Listening

I haven’t come across any new, dispositive facts to change my mind about the complicated specifics in the Michael Brown tragedy. But there is one dispositive fact that is hard to miss and that keeps impressing itself upon me every time I read about Ferguson and its meaning. There is a near-universal consensus among African-American men that there is a crisis about their role in American society, and particularly about their interaction with the police. You can cavil, or criticize or feign shock or refer back to the specifics of the Ferguson case. But it’s there and it’s real and any crisis between any segment of the population with respect to law enforcement is a crisis for the entire society.

Here’s what strikes me – the range of black voices telling us that this is a moment for despair. The rhetoric has gone to eleven. TNC:

Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country’s nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, “You wear the mask.”

Here’s Colbert King, one of the sharpest columnists at the Washington Post, with long credentials in the civil rights movement:

We are in a bad place. My 20-year-old grandson, Will, the most gentle and respectful young man you would ever want to meet, posted this on his Facebook page:

“Regarding the recent events in Ferguson: I’ve always wanted to believe my country was free. But today’s grand jury decision tells me this cannot be the case. No country that refuses to hold the police, those so-called ‘defenders of the law,’ accountable for its unjust brutality — and yes, it is often very brutal — can be free. When the grand jury declined to charge Darren Wilson for his actions, what kind of a message does that send? . . . It doesn’t seem fair that police can commit brutal acts against innocent people and get away with it.”

It’s not, Will. Not today. Not in your great-grandmother’s day when that Mississippi grand jury let that white farmer get away with murder. Not ever.

John McWhorter shares my view of the murkiness of the actual incident, but is emphatic nonetheless about the broader problem:

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity.

What we’re talking about here is not prejudice exhibited by other members of civil society – the kind of prejudice you can argue should be ignored or proven wrong. It is prejudice exhibited by the representatives of the entire system – the police – and its expression is too often violence, even fatal violence. At first, I simply wondered how so many people I respect see no progress at all since the 1930s or earlier. But it is perfectly possible, it now seems clear, for there to be considerable social progress and integration even as police forces – especially in poor, urban areas – come to associate criminality with black men, and treat them as a different class of people – guilty until proven innocent, violent unless proven peaceful.

I can see why this happens, can’t you? Cops are not superhuman. High rates of violence and crime in neighborhoods with large numbers of young black men make a certain kind of prejudice almost impossible to avoid for a fallible human cop – but that makes training to counteract these impulses all the more important to enforce. A cop like Wilson, with clearly minimal finesse in these matters, come across as afraid, unprofessional, and reckless. Ditto this jumpy fool in a much clearer case:

I cannot imagine that happening to a white man. Period. The officer in that case has been fired and charged with assault. But what are the odds that would have happened without a dash-cam video?

The truth is: there are too many eerie parallels between today’s world and yesterday’s.

Although the formal structures are immeasurably better than in the darkest days of slavery and formal segregation, the informal patterns of mind created by history can stay the same. And I sense it is this unchanging attitude – and what it says about the core moral imagination of many non-blacks – that drives reasonable men to sputtering rage and frustration. We are not what we once were – but we remain deeply formed by what we once were. How hard is that nuance to understand?

Will we ever be different? I suspect so. Again from Chris Rock’s interview:

Grown people, people over 30, they’re not changing. But you’ve got kids growing up … I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy … It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

But that may be too sunny a view – and for too many right now a distant prospect. Which is why I favor body cams for cops in these neighborhoods; aggressive attempts to improve schooling in poor black neighborhoods; the end of stop-and-frisk and of the revenue-creating abuses that Radley Balko highlighted. More to the point: I don’t think this should be viewed as some kind of attack on the police. Body cams can protect them from false charges as well as provide an incentive for more civil interactions with black men; and the dragnet criminalization of black men for possessing a joint is a bizarre waste of cops’ time. Their impulses are often understandable – if a huge proportion of criminals in your neighborhood are young black men, you can slide very easily into stereotypes that fatally undermine the rule of law. But that cannot excuse a set of different standards of justice for different types of people.

That’s not a minor bug in a democratic system. It’s a fatal illness. And we need to start treating it like one.

Update from a reader, who rightly keeps our attention on the outrageous killing of a 12-year-old black kid in Cleveland:

We learn more and more horrific details every day (I just saw a story about how the officers who killed him didn’t give CPR for nearly four minutes, essentially killing him once more). While the Ferguson incident was obviously complicated and demands at least some nuance in our response, the Tamir Rice killing, it seems to me, demands communal, shared outrage and pain and anger, the kind that can perhaps genuinely contribute to a meaningful response and to change.

At the very least, it seems to me to be as extreme and grotesque and worth extended attention as any story that has received multi-post, follow-up and conversation kinds of attention on the Dish. And since the Dish is the kind of space that can genuinely push the national conversation forward, I think doing so could help with those broader effects and impacts as well. So I wanted to see if it might not be able to get more of that kind of coverage. Tamir deserves it, and I’d say we all need it.

If you haven’t seen the disturbing footage already, showing the cops giving the kid who made a dumb decision no real time to surrender before shooting him dead, it pretty much says it all:

Thoughts On Affirmative Action

Freddie has a long post, in which he expresses exasperation at my opposition to racial discrimination against Asian-American students in the Ivy League. His core point is that without affirmative action, and the punishment of Asian-Americans for their race, there would be far lower proportions of black and Latino students in college, and that therefore ending it is grotesquely irresponsible if you care about “racial economic equality” in America. Above all, I am talking in “abstractions”, while I seem oblivious to the human tragedy of black and Latino students being shut out of college.

Some of our disagreements are structural. Freddie, for example, writes:

This whole debate  depends on a flatly bogus notion of what college is, or what our country is. There is no such thing as meritocracy. There has never been anything resembling meritocracy.

In contrast, I think that the establishment of standardized testing in the post-war years – together with the GI bill – was a huge step forward for meritocracy in America. Millions of people who previously were unable to go to college had sudden access to education for the first time in American history. The SAT liberated millions from the grueling fates of their parents. The huge increase in the numbers of women in colleges and the workforce also powered more meritocracy – as more competition in a labor force will tend to do. Both of these changes were huge gains for meritocracy in America. Is this a perfect system? Of course not. It’s increasingly compromised by extreme economic inequality and all the corruptions it entails. Nepotism, racism, and sexism also play a big part, as they will in every human society, in frustrating the goal of equal opportunity. We have a flawed and imperfect meritocracy (when in history has there ever been anything else?). But the idea that there “has never been anything resembling meritocracy” in America is hyperbole.

Freddie says I operate in abstractions, rather than human beings. But I am defending real human beings who often come from poor immigrant families and who have worked hard and scored high grades and are then denied a place at college solely because of the color of their skin. That human experience is a terrible one to inflict in a meritocracy. I’m baffled why many are so comfortable with this ugly fact or feel no sympathy for the plight of those treated by Harvard today the way Jews were in the 1920s. Freddie argues that this is defensible because it is a benign and well-meaning form of racism. But racism has always been defended as benign and well-meant, hasn’t it? Shouldn’t we be a teensy bit skeptical about such claims?

But if I oppose affirmative action, what would I do to mitigate racial economic inequality? Plenty of things, actually – and none of them requiring race discrimination.

In colleges, I find California’s “10 percent of the top students in every high school” to be a sensible way to superficially overcome the issue of geographic segregation. This gives smart black and Latino students a much better chance to overcome the deep disadvantages of neighborhood, without using race as a criterion for getting into college. In my original post, I also favor getting rid of alumni legacy places at colleges – which, along with a much smaller number of athletic scholarships, could open up many places for meritorious students of color.

More deeply, I favor intensive and aggressive attempts to improve public education from pre-K on, especially in poor rural and urban districts. I’m agnostic about how we do this – charter schools, higher salaries for good teachers, more spending, period – but the years long before college are much more critical for future success than four years at the age of 18. In broader areas of racial injustice, I’ve long been an opponent of the drug war, for legalizing weed, in particular, for ending stop-and-frisk, and so on. Whatever we can do to strengthen fatherhood and family structure among the rural and urban poor will make a difference as well. Two other policies that I favor that would, I hope, increase meritocracy in America: the restoration of a serious estate tax; and universal healthcare through expansion of Medicaid and through the ACA. I think the destabilizing effects of the globalized, high-tech economy require aggressive government action to re-balance opportunity. I am not one of those who simply want to do away with affirmative action and do nothing else.

Would this erode the racial imbalances at college? Almost certainly. Would it abolish them? I don’t know. Unlike many others, I am open to the idea that the persistently resilient racial differences in IQ – across history and class (in which Asians do better than whites) – might not be entirely a function of America’s “congenital racism”. Unlike many others, my concern is not with equality of outcomes, but with equality of opportunity. And discriminating against people on the basis of their race – however benignly – is not conducive to equality of opportunity. It is, in fact, deeply corrosive of it.

(Sidebar photo: Harvard’s Widener Library, by John Phelan)

What To Make Of Ferguson?

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I was on break when the killing of Michael Brown – and the subsequent uproar – took place. And so I’m both unqualified and qualified to offer my two cents on the case. I’m unqualified because I didn’t go through the collective experience of others as this unfolded; I’m qualified because perhaps for the same reason: I can look at the case with a little more distance and a little less emotion. And the best piece I have read on this remains Radley Balko’s report from Saint Louis, where he describes in great and persuasive detail how racial dynamics and a police force financing itself from petty fines from the poor make any idea of equal justice in that area a pipe dream:

Locals say the cops and court officers often come not only from different zip codes, but from completely different cultures and lifestyles than the people whose fines and court fees fund their paychecks. “It was always apparent that police don’t usually have a lot in common with the towns where they work,” says Javad Khazaeli, whose firm Khazaeli Wyrsch represents municipal court clients pro bono. (Disclosure: Khazaeli is also a personal friend.) “But I think Ferguson really showed just how much that can be a problem.”

A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey of the 31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population found just one town where black representation on the police force was equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself. Some towns were shockingly disparate. In Velda City, for example, blacks make up 95 percent of the town, but just 20 percent of the police. In Flordell Hills, it’s 91 percent and 25 percent respectively. In Normandy, 71 and 14. In Bellefontaine Neighbors, 73 and 3. In Riverview, 70 and 0.

Residents of these towns feel as if their governments see them as little more than sources of revenue. To many residents, the cops and court officers are just outsiders who are paid to come to their towns and make their lives miserable. There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe.

Another critical piece of context:

Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

Not a great deal makes sense until you have absorbed that context – and know that Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot multiple times and killed. He became a symbol of something real – even though the exact details of the altercation between him and a cop were as yet unknown. As to the case itself, I found the prosecutor’s press conference almost laughably tone-deaf, as the man seemed to be more concerned with impugning social media than indicting an accused murderer. It was a small sign of a vast cultural and social disconnect.

But do I believe the Grand Jury was out to lunch? I don’t fully know without having attended the trial and absorbed every piece of evidence now released. But the autopsy confirms at least part of the cop’s testimony – that there was a scuffle inside the car, in which the cop’s gun was fired. And when a person attempts to grab a cop’s gun away from him, or reach into a cop car in order to physically intimidate the cop, we’re not talking about an innocent bystander. We’re talking about an assault on a police officer by someone who had recently stolen from a convenience store. This is not a 12-year-old shot dead for waving a BB gun around. He’s a person who – as the video from the convenience store reveals – can use his weight and size to intimidate and physically threaten those trying to stop him from stealing.

The proximate question, of course, is why Brown was shot multiple times after the altercation in the car.

Brown could have pulled a gun during the original altercation – but didn’t, because he didn’t have one. Couldn’t the cop have surmised that? Wilson, for his part, had several other options available to him:

I considered using my mace, however, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my left hand, which is blocking my face to go for it. I couldn’t reach around on my right to get it and if I would have gotten it out, the chances of it being effective were slim to none. His hands were in front of his face, it would have blocked the mace from hitting him in the face and if any of that got on me, I know what it does to me and I would have been out of the game. I wear contacts, if that touches any part of my eyes, then I can’t see at all.

Like I said, I don’t carry a taser, I considered my asp, but to get that out since I kind of sit on it, I usually have to lean forward and pull myself forward to the steering wheel to get it out. Again, I wasn’t willing to let go of the one defense I had against being hit.

That might explain the sudden resort to lethal force in the car – but doesn’t explain why a gun was the only weapon he chose to subdue Brown outside the car. He claims Brown charged at him with his hands up, but also reached down inside his waistband. He could have used mace at any point in ways that would not backfire as they might have in the car. And the cop cannot explain the multiple bullets he fired into Brown’s body. But he does revealingly describe him as a “demon”: “when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” And the entire episode lasted only 90 seconds.

I suspect it was overkill brought on by any number of factors racing through Wilson’s mind in those frenzied, panicked seconds. And yes, primordial racial feelings may well have been part of the mix. But I can also see why a Grand Jury would have trouble indicting him. A wanted criminal who picked a fight with a cop, struggled with his gun in the cop car, and then turned to face down a man he allegedly called a “pussy” for not shooting at him, is not easily turned into a victim of excessive police violence. The rarety of failures of Grand Jury’s to indict people for murder becomes a lot less rare when you’re talking about a cop confronting a known criminal, especially when the criminal has just tussled with a cop in his car and grabbed his gun.

Which makes this a tragedy. There was no need for Wilson to shoot Brown multiple times; but there was absolutely no justification for Brown assaulting a cop and trying to grab his gun. Once you do that, a jury will not second-guess a member of law enforcement defending himself.

Which leaves us with the endemic problems of trust in the police force that Balko examined.

Which have just gotten immeasurably worse.

Angela Merkel: The Real Conservative

GERMANY-VOTE-MEDIA

I’ve long been fascinated by Angela Merkel, and not entirely sure why. She’s been German Chancellor for nine years now, is the most powerful politician on the continent, and has approval ratings of over 70 percent. And yet she somehow eludes easy characterization and her studied affect of dullness deflects any serious scrutiny. And so she has hovered around the edges of my brain – a Thatcher who is also an un-Thatcher, a woman in power for a decade who somehow doesn’t prompt the polarization and drama of the Iron Lady.

George Packer’s long but rich profile manages to crack this puzzle a little. Merkel’s strain of tedium is mostly of the good kind. She’s so thoroughly a pragmatist that she has largely overcome the left-right ideological battle in Germany. And, partly because she was in East Germany at the time, she missed the culture war battles of the late 1960s and 1970s. And so she has risen above the fray – while never veering very much from the dead center of German politics. And yet, she is also a brilliant, revenge-seeking pole-climber of the first order (and I mean that very much as a compliment). This story is eye-opening:

Angela was physically clumsy—she later called herself “a little movement idiot.” At the age of five, she could barely walk downhill without falling. “What a normal person knows automatically I had to first figure out mentally, followed by exhausting exercise,” she has said. According to Benn, as a teen-ager Merkel was never “bitchy” or flirtatious; she was uninterested in clothes, “always colorless,” and “her haircut was impossible—it looked like a pot over her head.”

A former schoolmate once labelled her a member of the Club of the Unkissed. (The schoolmate, who became Templin’s police chief, nearly lost his job when the comment was published.) But Merkel was a brilliant, ferociously motivated student. A longtime political associate of Merkel’s traces her drive to those early years in Templin. “She decided, ‘O.K., you don’t fuck me? I will fuck you with my weapons,’ ” the political associate told me. “And those weapons were intelligence and will and power.”

She bided her time but delivered a ballsy coup de grace to her party leader Helmut Kohl. And I loved this story of how she actually won the Chancellorship after a close election which her main rival, Gerhard Shröder, assumed guaranteed his victory over the schlubby, gray woman seated next to him:

On Election Night, Merkel, Schröder, Fischer, and other party leaders gathered in a TV studio to discuss the results. Merkel, looking shell-shocked and haggard, was almost mute. Schröder, his hair colored chestnut and combed neatly back, grinned mischievously and effectively declared himself the winner. “I will continue to be Chancellor,” he said. “Do you really believe that my party would take up an offer from Merkel to talk when she says she would like to become Chancellor? I think we should leave the church in the village”—that is, quit dreaming. Many viewers thought he was drunk. As Schröder continued to boast, Merkel slowly came to life, as if amused by the Chancellor’s performance.

She seemed to realize that Schröder’s bluster had just saved her the Chancellorship. With a slight smile, she put Schröder in his place. “Plain and simple — you did not win today,” she said. Indeed, the C.D.U. had a very slim lead. “With a little time to think about it, even the Social Democrats will come to accept this as a reality. And I promise we will not turn the democratic rules upside down.”

Two months later, Merkel was sworn in as Germany’s first female Chancellor.

 

In this deft political style and in her post-ideological politics, she reminds me of Obama but with far less rhetorical skill and far more political success. Packer is too kind, I’d say, about the consequences of her austerity program for the entire euro zone, but he captures something deeper about Merkel’s significance. The country’s strength perhaps needs this undemonstrative figure wielding it; it defuses opposition and calms neighbors’ fears. But her stolidity, complacency and risk-aversion at the helm of a satisfied and prosperous country also taps a deeper German longing and an old German past:

“West Germany was a good country,” Georg Diez, a columnist and author, told me. “It was young, sexy, daring, Western—American. But maybe it was only a skin. Germany is becoming more German, less Western. Germany has discovered its national roots.”

Diez didn’t mean that this was a good thing. He meant that Germany is becoming less democratic, because what Germans fundamentally want is stability, security, economic growth—above all, to be left in peace while someone else watches their money and keeps their country out of wars. They have exactly the Chancellor they want.

She is the very model of a modern German politician, a woman whose empiricism and skepticism makes her arguably the leading conservative figure of our age. And by “conservative”, I don’t in any way mean “Republican.”

(Photo: Photos of German Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate Angela Merkel are seen on the front pages of German newspapers on September 23, 2013, a day after general elections. By Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images.)

A Declaration Of War

Georgia Senate Candidate David Perdue Campaigns With Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

Senator Rand Paul has just opened up a new vista in American foreign policy. He is attempting to re-impose constitutional norms on war-making powers – powers so rankly abused by president Obama so many times. His resolution for the declaration of war against ISIS has some classic lines from the past, reminding us how far we have drifted from what the Founders intended:

Whereas Article I, section 8, of the United States Constitution provides, ‘‘The Congress shall have the Power to . . . declare war’’;

Whereas President George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, lectured: ‘‘The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress. Therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.’’;

Whereas James Madison, father of the Constitution, elaborated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: ‘‘The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.’’;

Whereas James Madison wrote in his Letters of Helvidius: ‘‘In this case, the constitution has decided what shall not be deemed an executive authority; though it may not have clearly decided in every case what shall be so deemed. The declaring of war is expressly made a legislative function.’’

Even better, his resolution carefully delimits what the US can do in Iraq and Syria – defending US property and personnel; sunsetting the war to one year; and keeping ground forces to a few limited functions (and avoiding the fiction that there are not boots on the ground already in Iraq). The benefit of such a debate is precisely to insist that, especially in an age of a volunteer military, we need to be reminded of the moral gravity of war-making, and never rush or drift into war without lengthy, deliberate, advance consideration of unintended consequences.

As the signs accumulate that the president is eager to escalate the war in Iraq and Syria beyond anything we have yet seen, this resolution matters. It forces members of Congress to take a firm and clear stand; and it insists on a tight and reliable standard of what war is, a vital rebuke to the countless little wars being perpetrated by the unaccountable, extra-legal CIA all over the globe. It will be fascinating, in particular, to see how Hillary Clinton responds to the question, if she bothers to respond at all. We know where Paul stands on the NSA, the Libya war, and the role of the legislature in alone having the right to declare war. But we don’t know much (as usual) about Clinton’s views.

Where does she stand on these matters? And is she really prepared to run for election backing a more pro-war and pro-executive position than one of her main Republican rivals? It almost makes one look forward to the looming battle. Almost.

(Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

This Is The Way “Benghazi” Ends …

Isn’t there something quite delicious in the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – scandalous about “Benghazi” apart from what we knew already: that the outpost was poorly protected and that the State Department had been complacent about consulate security? Even Paul Mirengoff has to take his lumps:

The Committee concludes, among things, that CIA personnel on the ground in Benghazi during the attack behaved bravely and made reasonable tactical decisions that saved lives, and that the CIA received all military support that was available. It further concludes that after the attack, the administration’s initial public narrative (via Susan Rice) on the causes and motivations for the attack was not fully accurate. In addition, edits made to the Benghazi “talking points” were not fully accurate, and the process that produced the talking points was flawed. However, the Committee stops short of finding misconduct or bad faith on the part of Susan Rice or any other administration official.

Butters, who’s long been having a series of primary-enhanced conniptions about the whole thing, nonetheless evinced the classic Republican denial response: “I think the report is full of crap.” His only basis for saying that is that the report relied on the testimony of Obama administration officials – even though it also sought testimony from a bunch of Republican conspiracy theorists, even though it was packed with Republican ideologues, even though it had enormous reach and subpoena power.

At the Dish, we tried long and hard to find something in the Benghazi story that could really stand the test of moderate scrutiny … and failed.  I even jumped the gun and impugned the honesty of Ben Rhodes at one point in trying to be as skeptical of administration assurances as any journalistic outfit should be. But after a while, we decided to ignore the issue unless something striking or new came up. In retrospect, that was the right call.

When you think of the staggering amount of time and resources devoted to chasing down this rabbit-hole, you have to wonder what is really fueling the GOP. I don’t think it’s a positive agenda to tackle some of our obviously pressing problems: eleven million undocumented immigrants, climate change, Iran’s nuclear potential, Jihadism in Iraq, soaring inequality. I think it’s rabid hatred of a president who does not share their priorities and a desperation to find some kind of quick and easy way of consigning him to a treasonous asterisk. They’ve failed on both counts.

Yes, Obama Is A Phony On Torture

The Obama administration, it is now beyond dispute, is in thrall to the CIA. The president, through his chief-of-staff, Denis McDonough, has been doing all he can to render the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on torture unintelligible, if he cannot prevent its publication entirely. And he is not giving an inch in his now two-years’ war against the transparency and accountability he once said he favored. Readers know I’ve almost given up on them, and am deeply concerned that next year, a Republican-run Senate will bury the report for ever. That’s clearly John Brennan’s strategy, as it has been from the start. It’s also, clearly, Obama’s.

I once saw Obama as a way out of our torture shame. If he was never going to investigate and prosecute, as is demanded of any signatory to Geneva, I never thought he would actively prevent even some small measure of accountability. How wrong I was.

Senator Rockefeller calls it like it is after yet another meeting with John Brennan’s best friend, Denis McDonough, a Catholic for some reason dedicated to ensuring that torturers not only face no punishment or reproach, but that their crimes are protected from public accountability for ever:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who served as intelligence committee chair before Feinstein, was furious after the meeting, and accused the administration of deliberately stalling the report. “It’s being slow-walked to death. They’re doing everything they can not to release it,” Rockefeller told HuffPost. “It makes a lot of people who did really bad things look really bad, which is the only way not to repeat those mistakes in the future,” he continued. “The public has to know about it. They don’t want the public to know about it.”

As negotiations continue, Rockefeller said Democrats were thinking creatively about how to resolve the dispute. “We have ideas,” he said, adding that reading the report’s executive summary into the record on the Senate floor would probably meet with only limited success. “The question would be how much you could read before they grabbed you and hauled you off.”

In this game of brinksmanship, it’s clear that Obama is prepared to risk the burial of the entire report. The Senators therefore need to come up with a way to bypass him and the rogue agency he refuses to hold to account. If they can’t read the report into the Congressional Record, there must be another way. To leave this rogue agency with the knowledge that it can do anything, commit any crime, violate any treaty, spy on its overseers, and never even face a public accounting, let alone punishment, of its crimes, is an invitation for these lawless agents to do anything they want in the future. And under a pro-torture, pro-war, pro-secrecy future Republican administration, we can only begin to wonder what they will get away with next.

Illiberal Feminism Strikes Again

This is a truly clarifying argument:

The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if it’s a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women.

Access to abortion impacts the lives of women, trans and non-binary people every day, and the threat pro-life groups pose to our bodily autonomy is real, not rhetorical. If you don’t believe me, visit any abortion clinic and witness the sustained aggressions of pro-life pickets. In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.

The context for this is the inability of a group called Oxford Students For Life to find a place on campus for a debate on abortion between two men. They were planning an event in Christ Church’s Junior Common Room, a typical place for a small-scale discussion. The group has had similar debates including women in the past. The pro-choice side was represented. But men, it seems, are not allowed to debate abortion at all, according to a fem-left group at my alma mater. Because: men. Even pro-choice men. In a country where pro-choicers greatly outnumber pro-lifers, and where the right to an abortion is deeply rooted in law. And their contempt for even the idea of free debate is palpable:

This Tuesday Oxford Students for Life are putting on a super cute debate with two cis guys on whether people with uteruses deserve to have any choice over their own bodies. We don’t think this is okay so (assuming the event is still going ahead) we thought we should go and say hi! … We are still hoping this gets shut down by the college (Christ Church).

The college canceled the debate in part due to concerns about “physical security” of the students – the danger that the college would be mobbed by protestors, making a debate impossible – and their “mental security” as well. What on earth does “mental security” mean? This apparently:

Mental security here refers to students’ emotional well-being, avoiding unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion. With a 300 person protest expected, the event could not have been self-contained and it would have been impossible for those in the closest staircases (at a minimum) to avoid being made acutely aware of the event.

Let me put this simply enough: Once free speech is made contingent on no one’s feelings being hurt, we no longer have free speech. Once that applies even within a university – the one space in our culture where free speech should be absolute – we have left liberalism behind on the march toward progressivism. That’s why the logic of “hate crimes” is so pernicious; that’s why the language of “micro-aggressions” leads to a public sphere in which some individuals, simply because of their gender or sexual orientation, are deemed unworthy of being allowed to debate. And those of us who speak out against this are damned in the same way: our integrity as human beings impugned, our characters wantonly besmirched, our views dismissed, and our arguments made to look as if they are mere prejudices.

Any movement that seeks to win this way is not a movement I want to be a part of. And feminism is too vital a cause and too integral part of our discourse to be hijacked in this fashion.

Live-Blogging Obama’s Immigration Speech

 

Well, I should confess something up-front. I found the president’s peroration deeply moving as an immigrant myself who has experienced a little of the fear and insecurity that being in some way on the wrong side of the immigration services can incur. The paradox of living somewhere and building a life and knowing that it can all be suddenly swept away; the thought of being separated from those you love – for ever; the stresses within families and marriages that such a shadowy existence can create. We need a full-throated defense of immigration in these cramped and narrow times, and the president was more than eloquent on that tonight – and made his case with a calm assurance and intensity. I’m gladdened by it – and I can only begin to appreciate how his words will have felt to millions of others.

Did he make the case that a mass deferral of deportations was the only option for him? Not so effectively. His strongest point was simply the phrase: “pass a bill.” Saying he is doing this as a temporary measure, that it will be superseded as soon as a law reaches his desk, gives him a stronger position than some suppose. There is more than one actor in our system. The president and the Senate have done their part; the House has resolutely refused to do its – by failing even to take a vote on the matter. Why, many will ask, can’t the Congress come up with a compromise that would forestall and over-rule this maneuver? What prevents the Republicans from acting in return to forestall this?

At the same time, he did not press the Reagan and Bush precedents. And his description of the current mess as a de facto amnesty was not as effective as he might have hoped. His early backing of even more spending on the border, his initial citing of the need for the undocumented to “get right with the law” by coming out of the shadows to pay back taxes, among other responsibilities, was a way to disarm conservative critics. It almost certainly won’t. But it remains a fact that the speech – in classic Obama style – blended conservative stringency with liberal empathy in equal parts.

Objectively, this is surely the moderate middle. Obama’s position on immigration – as on healthcare – has always been that. It’s utterly in line with his predecessor and with the Reagan era when many conservatives were eager for maximal immigration. His political isolation now is a function, first and foremost, of unrelenting Republican opposition and obstructionism. From time to time, then, it is more than good to see him openly challenge the box others want to put him in, to reassert that he has long been the reasonable figure on many of these debates, and to remind us that we have a president whose substantive proposals should, in any sane polity, be the basis for a way forward, for a compromise.

They are not, of course. And this act of presidential doggedness, after so long a wait, may well inflame the divisions further. I still have doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. But I see why this president refuses to give in, to cast his future to fate, to disappoint again a constituency he has pledged to in the past, and why he is re-stating his right as president to be a prime actor rather than a passive observer in the last two years of his term. That’s who many of us voted for. And we do not believe that the election of a Republican Senate in 2014 makes his presidency moot. Au contraire.

The branches are designed to clash and to jostle over public policy. And the Congress has one thing it can do now that it has for so long refused to do. It can act. And it should. The sooner the better.

The Culture Wars And … Manners

We really are back to the 1990s when I find myself agreeing with Jonah Goldberg:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing — mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone — a little — but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

One way to defuse the issue of, say, cat-calling is to insist on decent manners, rather than to turn the question into a bloody fist-fight over patriarchy. One way to have avoided “shirtgate,” for example, would have been to parse that micro-aggression as a failure of appropriate taste in the context of a public appearance, rather than seeing it as another micro-aggression against an entire gender. Of course, this can obscure deeper issues. And I’m sure not advocating that we constrain robust feminist critiques of clueless or sexist boorishness. But a question of manners can be neutral and less emotive grounds for actually achieving what we want to achieve in creating a culture more aware of what the world feels like for many women. Demand that men be gentlemen, rather than something other than men.

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. Conor has a typically smart and nuanced take on this in its particulars. When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitterstorm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

But all this means, of course, is that we actually need a set of manners for this age more urgently than in many others. Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Update from a reader, for the record:

Jonah Goldberg sighs about society’s lack of manners and decency:

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(Sidebar photo by Flickr user Butupa. This image was cropped by the Dish.)