On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 27, 2016.


PC

December 31, 2016

I first heard the term political correctness when we were looking at colleges with our daughter. It was a term raised by other parents. I didn’t know what it referred to. Now it’s so common it’s just called PC. I just think of much of it as manners, and at the root of manners is kindness.

Kids tease each other mercilessly. Some of that becomes so concentrated on particular children we call it bullying. Words can, and do hurt.

I admit that sometimes the search for euphemisms seems useless, where the new term simply picks up the meaning of the old leading to a search for still newer ones. But there is a difference between terms that describe a problem and terms that invest that problem with an insult. It is a problem to be born deaf, blind, or retarded. But there are wonderful, decent, loving people with every one of those problems, and many who are very creative and effective.

And in virtually every case, other people can make that condition more or less severe or disabling. Race, religion, national origin, gender, of course, are only problems to the extent that others make them so. But why would we do that when we could reach out to the very folk that others belittle for such nonsensical reasons? Why when we could be helpful? Why when we can make our surroundings more pleasant rather than more hateful?

Isn’t that the message that all of our faiths teach us? Doesn’t gratuitous meanness simply make hypocrites of us all?

Is our culture so competitive that everything has to be turned into rankings, insults, failures, and, to use Trump’s favorite term, losers? I know that people justify that to encourage others to be strong. But what is strength? Is strength simply the ability to survive the taunts of others? Don’t we have enough challenges without taking each other down.

There is another possibility, that our own egos are so tender that we can only feel good by putting others down. That life is just a set of opportunities to insult everyone except our friends, and perhaps those people who would know that our taunts are insincere jokes.

It is interesting that President Obama cultivated just such a hard shell at his mother’s urging because of their experience in Indonesia. But Obama has never endeared himself to the taunters here. Clearly racial taunts and racial disdain aren’t for the purpose of strengthening people – they are designed to hurt, as if by hurting others we justify ourselves.

Just the opposite: hurting others undermines our own claims on this world. We are in the holiday season. This is the time when Christians are encouraged to find peace and good will toward all men. Jews embody that message most strongly at the Passover, closer in time to Christian Easter. Both of us are exhorted to love our neighbors. Similar prayers are in Muslim worship. We all share our origins in the story of Abraham. And one of the most crucial problems of this world is for all of us to find ways to live peacefully together.

Ultimately that is what good manners are about. Peace on earth; goodwill toward men – even though one of our friends was arrested not far away for wearing a t-shirt that said exactly that. Let’s start making this a better world. There are demons enough in this world without demonizing each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 20, 2016.


Lessons from a Century of Voting Reforms

December 31, 2016

Let’s discuss voting issues today.  Well more than a century of experience has gone into the way we vote. That century should be a source of confidence and concern because none of us is old enough to remember why all the rules are in the statutes.

If you’ve seen the 19th century election day paintings, people came to the polls with pieces of paper and dropped them in the ballot box. That made voting very public. Some states required an open, public ballot. That can be a protection but it also made voters vulnerable. Employers and landowners could and did retaliate economically. As political machines took root, they bribed, threatened and attacked voters to get what they wanted. Parties produced colored ballots that voters carried to the polls. They held their ballots up on their way so everyone could see and then dropped their colored ballots into the box. That satisfied the local machines. And it meant that elections were widely corrupted. Can you imagine a local gang, party operative or factory boss telling you whom you had to vote for and backing that up with beatings and bribes? Unfortunately that’s well-documented, both in big cities and small towns.

The secret ballot was developed around the turn of the 20th century to help solve that problem. It put the names of all the candidates on a single piece of paper so it wasn’t obvious who the voters supported. The idea was imported and known as the Australian ballot. Coupled with it was the development of election machinery, hardware like the lever machines we used in New York for quite a long time. But the election statutes reflect lengthy experience with attempts to defeat the secrecy and the security of the machines. So rules required inspecting, securing and sealing the machines, and identifying the voters at the polls based on permanent books of signatures. We had moved quite far from the chaotic march to the polls with random pieces of paper.

Some lessons from that history: It is easier to control the polling place itself than what happens at home or at work, where people might confront orders backed with threats or bribes on how to vote. But that doesn’t work without a way to verify what you did, and enforcing the secret ballot makes it hard to tell how you voted. Thank heavens most of us now have secure polling places. The secrecy and security of the ballot are essential.

The problem of imposters at the polls has largely been solved. But absentee ballots remain a security concern because of the opportunity for others to see, bribe, trick or intimidate the voter. Obviously there are some people who need absentee ballots, but early voting is a safer procedure for those who can get to the polls.

Now in the age of computers we seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel because we have forgotten what the problems were. But programmers, computer engineers and indeed their professional association, the IEEE, has made clear that touch-screen and internet voting cannot be secured given what we know now. Therefore, given current technology, New York’s choice of scanners with paper ballots is the safest available choice IF we do sample post-election checks of the machines against the paper ballots. We should not shift to a new system given the existing state of knowledge and tools. But sample checks should be universally required to keep the system honest, and Jill Stein is right to demand recounts to check the integrity of the system.

Selfies, on the other hand, are a problem. They create the ability to verify who one voted for. That, of course, is why people take them. But it makes it possible for nefarious groups to bribe or intimidate voters. We developed the secret ballot to protect voters and keep elections clean and honest. We need to stick to it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 13, 2016.


Is Democracy in America Coming Apart?

December 6, 2016

I wrote Unfit for Democracy to warn that American democracy could collapse in coming decades. But the problems are coming home to roost sooner than I expected.

How the economy treats people matters. That was the starting point for my work and, since World War II, for political scientists studying the survival or breakdown of democracy. But the American economy has been leaving lots of people behind. In my book I argued that the Supreme Court was diluting the value of ordinary Americans’ economic rights in favor of the wealthiest people and corporations. I feared the danger to democracy as people became more and more desperate.

I also worried the Court wasn’t enforcing the Bill of Rights for ordinary people and feared would-be dictators could take advantage of it. And I worried because the Court permitted politicians to fix the voting mechanisms to make fair elections almost impossible.  Changes made after the 2010 census allowed Republican-dominated legislatures to lock Democrats out of Congress and the majority of state legislatures for the foreseeable future. That Court-sanctioned gerrymandering now blocks fair representation in Congress and in many states. Trump kept claiming that the system was fixed, implying that it was fixed against him, but the Court allowed the Republican Party to block access to the polls in many states.[1] The election was partly fixed, in favor of the Republicans and Mr. Trump.

I also worried that legal changes underlying changes in the media and the primary systems were contributing to the polarization of America. As Jim Hightower once titled a book,  There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. I thought that was dangerous.[2]

Now we are finding out that only a quarter of Americans still believe that it is important to live in a democracy. And we’ve elected a president who befriends autocrats – autocrats who destroyed democratic governments, censored the press, put opponents in prison, and took over.

Once that happens, the people who wanted to break the system down have no voice in what the new system does. Autocrats around the globe become kleptocrats – they steal from everyone for themselves and their friends. In commentary earlier this year I described that as the Sheriff of Nottingham syndrome – the sheriff from the Robin Hood legend who took from the poor to fill the pockets of King John. Corruption in democracies doesn’t hold a candle to what autocrats do to their people financially, how opportunities suddenly depend on the dictators’ favor, how freedom disappears, real freedom, the freedom to walk around out of prison and take care of one’s family. Those folks who were so ready to break the system are likely to be among the first broken by it.

The Court won’t protect us. Those with power have no motive to protect us, but only to keep their own advantages. The rich will have more, not less control. Just look around at how Trump is deepening the threats:

  • His worldwide set of conflicts of interest become opportunities for Trump enterprises in the pattern of third-world kleptocracies;
  • He proposes to cut benefits for ordinary Americans, leaving more for himself and friends;
  • He selects America’s wealthiest to run our economy;
  • He rants about asserting “Second Amendment rights” at the polls as if menacing people at polling places advances democracy;
  • He rants about throwing people in jail – starting with his political opponent – though that threatens democratic competition;
  • He seems to think that winning means he can do whatever he wants.
  • And he and the Republicans seem to believe recounts are legitimate only for themselves – not to protect and enforce the voters’ choices.

If American democracy collapses, it will be the biggest victory for the world’s worst people. As Trump pounds on the pillars of democracy, we will have to do all we can to preserve the American democratic way of life.

[1] Unfit for Democracy, at 195-204.

[2] Id.  at 153-67; Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 GEORGIA STATE L. REV. 339 (2008).

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2016.

 


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