What Roberts gave us, therefore, is a common sense reading of the statute. What’s the bill trying to accomplish? If the meaning of one passage is unclear, go back to basics. Assume that Congress didn’t stick five words in the middle of a big, important bill that would undermine everything else it’s meant to accomplish. Here’s his conclusion:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

Roberts did adopt a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone to point out what he called the bill’s ‘inartful drafting.’  “The Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation,” wrote Roberts, an elegant prose stylist saddened by awkward phrasing by a lesser writer. Frankly, I wish he had taken Congress more sternly to task. There’s no reason why five poorly chosen words in a too-hastily drafted law should have jeopardized the health coverage for millions of Americans.

Roberts is generally described as a ‘conservative,’ and the word seems apt. But his final two paragraphs give us a window into the kind of conservative he aspires to be.

In a democracy, the power to make the law rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—“to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). That is easier in some cases than in others. But in every case we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.

In contrast, Scalia’s temper tantrum of a dissent reveals his own brand of conservatism. His is the kind of textual literalism that allows for not the tiniest ambiguity or context.

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so. This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money.  Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

Accusing Roberts of knee-jerk partisanship, Scalia reveals his own blinkered partisanship. By refusing to look at a strangely worded passage in context–and by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of simply human error in drafting a statute–Scalia demonstrates yet again how bizarre his understanding of collegiality has become. Would he seriously have deprived millions of fellow citizens of health care coverage (and the attendant protections against medical emergencies or serious accidents) simply out of pique, or because one phrase in a 20, 000 page bill was ambiguously worded? Apparently so, sadly.

Still, the right thing happened, and for the right reasons. Whew indeed.

 

Charleston, race, and the confederate flag

Like, I’m sure, all of you, I have been heartsick over the senseless murders in Charleston. I don’t understand it. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest and most important black churches in the country. They were holding a Bible Study class, and welcomed the shooter with open arms, and held an hour-long dialogue with him, before he opened fire. I don’t understand any of that. How can you look people in the face, how can you talk to fellow human beings, how can you study with them, how can you hold a conversation with someone, and then pull out a weapon and start shooting? It’s incomprehensible.

I debated whether or not to use the killer’s name. He pretty clearly wanted to publicize his cause, and part of me doesn’t even want to allow him that tiny victory, of attaching his name to the names of the extraordinary men and women worshipping that night at Emanuel AME. At the same time, I feel like perhaps it would be just as wrong to deny this deeply troubled young man his humanity. He’s clearly ill, clearly delusional. His cause would deny the common humanity of those who he hated so pointlessly. And the families of the victims who spoke at his bond hearing expressed such an astonishing willingness to forgive, it humbles me, sets me an example I do not know I will be able to live up to.  So, let’s say it this way. On June 17th, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a librarian, Susie Jackson, a church choir singer, Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, a school administrator, Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson’s niece, Daniel Simmons, a pastor, Sharonda, Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach, and Myra Thompson, a Bible Study teacher were brutally murdered by Dylan Roof, a racist.

So what do we do now? President Obama called for national legislation restricting the purchase of firearms. He’s absolutely right about that, and I have no hope whatsoever of it actually happening. But the African-American community in South Carolina have called for a lesser, more symbolic response. They have asked to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds. Obviously, this cannot happen without Republican support; very much to his credit, Mitt Romney called for it as well.

Not many others, though. The main Republican candidates for President were all asked about it; their responses were monuments to cowardice and political expediency. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from politicians.

As Larry Willmore pointed out on his show on Monday night, the Emanuel AME Church is found on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Calhoun was the most significant exponent of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery.

I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one por­tion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

John C. Calhoun, Speech in the US Senate, 1837

 

What this means is that every piece of correspondence sent or received from the Emanuel AME Church bears the name of a defender and supporter of slavery. That every car filled with worshippers at that Church drives down a street named for the most significant racist in the political history of the United States. And many streets in Charleston are named after generals in the Confederacy, a treasonous government specifically established through force of arms, and intended to maintain undisturbed the institution of slavery.

Okay, that was harshly put. I’m a Northerner, unpersuaded of the virtues of the Southern cause. I reject the fantasy of a noble South, invaded by Yankee aggressors. I know that the civil war was a catastrophically bloody war, and that Sherman’s march to the see, though tactically brilliant, brutalized an entire region. Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were military geniuses of the first order, and their story is surely a tragic one, as none of them were really pro-slavery. Lee fought for Virginia, not for slavery. His tragedy is the political tragedy of federalism run amuck. ‘Virginia,’ that abstraction, is not worth fighting, killing and dying for.

I found this article describing the history of the Confederate flag. It’s pretty straightforward. To say that it’s a traditional symbol of Southern heritage, or Southern pride, or Southern values really isn’t true at all. It was adopted in 1948, by Strom Thurmond, as a rallying symbol for segregationists.  It started flying over courthouses as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, symbols mean different things to different people. I don’t think Lynyrd Skynyrd perform in front of a Confederate flag because the band is racist. I think they wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to what they perceived as Neil Young’s put-down of their state in his song, Alabama. They liked the rebel vibe the flag gave them. I don’t think the Dukes of Hazzard were racist idiots for putting a rebel flag on their car, nor did that TV show intentionally mean to be racist. 6 of 10 white Southerners want to keep the flag; that does not suggest that 6 out of 10 white Southerners are racists. It speaks to regional pride, not the violent suppression of people based on skin tone.

But that’s also not a good enough reason to keep it. I’ll grant you that symbols have slippery meanings. But if a symbol is deeply and personally offensive to one group of people, and is liked by other people out of some sense of fond nostalgia, then weigh those two responses and get rid of the darn thing.

South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, called for the legislature of her state to remove the flag, to debate and vote on the issue (which will require a two thirds majority to pass). But as Larry Willmore pointed out last night, why not just take it down? Why can’t Haley just order the flag removed. Then let the legislative debate be about putting it back up?

And of course, it shouldn’t just come down in South Carolina. Georgia and Mississippi should get rid of theirs too, while they’re at it. Oh, and Virginia? The Virginia flag includes the phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis.’ That’s what Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Seriously, do you really want to keep that historical association?

The flags should come down. Put the flag in museums; be done with that symbol of racism and oppression. That needs to happen. It won’t end racism and it won’t end racially motivated violence. Easy access to firearms makes it much too easy for deluded and violent people to act out their most despicable fantasies. Still, any triumph over racism is a step towards progress. Let’s take this small step, at least.