Kevin Williamson Lumps Together Social Liberalism and Fiscal Liberalism With Erroneous Results, Part 1

Since getting hired and fired from The Atlantic faster than Donald Trump can change his mind about attacking Iran, then un-ironically taking to The Wall Street Journal to complain that he was being silenced, Kevin Williamson is back to writing columns for the dumpster fire of political magazines we call National Review. In a recent column titled “Joe and the Segs,” Williamson uses Joe Biden’s self-inflicted controversy about his old Dixiecrat work friends to argue that the traditional, segregationist Southern Democrats were primarily liberal, not conservative. In response to claims from historians such as Dr. Kevin M. Kruse that the parties have largely shifted and that the Dixiecrats were conservatives, Williamson writes, “That is, of course, false. Conservatives largely opposed the New Deal, while segregationist Democrats were critical to making it happen. Most of the segregationist Democrats of the FDR–LBJ era were committed New Dealers and, by most criteria, progressives. They largely supported welfare spending, public-works programs, the creation of the major entitlement programs, and, to a lesser extent, labor reform.” This is true so far as it goes, but it involves a key oversimplification. All of the issues that Williamson cites here are fiscal issues. None of them provide any evidence that these Southern Democrats were socially liberal. And, of course, being liberal or progressive as we understand those terms today requires being at least left of center on fiscal and social issues. With his denunciations of corporate excesses and proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security and support for strong regulation of businesses, Tucker Carlson is arguably at least Centrist, if not slightly leftish, on fiscal policy. But we don’t call him a liberal or progressive, because he’s very conservative on most social issues. Putting aside the Dixiecrats’ conservative views on race, what were their views on certain other social issues? During the New Deal era, Congress passed the Smith Act, a bill which made it illegal to advocate overthrowing the government and required non-citizen adults to register with the government. On July 29, 1939, 48 members of the House of Representatives voted to recommit the bill to the Judiciary Committee without instructions as a method of preventing it from being passed. Not one of those 48 came from a former Confederate state. In 1940, Southern Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of a peacetime draft. Meanwhile, this draft was opposed by many liberal/left-wing members of Congress, such as Vito Marcantonio, Burton K. Wheeler, Warren Magnuson, Charles Wolverton, Merlin Hull and Usher Burdick, as well as other liberals and far-left radicals such as John Dewey, Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, A.J. Muste, James Farmer, and John Haynes Holmes.

According to Williamson, “Many of the Democrats who were instrumental in the reforms of the Wilson years, the golden age of American progressivism, were virulent racists, prominent among them Woodrow Wilson himself. Given such figures as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, one might as easily write that progressives of both parties were racists.” Wilson was, again, an economic progressive. But he was a social conservative. Setting aside his support of segregation, Wilson was conservative on most social issues except for immigration. As I discussed here, Wilson was very much a latecomer to women’s suffrage and either outright opposed it or wanted it left to the states for most of his career. He also signed a Selective Service Act, the Espionage Act, and the Sedition Act to suppress civil liberties in wartime, all of which provoked massive opposition from people well to the left of him and were pivotal in the formation of the ACLU. Indeed, prominent conservative and National Review contributor, Ben Shapiro, once argued for essentially a reinstatement of Wilson’s wartime (anti) free speech policies until he reversed positions to begin arguing that they were an example of leftist intolerance. Teddy Roosevelt is a bit more of an interesting case. He was undoubtedly a white supremacist. He also favored school desegregation, proudly sent his children to school with black classmates, invited a back man to dine at the White House, and closed a local Mississippi post office for a year after residents reacted violently to a black postmaster. And Teddy Roosevelt, while not a social conservative, was not a flaming liberal on social issues either, favoring both liberal and conservative social policies, such as the death penalty, separation of Church and State, immigration restrictions, and women’s suffrage. I have previously argued and will continue to argue against the idea that the post-World War II alliance between many fiscal conservatives and the socially conservative, bigoted Right means that fiscal conservatism is inherently bigoted. I will now argue against the idea that the racist views of Wilson and Teddy (and Franklin) Roosevelt give us any special insight about the nature of economic progressivism. James W. Wadsworth, Jr. was a staunch socially and fiscally conservative Republican who entered politics in the 1910s and went on to become a dogged foe of the New Deal. He was also one of the most racist members of his party, breaking with the vast majority of fellow Republican Representatives to vote against a federal anti-lynching bill. Furthermore, other prominent progressive Republicans during the days of Wilson and Roosevelt, including Moses Clapp, Ira Copley, and arch-liberal Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette were quite supportive of civil rights for black people.

Williamson goes on to contrast the fiscal liberalism of Biden’s old work friend, Herman Talmadge, with Ronald Reagan. He points out that, “when Ronald Reagan was out denouncing the proposal for Medicare as the camel’s nose of socialism in America, Senator Talmadge was . . . voting for it. Other signers of the Southern Manifesto, though by no means all of them, voted for it, too.” There are a couple of problems here. As I’ve discussed here, here, and here, Reagan viciously race-baited from the 1960s all the way through his presidency. On racial issues, he was to the Right of every Democratic candidate he ever ran against. Talmadge’s vile segregationist views do not change that. Furthermore, Williamson once again offers no evidence for any socially liberal stances by Talmadge and his ilk. When the Supreme Court ruled that teacher-led prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, Talmadge, James Eastland, and George Wallace all vehemently denounced the decision, while pro-civil rights Republican Jacob Javits defended it and cautioned against Congressional action to reverse it. Williamson stated anti-New Deal Republican Senator Frederick Hale “voted against FDR’s nomination of Hugo Black to the Supreme Court because of Black’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and also declared: ‘If Mr. Roosevelt is renominated next year it will be unnecessary for the Socialist party to put up a candidate.’ If on one side of the vote you have free-spending patrons of entitlement programs and on the other side you have a man denouncing those as socialism, it is clear enough who is the conservative in the sense we use that word.” I have been unable to find any evidence of Black espousing socially liberal policy positions prior to his Supreme Court nomination. Admittedly, he was generally though not uniformly a social liberal while on the Court, supporting causes such as civil liberties for leftist radicals (except schoolchildren), an end to teacher-led prayer in public schools, and greater due process for accused criminals. The problem for Williamson is that for whatever reason, Black also became quite liberal about civil rights for black people as a Supreme Court judge. So attempting to tie his socially liberal jurisprudence in with his Klan membership won’t wash. Looking at Dixiecrats post-World War II era, we find that they not only tended to oppose Separation of Church and State, they also frequently favored other socially conservative policies such as abortion bans, suppression of gay rights, censorship of Communists, “law and order” legislation, and thwarting the Equal Rights Amendment. Robert Byrd, for instance, was one of the most conservative Democrats on gay rights during the 1990s and early 2000s. James Eastland fought both Roe v. Wade and the ERA in his later years as a Senator. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms went from being socially conservative Democrats to being some of the most socially conservative members of the GOP.

 

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There Is No Upside to Slavery

Sooner or later, modern defenses of the Confederacy or the Confederate Flag tend to devolve into defenses of slavery. While there are reasonable arguments for and against reparations, I have also all too often seen arguments against reparations descend into defenses of slavery. The claim bandied about some of the more reactionary opponents of reparations is that African Americans today are better off due to the enslavement of their ancestors, because it caused them to be living in the United States instead of Africa. This argument is not a new one. During the days of slavery, it was argued that slaves were better off in America, where they could be exposed to Christianity and civilization, than in Africa. In 1838, future U.S. president-turned Confederate Congressman John Tyler declared that God “works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; – the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.” Robert E. Lee himself wrote that, “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” One speculates that this may have been part of the reason, along with refuting “scientific” racism, that some abolitionists, including Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison, tried to counteract the negative image of Africa that most Americans probably held.

It is frightening to see this argument about slavery continue to come up in the twenty-first century. James Edwards, an outspoken white supremacist radio host, once opined that, “For blacks in the Americas, slavery is the greatest thing that ever happened to them. Unfortunately, it’s the worst thing that ever happened to white Americans,” One might dismiss Edwards as a fringe figure, but past guests on his show include Congressman Walter Jones, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, and Donald Trump, Jr. These days, only a very small number of people, such as Neo-Confederate authors Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins, along with former Arkansas legislator Jon Hubbard, argue that slavery benefited slaves. Rather, a significant number of more mainstream conservatives, not all of whom claim to side with the Confederacy, argue that slavery benefited the descendants of slaves. Some of the conservatives who have explicitly made this claim include Dinesh D’Souza, Michael Medved, and Walter Williams. While most rational people recognize that these assertions are racist cockamamie, those of us in the historical community can no longer be content with dismissing them as such. To do so gives bigots a chance to claim that we are incapable of rebutting their arguments. Thus, it is my intention in this essay to refute the idea that the impact of slavery was in any way positive, either for slaves or for their modern descendants.

When assessing whether members of most other marginalized racial and ethnic groups in the United States are worse off today due to historical oppression, even the most fervent believers in American exceptionalism tend to distinguish between their arrival in this country and the oppression that followed. (This, of course, excludes Native Americans, whose arrival here predated every other group by millennia.) Many people may feel (and others disagree) that the descendants of Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Czech, Asian, or Hispanic immigrants are better off here than in the countries that their ancestors came from. Most conservatives would not try to claim, however, that the descendants of these immigrants are better because of the discrimination their ancestors endured. Yet a significant number argue that if black people are better off in America than Africa, this somehow means that they have benefited from their ancestors’ enslavement. Clearly, there is some faulty logic going on here.

Most social liberals understand—and even many social conservatives at least pay lip service to the idea—that everyone who comes to the United States is entitled to have their liberties fully respected by government and society. Of course, unlike every other non-indigenous ethnic/racial group, most African Americans’ ancestors were brought here against their will to be sold as slaves. But it would be both reprehensible and nonsensical to try to claim that, because black people were brought here to have their rights violated, this somehow relieved America of its obligation to respect their rights. If anything, the fact that African Americans were not given a choice about whether to come here made the further denial of rights that happened upon arrival even more egregious. Thus, the question must be not “Are African Americans better off today due to slavery than they would be in Africa?” but rather “Would African Americans be better off now if they had ended up in America but not been enslaved?” Conservatives may insist that any possible alternative history scenario for black people to have come to America without being enslaved would be unlikely to have occurred, but this is retroactively changing the rules of the debate. A scenario in which slavery never happened here, and black people remained in Africa would also require drastic changes to the sociopolitical landscape of the Atlantic World from the colonial period to the Civil War, yet that does not stop some conservatives from trying to use it as a cudgel in arguments.

Let us consider a thought experiment that more enlightened thinkers have advocated. Imagine for a moment that most white people prior to the Civil War had sincerely wanted to help black Africans by giving them a chance to enjoy the blessings of American freedom and opportunity. This scenario is outlandish, though as stated earlier, many white Americans claimed duringslavery that the institution was beneficial for the slaves themselves, not just their descendants. Under this scenario, they could have offered African people free or cheap passage to America, where they could have lived un-enslaved. This would have been impossible in the sense that most white Americans would have never considered it, but it is not literally impossible in the sense that, for example, walking on water or pulling the moon out of orbit is impossible. Under this scenario of free immigration, it is obvious that African Americans would be far better off now than they are in the aftermath of slavery. Even free people who came to America with no property or money would have had far more opportunities than slaves to pursue economic opportunity, accumulating assets to pass down over generations. Second and third generation immigrants would have had a significantly better chance of receiving an education than slaves, who were frequently forbidden by law from learning to read. They would not have had the same level of trauma and other psychological impacts that come with multigenerational chattel slavery, which is discussed by African American scholar Joy DeGruy in Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. These are just some examples of the ways in which black people would be better off today if their ancestors had been able to live free in America.

Additionally, it is very questionable whether they would have been subjected to Jim Crow laws or social discrimination, at least to the same extent that non-enslaved black people prior to the Civil War and ex slaves and their descendants were following the Civil War. The first Jim Crow laws in America, interracial marriage bans, originated in the late seventeenth century as a method of preserving slavery by legally labeling black people as an inferior race. Jim Crow and the accompanying social discrimination that can be linked largely to slavery played a role in continuing to perpetuate economic inequality between black and white Americans that persists to this day. Average wealth for white families is about seven times greater than wealth for black families, with median wealth about twelve times greater.

Finally, even the idea that black people would be worse off if they had not ended up in the United States is questionable. Black captives were taken from sub Saharan Africa for several hundred years by European and American slavers and at least a thousand years by Arabic slavers, unfortunately with collaboration of some black African political leaders and traders. As others have pointed out, it is difficult to dismiss the possibility that Africa would have a significantly higher standard of living were it not for the long-term impact of this slave trading. Just as importantly, black people who were transported by slave traders to the United States came largely from countries such as Angola, Ghana, and Senegal that became part of European empires, such as Britain, France, and Portugal. If these African nations had been colonized without the native inhabitants being enslaved, far more blacks might have eventually immigrated to Britain, France, or Portugal, all of which have a standard of living that is in many ways equal to that of the United States. Certainly, many people would argue that there are advantages to living in the United States compared to Britain, France, or Portugal. But it is hard to argue that these even come close to outweighing the advantages of not being descended from slaves. Thus, it is far from certain that they would be worse off if they had never come to America. Nor can we say for sure that they would have never ended up in America, given that there are currently over two million African-born immigrants living in the U.S. now. What we do know is that African Americans are worse off due to having enslaved ancestors. And it is absurd and, yes, racist to argue otherwise.

 

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Gabbard, Biden, Bernie, and Brock

Time For David Brock To Take The Foot Out of His Mouth

Last week, David Brock of MediaMatters, a conservative-turned-liberal Clinton supporter, called for the various Democratic candidates and their supporters to understand that they needed each other to beat Trump in 2020 and avoid alienating each other. I agree with that sentiment, but it’s a bit hollow coming from Brock. In 2016, Brock responded to an ad featuring primarily white crowds of Bernie Sanders supporters. As you may recall, Clinton got the majority of black primary voters in 2016, just as Obama got the majority in 2008. Interestingly, Clinton fans who use Bernie’s lower levels of black support to accuse him of racism virtually never use Clinton’s lower levels from 2008 to make the same accusation against her, but I digress. Brock stated, “From this ad it seems black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders.”image.png

The guy pictured above is a much younger Bernie being arrested by Chicago cops for protesting segregation. With that in mind, Brock’s comment was really rather disgusting. In fact, if we label as sexist dogwhistles any comments about Hillary Clinton’s credentials or statements such as Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver’s quip that she would at least be interviewed for a vice presidential spot, then we could make a similar claim about Brock’s comments being anti-Semitic dogwhistles. After all, there’s a long history of everyone from white supremacists to Malcolm X trying to ascribe bad motives to Jewish people in the Civil Rights Movement. With that in mind, I tweeted to Brock today that, “I do think you should apologize for saying black lives don’t matter to Bernie if you haven’t already—in fact, maybe you should a second time if you have. That was a pretty horrible comment about someone who got arrested protesting segregation.”

Memo to Gabbard: Even the Moderate Establishment Septuagenarian Candidate Is Woker Than You

I had to lay this out in a conversation recently, and I think it bears repeating. It’s true that Tulsi Gabbard’s extremely homophobic comments were made in the early 2000s and that she’s since disavowed them. Unfortunately, when some months back, a group of liberal Democratic Senators criticized a judicial nominee for involvement with the anti-gay Knights of Columbus, Gabbard was outraged–that the Senators dared to bring this up. According to Gabbard, even questioning whether someone’s Knights of Columbus membership might be evidence of homophobic amounted to anti-Catholic prejudice. By her logic, criticizing someone for being in ISIS is anti-Muslim bigotry, since ISIS is an Islamic group. Of course, many, many Muslims don’t agree with ISIS, and many, many Catholics don’t agree with the Knights of Columbus. This faux pas by Gabbard happened this year. Not 15 years ago, not 5 years ago, not last year, this year. Anyhow, as I pointed out, for all his flaws that make me not support him in the primary, Biden doesn’t engage in overwrought, hackneyed defenses of groups like the Knights of Columbus despite BEING CATHOLIC HIMSELF. How bad does it make Gabbard look that Biden is way better than her in this area?

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Martin Luther King, Jr. vs Louis Farrakhan on Anti-Semitism

I am a proud attendee of a local Women’s March in Atlanta in 2017. I also became very disturbed early on by statements from Linda Sarsour about how women in Saudi Arabia didn’t have it so bad and how issues such as women being forbidden from driving or going out in public unveiled are trivial. The issues of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and palling around with Louis Farrakhan are alarming as well, and the response of Tamika Mallory has been disheartening. Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, a homophobe, and a misogynist, who condemns interracial marriage and defends racial segregation. He must be condemned. At the same time, I was frustrated by Meghan McCain’s criticism of Mallory. I don’t see McCain denouncing Lindsey Graham, who is also a racist, also a misogynist, also a homophobe, and has far more political power than Farrakhan ever has or ever will. Indeed, in a big way, people like Graham are the reason why leaders like Farrakhan exist. The Lindsey Grahams of the world are a great recruiting tool for reverse racist groups such as the Nation of Islam. With all of that said, I thought that since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is tomorrow, it would be interesting to look at the contrast between King’s and Farrakhan’s views on anti-Semitism.

Of course, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism has been widely discussed. What may be less well known is the extent to which Martin Luther King, Jr. implicitly and explicitly rejected anti-Semitism. His closest white friend and Southern Christian Leadership Conference cofounder, Stanley Levison, was a nonreligious Jewish New Yorker. Levison functioned an adviser, publicist, and ghostwriter to King. Due to his being a Communist Party member, Levison became a lightning rod for controversy within the SCLC, and the Kennedy Administration pressured King to cut ties with him. King was unwilling to disassociate from his friend and adviser, and they began the process of utilizing another Civil Rights Movement activist, Clarence Jones, as a go-between in order to remain in communication without the federal government noticing.

When King addressed the issue of anti-Semitism, as he did on multiple occasions, he always emphatically condemned it. He was not shy about making comparisons between the experiences of black people and the experiences of Jewish people, though of course, there are also major differences. At the 1958 American Jewish Congress Convention, he declared, “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” Then, as now, not all Jewish Americans were supportive of black equality. The story of the various “Levittowns,” seven suburban housing developments built after World War II illustrates the divergent positions that individual Jewish Americans took on the race question. Real estate developer, William Levitt, had a policy of not selling any homes in these areas to blacks or fellow Jews. On the other hand, it was a Jewish family, the Wechslers, who secretly helped a black couple named Bill and Daisy Myers buy a house in Levittown, Pennsylvania. But Dr. King was aware that, then as now, Jewish Americans in the aggregate were far more supportive of civil rights for black people than non-Jewish white Americans were in the aggregate. In 1964, he asserted that, “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom–it has been so great.” We must guard against attempts by conservatives, primarily white, to spin outlandish narratives about what King would think if he were alive today. The idea, for example, that King, who eviscerated American racism in the harshest terms, would support efforts to destroy people’s careers for kneeling during the National Anthem is laughable. The idea that King, who was a staunch theological liberal and praised the Supreme Court’s ruling against official, teacher-led prayer in public schools, would support the Religious Right is farcical. But we can be fairly certain that if he were alive today, King would firmly deplore anti-Semitism, along with all other racial bigotry.

Image result for martin luther king jr abraham joshua heschel

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In the past week and a half, three new candidates have entered the Democratic Party’s presidential primary field. Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro are welcome additions. Warren has a strong record in the areas of LGBT rights, racial equality, and feminism, as well as in other areas such as capital punishment and the Surveillance State. Castro’s background as a mayor and HUD Secretary make his positions on many issues hard to assess, but he has a very strong civil rights record. Then there’s the matter of an admirable politician from Hawaii. She’s distinguished herself in Congress as a dogged fighter for freedom and justice, and I would love to see her get elected president. I am, of course, referring to the inestimable Mazie Hirono. Unfortunately, it was Tulsi Gabbard who decided to run.

My biggest problem with Gabbard is her LGBT rights record. In her teens, Gabbard became involved in anti-gay activism and was elected to the Hawaii state legislature in 2002. Between 2000 and 2004, we got some real gems of quotes from her, including:
“This war of deception and hatred against my mum is being waged by homosexual activists because they know, that if elected, she will not allow them to force their values down the throats of the children in our schools.”

“Working with my father, Mike Gabbard, and others to pass a constitutional amendment to protect traditional marriage, I learned that real leaders are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good. I will bring that attitude of public service to the legislature.”

“To try to act as if there is a difference between ‘civil unions’ and same-sex marriage is dishonest, cowardly and extremely disrespectful to the people of Hawaii who have already made overwhelmingly clear our position on this issue… As Democrats we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.” She worked for her father’s PAC, The Alliance for Traditional Marriage, which not only opposed gay rights but supported gay conversion therapy. While most Democrats opposed gay marriage in the early 2000s, the majority of mainstream Democrats were not devoting the kind of energy to opposing it or using the kind of rhetoric that Gabbard was, nor did they share her strong opposition to civil unions.

Since then, she has apologized for her past views, announcing support for gay marriage in 2012 and earning a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign as a U.S. Representative. However, this month, Gabbard stepped in to defend the Knights of Columbus, an organization that is all male and has been involved in anti-gay marriage efforts. In response to Senators such as Hirono and Kamala Harris questioning Brian Buescher, a Trump District Court nominee, about his membership in the group, Gabbard wrote, “While I oppose the nomination of Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus.” And this, of course, happened less than two weeks ago. Unsurprisingly, Hirono and Harris were not grilling Buescher about being Catholic, they were grilling him about membership in a separate organization that has engaged in political advocacy. Gabbard’s claim is akin to arguing that a judicial nominee who joins an Islamic organization supporting the killing of apostates cannot be grilled about this membership without being subjected to anti-Muslim bigotry. Given her friendly relations with India’s anti-Muslim (and anti-gay) President Narenda Modi, I doubt she’d appreciate that argument. It is also alarming, because it indicates part of a pattern. Her past virulent homophobia might be seen as a youthful indirection, albeit a big one. Her recent defense of the Knights of Columbus might be seen as an attempted defense of religious freedom, albeit an idiotic one. Taken together, they appear to be part of a pattern. How much has Gabbard really changed since her youth, and how much are we seeing her trying to appear liberal on gay rights to get elected? We don’t know for sure, but I’d rather not gamble with it.

Gabbard’s foreign policy is strange at best. During the Obama Administration, she criticized Obama for not bombing Syria fast enough before then criticizing him for being too hawkish. In the Trump Administration, she laudably opposed war in Syria but also bizarrely expressed skepticism that Bashar al-Assad was behind the chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians. Then we have the fact that she was one of a minority of Democrats to vote in 2015 for additional restrictions on Syrian refugees entering the country that were widely seen as crossing the line from due diligence into red tape. While I can understand (and disagree with) the national security arguments for this legislation, it again hints at a disturbing pattern when considered alongside her view of Assad. Is it possible that she feels Syrian refugees don’t have a pressing need to come here, since Assad isn’t such a brutal leader?

She has also stated that she feels “conflicted” about the use of torture due to concerns that it might be necessary in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. Putting aside the actual likelihood of that kind of scenario occurring, one of the chief problems with the CIA torturing people is that without a trial, there is a heightened risk that the detainee being tortured will turn out not to be guilty, let alone be providing accurate information under duress.

Gabbard was a terrible state legislator. However, I think she has done a mostly good job in Congress, and I hope that is where she will stay.

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The Problem of Stop and Frisk in the Age of Trump

Before I begin this article, I wanted to give a shot-out to the great historian, David Brion Davis, whose Problem of Slavery non-fiction trilogy gave me the idea for the title of this post. The stop and frisk debate cropped up again last week when the Washington, D.C. Police Department reached a settlement with M.B. Cottingham and the ACLU. Cottingham had been stopped, frisked, and allegedly sexually assaulted by an officer of the DCPD, who failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing. Some information about the case may be found here, and if you don’t find it deeply disturbing, I can only say that you trust the government far more than I ever will. This case also serves as a sobering reminder that, far from being confined to New York City, stop and frisk has been and is a national issue. Trump unsurprisingly favors it. Many liberals, such as Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Jerrold Nadler, oppose it, and many others, such as Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio at least condemn the arguably racist application, if not the practice itself.

One of the things that makes stop and frisk such a fraught issue is that different groups of proponents take stances on it that are completely contradictory to each other. On the one hand are those such as former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. Kelly has been a consistent advocate for stop and frisk. He has also repeatedly denounced racial profiling. In 2012, he issued a department-wide memo ordering his officers not to engage in racial profiling while stopping and frisking people. Whether we view all of this as completely honest or as smoke and mirrors to disguise racial bigotry, that is his public position. Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand, once referred to stop and frisk as “racial profiling” while defending it. In effect, one camp of stop and frisk supporters denies that the policy is racial profiling. The other says that stop and frisk is racial profiling and a jolly good thing too. So, is stop and frisk racial profiling? As a matter of official policy, stop and frisk is typically non-racial. Most departments do not explicitly allow officers to take race into account when deciding who to detain or search. Technically, white people can be stopped and frisked, and they sometimes are, albeit generally at much lower rates than black or Hispanic people. From an intellectual standpoint, there is no contradiction in being pro-stop and frisk and anti-racial profiling. (One issue that further muddies the waters but does not need to be discussed in this article is the fact that a significant subsection of Americans favors racial profiling for Arab Americans but not African Americans or Hispanic Americans.) I can see little value in trying to prove that every person who favors stop and frisk secretly supports racial profiling. This is simply an unprovable claim that leads to people talking past each other. Nevertheless, to claim that nonwhite Americans have no special interest in stop and frisk is absurd. As the New York Civil Liberties Union demonstrates, year after year, approximately 80 to 90% of people stopped by the NYPD are black or Hispanic. And every year, heavy majorities, sometimes up to 90%, have to be released due to lack of evidence. Does this mean most cops in New York and other cities who stop and frisk people are racially profiling? Not necessarily. Due to the history of oppression and inequality in this country, predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods tend to have higher levels of crime, which can lead to a greater police presence and more 911 calls. Nevertheless, the fact remains that large numbers of disproportionately nonwhite people are being subjected to humiliating stops and searches despite being innocent. Of course, some cops, both among leadership and the rank and file, do hold bigoted attitudes and do believe in racial profiling. While it is wrong to claim that all cops racially profile, it is also wrong to claim that only a tiny minority of cops racially profile. For those cops who do believe in treating people differently based on skin color, stop and frisk provides a golden opportunity for them to abuse their position. Since stop and frisk requires no warrant, and since incriminating evidence is usually not found anyway, those cops who are bigots will be very tempted to violate the privacy of innocent nonwhite people and come up with spurious justifications after the fact.

Moreover, even if it were proven that nobody was ever stopped and frisked based partly on race, and there were no racial disparities, the practice would still be wrong. Why? Because it short-circuits due process and privacy rights. In many jurisdictions, police do not need to witness a crime or obtain a warrant before stopping and frisking someone. There is often no requirement for probable cause or that the person stopped and frisked matches the description of a specific suspect. Thus, while the police are rightfully forbidden from searching your home without probable cause and a warrant, they are free to search you. Some people may argue that this is conducive to public safety. However, to quote the inestimable Russ Feingold, “If we lived in a country that allowed the police to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country that allowed the government to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your email communications … then the government would no doubt discover and arrest more terrorists. But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live.” The same principle applies when it comes to apprehending regular criminals. There are restrictions we place on the power of government in order to protect privacy rights and due process despite knowing that, as a sad consequence, some criminals will slip through the government’s fingers. This is why we have things such as search warrants at all. I believe that requiring officers to either obtain a warrant or have sufficient probable cause to make an arrest prior to stopping and frisking anyone is a reasonable restriction on government power to protect privacy and due process. I also believe that in cases where someone is stopped but not searched, reasonable suspicion should be first be required, along with a detailed incident report including the reason for the stop and, in order to spot possible discrimination, the suspect’s race. Body cameras must be required for all police in all departments in order to keep law enforcement officials from “cooking the books” to justify specious stops. Others may disagree. Yet I suspect that if large numbers of affluent, innocent white suburbanites were being stopped and frisked every year, there would be significantly more public outcry.

On a final note, I must admit to a change in one of my views. About six and a half years ago, I criticized a SCOTUS decision allowing anyone to be strip-searched upon arrest but also stated my opposition to civilian review boards for police. I now believe that I got the former issue right and the latter issue wrong. At the time, I was concerned about Monday morning quarterbacking of cops by people without a background in or knowledge of law enforcement. I realize now, however, that police departments require a degree of civilian oversight. While one’s perspective may be clouded due to a lack of policing experience, one’s perspective may also be clouded by working in a police department. And there are limits to how much we can rely on Internal Affairs to handle police misconduct, since IA is still a division of law enforcement. I now support civilian review boards to help assess complaints against police. However, I still believe that my concerns about Monday morning quarterbacking were not entirely illegitimate. Hence, I propose that at least 10% but no more than 20% of each civilian review board’s membership should consist of ex-cops.

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Hopefully My Only Lena Dunham Post

In the last few years, one of the most banal internal conflicts on the Left has been whether or not Lena Dunham is a brilliant feminist artist or the liberal New York equivalent of Tomi Lahren. From about 2011 to Fall of 2017, I had been in no man’s land by virtue of neither liking nor disliking Dunham. For one thing, I have never quite decided if the youthful sexual exploration she described in her autobiography was inappropriate-but-innocently intended or early child molestation/grooming. For another, I have always been agnostic on the raging debate of whether or not she is racially bigoted, though I lean toward considering her tone deaf, arrogant, and self-centered as opposed to bigoted. When she made her infamous comments about Odell Beckham, Jr. in 2016, I cringed, both because I found her comments bizarre and egocentric and because I knew social media was going to be ablaze with arguments about it for the next few days.

What made me develop a more firm opinion on Dunham was her response to the sexual assault allegations made by actress Aurora Perrineau toward writer Murray Miller in November of last year. For those who were on a social media hiatus during that time, Perrineau accused Miller of sexually assaulting her five years earlier. Dunham’s initial response was to co-release a statement saying, “”While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year.” Then, the backlash started. A part of the backlash was renewed accusations of racial bigotry, as Perrineau is part-black, and Murray is white. I felt disinclined to either defend or condemn Dunham’s response. In the interest of honesty, I have not reviewed the evidence for or against Murray being guilty, and I have no way of knowing whether or not Dunham would have responded differently if the accuser had been white or the accused nonwhite. Then, Dunham did an almost immediate 180. She apologized for defending Miller, said that her friendship with him should not enter into it, and proclaimed that, “Under patriarchy, ‘I believe you’ is essential. Until we are all believed, none of us will be believed.” I would call this statement gobbledygook, but that might be too generous. Dunham did not even attempt to provide any indication of new evidence that had made her change her position. Nor did she try to explain how the “insider knowledge” that had made her confident of Miller’s innocence a day earlier was suddenly irrelevant. Furthermore, her implication that all accusations should be automatically assumed true is deeply problematic. Assuming sexual abuse accusations to be false unless proven true–as has been prevalent under patriarchy–is extremely wrong and dangerous. But so is assuming that accusations are true unless proven false. False accusations, especially against rich, white, heterosexual, cisgender men are rare, and large number of cases go unreported. But 3% is not 0%. And the fact that ~97% of accusations are true does not allow us to automatically conclude that any specific accusation has a 97% chance of being true. That assumption fails to take into account the many variables of each individual case. And having insider knowledge of a case is a very important variable that Dunham made the decision to suddenly dismiss. I was forced to conclude in light of Dunham’s wildly inconsistent response that one of two things was true: either she had covered for a sexual predator, or she had thrown an innocent friend under the bus due to public outcry. And either of those actions are, to put it mildly, pretty cold blooded. Although calling them cold blooded might be an insult to the many majestic cold-blooded members of the Animal Kingdom, past and present.

Now, perhaps in an effort to stave off controversy for a new project she is embarking on, Dunham has written an essay apologizing to Perrineau. I took a look at it, wondering if it might shed some light on her seemingly mercenary behavior last year. In the great Liam Neeson film, Unknown, an aging German detective tells Neeson’s character, “In the Stasi, we had a basic principle: Ask enough questions and a man who is lying will eventually change his story….but a man who tells the truth cannot change his, however unlikely his story sounds.” I hate to say anything non-negative about a security police organization from an authoritarian regime, but if we assume that this principle is sound, then Dunham seems to be lying through her teeth. In her new essay, she writes, “I didn’t have the ‘insider information’ I claimed but rather blind faith in a story that kept slipping and changing and revealed itself to mean nothing at all.” If I knew nothing about the background of this case, I might find that explanation plausible. Unfortunately, it blatantly contradicts her original apology. The original apology said nothing about Miller contradicting himself or about reevaluating the evidence against him. Instead, her apology hinged on the premise that accusations should never be labeled false or even questioned. So, for those keeping count, Dunham has now changed her position not once but twice:
Position 1: Based on insider information, I can conclude that Miller is innocent.

Position 2: My relationship with Miller shouldn’t enter into this matter, and besides, all accusations should be assumed true, regardless of evidence, insider knowledge, or anything else.

Position 3: Miller kept contradicting himself, allowing me to deduce his story was bogus. I never had any of the insider information I claimed I had or thought I had.

If Miller’s alibi kept changing and fell apart, then that would have been a far better explanation to include in her original about-face than what the public got last November.   As it is, Dunham continues to come across as, to use my original description, arrogant, self-centered, and tone deaf. One can, like me, be unfamiliar with the evidence for or against Miller and feel unconvinced that Dunham is a bigot while still believing that this sordid story reflects very, very badly on her.

 

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