Monthly Archives

January 2016

Politics, Social Justice

Killing Bernie, Perpetuating Racism: Ta-Nahisi Coates and the Social Justice Regressives

January 25, 2016

I think I’m ready to give a name to a movement I’ve seen for over a year that really troubles me – Regressive Social Justice.

Regressive in the sense that it is willing to actually throw the meaningful policy reform it argues for under the bus in the name of political correctness.

In this presidential race, we saw maybe the first and biggest instance of this when Black Lives Matter protestors took over a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, with one protestor saying “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,” accusing the audience of “white supremacist liberalism.”

Along with a confrontation at Netroots Nation earlier this year, it was the beginning of a bizarre chapter in the modern social justice movement: the destruction of Sander’s brand on black issues.  To be fair, some of the criticism has been policy-oriented.  But given that Sanders, on issues regarding incarceration, education, jobs, and the drug war, has been far superior to Hillary Clinton on just about every relevant metric, much more of it has been just a greater form of language and tone policing, a narcissistic obsession with vocabulary that often dwarfs real interest in meaningful policy changes.

The latest mutation of this bizarre practice now comes in the form of a new essay by Ta-Nahisi Coates, “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination”.  In the essay, Coates takes Sanders to task for saying that fighting for reparations in a likely intractable Congress could be “divisive”, especially when he is similarly fighting for his plans for healthcare and education that many allege to be equally divisive and improbable.

The need for so many (although not all) of Sanders’s supporters to deflect the question, to speak of Hillary Clinton instead of directly assessing whether Sanders’s position is consistent, intelligent, and moral hints at something terrible and unsaid. The terribleness is this: To destroy white supremacy we must commit ourselves to the promotion of unpopular policy. To commit ourselves solely to the promotion of popular policy means making peace with white supremacy.

Coates does make some valid points in this essay, absolutely worthy of discussion in the theoretical space of ideas, and unlike many other writers in his vein he is very fair in talking about Hillary Clinton’s record.  The problem I believe lies in the failure of Social Justice Regressives to realize how much branding matters, and that what makes for good theoretical discussion and what helps advance the cause can be two completely different things.  I think what he and others don’t realize is that they have tarnished Bernie’s brand so badly – and unfairly – on social justice issues that they may hand the Southern minority vote to Hillary Clinton, in which case Sanders will definitely lose this nomination.

Why should they care?  “Tough shit, that’s how the process works” you might say, except that Sanders is the first major candidate for president ever to publicly call for the beginning of the end of the War on Drugs, which, if “The New Jim Crow” is correct – I think it is – is probably the central lynchpin in the incarceration and criminalization of Black America. Bernie wants to legalize marijuana on the Federal level. Hillary Clinton is just fine keeping marijuana as illegal as cocaine.  Why does this not set off the alarm bells of the Social Justice left?  Hillary Clinton seems to be treated with kid gloves and enjoy much greater esteem within the African American community, bizarrely so when one revisits how she and her husband failed the black community immensely through the War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” legislation.  Is it due to greater media awareness, or her ability to offer more politically correct speech that enables her to escape this as her failures on policy go totally ignored?

Voters as a whole tend to vote based on brand perception rather than details; while Coates and others may be right on the details, I believe they are assaulting the brand only to their own self-defeat.  This can and will have real-life repercussions.  Will Coates and others effectively “Nader-ize” Sanders, and thus ensure that the drug war is perpetuated for several more generations?  Will they hand the Democratic Primary to the candidate who is less in tune with the hugely simmering emotion of working class grievance than Donald Trump is, effectively handing the election to the most openly racist President we’ve seen in generations?

I hope I’m wrong and this concern is unwarranted. I really hope Coates and others, in the name of righting wrongs, do not end up perpetuating the wrongs they seek to right. We can’t afford Regressive Social Justice.


PS – I encourage everyone reading this to watch host Benjamin Dixon‘s response to Coates’s earlier essay on the same topic.  Hits many of the same points from a black progressive perspective.

I also suggest you follow him on twitter. I was very impressed with the wisdom he imparted here.

Politics, Religion

MLK would gladly violate your safe space

January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King’s legacy is so all-encompassing and speaks to so many people that, like a great work of art, we all believe it speaks to us personally, and the things that we care about in particular.  Today is a day when anybody with a certain perspective will claim King as their own, especially on the liberal side of the aisle, and perhaps most of all in the so-called “social justice” wing of that side.  But while his roles as a fighter for racial justice, equality, and reconciliation are well known, there are additional roles he filled that have been almost totally forgotten – fearless free-speech advocate, blasphemer, and fact-based intellectual.

Just as Galileo’s scientific discoveries rankled the Church, racial equality and reconciliation were absolutely radical ideas for their time.  In a space of white supremacy King was a blasphemer of the first order, his stance on free speech unequivocal and strong.

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Imagine this quote – taken out of the context of King’s cause and legacy – paired with some of the quotes from college students today.

“Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences…[it could be] damaging.”

At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Especially imagine King’s thoughts on new ideas paired with a Yale student’s reaction to being forced to debate policies on offensive halloween costumes this past fall.

“I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

Is there any doubt how a King rising today would have been portrayed by the Social Justice Left, these “soft-minded” men and women?  If this exchange at Yale is any indication, the reception would have been less than kind. We can see King in many ways being the antithesis of this modern movement with regards to tactics, which seems to favor ideology dictated by social force rather than the use of argument and reason to win the day.  If the story of modern-day allies in the Social Justice movement tell us anything, it’s that King’s stance may not have been very welcomed, regardless of the agreement on desired outcomes and policy.

King re-articulated his commitment to the first amendment in his famous “Mountain top” speech, the last speech he gave before he was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968.  A court injunction had been issued against him to hold a rally and march on April 8, and in response he affirmed once again how un-American such an infringement on free speech really was.

Now about injunctions. We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.

Furthermore it is fascinating to compare what the Civil Rights activists went through in the 60s with the reception of some who breech the status quo today.  When sit-in protestors sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1960s

Reactions to the sit-in protesters varied by restaurant. In many places, groups of white men gathered around the protesters to heckle them and there was occasional violence. “In a few cases the Negroes were elbowed, jostled and shoved. Itching powder was sprinkled on them and they were spattered with eggs,” The Times reported. “At Rock Hill, S.C., a Negro youth was knocked from a stool by a white beside whom he sat. A bottle of ammonia was hurled through the door of a drug store there. The fumes brought tears to the eyes of the demonstrators.” Many managers closed their counters rather than deal with the protests.

When one reads about a student earlier this year who published an Op-Ed in a publication at Weslyan University, critical of the tactics (but not the goals) of Black Lives Matter, the echoes of such behavior are inescapable.

Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.

Finally, on Sunday, the student government voted unanimously to halve funding for the newspaper and redistribute the savings among four campus publications (including, possibly, the Argus, subject to a student vote). This measure is allegedly intended to reduce paper waste and promote editorial diversity.

The irony is plain for all to see – how many of King’s self-proclaimed successors in this fight seem to abandon the very thing that made his fight possible?  Among millenials and in the academy, where his ideas can be said to more or less be the majority consensus, there is an entirely different view on free speech.  There are, it seems, certain taboos too sacred to be challenged.

This again, was not the case with King, even concerning questions of his faith.  In a 1949 paper he wrote while at the Crozer Theological Seminary, King wrote about the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, a Persian cult religion that was in competition with early Christianity.  It is amazing to see the intellectual honesty with which he addresses the early history of Christianity, a kind of honesty that could cost a religious person socially even in today’s society.

“It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied. Even Christian apologist had to admit that fact….One of the most interesting of these ancient cults was Mithraism, which bore so many points of resemblance to Christianity that it is a challenge to the modern student to investigate these likenesses and learn more about them….Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and Orientalist expressed the opinion that Mithraism would have been the religion of the modern world if anything had occured to halt or destroy the growth of Christianity in the early centuries of its existence. All this goes to show how important Mithraism was in ancient times.”

I can’t imagine any prominent Social Justice figures of today willing to be so honest about their own narratives.  Too often we hear modern day Social Justice Warriors defending their ideology with every bit as much irrational war-like screeching with which the status quo of old defended their own.  Martin Luther King was different – on the battlefield of ideas, he didn’t retreat into his safe space.  Perhaps nobody pointed this out better than CNN’s Don Lemmon, speaking of the tendency of some to want to restrict speech during the widely covered Mizzou protests last year.

Freedom fighters like Dr. King and Malcolm X quite often and on purpose would run right into the lion’s den to engage with peopel with whom they didn’t necessarily agree or care for.  Why?  Because they weren’t afraid of confrontation.  of being challenged.  They weren’t afraid of being offended.  They weren’t afraid of offending.

Students should be safe from physical harm, anywhere.  But they should not be coddled by retreating into so called safe spaces for fear of having their feelings hurt.

The story of King’s quest to transform America’s moral compass follows an eerily similar arc to many other great reformers, particularly in the United States.  There is no doubt that the reason the United States has endured, grown, and evolved for the better is due to its commitment in law to the Freedom of Speech.  History has shown us that all progress is nothing more than peer-reviewed blasphemy, and for that reason we should honor MLK the blasphemer as much as in his other roles.  Martin Luther King day should be a day to reflect on all that free speech has given us over time, including women’s suffrage, civil rights for minorities, and most recently, greater equality for LGBT citizens. The freer and more open the debate, the greater the progress.  Perhaps nothing shows this correlation greater than the speed with which gay rights have progressed, thanks to the even freer flow of information made possible by the Internet and new technology.

Let us not dishonor King’s legacy by sacrificing the very principle that made his legacy possible.  King was only successful because of his willingness to violate the ‘safe space’ of white America, a fact that should inspire us to rekindle our commitment to unsafe, intellectually fearless spaces.  For it is at the frontiers of un-safe spaces that progress is found – it is only a matter of history finding the men and women brave enough to chart them for us.


Trump v. Sanders, Germany v. Roosevelt

January 13, 2016

With Bernie Sanders now in a statistical dead heat in Iowa with Hillary Clinton, and trending significantly above her in New Hampshire, we should begin to accept the likelihood that Sanders will be the Democratic Nominee for President, and that he will face Donald Trump in the general election.  Should this happen, as I believe it will, we shall see a rare glimpse into our recent history, and a chance to replay the historic choices of our past.  It is a moment filled with both fear and excitement, one that could give us all we seek to gain if chosen wisely, and a profound moment of moral loss if chosen poorly.

Some 75-odd years ago, we similarly had a world reeling from economic upheaval, teeming with a disaffected working class that felt left out, left behind, and betrayed.  In Germany, the body politic responded with Hitler;  In America, with Roosevelt.  The choices of each respective nation made all the difference in terms of who won and who lost, and who emerged from their lost economy with any sense of real success or moral purpose.

This year, regardless of significantly better conditions than in the 1930s,  this election will be a replay of the same sort of disaffection in the same sort of world, and once again the biggest question facing us as voters will be which solution we’ll pick – the German solution, or the Roosevelt solution.

Trump embodies the German solution, solidifying the grievances of the working class – some of them legitimate – into a new hard-right xenophobic facism. In combining this with leftward economic tendencies on trade with China and higher taxes on Wall Street elites, Trump is flirting with elements of an American brand of National Socialism.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that this solution does not turn out well.  Trump’s recent rhetoric on Mexicans and Muslims must give us pause – is it disingenuous pandering?  History shows us that we have no choice but to take his words seriously, and already we are seeing the dire consequences of such rhetoric.  

Sanders represents the Roosevelt solution, a truly Democratic socialism. It is because of Roosevelt’s willingness to use the Democratic process to legitimately address grievances that America did not descend into the same pit of fascism and subsequent tyranny that so many European nations succumbed to.  Unlike Clinton, Sanders recognizes the grievances fueling Trump voters. He has declared his willingness to court those voters and to channel them constructively in a way that, like the New Deal, does not require othering or xenophobia to fuel itself.

Which solution will America choose?  Needless to say, it is imperative that we work tirelessly to sway voters towards the Roosevelt solution.  Everything depends on our ability to channel grievance in a way that produces the Hoover Dam and the WPA, and not the horrific alternatives that might otherwise be possible.  Let us not give in to temptation – may our clear knowledge of history in hard times help us to not have to re-fight the terrible wars that we will have to win, both physically and intellectually, should the German solution win the day.

Politics, Religion, Secularism, Terrorism

The 95 Theses of Charlie Hebdo and the Liberal Reformation

January 8, 2016
Packed copies of the latest edition of French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the title "One year on, The assassin still on the run" are seen at a printing house near Paris, France, January 4, 2016. France this week commemorates the victims of last year's Islamist militant attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket with eulogies, memorial plaques and another cartoon lampooning religion. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RTX2100T

Approximately one year ago, armed gunmen marched into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, murdering 11 people in their offices.  Later, a self proclaimed co-conspirator murdered several people in a Jewish grocer, with the intent of helping the Charlie gunmen escaped.  On the face of it,  the attack was nothing new.  It was not the first time, nor the last, that satirists of Muhammed would be attacked.  From the so-called Rushdie Affair, where a Fatwa was issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran against the author Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses”, to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making a film critical of the treatment of women in Islam,  to the attacks on EU offices, Danish and Norwegian embassies associated with Danish Cartoonists  in 2006, it was already known that to caricature Mohammed or Islam was to take one’s life in their own hands.  Charlie Hebdo’s offices had already been subject to arson attacks in 2011, and had been sued numerous times by various organizations, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for inciting racial hatred.  Indeed just this week the Vatican declared its new cover, depicting God as an assassin, to be “blasphemy”.

But one year later, I can’t escape a nagging feeling, a feeling that I’ve only begun to see reflected in people around me.  This time, something really was different.  One year later, Charlie has irrevocably changed everything.

At the time, the reactions on the right were painfully predictable.  Members of the extreme right repeated their claims that every Muslim could be a secret walking ISIS cell in disguise.  On the far left the apologists came out in full force.  Glenn Greenwald hardly even mentioned the fact that so many people had died, because, you know, the cartoons were racist after all.  All across social media, so-called far left liberals gave themselves a pat on the back for saying “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and blamed the usual tired clichéd Commedia del Arte characters of western racism, western imperialism, and Islamophobia.  PC Culture, which, when history is written on this subject may have been seen at its zenith around the period of this controversy, was having none of it.

And as usual, there was no better whipping boy for this faction than the so-called New Atheists.  This renewed attack against them had been heating up prior to the Charlie Hebdo incident with the rise of ISIS the summer before and Islamist Terrorism now back in the headlines on a daily basis, culminating in the now infamous collision between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher.  If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen this incident many times, but just in case, here it is yet again.

And perhaps even more nauseating is the equally infamous response to this exchange by fellow apologist and regressive mega-star Reza Aslan (not to be missed as well is an excellent piece debunking his claims by Mohammed Syed and Sarah Haider ).

Already within myself, I was feeling my moral understanding of Islamic terrorism shifting. I had already acquainted myself with the most prominent New Atheist writers, including Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, but my basic understanding of conflict in the Middle East until ISIS was still very much in line with that of Greenwald and Aslan. Truthfully, in the pre-ISIS period, it was a very convincing theory. The overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran begat the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Sykes-Picot agreement begat the problems of Iraq and Syria. Intervention in Afghanistan against the Soviets begat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The overthrow of Saddamm Hussein begat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. I had been one of those fervent anti-Iraq-War voters in 2008 that helped propel Barack Obama into office, absolutely fuming with anger about America’s blundering adventures in the middle east. It was a theory that up until recently seemed consistent and sensible.

But the rise of ISIS and a renewed conflict in that Gaza really did start to undermine all that for me.  After all, although ISIS was an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it came to prominence as a result of a Syrian Civil War that the United States very forcefully decided to stay out of.  What did the massacre and sex enslavement of Yadzidi women by ISIS have to do with US foreign policy decisions?  How could such actions have “nothing to do with Islam” when ISIS was so clearly and plainly justifying it using plain text in the Quran that so clearly justifies it?

Still however, I largely kept my feelings to myself.  After all, to openly declare that ISIS has a connection to Islam, or to admit that ancient dogma could actually lead to violence in the modern world was to invite a hailstorm of vicious criticism from the left.  This period was seeing the rise of the so-called Social Justice Warriors, and stories of people being shamed, harassed and fired for views that seemed anathema to the liberal orthodoxy were just beginning to become widely known.  It would still be some time before I finally had a nasty encounter with a friend infected by this Social Justice virus, but I was already becoming fearful of speaking my mind and worried about the social media firestorm that could consume me as it had so many others.

Charlie changed all that for me irrevocably.  For two reasons.

The first reason – we now saw a violent response no longer cast against the simplistic boogeyman of George Bush’s America. We had elected the “right” President for this job, a president who knew the difference between Sunni and Shia, between Afghanistan and Iraq, and had made reconciliation with the Muslim World a core commitment from the earliest days of his presidency (his speech in Egypt in 2009 seems as though from another planet when compared to today’s landscape). This was the President who withdrew from Iraq and killed Osama Bin Laden, and was totally unafraid to stretch out a hand of cooperation to Iran. If US foreign policy was singularly responsible for the rise of terrorism, then why did this new and more virulent strain of it arise after our troops had been withdrawn, our involvement in the Arab Spring minimal or on the right side of history as far as our own ideals are concerned, and our commitment to not be involved in the Syrian Civil War maintained?  This was the equation ceaselessly promoted by the Chomskys and Greenwalds for years in terms of how to prevent and end terrorism – why did it seem to only be increasing in this context?  People may point out that Obama stepped up the use of drones and failed to close Guantanamo Bay during his presidency, but this does not change the fact that now America was doing many things that these critics insisted we should have done all along.  Bush’s blundering cowboy-style ways were no longer our policy, and if such actions were the cause of such terrorism, surely shouldn’t reversing course at least reduce it?

The second reason it changed everything was my inability to stomach the obviously callow and absurdly illogical response to the attack by the far left any longer.  After such a clear violation of our most deeply held principles, to see so many members of my fellow liberal tribe indulge in the narcissism of our own supposed culpability in these actions was the final nail in my regressive coffin.  How could intelligent, well-educated, rational people make the false equivalence between the supposed offense caused by the cartoons and the murder of the cartoonists themselves?  How could people who supposedly believe in the equality of all people reduce non-white non-Christian people to mindless automatons, unable to think and only able to react to stimuli like a caged animal?  How could we indulge in so many ridiculous and irrational beliefs on the grounds of tolerance – like that Islam is a race, or that lampooning a religious icon is the same as bigotry against people, or that we actually do need to adhere to anti-blasphemy laws with respect to one religion, as opposed to the many others to which we would never supplicate ourselves?

For me, and I believe others, Charlie Hebdo was this last back-breaking straw.  We lost our fear of speaking out, and the moral clarity of this new liberal cause came into focus – there is no degree of religious offense that can justify murder, and there is absolutely no room in liberalism for those that would sacrifice its dearest principles upon the alter of a narcissistic, self-serving, disingenuous multiculturalism.  Since then, and through the most recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I continually see a new evolution of thought on this from my friends and family.  In tandem with a rejection of the post-modernist PC left for other reasons, the cries of “racist” for anyone who dare criticize religion are beginning to ring hollow and to lose their sting.  Previously more controversial commentators like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz are beginning to be featured on major news networks almost as often as their Regressive counterparts.  I can feel when I talk to people that many simply do not believe the largely disproven Chomskyesque theories anymore, and though we have not found it yet, we are in the process of finding a better way forward to end this threat of Islamist extremism without sacrificing our deeply held belief in tolerance and openness.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks most explicitly about the need for a Muslim Reformation.  But in tandem with this is another, perhaps even more important one – the Liberal Reformation, a Reformation that I believe is already taking place in our midst.  There is a movement out there, still in its infancy that is slowly coalescing around a set of core principles to save liberalism from itself.  A renewed advocacy for free speech, rational debate, and fearless defense of human rights over advocacy of any particular culture or group is beginning to find thought leaders and media figures, from older New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris to liberal Muslim reformers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Ali A. Rizvi, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, Asra Normani, and more.  There isn’t a widely disseminated term for it yet – Rizvi advocates for a “New Center” as one possible choice, while Milo Yiannopolous describes “cultural libertarianism“.  Along with a strong movement against Authoritarian Political Correctness seen in the public sphere today, this movement is pulling in figures from the right and the left with a renewed commitment to evidence and open debate as the way forward to solve the problems of terrorism and dogmatism moving forward.

It is the rejection of the Politically Correct, and the passionate embrace of the Factually Correct.  It has not been soon enough in coming, and it cannot be too soon when it succeeds in becoming the primary mode of our discourse.  Solving the problem of theocratic violence in our time – without falling into the hands of truly racist and xenophobic leaders like Donald Trump or Marie Le Pen – depends on our willingness to acknowledge the failure of the old framework and to embrace a rational process by which we find a better one.  The time to search our souls is now, and to emerge with new beliefs and a new vocabulary worthy of the struggle we seek to win.

In this crisis, dogmatic superstition isn’t the solution to our problems – dogmatic superstition is the problem.