Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Music

The Newport Folk Festival has always been a great place to encounter up and coming artists. Although lately it's been stuck in a super white indie-folk boy-band rut, it still can deliver, especially on the auxiliary stages. When I was down on Saturday I saw Sarah Jarosz for the first time and, upon getting home the next day, immediately acquired her two albums. She is a phenomenon, someone whose musicianship and songwriting seem impossible for her age. (Jarosz is is 22 and had already played Newport in 2010 at the age of 19.)  Reader KS, herself a longtime festival-goer, commented during her set that Jarosz reminds her of the kind of genius of Alison Krauss, who also first appeared at Newport as a teenager. And Jarosz plays everything. Maybe she's got that once-a-generation Sam Bush gene that allows her to swing on any stringed instrument she picks up. On stage she swapped mandolin for clawhammer banjo for mandocello and back again. (I had to look all those up by the way... at the time I had no idea how she was playing or what she was holding in her hands on stage, but it was awesome.)

Oh, and she can sing too. Check her out. Follow Me Down is her second album, but either one will make you happy.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ross Douthat & The Limits of Libertarian Populism (Part I)

I'm generally a fan of Ross Douthat, or at least I'm as much a fan as one can possibly be of someone whose social politics reside in the Rick Santorum neighborhood. Since the election and before, his columns have been gently nudging the GOP to rethink (or rebrand) its politics and on some issues he has called out Republican hypocrisy. But I've been quite skeptical of his last few columns, which he has spent exploring in greater detail the potential of libertarian populism as a philosophical vehicle to bring about a Republican renaissance.

In his latest column, Douthat compares Obama's Democrats and the current GOP to the "court" and "country" parties of 18th century Britain, so designated by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, an oft overlooked conservative writer and purely by coincidence bearer of the same name I plan on giving my dog (should I ever get one). Douthat's point is that Bush and Obama's presidencies were both "a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top" that has resulted in an elitist government insulated from and unconcerned with the interests of the people. Libertarian populism, then, could prove to be effective against this kind of Leviathan, if the GOP can get its act together:
The problem for conservatives isn’t their critique of this court party and its works. Rather, it’s their failure to understand why many Americans can agree with this critique but still reject the Republican alternative.

They reject it for two reasons. First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups — mostly elderly, rural (the G.O.P. is a “country party” in a far too literal sense) and well-off. A party that cuts food stamps while voting for farm subsidies or fixates on upper-bracket tax cuts while wages are stagnating isn’t actually offering a libertarian populist alternative to the court party’s corrupt bargains. It’s just offering a different, more Republican-friendly set of buy-offs.

Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all. This explains why Republicans could win the battle for public opinion on President Obama’s first-term agenda without persuading the public to actually vote him out of office. The sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition, was powerful enough to overcome disappointment with the actual results.

Both of these problems dog the right’s populists today. There might indeed be a “libertarian populist” agenda that could help Republicans woo the middle class — but not if, as in Rand Paul’s budget proposals, its centerpiece is just another sweeping tax cut for the rich.
There's a lot of good sense in this diagnosis of the right's agenda problem, but I can think of a few criticisms that cause me to question Douthat's prescriptions. The first (and I'll tackle others in upcoming posts) is the notion that the GOP would be much more popular, and therefore successful, if they tried to govern productively. This hypothesis rests on the premise that Obama's agenda is unmoored from the priorities of the American people. Douthat calls it the "Great Disconnect":
This January, as President Obama began his second term, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to list their policy priorities for 2013. Huge majorities cited jobs and the economy; sizable majorities cited health care costs and entitlement reform; more modest majorities cited fighting poverty and reforming the tax code. Down at the bottom of the list, with less than 40 percent support in each case, were gun control, immigration and climate change.
My problem is that this is a static indictment—it supposes a major Republican shift without considering a Democratic response. What if the GOP in Congress suddenly decided to negotiate in good faith on a jobs program, health care, poverty alleviation, or tax code reform? Does Douthat believe that Obama would ignore them while reflexively issuing executive orders on border security and carbon taxes? Clearly not... if realistic compromises were possible (and such compromises are obviously the prerequisite for national governance), then Obama would be cutting these deals with the Republicans, just like Reagan did with a Democratic Congress. If Douthat wants to presume a political opportunity for a GOP that actually attempts to govern, then he must also presume the political upside for a president who would sign those compromises into law. In fact, the more the political middle ground becomes available for constructive work, the less incentive Obama would have to pursue left wing causes like gun control or climate change.

And let's take a closer look at those left wing causes that Douthat dismisses, I think, all too quickly:
The president decided to make gun control legislation a major second-term priority ... with firearm homicides at a 30-year low. Congress is pursuing a sharp increase in low-skilled immigration ... when the foreign-born share of the American population is already headed for historical highs. The administration is drawing up major new carbon regulations ... when actual existing global warming has been well below projections for 15 years and counting.
The shot at climate change here is silly. The very article Douthat links to, Nate Cohn's piece for The New Republic, establishes (like every other piece of responsible reporting on climate change) that "the greenhouse effect is truly undeniable" and ends with this:
The last decade is proof of climate change, not a cause for reflexive skepticism. It was the warmest on record, despite a laundry-list of mitigating factors like prolonged La Nina, a wave of modest volcanic eruptions, and an ebb in solar activity. As those attenuating factors subside, climate scientists anticipate another round of rapid warming.
In other words, the conclusion of Cohn's article is exactly the opposite conclusion that Douthat implies in his column. (Besides climate change is a threat to national security. Awaiting popular consensus before acting on that issue would be folly.)

Douthat's complaint about immigration makes sense only if you care about not exceeding "historical highs" in the foreign-born population. Considering his earlier, rather icky demand for "more babies, please," which an uptick in the immigrant population would contribute to, this is a strange protestation. Moreover, when asked specifically about this issue, the majority of the country supports immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, the most progressive measure in the Senate bill.

Finally, gun control. Douthat is right that gun homicide rates are at an all-time low, but this point is decontextualized. The Economist reported last week that crime rates across the board have dropped since the 1990s, and have done so throughout the West, not just in America. (They ignore some of the more creative explanations for this drop, but it's a worthwhile leader.) Where America continues to stand out, however, is precisely on the problem of gun homicides. After Sandy Hook, Business Insider published some illustrative charts about gun violence put together by Mark Reid of Australian National University, and this one tells it all:

In sum, these are all serious problems which require responsible governance and I'm happy to have a "court party" taking on such issues. But my own politics aside, I don't think it is clear that Obama is addressing them in a particularly left-wing manner. His policies may infuriate coal barons, Glenn Beck, and the NRA, but that does not mean he has left the political center open and the inverse of these politics sets that into relief. Keeping coal plants open for business, refusing a chance for citizenship to a lot of non-white people, and killing common-sense background checks on firearms is the politics of the far right, not the center. And if the GOP were amenable to better governing on major voter priorities, could we not also speculate that they might find compromises on these three issues more palatable as well? I mean, as long as we're wishing for pigs with wings, we might as well imagine they can use those wings to fly.

Put another way, it is difficult to see that a middle-class populist insurgency would find the kind of open water that Douthat suggests is out there.

Monday, July 22, 2013

MOOCs 2.0

Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of the online education outfit Udacity, gave this interview with the MIT Technology Review about the state of MOOCs and online education. He claims the following progress has been made:
We’ve evolved the MOOC concept into one that really helps people throughout the course to complete the course. The most recent completion rates in pilots we’ve been running have been 85 percent, as opposed to 5 percent or 4 percent, which is common in MOOC-land.
 That's pretty extraordinary and, when you hear how they accomplished such improvement, it all makes sense:
We mostly did this by two ingredients. One is to really add notable value to the certificates [students receive], and the value proposition we’ve chosen is core college credits slash degrees, which you won’t get unless you complete....

The second component would be we also provide fairly extensive student services now. We have people on the ground that help you along the way. It turns out, if you’re not just left alone to a computer system, if there are people talking to you online, that makes for much better completion rates.
Yes, it turns out the secret to online education is to make the courses worth something towards a degree and to have human experts available who help you out with guidance along the way. Sounds a lot like "teaching" to me.

Don't get me wrong... I don't want to come off as too flip or acerbic. I've represented my skepticism of MOOCs before, but if this model is how online education can move forward and it can help far more people acquire essential academic or professional skills, I'm all for it. I just think it's worth pointing out that the sine qua non of good education is, in fact, human guidance and communication. This seems especially pertinent in the area of the humanities, and Thrun understands (at least, now he does) that evaluations of writing are unlike quantitative assessments:
Compare this to critical dialogue in philosophy, discourse in philosophy. There, it’s really the subtlety of their language that makes all the difference and more—it’s not just about assessment, it’s not about grading, it’s also about feedback. When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not?
Quite right... why not?

Monday Music

Good Irish music is always worth listening too---and for my part fits the mood of beautiful summer days pretty well. Today's recommendation, a classic: Chieftains 4, the brilliant 1973 album of the greatest modern Irish folk group. Paddy Maloney's pipes are in great form here, and blended perfectly with the harp work of Derek Bell, who had just joined the group. Harp fans should listen for "Morgan Magan" and "Carrickfergus," the latter being perhaps the most Irish word ever invented. But my favorite track is "The Morning Dew," in which the pipes, the tin whistle, and the fiddle playing is superbly elemental and melodic, a mark of just how cohesive were The Chieftains.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bad Predictions

Megan McArdle has recently speculated that the GOP will have control of the government in 2017 based on a superficial reading of modern politics and gut instinct. The track record of pundits trusting their gut instincts instead of considering data driven and/or historical analyses is not good. Here is a part of McArdle's reasoning:
Since the Civil War, only two Democratic presidents have been succeeded by another Democrat.  Both of them–FDR and JFK–accomplished this by dying in office.

Since World War II, only four presidents have been succeeded by a member of their party.  As I mentioned above, two of them accomplished this by dying in office.  One of them accomplished this by resigning in disgrace ahead of his own impeachment.  Only one of them, Ronald Reagan, left office at the end of his appointed term and was succeeded by a duly elected member of his own party.  Mostly, the White House flips back and forth like a metronome.
Nate Silver has already demolished McArdle's claim at fivethirtyeight but his argument is statistical. My problem is with McArdle's scattershot history and logic. Noting that "Since the Civil War, only two Democrat presidents have been succeeded by another Democrat" ignores the many times the Republican party did successfully maintain control of the White House, which would itself undermine the whole "metronome" argument. While Democrats were not nearly so successful, that point obscures the massive party realignment that took place in the early 20th century. We might just as easily say that only once since the Civil War has the party that controlled the (white supremacist) solid South elected two different presidents sequentially, and that was Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. What does that say about Republican chances in 2016?

The metronome-since-World War II argument is more interesting, but still far from convincing. "Only four presidents have been succeeded by a member of their own party" seems like quite a lot considering there have only been twelve presidents since World War II. And McArdle does not acknowledge extraordinary historical variables like, say, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Overall, the metronome argument fails to respond to the eras of party dominance that are characteristic of American history. Demographic groups brought together into party coalitions tend to have a good deal of inertia behind them. Black swan events and a preponderance of other electoral variations can produce a winning candidate whose party is not currently dominant, but that does not lend any credence to McArdle's metronome argument.

Looking to 2014, the Senate is the current worry for the Democrats. But 2016, despite McArdle's wishful thinking, looks much brighter considering the number of states the Republicans will have to defend. So a one-party government is possible, but highly unlikely in our future and certainly not with the likelihood McArdle suggests.

Incidentally, for those of you shocked and dismayed that Nate Silver is leaving The New York Times, have no fear. Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium and Drew Linzer at Votamatic are both still right where they have been, and they are just as good (if not better) than Silver.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit: A Brief Photo History

Everyone is talking about Detroit's bankruptcy today. While some folks are quick to point to municipal pension obligations as the major culprit, the Detroit Free Press has a more detailed analysis that illustrates how pensions are only one part of a bigger financial problem, much of which stems from population decline and a smaller workforce.

I'll let the economic wonks get into to all that. I'd rather post about Detroit's industrial and de-industrial history. The elements that contributed to the city's vast promise always existed in tandem with the forces of disruption and injustice, a complex story explored in Thomas Sugrue's book The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Here, then, are some images of Detroit when it worked and how it worked.

Detroit Auto Workers:

The Chrysler auto plant and Detroit's low-rise urban sprawl around it. It was a city of homes.

Workers at the Ford River Rouge auto plant in 1944.

An NAACP march in 1963 for open housing. The March on Washington of the same year tends to pull people's attention off of the (often unsuccessful) fight for civil rights in the North, despite Martin Luther King's admonition not to in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

A city where workers organized...

And unions marched.

It was thought to be a golden city. One of my favorite facts about the city's history is that Detroit applied to be the host city for the Summer Olympics every four years between 1952 and 1972. It was not the Detroit we are reading about today. If Sugrue is right in his book—and I think he is—the reasons for Detroit's decline have much to do with race, de-industrialization, and income inequality. Sugrue wrote another piece in the New York Times last year about the weakening of its unions and the grim reality that "In Michigan, it's no longer a given that a blue-collar job is a ticket to the middle class."

On the upside, Jennifer Bradley at the Brookings Institute argues that Detroit still has many assets too. Perhaps the city can remake itself and this is a difficult initial step in that direction.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Reinvented Republican

Thomas Edsall is wondering today if the Republican Party is insane. A good question and a worthwhile column, though he's working through material a lot of other political analysts have been parsing for a while. One of his conclusions resembles my post from last week, that the Republican base is out of step with the rest of America, but powerful enough to keep the House in the uncompromising hands of the GOP. Nor is their intransigence showing any signs of disappearing. Here's Edsall:
A part of the Republican problem lies in the party’s disproportionate dependence on white Southern voters. These voters are well to the right of the rest of the nation, and they elect the dominant block of hard-right conservatives in the House. Of the 234 Republican members of the House, 97 — two-fifths — come from the 11 Confederate states, and these 97 are almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats.
Taking into consideration this fact about the Republicans, let's try to imagine a competitive national Republican contender for the White House—someone who can win the enthusiasm of this base (essential for the primaries) and win enough of the rest of the country to get 270 electoral votes. It's difficult. Perhaps it's not utterly inconceivable, but it's pretty damn difficult. And hoping against hope to put together such a patchwork national coalition of Republican voters will get harder each 4 year cycle.

None of this is news. It's what every non-right wing pundit (and a few right wingers too) have been saying ever since Obama was reelected—5 out of 6 elections and all that. But no one can push beyond this point, which is why I suppose Edsall is writing about the same thing everyone else has already written about. The trouble is that the reality of the Republican political dilemma is so problematic and so entrenched in its history as a party for white alpha males, that to construct a profile of a new kind of viable Republican is beyond the scope of our imagination.

But a reinvented Republican is needed if the party wants to return to the White House. If they don't, the GOP can content themselves with the remaining an obstructionist Congressional voting bloc by taking Ross Douthat's recent words to heart:
Political parties don’t exist because of political visions, and don’t need them to survive. They exist because they represent interests, and they can represent those interests reasonably effectively — especially in a system that empowers minority parties — without an overarching vision of the common good.
Unfortunately a vision for the common good is necessary if you want more people in the country to vote for you than the other candidate, which brings us back to the problem of a new kind of Republican. The history of party systems and elections might help give some sense to what I'm talking about. Presidential politics has usually been the history of party dominance, not party equity. Consider the White House occupants in the major American party systems:
  • The Second Party System: Whigs vs. Democrats from Jackson's time to 1854-ish, when the Whigs fell apart. The Democrats won every election but two. Both times the Whigs won the presidency, their candidate died in office. William H. Harrison famously died one month into office from pneumonia contracted when giving his inaugural address in the rain. Bad luck, but worse that his veep selection, John Tyler, was basically a Democrat on all policy positions, so the Whigs really had 4 years of the presidency in about 26 years of the system.
  • The Third and Fourth Party Systems: The third system incorporates the rather stunning rise of the Republican Party in 1854 from disaffected Whigs, Know Nothings, and Free-Soilers. The fourth system is really just a political designation for the Progressive Era. Both systems were dominated by the Republicans. Between 1854 and 1932 only three Democrats won the White House, James Buchanan (who barely defeated the first presidential Republican candidate, John C. Fremont in 1856), Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson. Cleveland won because he wasn't corrupt. Wilson won when Roosevelt's third-party bid split the Republican vote with Taft. So in the 72 years after Lincoln took office in 1860, Democrats had just 16 in the White House.
  • The Fifth Party System: the New Deal coalition. After FDR unseamed Hoover from his free market nave to his classically liberal chops, Democrats controlled the White House for all but two elections, Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, between 1932 and 1968. The Republicans had 8 years out of 36 in the White House.
  • There is some ambiguity here as we approach the present. If the Sixth Party System is meant to designate a political formulation in which Republican power is drawn from their dominance of South, then we are still operating within that system and have been ever since George Wallace took the South away from Democrats in 1968 for good. But maybe the Sixth Party System is more useful as a term that indicates the presidential success of the Republican resurgence in opposition to the Great Society. If that is the case, then it probably ended around 1992 with the election of Clinton and the triumph of the New Democrats.
There are a few points to take away from this brief history. First, electoral dominance has not meant another party has had no chance to win, but this has occurred for reasons transcending longstanding party policies, usually scandal or party fatigue. So Grover Cleveland won because he was not quite so corrupt as the many Republican administrations preceding him; Eisenhower won because of weariness with FDR/Truman and Korea (and he had been courted by both parties). Carter won because of his outsider status after Watergate. But the broader trend in party dominance was not undone by these intermittent victories by the other party.

Second, when party dominance is broken, the candidate who brings his party back into the ascendancy in no way resembles the roster of losers that came from the prior party system, or even the winners that predated them. Abraham Lincoln had been a northern Whig in the 1840s, but he won as a Republican in 1860 by campaigning to stop the spread of slavery. When FDR won in 1932, the patrician, erudite New Yorker didn't look at all like the Old South Democrats or the party bosses of the 19th century. Nixon and Reagan were not Barry Goldwater, but neither were they Coolidge or Hoover. And Clintonian politics were not like McGovern or Mondale, or Lyndon Johnson before them.

Which means that a new kind of Republican has to be created. If we are in a period of Democratic Party presidential dominance, then Republicans have two paths before them. They can either build a more creative party apparatus that allows for unlikely kinds of candidates to emerge and challenge the status quo. Or they can wither away and wait for a rising third party to replace them by representing a healthier, more attractive form of conservatism. Both paths will require a long time in the wilderness and a reinvented Republican that does not appear to exist as of yet.

*Head over to the handy site to look at the electoral results of any election.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Geoengineering Spooks

I have written about geoengineering science and the political imperative for research on solar radiation management. The goal in establishing such an initiative, as with any scientific research of such magnitude and impact, would be transparency through Congressionally funded research of major academic institutions. The last thing anyone wants is private individuals (read: pretender scientist whackjobs) messing about with the weather by performing unsupervised climate-altering experiments. But the austerity-obsessed Congress has scaled back government funding for research, so it does not look like Harvard or Stanford or Berkeley will receive major geoengineering grants soon.

But geoengineering research is going forward. The National Academy of Sciences will co-fund a project with the CIA to investigate geoengineering options to reduce the risk of climate change. Awesome idea. Who would we most want in charge of quick fixes to the global climate crisis? The CIA.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Is the Law Still Hegemonic?

From Eugene Genovese's history of slavery and slaveholding Roll, Jordan, Roll:
The law acts hegemonically to assure people that their particular consciences can be subordinated—indeed, morally must be subordinated—to the collective judgment of society. It may compel conformity by granting each individual his right of private judgment, but it must deny him the right to take action based on that judgment when in conflict with the general will. Those who would act on their own judgment as against the collective judgment embodied in the law find themselves pressed from the moral question implicit in any particular law to the moral question of obedience to constituted authority. It appears mere egotism and antisocial behavior to attempt to go outside the law unless one is prepared to attack the entire legal system and therefore the consensual framework of the body politic.
The section from which this is taken is actually called "The Hegemonic Function of the Law." Genovese's point in this part of his analysis is to establish how ambiguous and dangerous a world the Old South was for slaves, because there were two systems of law set in place: the legal architecture of the state and the rules and customs of plantation law. "The southern legal system increasingly came to accept an implicit duality: a recognition of the rights of the state over individuals, slave or free, and a recognition of the rights of the slaveholders over their slaves." All well and good from a planter's perspective, except that slaves continually expressed their own humanity, which led to a dilemma: when should the state intervene to exercise its power over individuals and when should it let masters exercise their power over their property... and what if the actions taken in this dual system of laws came into conflict? In other words, what if the state said a slave should be treated in one manner but the slaveholder wished to treat their slave in another? (This ambiguity carried with it the tremendous irony that in the Old South, planters were the state—they comprised the vast majority of elected officials.) Here's what Genovese argued about this dilemma:
Confronted with these painful and contradictory necessities, the slaveholders chose to keep their options open. They erected a legal system the implications of which should have embarrassed them and sometimes did; and then they tried to hold it as a reserve. They repeatedly had to violate their own laws without feeling themselves lawbreakers.
Rereading that today, I am struck by the inversion of the law's function in the contemporary South. In the slave South, the law was established to place restrictions on the actions of individuals, including white masters, but they circumvented or stood outside the reach of the law. White planters made the laws and used them when convenient; they refused to subject themselves to the same laws.

In Florida and other "stand your ground," right wing states, the law now functions to facilitate, not restrict action. These laws no longer curtail the excesses of individual judgment by setting them against the general will—individual judgment and the general will are no longer distinguishable. That is one terrifying result of the Zimmerman case. The hypocrisy in the slave South was that whites operated in violation of the law whenever they chose with impunity. The hypocrisy now is that the aegis of the laws protects whites as they commit horrific acts without much evidence that it protects blacks.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Race, Law, & the Zimmerman Verdict

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, there appears (at least to my eyes) to be a consensus forming that the jury probably reached the right legal verdict in acquitting Zimmerman, however unsatisfying that result is to our moral sensibilities. Justin Peters wrote as much on Slate before the verdict came in, arguing essentially that the prosecution did not make the case for murder because there simply was not enough evidence and, crucially, no eyewitnesses. Nor did the defense team employ the "stand your ground" law as part of their defense of Zimmerman. The dearth of evidence meant they could invoke Florida's self-defense statute (which actually uses the phrase "stand your ground," but is similar to most other states' statutes). Emily Bazelon at Slate makes a related point that the jury is not to blame for the immense injustice felt in this verdict, but something must be amiss in Florida's laws. She quotes Adam Weinstein, who tweeted "The legal lesson for Floridians: in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty."

The manslaughter charge and failure to convict is a bit more confusing, but comprehensible. A definition of manslaughter in Floridian law notes that the same self defense statute used against second degree murder can be used against manslaughter as well. Additionally, the language under "excusable homicide" and "justifiable homicide" seems like a shield for Zimmerman, no matter how much his actions make a mockery of those terms.

All of these readings of the verdict—there wasn't enough evidence; the jury was hamstrung by the limitations of the law; Zimmerman's actions met the requirements of self defense—are derived from our deep desire to believe that the law is objective territory. It is text on a page written by disinterested legislators and as a tool that metes out punishment to guilty persons, it often works. Sometimes, like yesterday, it doesn't. That it did not work against Zimmerman is the source of our frustration, we tell ourselves, but that is the cost of a criminal justice system in which the innocent are protected until proven guilty.

Except that that's not really the source of our frustration... not today. The bitterness from the Zimmerman verdict comes from our abiding though usually unacknowledged sense that the law is not objective territory, not in America in an altercation between men of different races. Paul Campos in Salon, reminds us that the case was inescapably about race. It had to be. It is impossible, he argues, to imagine a racially inverted scenario of the Martin killing, in which a large black man armed with a gun stalks an unarmed white kid, confronts him, shoots the white kid in a physical altercation, and walks free. It does not matter that the text of our criminal justice laws is color-blind, if our application of those laws and our interpretation of guilt is distorted by racism. There is no solace that the jury reached "the right verdict" here if we have no confidence juries can do the same when the defendants are black.

We don't need to imagine this injustice based on Campos's hypothetical. Evidence abounds. In Georgia, another state with a "stand your ground" law, a black man named John McNeil killed shot and killed a white man who was assaulting him on his own property. Neither self defense nor "stand your ground" protected him from a sentence of life in prison. William Barber, the North Carolina NAACP leader who stepped in to help McNeil, put it plainly:
There is a history and legacy of discriminatory application of the law. African-Americans are caught in curious position. On one hand, we fight against stand your ground laws, but once the laws are on the books they aren’t applied to us.
McNeil, by the way, was released in February thanks to the work of his legal team. He did not get his guilty verdict overturned... instead they got his conviction altered to manslaughter and his sentencing reduced to the six years he already spent in prison and thirteen more years of probation. (Unlike Zimmerman, McNeil won't be able to vote until 2026.)

And because race and gender are always intertwined, it is not surprising to discover that women are victims of the law's caprice as well. Marissa Alexander, a black woman and victim of an abusive husband, felt threatened by her husband during an argument and fired a warning shot into the ceiling with her legally owned gun. She was convicted and sentenced, because of mandatory minimums, to 20 years in prison. Her prosecutor, by the way, was Angela Corey, the same prosecutor who failed to convict George Zimmerman. Details from The Huffington Post's coverage reveal that it is a complicated case in which Alexander probably acted unwisely:
A judge threw out Alexander's "stand your ground" self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.

"The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they're innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences," Newburn said. "Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn't working the way it is intended."
Of course, George Zimmerman also acted unwisely. He did not have to pursue Trayvon Martin. In fact, he was instructed not to by the dispatcher. His jury seemed to take much longer than Alexander's to reach a decision. The difference seems to be exactly what Adam Weinstein tweeted: Alexander fired a warning shot and got convicted; Zimmerman killed Martin and he got off. It's a verdict that, as Rich Benjamin writes, "allows every paranoid, sub-intelligent, vigilante with a gun to go on victimizing black youth." Or, as Paul Campos wrote:
Florida’s laws, in their majestic equality, extend to people of all races the right to engage in vigilante killing that eliminates the sole witness to that killing.  To point this out is neither a defense of those laws, nor a claim that they will in fact be applied equally. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Demographic Tonic

The current stalemate on immigration reform—which is not really stalemate at all, but the death of immigration reform at the hands of the House Republicans—has everyone in Pundit Universe wondering exactly what electoral strategy lies behind this tactic for a Republican Party desperate to expand its appeal beyond pool & patio white males. A lot of Republicans took to the airwaves after last year's election to declare that immigration reform was now a priority. Lindsey Graham explained to Fox News that having Hispanic support for the GOP drop from 44% to 27% in 2012 was a catastrophe:
This is an odd formula for the party to adopt, the fastest growing demographic in the country, and we're losing votes every election. It's one thing to shoot yourself in the foot, just don't reload the gun. I intend not to reload this gun when it comes to Hispanics. I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that's an American solution to an American problem.
But hope faded in the lower house. House Republicans and their allies in the press have expressed the will of the right-wing hive mind and forcefully demanded that the immigration bill die as quickly as possible. This, you might imagine (as Lindsey Graham apparently does), would jeopardize their electoral chances in the next election. The lifeline some Republicans have been clinging to is the analysis of Sean Trende of (right leaning) Real Clear Politics, who explains that a sizable bloc of white voters mysteriously went missing in 2012, but they're bound to turn up in the upcoming elections. The Economist thinks his case is "persuasively argued." Paul Krugman thinks the whole idea is bunk, since Sean Trende's mythical Republican coalition would cohere around the ideological center of libertarian populism—but because "downscale blue collar white voters" would despise libertarian policies like cutting unemployment benefits. Maybe... but Krugman's is not a very convincing argument considering how often middle and working class whites vote against their economic interests anyway. Downscale white voters attracted to libertarian rhetoric usually have race and racism on the mind, consciously or subconsciously. Besides, attracting those votes could come at a cost. Mike Konczal at Wonkblog writes:
Non-voting whites might also be staying home because they are alienated in a world of increasing cultural liberalism, of gay marriage and globalization, one that doesn’t privilege their maleness and whiteness enough. A campaign that seriously addresses white working-class resentment might lose other voters (white and non-white) faster than they are gained.
Finally, Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz offer the best counter argument that Trende's statistical model is terribly flawed.

What, then, do we make of the behavior of the House Republicans? I can think of only three explanations.
  1. They believe the white Reagan coalition can somehow be reassembled, and pieces like Trende's article, however error laden, feed that belief.
  2. They are so insulated by safe gerrymandered redistricting that losing more Hispanic support, or conversely seeing little opportunity to gain Hispanic support even with a yea vote, matters not at all to them. Shorter take: Who needs a Reagan coalition nationally when the Strom Thurmond coalition exists in your district?
  3. Ideological dogma has turned their brains to mush, so they blindly follow their knee-jerk instinct to crush reform. Ironically it is reform that would cut the deficit, raise levels of capital investment, raise the GDP, boost productivity, and lead to higher interest rates, all of which are things conservatives should want. But these guys aren't conservatives, they are House Republicans.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Now Playing

One of way of beating the summer heat: listening to Swedish folk-rock band First Aid Kit. Somehow music of Scandinavian origin, indebted though it may be to rootsy American folk, makes the humid New England heat a little less oppressive. I can't prove that scientifically, but I'm certain it's true.

Currently playing, their latest album The Lion's Roar, which includes "Emmylou," their lovely tribute to Emmylou and Gram, and Johnny and June. Many thanks to music-loving reader TS, who brought that song to my attention. I had heard the band live at the Newport Folk Festival a couple years ago, but had forgotten them until the reminder.

Need an introduction? Try their cover of "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lee Lost Gettysburg

150 years ago was the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the great turning points of the Civil War. It has been remembered, especially in Southern circles, as a moment of tragic inevitability, a payment to the gods of war that the Confederacy owed for the privilege of having Robert E. Lee in command. In the years hence—starting almost immediately after the war ended—countless books and accounts of the battle have been written all attempting to unburden the ghost of Lee of the dishonor of having lost such a crucial battle.

There has been a bewildering array of culprits in the Army of Northern Virginia blamed for the defeat by Lee enthusiasts and Lost Causers. These scapegoats seem to come in and out of style like pleated pants; and like pleated pants, they should never be in style. Lee's second-in-command James Longstreet was for decades accused of taking too long to get his men in position for the assault on Little Round Top on Day 2. Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels repaired his reputation significantly, but not by condemning Lee so much as shifting the blame to cavalry commander Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson's replacement, Dick Ewell. Stuart has been blamed for joy riding without communicating the Union position to Lee, as if that made a difference to Lee's lack of conviction on Day 2 or his prideful stupidity on Day 3. By that time, Lee knew where the Union army was: directly in front of him on the high ground. Ewell was supposed to take Culp's Hill on far left side of the Confederate position, but as Terry Jones writes in today's Disunion column at The New York Times, Ewell was given mixed signals by Lee and his underlings all day.

In later years, the unorthodox Confederate Ranger John Mosby complained of the many histories of the war being written, "The whole trouble I have is butting up against the popular belief in the infallibility of General Lee." (Mosby, it should be noted, had his own skin in the game, since he had scouted and recommended Jeb Stuart's circuitous path into Pennsylvania.) Mosby wasn't alone. The canonizing of Lee rankled all those officers who wondered why they were being blamed after Lee ordered General George Pickett and his three fresh divisions to charge the fully entrenched federal position over a mile away across open ground.

Statue of the Recumbent Lee by Edward Valentine

Here is Lee, the man who lost the South the most important battle of the war, laid to rest in Arthurian glory in the Lee Chapel, a national historic landmark at Washington and Lee University.