Racial Profiling Must End

There is no way to sugarcoat what happened recently in Minnesota: Jeronimo Yanez quite literally got away with murder. For reasons that I am still struggling to fully understand, Yanez was acquitted on manslaughter charges. This is despite the fact that: 1) Castile was NOT involved in a robbery, contrary to what the cops thought or said they thought when they pulled him over; 2) He warned Yanez that he had a gun but would not reach for it; 3) He was complying with instructions by trying to remove his wallet from his pocket. I do not know if the jurors who voted to acquit were motivated by racism. One white juror stated that she and other white jurors talked to the two black members of the jury and concluded that Castile had not been racially profiled leading to the shooting. But regardless of the jurors’  motivation, the verdict was asinine and unconscionable. The fact that the Twin Cities and the surrounded suburbs have not erupted in riots probably does speak to relatively liberal attitudes and lower racial tensions in Minnesota compared with the country in general. Had this shooting and acquittal happened in, say, Baltimore, St. Louis, or even Milwaukee, particularly during the Summer, it is hard to imagine that there would not have been large-scale rioting. At the same time, twelve people egregiously failed to do their duty and bring a murderer to justice, despite the unambiguous evidence in front of them. And this case has demolished the frequent claim that complying with police instructions automatically guarantees the safety of civilians. But I believe that the shooting of Philando Castile underscores the importance of having a discussion about another matter: the urgent need to ban racial profiling.

Prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, we had a string of three presidents who all said pretty much exactly the right things about racial profiling by government officials but did not spend a significant amount of political capital to pass legislation against it. I am a strong admirer of Obama, am very tepid about Clinton, and consider Bush to have been a terrible president. That does not change the fact that all of them denounced racial profiling yet failed to adequately push for the necessary reforms. A key reason for this is probably 9/11. By 2000, racial profiling had become a high profile political issue. If people thought about racial profiling, it was generally, though not always, racial profiling against African Americans and Latino Americans by cops. And there was considerable bipartisan support for trying to end it. Bush and Gore staked out relatively similar positions on the issue, and by August of 2001, Congress was holding hearings on federal anti-racial profiling legislation. Once and future NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly testified about how racial profiling was inexcusable and damaging to law enforcement and warned that if local police departments failed to adequately curb it, federal intervention might be needed.

A month later, 9/11 happened, effectively ruining the possibility of a federal ban on racial profiling for years to come. Suddenly, more people were thinking about the issue of profiling Arab Americans at airports, and some evidence suggests that a significant number of people who generally oppose racial profiling make an exception for Arab Americans.  The Bush and Obama Administrations both issued directives against racial profiling by federal officials, but these orders could be reversed by Trump and do not apply to state and local police. Thus, laws on racial profiling vary by state and city. Many states and cities, including Minnesota, have explicitly banned its use by law enforcement. Many others have not. There are a host of reasons why racial profiling should be ended. It is blatantly discriminatory and unjust under any circumstances. There is no excuse to treat someone as a possible criminal based partly or exclusively on their race. But as wrong as it is when a white person turns the other way because they see a black person, it is even worse when law enforcement officials racially profile, because it necessarily involves coercion by agents of the State. When law enforcement racially profiles, nonwhite Americans can be followed, stopped, interrogated, and searched by police when white Americans would not be. Racial profiling, which has existed since the days of slavery, is yet another example of government mistreatment of minorities. It is of specious practical benefit to investigations. Supporters of racial profiling would have encouraged law enforcement to profile Crystal Griner and David Bailey and ignore James Hodgkinson. As I explained in a blog post back in February, “In 1901, President William McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York. Secret Service Agent George Foster became preoccupied by the presence of a six-and-a half foot tall black man named James Parker. In fact, he was so preoccupied by the perceived threat from Parker that he failed to notice the white man standing in front of Parker, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz, as it turned out, fatally shot McKinley. Admittedly, Parker did get involved in the shooting—by punching Czolgosz and wrestling him to the ground.” And racial profiling poisons police-community relations, making everyone less safe.

But the murder of Castile highlights the fact that racial profiling can literally be a matter of life and death. Audio evidence from a police scanner shows that Castile was stopped because cops thought he resembled “one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide-set nose.” Essentially, Castile was a black man, possibly had a wide-set nose, and that was considered enough of a reason for him to possibly be the same person who robbed a store and a justification for pulling him over. This is an important point to unpack. If a twenty-five year old, 5’10”, burly black man with a baseball cap and a chunk of his right ear missing robs a bank, and police see someone matching that description driving down the road, most people would agree that pulling him over and questioning him would not constitute racial profiling. But a black man with a wide-set nose is a very basic description that could include any number of people, making it fairly apparent that Castile was racially profiled. Had Castile not been racially profiled, he would have never been pulled over, which means that Yanez would have never shot him. Thus, Governor Mark Dayton’s statement that Castile would still be alive had he not been black was quite true. One of the defenses of racial profiling has been that it supposedly represents only a minor inconvenience to the people profiled. (While some nonwhite Americans have unfortunately defended racial profiling, it is probably mostly white people who think being profiled based on race is normally just a minor inconvenience.) Therefore, the argument goes, innocent people of color who get profiled partly or entirely because of their race should grit their teeth and bear it for the sake of preventing crime. But as the shooting of Castile demonstrates, racial profiling can be downright deadly. Once an innocent person is identified as a potential criminal, there is an increased possibility that either the police officer or civilian will feel on edge and that tensions will escalate to a deadly conclusion. And if police are encouraged to profile black people, than it will be very unsurprising if they end up more likely to get nervous and shoot black people. Other people have made similar points in the past, but hopefully, more people understand now just how dangerous racial profiling is.

In March of this year, the End Racial Profiling Act was yet again introduced in Congress. The bill prohibits the use of racial profiling by law enforcement, which it defines as “the practice of a law enforcement agent or agency relying, to any degree, on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in selecting which individual to subject to routine or spontaneous investigatory activities or in deciding upon the scope and substance of law enforcement activity following the initial investigatory procedure, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person with a particular characteristic described in this paragraph to an identified criminal incident or scheme.” This is generally a good definition, but the legislation must make clear that when a criminal has been identified as being of a certain race, that does not give police the right to label anyone with some vague physical resemblance as a suspect. Rather, there needs to be clearly defined parameters to ensure that people who are stopped and questioned based on their appearance actually match a detailed description of the suspect or that there is other strong evidence linking that individual to the crime. Simply identifying the suspect as a black man with “wide-set nose” should not cut it. If principled conservatives and libertarians find aspects of the proposed legislation too bureaucratic, they should propose their own anti-racial profiling legislation. But the time is long past for us to take decisive steps to at least try to end racial profiling in America.

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When Loyalty is a One Way Street

When a radical left-wing gunman named James Hodgkinson opened fire at a baseball field on June 14 and wounded Steve Scalise and several other people, it was Crystal Griner and David Bailey, two Capitol police officers on Scalise’s security detail, who took down Hodgkinson. This was despite the fact that Griner and Bailey were among the people wounded. And as has been getting a lot of attention lately, Griner and Bailey are black, and Griner is gay. And as some people have pointed out–much to the anger of many conservatives–Scalise has a very anti-gay record. Like many conservative politicians, Scalise backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage until the momentum started shifting toward gay rights. After that, he began advocating that states should be allowed to decide the issue for themselves, so that states such as Louisiana could continue banning gay marriage. According to the Washington Blade, “Earning a ‘0’ on the Human Rights Campaign’s congressional scorecard, Scalise voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and hate crimes protection legislation. In the last Congress, Scalise was among the 130 co-sponsors of the First Amendment Defense Act, a federal ‘religious freedom’ bill seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

As a member of House Republican leadership, he’s responsible for the lack of votes on pro-LGBT legislation on the House floor. When Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment upholding President Obama’s 2014 executive order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination, Scalise was reportedly among House leaders who convinced seven Republicans to switch their votes to ensure the measure would fail.” He was also alleged to have spoken to a white supremacist gathering in the early 2000s, a claim he did not outright deny.  Nonetheless, Griner and Bailey did not for a moment let Scalise’s bigotry prevent them from risking their lives to save him.

Let me state unequivocally that I want Scalise, Griner, Bailey, and the other shooting victims, Matt Mika and Zack Barth, to make a full recovery as quickly as possible. And I am not trying to claim that because Scalise is homophobic and possibly racist, he somehow deserved to be shot. I am simply pointing out that Griner and Bailey showed a loyalty to Scalise that he has never shown to them. They risked their own lives to save the life of a man who has treated people like them with disdain. Of course, this is nothing new. Black people have fought on behalf of the United States in every war that the United States has been involved in, despite the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. Similarly, gay people long served in the military despite first being outright banned and later forced to stay in the closet under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not to mention being denied a slew of rights in society at large. Consider that homosexuality was illegal nationwide until the 1960s and illegal in some states until 2003. Then consider the brave service of gay and lesbian soldiers during conflicts such as World War II. Yet time after time, many people have refused to give nonwhite and LGBT law enforcement and military personnel the same respect that they give other members of law enforcement and the military. From the Continental Army using slaves to help fight the British, to African American soldiers being treated worse in the United States than German POWs, to LGBT soldiers and veterans being booed when they try to talk about discrimination, it is a tragedy as continuous as it is horrifying. Nonwhite cops and soldiers end up fighting and sometimes dying partly to protect people who treat LGBT and nonwhite Americans as second-class citizens. The same, it ought to be said, is true of female cops and soldiers. Women in law enforcement and the military are forced to endure sexism both on the job and in society at large.

Of course, every once in awhile, when it’s convenient, bigots honor people from marginalized groups who risk their lives to protect them. Griner and her wife, Tiffany Dyer, just got invited to the White House. This is despite the fact our president promised last year to consider appointing judges who could make their marriage once again illegal in some states, and Pence wants business owners to be able to refuse them service. There is no word yet on whether or not Pence attempted to persuade the couple to enter an “ex-gay ministry” or whether or not he opposes openly gay people being allowed to join law enforcement or just the military. But at the end of the day, P.R. dictates that people like Trump and Pence sometimes honor brave and individuals from groups that they normally denigrate. Perhaps Scalise will be so grateful for having his life saved that he will change positions on civil rights. Or maybe he is not self-aware enough to do that. If he is not, he is far from alone. And perhaps a white baby boomer going on a shooting spree and being stopped by two black cops will cause supporters of racial profiling to reevaluate their views. But again, I am not holding my breath.

Postscript: In my next blog post, I will be discussing racial profiling in more detail and how it relates to the Philando Castile shooting.

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Why I Can’t Handle Handel

There’s a famous saying that goes “All Politics is Local.” I am not sure that this is true, but it does come to mind with the topic of this blog post. As many of you probably know, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is in the midst of a tumultuous election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. This election is getting far more national attention than a Georgia Congressional race would typically get. Off the top of my head, the last one to get this amount of coverage might have been John Lewis vs. Julian Bond–in 1986. In a fact that may surprise some readers of this blog who envision me inveighing against examples of Southern bigotry such as the Confederate Flag from somewhere in Manhattan, I have lived in the Atlanta area all of my life and am a registered voter in the 6th District. In contrast to the overall city proper of Atlanta and the counties of Fulton and DeKalb, which are very diverse and vote heavily for Democrats, the 6th District is heavily Republican. Despite this, Trump did not do so well there. To put this in perspective, the district has been represented by Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and current senior Senator Johnny Isakson, since 1979. Before that, its Democratic Representative, Jack Flynt, had a segregationist record. From 2000 to 2012, Republican presidential candidates garnered anywhere from 61 to 70% of the vote there. So it was a striking departure when Trump came in at 48%, beating Clinton by a measly 1%. I am generally of the mindset that Democrats should give up on winning statewide elections in most former Confederate states–excluding obviously Virginia and perhaps Florida and North Carolina–for the time being. The Democratic Party was a bastion of bigotry and persecution when it did well in the South, and Democrats who run for statewide office here tend to have very watered down positions on civil rights and civil liberties issues. Congressional races, however, are an entirely different matter. Representative John Lewis of Georgia’s 5th District is appropriately called the “Conscience of Congress” for his tireless support of civil rights causes, and I would pit his record against that of any Representative from New York.

As a young man who became a public figure fairly recently, Ossoff obviously does not have the same kind of record that we can look to. Nevertheless, he has included a reference to discrimination based on sexual orientation in his official platform and stated that, “I oppose any legislation or policy that allows discrimination against LGBT Americans, and I oppose this [‘religious freedom’] executive order, which undermines the intent of Congress in order to allow more money into our political system.” He also believes that, “Same-sex couples should have the same rights as every couple in every context. There’s no excuse for discrimination in federal law or state law, and it’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Washington that we’re still having these debates.” He has promised that, “If I’m elected, I’ll be a public, outspoken, unashamed ally of the LGBT community with a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, discrimination or scape-goating — no questions asked.” And this weekend, he is speaking at an LGBT rights march in Atlanta. Which brings us to Karen Handel. Where does she stand on LGBT rights? In a recent debate with Ossoff, she talked about trying to balance religious freedom with nondiscrimination, which in practice is generally a warning sign that a politician is not very supportive of LGBT rights. But to really see how abysmal Handel is on LGBT rights issues, we need to go back to 2010.

In 2010, Georgia was in the midst of a gubernatorial election. In the Democratic Party camp, the pickings were slim. I recall sending a questionnaire to all of the Democrats running in the primary and never receiving a single reply. In fairness, I received a reply from one of these candidates’ staffers explaining that the candidate was out of town and did not have access to a computer. I guess he is still out of town. But if most of the Democrats were slim pickings, the Republicans were by and large toxic pickings. The GOP primary essentially devolved into a game of “any gays you can bash, I can bash better.” Current Governor Nathan Deal and Karen Handel were particularly vigorous at playing this game. Deal accused Handel of having a “liberal gay rights record,” including being a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, supporting gay adoption, and favoring domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. So how did Handel respond to these claims? She denied ever being a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, despite a paper trial suggesting otherwise.  She also insisted that she opposed gay adoption and domestic partner benefits for gay couples. These days, Handel is more cagey. Her team apparently ignored multiple requests for interviews with The Georgia Voice regarding her views. However, she has shown that she will  throw LGBT people under the bus at the drop of a hat. Some people will compare this to Obama publicly supporting gay marriage in 1996, claiming to oppose it in 2004 and 2008, and pivoting back to support in 2012. There are parallels, but the situations are not equivalent. Obama’s overall gay rights platform during his “lukewarm period” was still far more progressive than Handel’s. He favored gay adoption, ENDA, and repealing DOMA and DADT. Handel, on the other hand, went out of her way to present herself as anti-LGBT rights in general. And she has shown little interest in trying to atone for her behavior the way that Obama did. She does not deserve to hold any public office again.

I would like to close this blog post with a quote from Ossoff’s campaign website:

“Our Constitutional rights, our civil liberties, and our privacy are sacred.

Throughout our history, patriots, abolitionists, civil libertarians, suffragettes, and civil rights heroes have made huge sacrifices to advance liberty and justice for all. We should continue striving together toward a more perfect union.

Jon will fight for our civil liberties to ensure that every American is free to determine the course of their own life so long as they don’t harm others.

Jon will oppose cynical attempts by politicians to win elections by undermining Americans’ hard-fought, sacred voting rights.

Jon’s mother is an immigrant who became a small business owner, an American citizen, and a champion for women’s rights. America needs a strong border policy that protects American citizens and American jobs. We should welcome those strivers who, like our own forebears, seek the opportunity to work hard, play by the rules, and build better lives in America.

Jon believes it is a violation of core American principles to slander entire religious groups and that it’s unconstitutional to ban anyone from entering our country on religious grounds.

As our representative in Congress, Jon will fight tirelessly against discrimination, hate speech, or violence against Americans on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or place of birth.

Jon will stand up for due process and equal treatment under law for all of us, regardless of race or income level. Jon will honor law enforcement and stand up for Georgians who are mistreated by the criminal justice system.

Jon will oppose legislation or executive action that undermines Americans’ access to private communications and strong encryption.”

Now that is a platform that we should all be able to get behind!

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The Shooting of Harambe, One Year Later

We are now just over a year removed from the infamous shooting of Harambe, a gorilla at a Cincinnati zoo. Shortly after the shooting, I wrote this blog post articulating some of my thoughts on the shooting and a somewhat analogous shooting at a Chilean zoo. My basic opinion has not changed, but I believe that in hindsight, I was too harsh on the parents of the child who climbed into Harambe’s enclosure. Accidents happen with parenting, and all parents mess up sometimes. I should not have assumed that the parent or parents on scene were being negligent. And my proposal that whichever parent or parents was on scene should be forced to work to pay for the zoo to get a new gorilla wrongly absolved the zoo of any blame–a general flaw in my original post. Additionally, the term “replace” effectively treated both the gorilla and the lions at the Chilean zoo as commodities, which was the exact opposite of what I was attempting to convey. With that in mind, here are some retrospective thoughts on the shooting.

1. This is probably my most unpopular opinion: I maintain that if a human ends up in danger from an animal due to human folly, it is wrong to kill the animal to protect them. This absolutely does not mean the person deserves to get killed, especially in the case of a child. It just means that it is unjust to kill an animal because humans screwed up.

2. Zoos are at least ostensibly supposed to be sanctuaries for animals, so that makes Point 1 especially applicable here. You cannot go into a zoo, fail to prevent your kid from ending up in an enclosure, and then have the animal killed. Again, I am not saying the parents of the kid were being irresponsible, but the zoo is a place where animals are supposed to be safe; zoos should be primarily for animals and not people.

3. From an ethical standpoint, this is somewhat akin to the trolley debate about pushing someone onto the train tracks to stop a train crash. If the zoo officials had tried to use non-lethal methods to save the child and failed, they wouldn’t have actually been killing someone; they would have failed to prevent a death because they felt there was no ethical way to do so. But by shooting Harambe, they were directly responsible for the death of an innocent party.

4. If they had not killed Harambe, it is possible the kid would have died, but it’s also possible they could have saved both. But the way they went about it, they guaranteed Harambe’s death.

5. Both the zoo and parents deserve some blame here. Even great parents sometimes lose track of their kids, but that does not relieve them of responsibility when it does happen. And I would argue that you have to be super careful about that in a place like a zoo. On the flip side, if zoos are going to shoot animals in situations like this, they have an obligation to make sure people do not climb into the enclosure. If the child had gotten hurt, I do not believe that the parents would have had a case for a lawsuit, because the zoos do not have a responsibility to the customers to keep them or their kids out of enclosures; that responsibility is on the customers. But the zoo does have a responsibility to ensure the animals’ safety, and when you have got a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy, ensuring their safety includes keeping people from climbing in. And ultimately, it is more worthwhile for the conversation to primarily revolve around how the child could have been prevented from getting into the enclosure than it is to focus on whether or not the shooting was justified after things got to that point. Once the child was in the enclosure, there were no good options, and the zoo was in a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. And when it comes down to it, most people will opt for killing the animal in a situation like that.

6. The Harambe memes were largely racist, and I am sure that some of the people angry about the shooting were motivated by bigotry, but I do not think that was the primary reason for the outrage for 3 major reasons. Firstly, as I recall, the story seemed to go viral, people heard about it, and they formed their opinions before the race of the family was known. In fact, these tweets might be fake, but it appears some people actually assumed the kid was white at first and made tweets with that assumption. I actually kind of wish that every controversial story could be like this, where we form an opinion, then learn the race of the people involved. And it felt like some (not all, obviously) of the people accusing critics of the shooting of being racist were tacitly suggesting that critics should have changed their view once finding out the kid was black. That said, Fox News doing a story on the kid’s dad’s criminal background was probably motivated by racism; that network doesn’t exactly seem super concerned about animals. Secondly, it seemed like the people angry about the shooting were primarily left-wing hippie types who are generally anti-racist, while right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh tended to choose species solidarity and defend the shooting, criticizing people who had a problem with it. I believe that Jill Stein was the only presidential candidate to comment on it, and she was also the most radically left wing on race. Certainly, some hippies are bad on race issues, but they do tend to skew more liberal on civil rights than the social conservatives who were predominantly in favor of the shooting. Thirdly, a lot of people just really love animals, and I think it is a big oversimplification to boil that down to racism.

7. The argument that someone cannot judge the parents unless they had kids was rather weak. Whether or not the parents were being irresponsible (reports seem to vary), that argument seems faulty to me. People seem to use a similar argument to dismiss critics of police shootings, basically saying “You can’t judge this, you’re not a cop,” and I do not like it there either. I am not comparing police shootings with the shooting of Harambe but rather pointing out that the “you can’t judge” argument is a very slippery slope.

8.  I honestly do not think that we can say objectively as a point of fact that human lives are more valuable than animal lives. I certainly treat human lives as more valuable than some animals, seeing as I eat meat, but I am willing to admit to hypocrisy there. The problem I see is that I do not think we can scientifically measure species’ worth, and we are far from objective. If gorillas could talk, they would probably say their species was the most valuable, and probably almost every other animal would say that about their own species. The only other animal that would probably say humans are the most valuable would be dogs. I have seen conservatives, who as mentioned earlier, generally seemed to support the killing, bring up that the Bible says humans are made in the image of God and worth more than animals, but that kind of proves my point. I am a Christian, but if tigers had a religion, they would probably say that God looks like them.

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Donald Trump, Islam, and the Worst of Both Worlds

Eighteen months ago, I wrote this blog post discussing the issues of Islamophobia and oppression and violence committed in the name of Islam. The gist of the piece was that: 1) discrimination and bigotry against Muslims is inexcusable; 2) oppression and violence are rampant in Islamic societies; 3) The idea that only a tiny minority of extremists hold bigoted, intolerant attitudes or condone oppressive and/or violent behavior does not stand up to closer scrutiny; 4) There are plenty of good, fair-minded Muslims who wholeheartedly oppose oppression, bigotry, and violence; 5) Behavior that is sexist, homophobic, etc. should not be condoned or soft-pedaled, whether the people perpetuating it are Muslim, Christian, or of any other religion or no religion at all; 6) We should combat Islamophobia by insisting on treating all Muslims as individuals rather than by attempting to defend the Islamic religion or Islamic culture. Unfortunately, in the last eighteen months, right-wing Islamophobes have gained political power with the election of Donald Trump, and many (though not all) liberals have failed to effectively counter this problem partly because they continue to insist on defending the Islamic religion and culture and repeating the “tiny minority of extremists” oversimplification. What I recently realized, however, is that Trump effectively embodies the worst of both worlds in this regard.

What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, we have seen in the last eighteen months that Trump has continued on his path of opposing equal rights for Muslims. While he has attempted to publicly downplay and modify his more extreme proposals, such as banning all Muslim immigrants, this represents more of a stylistic shift than anything else. He has endorsed religious profiling of Muslims, racial profiling of Arab Americans, or some combination. After being inaugurated as president, he wasted little time imposing a travel ban on refugees and other immigrants from a number of primarily Islamic countries. Rudy Giuliani, perhaps angry about Trump passing him over for a Cabinet post after he spent a year embarrassing himself, spilled the beans. He explained that Trump had asked him for advice on how to legally keep out Muslim immigrants, revealing that the travel ban was an effort at “stealth banning” Islamic immigration. Trump has also made no bones about prioritizing Christian refugees over Muslim refugees, despite the fact that many Christians and many Muslims have suffered from Islamic terrorism. His platitudes about equal treatment for everyone regardless of religion ring hollow in the face of his actual policies. Such discriminatory treatment is, of course, immoral. It is also detrimental to national security. As people such as Max Boot have pointed out, Europe has experienced significantly more turmoil between Muslim immigrants and the non-Muslim majority than the U.S. has partly because many of these immigrants have not been integrated into the general population. By contrast, in the aggregate, the United States has experienced less internal turmoil because it has done a better job of integrating Muslim immigrants. Trump’s hostile behavior runs the risk of lessening this trend, however, by alienating Muslims who are “in the middle,” so to speak, on issues such as terrorism and Separation of Church and State. The Onion hit the nail on the head by labeling WhiteHouse.gov an ISIS recruitment website.

One would think that, given his bigotry toward Muslims, Trump would at least avoid excusing or soft-pedaling oppressive behavior by conservative/fundamentalist Muslims. One would, however, be wrong. There were warning signs before he became president that this would be the case. In January of 2015, Trump tweeted that, “Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted.We have enuf enemies.” (But apparently not enough misspellings!) Effectively, he argued that women were obligated to cater to the sexist attitudes and laws of an Islamic theocracy. Since being elected, however, Trump has shown that this was not an anomaly. On a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, he bowed to the Saudi Arabian king and participated in a bizarre orb-touching ceremony. He has also made no effort to cut off trade with the nation, despite its atrocious human rights record. These actions are lamentable but relatively normal among American political leaders, if somewhat jarring coming from a man who made “standing up to radical Islam” such a cornerstone of his campaign. He went a step further, however, by accepting the highest civilian award from the Saudi Arabian government. By doing so, he disrespected all of the people who have been oppressed in Saudi Arabia and everyone who has fought for better human rights there. He effectively sent the message that things are not that bad in Saudi Arabia and that the atrocities committed by the government are no big deal.

Trump’s response (or lack thereof) to the treatment of gay people in Chechnya is no better. Homosexuality is illegal in Chechnya, and it has become apparent that there is an ongoing effort by the government to wipe out the gay population. It is, to put it bluntly, a genocide. Since Chechnya is overwhelmingly Muslim, a person could be forgiven for assuming that Trump would denounce the genocide. But wait! Chechnya is a federal subject of Russia, and Trump can’t do enough to cozy up to Putin, so of course, he hasn’t even spoken out against the genocide. And the U.S. has refused to accept gay refugees who are attempting to flee Chechnya.

Effectively, Trump has blended blatant anti-Muslim bigotry with some of the worst kind of “cultural relativism” that gets used to soft-pedal repressive behavior and attitudes in Islamic societies. (Cultural relativism is certainly not always a bad thing, but it is bad when it becomes a means of excusing human rights violations and bigotry.) When good people of the Islamic faith attempt to immigrate to the U.S. and become citizens, he responds to them with hostility. But when it suits his foreign policy/business interests, he is perfectly willing to condone downright heinous actions committed by Islamic theocracies.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 7: Gun Control

Here we come to what will probably be the last post in this series. Reagan was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA, shortly after it shifted from a largely nonpartisan, pro-gun control organization to a pro-Republican, anti-gun control organization. In death, he has been invoked to defend gun rights. One meme of Reagan reads, “Survives Bullet Wound From Assassination Attempt; Continued to Protect Gun Rights for Citizens.” This statement is only true in the sense that, like most American presidents, Reagan never explicitly disputed the very basic right of citizens to own some sorts of firearms under certain conditions. In that sense, Barack Obama protected gun rights for citizens. But if “protected gun rights for citizens” means that Reagan was a firm opponent of excessive restrictions on gun ownership, then the claim is incorrect.

Many, though not all, of America’s early gun control laws were aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of black people and thus preventing slave rebellions and later on, rebellions against Jim Crow. Long after the days of slavery, race arguably played a role in stricter gun control in California. In 1965, a long history of systemic racism led to the Watts Riots. The following year, the Black Panther Party was formed. I will not attempt to sanitize the Black Panther Party. There was plenty to criticize about the organization, as well as some major commendable aspects. Nonetheless, it is true that the organization emerged in response to systemic racism, which Reagan did his part in perpetuating. According to PBS.org, “Members of the BPP would listen to police calls on a short wave radio, rush to the scene of the arrest with law books in hand and inform the person being arrested of their constitutional rights. BPP members also happened to carry loaded weapons, which were publicly displayed, but were careful to stand no closer than ten feet from the arrest so as not to interfere with the arrest.” In 1967, the California state government passed a law called the Mulford Bill “prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street.” There is no way of proving that this bill was solely a response to the Black Panther Party, and it is quite possible that there were other contributing factors. Nevertheless, there is also no disputing the fact that fear of the Black Panther Party, both from legitimately anti-racist people and from bigots, played a major role in the Mulford Bill. The press nicknamed it “the Panther Bill.” Reagan signed it. He also signed a state law imposing a mandatory 15-day waiting period for gun purchases; someone needing an emergency purchase to protect themselves from a stalker was out of luck. The waiting period in the law that Reagan signed was three times as long as the one that would later be contained in the Brady Bill. (More on that later.)

As president, Reagan hobnobbed with the NRA but walked a tightrope on gun issues. He signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was popular with many gun rights activists and weakened the Gun Control Act of 1968. But this new legislation included a ban on fully automatic rifles. After his presidency, Reagan defended stricter gun control measures on at least three occasions. The month after he left office, Reagan gave a speech in which he stated, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. ” Nonetheless, “I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” In a 1991 editorial, he wrote in support of the Brady Bill and went so far as to defend the portion of the bill mandating a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases (reduced to five before passage). Reagan asserted that, “since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide, the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths.” Additionally, he lumped mentally ill people, even those with no criminal records or pattern of violent behavior, with murderers. He asserted, “While there has been a Federal law on the books for more than 20 years that prohibits the sale of firearms to felons, fugitives, drug addicts and the mentally ill, it has no enforcement mechanism and basically works on the honor system, with the purchaser filling out a statement that the gun dealer sticks in a drawer.” No one would deny that some handguns are bought spur of the moment for murders or suicides. Yet as referenced earlier, waiting periods also penalize people in imminent danger from stalkers or other criminals in situations when police are unable or unwilling to protect them. Representative Bernie Sanders voted against the bill, creating a bizarrely humorous dichotomy: a Democratic Socialist was to the left of a conservative icon on gun control.

In 1994, Reagan joined with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in signing a letter supporting a federal assault weapons ban. Reagan’s position on assault weapons was an implicit contradiction of what he had written in a 1975 edition of the Guns and Ammo magazine to gin up support for a primary challenge to Ford. “The gun … ” Reagan had written, “insures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed. When the British forgot that they got a revolution.” Of course, Reagan was well aware that a traditional shotgun is great “for sporting, for hunting and so forth” but not so great for overthrowing a tyrannical government. Generally, armed insurrections against oppressive regimes require assault rifles to have any chance of success. Thus, to appeal to gun owners, Reagan correctly praised gun rights as a tool for a revolution if the government became tyrannical. At the same time, he supported laws to ban precisely the type of weapons needed for a revolution if the government became tyrannical.

These seven blog posts do not represent the full extent of Reagan’s support for big government. I have not discussed his belief in the right of the State to put people to death, his suggestion that “maybe we should not have humored” Native Americans by allowing them tribal sovereignty, his support for military interventionism, or various other policies and views. At the same time, I would not claim that he favored big government in all areas. On many but not all economic issues, Reagan did support reducing government. While he was generally not good on free speech issues, he did at least oppose the Fairness Doctrine. And on immigration, Reagan was at least somewhat libertarian, with his support for amnesty and his acknowledgement, after some prodding, of the cruelty of Japanese American internment. Few people and very few politicians are statist on all issues or libertarian on all issues. Nonetheless, the idea that Reagan (or conservatives in general) were or are strongly for small government in general cannot stand up under close scrutiny. That idea is an “alternative fact.”

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 6: Federal Spending

 

Thus far, we have examined Reagan’s support for big government on issues where the pro-government position is generally considered right-wing (obscenity laws, State persecution of gay people, and the War on Drugs) or is difficult to classify on the political spectrum (conscription and the drinking age.) The final two posts in this blog series, however, will look at two areas in which conservatives are generally considered to be for small government. The first of these areas is spending. The Right is typically associated with support for lower levels of federal spending and balanced budgets.

Traditionally, Republicans tended to believe that tax levels had to be commensurate with spending levels. This belief dated back to Abraham Lincoln, imposing an income tax to help finance the Civil War. Republican presidents could certainly overspend, but they rarely created budget deficits by combining high spending with low taxes. Despite arguably supporting overly high spending, Eisenhower was able to achieve a balanced budget through maintaining high taxes on the wealthy. In 1963, with both domestic and military spending very high, most House Republicans rejected John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts. Richard Nixon, while certainly spendthrift, nonetheless submitted a balanced budget to Congress. (It was rejected.) This is not to say that high spending and taxes is a form of small government by any means. It is merely to point out that pre-Reagan Republicans mostly tried to avoid massive federal debt and deficits. In the 1970s, however, some fiscal conservatives developed a theory called “Starve the Beast.” This theory was that if taxes were cut, it would force the government to reduce spending, since they would be taking in less money. Additionally, it was believed that the economic boom caused by tax cuts would make some federal spending on public assistance programs unnecessary. In his September 21, 1980 debate with third party candidate, John Anderson, Reagan took this position, with Anderson representing traditional Republicanism. A ten-term Representative from Illinois, Anderson had begun his career as a staunch conservative but had drifted to the center as time went on. His candidacy drew much of its support from Republicans who thought that the party was becoming too conservative. While Anderson stated that he would like to sign on for Reagan’s proposed tax cuts, he maintained, “what I’m going to do is to bring federal spending under control first.” Reagan dismissed this idea thusly: “Now, John’s been in the Congress for 20 years. And John tells us that first, we’ve got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.” Did Reagan prove this claim correct?

As many people admit, defense spending increased greatly under the Reagan Administration. From 1980 to 1985, for example, annual defense spending more than doubled. In a 1983 speech, Reagan stated, “Now, I know that this is a hard time to call for increased defense spending. It isn’t easy to ask American families who are already making sacrifices in the recession, or American businesses which are struggling to reinvest for the future, and it isn’t easy for someone like me who’s dedicated his entire political career to reducing government spending.” But call for an increase he did. This played an important role in buoying up overall federal spending. According to FactCheck.org, “total federal spending soared” in Reagan’s first term. In addition to defense spending, the tools necessary for the drug war came with a high price tag.  Reagan’s own budget director, former Congressman David Stockman (R-MI) resigned in disgust and published a book in 1986 eviscerating his old boss for not cutting spending along with taxes. Did Reagan’s tax cuts spur enough economic growth to prevent the national debt and budget deficits from ballooning? Far from it. The national debt went from a little under a trillion dollars to almost three trillion, and the debt ceiling was raised seventeen times, while the budget was never balanced. Conservatives often attribute these problems to liberal Democrats in Congress spending heavily on economic programs. And it is certainly true that domestic spending on the economic safety net was very high in the 1980s. But throughout his presidency, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. Moreover, these defenders are ignoring the fact that their argument goes against what Reagan himself had claimed in the debate with Anderson. Remember, he had insisted that once taxes were cut, federal spending would decrease accordingly. His own record would prove him wrong.

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