Political Correctness

December 15, 2015

I want to address one of the issues coming out of recent events on college campuses, not to mention the rhetoric of Mr. Trump.

Frankly, I’m fed up with the attack on what the right wing calls political correctness. Apparently some think the condemnation of racism in our social interactions is merely political correctness. It should be open season on everyone. Of course that’s a two-way street. I can think of all sorts of epithets and insulting language to hurl at people who would protect nothing but their own right to trash everyone they dislike. That of course describes Congress – the wraps are off all forms of battle. There are no rules in a knife fight as a legal scholar once titled an article. Apparently civility is the enemy.

I think of politeness as normal and proper behavior in a democratic or any society. People were civil to me in Iran regardless of their reactions to my nationality or religion. But some denounce the very idea of civility, of being polite. Civility and politeness are essential to democracy because we have to live together. They are essential to democracy because we have to work across disagreements to get even the things we all agree on done. They are essential to democracy because if we make each other the enemy we are headed toward the breakdown of all democratic institutions, starting, as the Rehnquist Court made clear, with vote counting. Polite behavior toward each other is essential because without it we are headed toward violence.

I did not grow up with prejudice against Blacks but I did grow up with plenty of other instinctive prejudices that I did not investigate because they seemed so ordinary. Nevertheless I did not go around hurling epithets at people. I eventually learned to bury those prejudices, at least those of which I am aware, and to fight against the mistreatment of those selfsame people by our government and society. But being polite was always a different issue. It was about the respect that we are bound to show all people in a democratic society.

As you all know, I teach law. And I have often taught practice skills, interviewing, litigation, trial practice. I do not teach people to walk up to the jury box and ask a juror why we should want an ethnic, racial, or religious so-and-so like you to sit in the jury box. I do teach my students that talking with people or interviewing witnesses or clients requires respectful listening and showing some understanding of what they are trying to tell you regardless of what you may think of them. That’s necessary to get the job done.

When the people become the issue instead of their behavior, politics becomes particularly dangerous. When politics is no longer about issues but about people, it’s not just whether they lose a political debate; it’s that people stand to lose everything, to lose the protection of the laws. And by the same token the oppressors become the proper subject of the laws.

From the behavior of the right, or wrong, wing, I question whether they believe in democracy, and therefore whether, by their defense of political incorrectness they, the wrong wing, are entitled to respect. Makes me want to solve our political problems by just giving Texas back to Mexico.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 15, 2015.

 


Terrorism, the NRA “Solution,” and Safety at Home

December 8, 2015

For some people, the best solution to every problem is to shoot at it, and presidents aren’t leaders unless they’re yelling “charge” into battle. I want to bite off a domestic piece of that nonsense. In the wake of every terrorist tragedy, senators, sheriffs, NRA officers and supporters propose more guns, carry your guns, be ready to defend yourself, ourselves, wherever and whenever occasion arises.[1]

We have some 15,000 murders a year in the U.S., 40,000 suicides, mostly by firearms, and under 30 deaths a year from terrorism. CNN checked Obama’s comparison of deaths by firearms and by terrorism in the U.S. From 2001 to 2013, they found that people killed by terrorists in the U.S. were less than 1/1000th the number killed by firearms.[2] Firearms deaths dwarfed terrorism deaths even in 2001. Whether it’s a good tradeoff depends on what gets worse.

Note though, if we’re all armed, we’ll need to do things differently. Once we assume everyone is armed, when someone demands something, whatever it is – turn off the radio, get out of my way – are we toast if we don’t comply? Do guns become the tool of bullies? Isn’t that some of what police shootings of unarmed people reveal? Police say they were scared because someone with his back turned may have had something in his hands. Do we all get to be that scared, pulling the trigger at anyone whose safety we can’t determine? We’ll have to be suspicious. Who’s hot tempered? Who’s too scared to trust? Who’s a criminal, terrorist, gang member or bully?

America was built on trust and teamwork. Break that down and sap our strength. We might stop some terrorists but America’s strength will dissipate in squabbles and fear – like those that poison and stultify much of the Third World.

Arming ourselves will partially thwart some similarly-armed terrorists but guns can  be replaced by explosives which do their damage before anyone knows what’s happening.

A couple of decades ago a disappointed former student attacked our library – but thank heavens he attacked a glass door with an axe rather than attacking people with a gun. No school can avoid flunking some students out and no employer can avoid firing some employees. One such employee got a gun and murdered one of my clients some years ago. But the police are taught that it’s too late to react once someone starts to pull a gun. My client, armed or not, never had a chance. So now what?

There are alternatives. I’m a civil libertarian but I have no problem with cameras. Security staffs at many places have monitors showing them many parts of the building. I’m a lot happier with observe-and-respond than having a bunch of trigger-happy gun toters wandering around wondering if I or anyone else should be shot. Similarly, with the repeated police shootings of unarmed men, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they left their guns at the station for access only as needed. I’d also be much more comfortable with police departments and the FBI if they stopped bribing unreliable informants to trap people in stings, send innocent people to prison, and corrupt the Bureau in the process. Have a tool, use a tool. These are dangerous tools for routine use.

America would be much safer if we found ways to build on our principles, instead of abandoning them in the chimerical belief that we could protect ourselves better with guns.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 8, 2015.

[1] See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/12/03/ulster-county-sheriff-carry-guns/; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/marco-rubio-slams-bill-guns-terrorists-felons-article-1.2455280; http://www.darkcanyon.net/Terrorism%20A%20Good%20Defense%20Is%20A%20Good%20Carry.htm.

[2] See https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder; http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=705D5DF4-055B-F1EC-3F66462866FCB4E6; http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-terrorism-gun-violence/ .


In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.


Democracy Amid the Battle of the Oligarchs?

November 16, 2015

The Court recently decided that states can restrict campaign solicitation by judges but only judges. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.

Inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable and unlikely. It also seems unlikely that Americans in sufficient numbers will rebel before it’s too late. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, and enforce their prejudices. Liberals aren’t sufficiently united – there are race liberals, economic liberals, and big money liberals. That’s a big tent, not a movement. Conservatives believe in democracy in towns they control, and join the attack on giving the ballot to anyone else. They put institutions that they rule – specially chosen tribunals, faceless and ruthless markets – ahead of democratic government, hiding their contempt for democracy behind the claim that government, democratic government, is the problem. So behind all the hoopla of the Tea Party there is a real threat that this government of, by and for the people will perish from the earth.

Then what? At the turn of the last century democracy was rescued from abroad, by unrestricted immigration that turned into a tide of votes – organized by totally corrupt political parties but organized effectively. The corruption temporarily led the wealthy to put cleaning up government ahead of cleaning the pockets of the poor.

But here’s the point, when the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang, political money, jobs, the media, only the wealthy can take it down. That means that democracy will return only when the wealthy battle each other – and when the Gods fight, the heavens rain fire.

What could start such a battle among the wealthy? Kevin Phillips wrote about the way that different national Administrations shifted wealth among sectors of the economy – from mining and manufacturing to oil and finance.[i] So one option is to take sides among the giants. We argue about football teams. Why not fight about who gets wealthy; maybe they can be sufficiently provoked to provide a little democratic space. Remember it was the kings of Spain and Portugal who restored democracy to their domains, not the Republican army.

Short of that, we could play for the patronage of the moneyed people, trying to figure out what little we can do for them so they will brush us the crumbs off their table. Welcome to the so-called democracies of Central and South America, often described as clientilistic democracies by political scientists. Democracies they are not. They are competing bands of hirelings and sycophants fighting for the right to root for the winning team and pick up the t-shirts, ball caps and plastic trophies of victory.

So are you on the oil, gas and pollution Koch brothers team? The casino team of Sheldon Adelson? The financial teams of Warren Buffet or George Soros? The electronics team of Bill Gates? Step right up ladies and gentlemen; it’s going to be a war of the Gods. There’ll be droughts, fireworks, earthquakes, and lots of blood, folks, so get yourselves on the right team.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans.

Can we rally to save the planet and save democracy? As we used to say in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers finally won the Series, “ya gotta b’lieve.”

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics (NYU Press 2016). He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 10, 2015.

[i] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).


An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015

 

Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 3, 2015.

 


Shootings, Guns and the SAFE Act

October 6, 2015

The shooting at a community college in Oregon saddens me and leads me to these observations about guns.

One of my students has convinced me that the guns used in most of the recent mass shootings do not fit the description of assault or military style weapons. And they don’t fit the categories banned or regulated by the so-called New York Safe Act. In fact some of the damage was done by pistols, by handguns. So I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the New York statute is a piece of high profile posturing, sound and fury signifying nothing. Who knew? Perhaps the problem is a bunch of people writing legislation about something they know little about. I won’t speculate.

Certainly there are weapons that no people ought to have their hands on unless they are in the military – not even police need bombs.

But more than that, gun ownership should be licensed. All of us have licenses. I have a driver’s license and a law license. It’s a reasonable protection for all of us. If I can’t see well enough I won’t be able to get behind the wheel. That’s a good thing – regardless of how I might feel about it when and if that happens to me. And when I was a practicing attorney, people who came to me could expect that I could help them. That too is a good thing – although lawyers, professors and students have all sorts of quibbles about what is actually on the bar exam. Plus the bar examiners want to know if we have good character, and they collect affidavits from everyone we have ever worked for, to make sure.

Licensing makes sense, to make sure that people with guns have no record of crime or insanity as well as the knowledge to handle and store guns carefully. Licensing will not stop everyone from getting guns who shouldn’t have them. I lost a client years ago, the dedicated leader of a community organization, to a disgruntled job-seeker. But licensing would help. And tracing technology would deter some shooters. Nothing in the decisions of the Supreme Court denies the ability of states and cities to do record checks, licensing or require identifying technology.

The resistance of the NRA to licensing and tracing methodology is so irrational and so perplexing that it makes one wonder about their loyalty as well as their good sense. Indeed I think the NRA has been catering to the extremists in its membership, and some reflect the same animus. An NRA president recently referred to “The War of Northern Aggression”, his description of the secession of the Confederate States and South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter, the federal fort protecting the Charleston harbor. Some gun toting members of private militia style organizations clearly are aiming their rhetoric at public servants, at government, and at the people they call “Fourteenth Amendment citizens.” That’s right, they object to the fact that our Black brothers and sisters are free, equal, citizens who can and do vote. In other words they are still fighting the Civil War.

Hate groups are proliferating in this country. They are the most determined gun owners. All it takes is one of their number splitting off and firing into a crowd. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City was nursed in those groups.

Do you really want to put gun policy in their hands? Or, for that matter, people who posture about gun control without taking the time to study the problem?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 6, 2015.

 


Hillary

September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.

 


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