Another post-racial America moment: small-town law enforcement called the President the N word; refuses to apologize. I am noodling over the idea of doing a 20th anniversary edition of my book Don’t Believe the Hype, on race/politics/culture/media. I am not depressed about race relations today; rather, I think we have another chance to turn the lens on ourselves and examine our incredible capacity for perpetuating stereotypes. What the past 20 years have taught me, among many things, is that no legal equality alone produces societal equality. We as humans have to change. How? For one, we better get over the concept of being post-racial, posthaste.
The Act of Killing: Syria, and Our Moral Dilemma
This weekend I went to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, an author and Buddhist teacher who, among many things, encouraged Rev. Martin Luther King to take a stand against the Vietnam War. That war was vastly different from any possible U.S. engagement in Syria, but at the end of the day, all warfare comes down to killing – killing as an act of aggression, and killing as an act of indirect mercy, when perpetrators of a greater violence are eliminated. Even many Buddhist teachings, which generally forbid killing, acknowledge that a moral circumstance may arise where it is necessary.
The questions about Syria that have bedeviled the President and Congress have tended to blend questions of morality (when is killing justified?) with those of national interest (when will intervention help America?). Let’s parse out a few of these different lines, and who espouses them. The first two are pro-intervention; the second two, against.
One – This is the new Rwanda. We can’t sit out a genocide.
President Obama appointed Samantha Power US Ambassador to the United Nations. She is the author of A Problem From Hell, a landmark and Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide. It certainly jibes with the moral argument made by the President when he stated “People who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say, ‘How terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, and why aren’t we doing something about it?’ And they always look to the United States. ‘Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth? Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?’” He added “And then if the international community turns around when we’re saying it’s time to take some responsibility and says, ‘Well hold on a second. We’re not sure,’ that erodes our ability to maintain the kind of norms that we’re looking at.”
(These very graphic and disturbing videos released by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Syrian citizens — including children — convulsing, dead, and dying from what appears to be a chemical gas attack.)
Two – This is a regional cascade and Iran will be emboldened by American inaction.
AIPAC (the biggest Israeli-interest political action committee in America) has put its muscle behind pushing Syria action. As Politico put it:
They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group. “History tells us that ambiguity [in U.S. actions] invites aggression,” said the AIPAC source who asked not to be named. The source added the group will now be engaged in a “major mobilization” over the issue.
Three — We’ll just make things worse. Plus, intervening while our own government is a mess is fiddling while Rome burns.
This is an opinion shared by both some Democrats and some Republicans. Via Politico: “Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), a retired Army colonel, said he believes a “military strike will make matters worse and it could potentially Americanize the Syrian civil war.” He added, “At this time of sequester, the parties need to be working together on a pro-growth, fiscally responsible replacement for the sequester.”
Four – We can’t win.
The Washington Post ran an article titled “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.” From the piece:
Why hasn’t the United States fixed this yet?
Because it can’t. There are no viable options. Sorry. The military options are all bad. Shipping arms to rebels, even if it helps them topple Assad, would ultimately empower jihadists and worsen rebel in-fighting, probably leading to lots of chaos and possibly a second civil war (the United States made this mistake during Afghanistan’s early 1990s civil war, which helped the Taliban take power in 1996). Taking out Assad somehow would probably do the same, opening up a dangerous power vacuum. Launching airstrikes or a “no-fly zone” could suck us in, possibly for years, and probably wouldn’t make much difference on the ground. An Iraq-style ground invasion would, in the very best outcome, accelerate the killing, cost a lot of U.S. lives, wildly exacerbate anti-Americanism in a boon to jihadists and nationalist dictators alike, and would require the United States to impose order for years across a country full of people trying to kill each other. Nope.
How and when and why the United States kills is a topic of broader debate. (Note the fight over US use of drone warfare.)
But in the end, the fight over Syria intervention boils down to this: Americans are fatigued by our involvement in un-winnable wars. A majority of the nation sees intervention as a decision to wade willingly into a quagmire. And even with all of the moral arguments for intervention, those who champion going into Syria have to convince the American public that killing in the name of peace will actually achieve it.
The Gun Bone’s Connected to the Jobs Bone, and Other Surprising and Unpleasant Truths About American Politics
Today is a big day in the gun debate. Entities from the NRA to Walmart and Hollywood executives are converging on the White House to speak with Joe Biden in a series of meetings whose tonality will likely range from “don’t blame me” to “the heck with you.” After all, the NRA has added 100,000 members since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
Remember that song Dry Bones?
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone…
And so on, and so on and so on….
Well, it’s possible to come up with a litany of complaints about how guns are being debated in the United States right now. Here’s mine: we act as if gun issues are just gun issues, when in fact they are woven into the entire fabric of American life and politics.
The gun bone’s connected to the crime bone — and I don’t just mean that in the most obvious senses. Some people buy guns for self-defense, and 83,000 Americans a year do report using guns for that purpose. But according to the Department of Justice, five times as many guns a year are stolen from their owners as used for self-defense. That’s a low estimate, by the way. What do you want to bet that some of these stolen guns get used for crimes? Gun owners who say they champion self-defense may be part of the key pipeline of getting guns to criminals, especially because of lax home gun safety, which can also lead to the deaths of children who find unsecured guns in the home.
The gun bone’s connected to the death bone. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that “The mortality rate was 7 times higher in the four states with the most guns compared to the four states with the fewest guns.” In the words of contemporary rock musician Martin Luther, we are “killing ourselves safe.”
Additionally, an article by SUNY Stonybrook professor Noah Smith in The Atlantic posits: “The Single Best Anti-Gun-Death Policy? Ending the Drug War.” It reads in part:
Legal bans on drug sales lead to a vacuum in legal regulation; instead of going to court, drug suppliers settle their disputes by shooting each other…. And stuffing our overcrowded prisons full of harmless, hapless drug addicts forces us to give accelerated parole to hardened killers.
Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars.
In other words, yes, gun control is good. BUT don’t expect it to be a panacea for America’s gun violence problem. If we really want to save some of those 9,000 people, we need to end the self-destructive, failed drug policies that have turned us into a prison state and turned many of our cities into war zones.
The gun sales bone is connected to the drug trafficking bone. Because of our gun laws, the U.S. is one of the main suppliers to Mexican and Latin American drug cartels. Even conservative estimates acknowledge that thousands of guns a year confiscated by Mexican officials were originally sold in the U.S. And some gun dealers are in on the game, like a Phoenix dealer arrested for selling 650 AK-47-style assault weapons to cartels.
The drug trafficking bone’s connected to the prison bone, as outlined in the Atlantic article by Smith. In the United States, Seventeen percent of state prisoners and eighteen percent of Federal prisoners also said they committed their crimes to get money for drugs. The Bureau adds:
BJS examined homicides in the 75 most populous counties in the United States in 1988. Many of the homicides involved drugs or drug trafficking, including the following: drug manufacture, dispute over drugs, theft of drugs or drug money, a drug scam, a bad drug deal, punishment for drug theft, or illegal use of drugs. One of these circumstances was involved for 18% of defendants and 16% of victims
The prison bone’s connected to the race bone. Authors like Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow has become a must-read among students of race and criminal justice, document the ways in which unequal penalties for criminals of different races and felony disenfranchisement laws have created a system in which, Professor Alexander writes: “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”
And finally, the drugs/gun/prison bone is connected to the jobs bone. In a time when more people want to work than can get secure full-time employment, prisons function both as a holding pen for the unemployed, and as a Bizarro World replacement for the good manufacturing jobs held by high school graduates of the past. For example, manufacturing jobs decreased as a perent of the total from 28% in 1962 to 9% in 2011. Now, the prison sector is far smaller than manufacturing, but it’s been seen as an economic savior, particularly in rural areas seeking to recruit a facility (for-profit or government run), and provide jobs to local citizens. A Congressional Research Service report worth reading at length says:
The U.S. corrections system has gone through an unprecedented expansion during the last few
decades, with a more than 400% jump in the prison population and a corresponding boom in
prison construction. At the end of 2008, 2.3 million adults were in state, local, or federal custody, with another 5.1 million on probation or parole. Of that total, 9% were in federal custody. Globally, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners…..
The historic, sustained rise in incarceration has broad implications, not just for the criminal
justice system, but for the larger economy. About 770,000 people worked in the corrections sector
in 2008. The U.S. Labor Department expects the number of guards, supervisors, and other staff to
grow by 9% between 2008 and 2018, while the number of probation and parole officers is to
increase by 16%. In addition to those working directly in institutions, many more jobs are tied to
a multi-billion dollar private industry that constructs, finances, equips, and provides health care, education, food, rehabilitation and other services to prisons and jails. By comparison, in 2008 there were 880,000 workers in the entire U.S. auto manufacturing sector. Private prison
companies have bounced back from financial troubles in the late 1990s, buoyed in part by
growing federal contracts. Nearly all new U.S. prisons opened from 2000-2005 were private.
Private prisons housed 8% of U.S. inmates in 2008, including more than 16% of federal
….A number of rural areas have chosen to tie
their economies to prisons, viewing the institutions as recession-proof development engines.
Though many local officials cite benefits, broader research suggests that prisons may not generate
the nature and scale of benefits municipalities anticipate or may even slow growth in some
The issue of guns in America is not one issue, but a hydra-headed beast that affects American democracy, economics, and quality of life. We are haunted by the dry bones of our inability to view the issues as a synergistic whole, and act in concert to improve our nation and our communities.
Disadvantage Black? Race, Politics, and Gun Reform
President Barack Obama has weathered two seasons of thinly-veiled racial attacks, apparently a standard part of what it takes to be elected President if you’re black. Before he took office in January 2009, there was a run on guns, sparked in part by the head of the NRA arguing that the President wanted a total ban. (That was factually incorrect.)
After the shooting in Connecticut that left 20 schoolchildren dead, the President said:
As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
“Meaningful action” is one of those political code words. In this case, it might mean “We know we need to reform America’s gun laws but we don’t know if we have the political capital to do it.”
President Bill Clinton triangulated the gun issue by performing political jujitsu, arguing that President George H.W. Bush was soft on crime because he refused to crack down on rogue gun sales. That helped neutralize the argument that politicians who wanted to restrict gun sales were the ones soft on crime. But President Clinton also pushed his tough-on-crime credentials by strongly advocating for the death penalty.
I don’t normally argue that his race hurts the President’s ability to lead, but I wonder if in the case of gun laws — and the related issue of criminal justice reform — it complicates matters. The level of paranoia whipped up by the NRA and some other gun advocates about President Obama’s gun policies plays into what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls “Patriot Paranoia” about gun laws. That paranoia has a racial component, not just regarding blacks but also Jews. None of this conclusively proves that racial sentiment (and fear of blowback) influences the President’s ability to push for gun reform. But living in a multiracial (certainly not post-racial) society challenges us to ask questions about how race influences politics and policy.
What do you think: is it harder for the President to launch a hard conversation on guns because of his race? And if so, how do we change move ahead with this debate anyway? What do you want to see happen?
Audacious Politics: Marijuana
If the New York Times runs an Opinionator column called “Give Pot a Chance,” chances are things are changing in America… though not necessarily the way people assume. The column’s argument calls on President Obama to legalize marijuana and have, as its kicker states, some “backbone.” While that’s one take on the matter, the political math is that a white libertarian-leaning Republican President (someone like former Republican New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson ) would be more likely to legalize marijuana than a black centrist-progressive who gets called a socialist (and more furious/ludicrous claims) on a daily basis. The political math there just doesn’t add up for President who’s juggling Mideast tensions, a slow jobs recovery, and a panic-inducingly-named “fiscal cliff.”
But that’s the politics. Let’s break down the common-sense issues a bit. Marijuana has health risks both mental and physical, but studies show it’s much less addictive and kills far fewer people than alcohol or tobacco, which are both legal.
If today’s marijuana laws were a psychedelic musical, the citizens of Colorado and Washington State who voted for lawful recrational use would be singing “Legalize It,” with a sharp transition into the “No you can’t! Yes I can!” chorus from “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” Singing the negatory role would be a bunch of G-men in sharp suits: the Federal government. The legalizations, by ballot initiatives, produced some ab-fab political rhetoric. For example, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper released this statement: “The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This is a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.”
Where is marijuana law in America headed? Legalization and decriminalization of marijuana are two different things. Under the first model, legalization, marijuana would revert to being a legal and taxable good, as it was until the 1930s. The government could and certainly would regulate everything from worker safety to product labeling. (Organic, conventional… or GMO? Monsanto might want a share if the market got acceptable enough.) Depending on state regulations, you might have to buy marijuana at a state dispensary (the way New Hampshire handles liquor); or it might be behind the counter at a Duane Reade; or maybe the guys who run delis would be able to stock packets of joints with the cigarettes, and ask for IDs. The possibilities include the variety and complexity of state and local regulations around existing products including alcohol, tobacco, and the morning after pill. Medical marijuana dispensaries are a form of legalization replete with taxation. For example, in 2011, the state of Colorado got $5 million in tax revenue from dispensaries, double that of the year before.
One of the many groups opposing legalization are current pot growers, medicinal and otherwise, who would probably lose out in the long run to agribusiness, the same way small-time tobacco farmers did. At the very least, the profit margins would shrink radically. Part of the market price of marijuana today includes all of the complex maneuvers it takes to sell the vast majority of it illegally, ranging from payoff money for law enforcement to arms purchases and casualties from turf battles.
Decriminalization is a different model, one practiced in many ways in various municipalities. In Harvard Square, you can see kids (usually not the students) smoking weed in public. That’s because possession of small amounts is decriminalized — with caveats — in Massachusetts. Since 2008, state law dictates that anyone over 18 found with an ounce of marijuana or less will receive a $100 fine… if anyone even attempts to fine them, which appears not to be that common judging from the street scene in Cambridge. Now, I’m not saying Harvard students don’t smoke pot. When I was teaching there in early 2012, I heard a student brag on his cell phone: “I have four joints and two six packs of Corona.” It’s just that the students smoke in the dorms, and the buskers smoke in the Square.
The state of Massachusetts and the City of Cambridge make no money off of the sale of marijuana. It’s not taxed or regulated for safety. No one checks if it’s been sprayed with harmful pesticides, or checks your ID to see how old you are when you buy it. What decriminalization does do is get rid of a bottom tier of criminal possession arrests and prosecutions. Dealers can still be prosecuted, and of course police have to parse the line of what constitutes the legal possession amount, let alone who to stop and frisk on suspicion of dealing. But logistically it rids the court system of a bunch of low-level defendants and potentially shifts the criminal justice system’s emphasis toward violent and serious property crimes. The law is too new to have a comprehensive study on cost-savings, but an analysis by Harvard lecturer Jeffrey Miron estimates the law saves Massachusetts $30 million per year in criminal justice costs.
Central American countries which bear the costs of law enforcement and civilan casualties from drug cartels are beginning to ask why they should keep marijuana illegal if the U.S. doesn’t. That’s just one of the big questions looming ahead in this fight. Oh, and there’s that question of state’s rights — so often quoted in the context of issues like abortion and gun laws; now coming to a dispensary near you.