The Thanksgiving Pause

Drop by later – out of town for Thanksgiving, down in the San Diego area with family down there, returning Saturday morning – should be back in Hollywood by noon. That means there is no Thursday evening column, and there will be no column Friday or Saturday evening either. The next will be Sunday evening. There’s no way around this. This is a one-man operation here. And it’s time for turkey.

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No Exorcizing Our Demons

Presidential candidates promise all sorts of things – a chicken in every pot, no gay folks ever coming near you again, lower taxes for you and higher taxes for everyone else, a government that does good things, a government that slowly disappears until everyone is a free man when it’s gone for good, guns for everyone, especially young school children, or guns for no one – and no one believes a word of it. These are promises. They’re value statements. Congress passes our laws. No president can dissolve Congress and just tell them to go home, so he can get on with what he wants to do. He has to convince them to pass the legislation that allows this or that, or forbids the other thing, and they’re an ornery lot. Even when a president’s party controls both the Senate and the House, there are always troublemakers – and even if things work out, there’s the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can rule legislation unconstitutional, no matter who wanted what. Obama promised some sort of universal healthcare, but the Affordable Care Act of 2010 is a poor excuse for that. There were too many hoops to jump through.

We got a subsidized free-market system instead, one that assumes the point of health insurance is for the right people to make big money. The major insurers get a ton of new cash-in-hand customers, and new rules about standards that are a drain on their new profits, but they come out ahead in the end. They seem to be fine with that, and Republicans should have loved what Obama came up with, but they hate the idea of subsidies for anything that’s personal, not business. Corporations need tax breaks, to keep the economy humming along. Actual people should pay their own way, as a matter of personal responsibility – and by the way, standards made up by bureaucrats always distort the free market, which regulates itself for the good of everyone, if it’s left alone. Obama had to listen to all of this, and early on he decided he’d give them a quasi-free-market system, not a single-payer Medicare-for-all sort of thing, hoping they’d support it. This wasn’t what any on the left really wanted, what all other industrialized nations have had for years, but it was what might finally pass.

The Republicans didn’t support it. In that two year window as Obama started out, a Democratic House and Senate passed it, by a hair – and then the Republicans took back the House. This was a close-run thing that could never happen again. It’s damned hard to keep campaign promises.

Obama also promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center – our prison for the worst of the worst in the war on terror that George Bush had set up in 2002 – a place that wasn’t on our soil, so we didn’t have to follow even our own rules. That had become an embarrassment, or even worse, shameful. We said these folks weren’t prisoners of war – we made up a special name for them, illegal combatants – so the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to them. We tortured many of them, but Bush had signed an executive order that declared that what we were doing with the waterboarding and all wasn’t really torture, even if the Geneva Conventions and every other nation said so, and we had once said so too. We claimed an exemption, and the world was rightly appalled, and appalled by the few new and unique trials we conducted, where our not-war-prisoners couldn’t even know what the evidence against them was – and it turned out most of the worst-of-the-worst were not guilty of anything at all. The Bush administration began to quietly release a few of them every few months, and now, with the exception of two or three actual bad guys, we don’t really know what to do with the rest of them. They go on hunger strikes now and then, and we force-feed them to keep them alive. Some commit suicide. We hate when they do that. That makes us look bad. They whole thing was a bad idea in the first place.

Obama promised to close the place – move those who remain to an isolated maximum-security prison here, use our legal system and international law to sort it all out, then try the few bad guys in our own courts, with rules we know work just fine – and be done with it. We’re better than this, and it’s easier to win the war on terror if the world begins to respect you once again.

The Republicans had enough votes to stop any of that. Obama gave up. The place is still in operation, even if the Republicans had won over the American people, and a few Democrats in Congress, with arguments that never made a whole lot of sense. We were told that these were really supermen – if they set foot on our soil they’d escape any possible prison or cell that might be invented, and then they’d kill us all. Or if not that, once here, even locked up in isolation, they’d cloud men’s minds and everyone left and right would be joining al-Qaeda, right here. They had magic voices, or they were carrying al-Qaeda cooties. Let one in and they’d infect all of America, kind of like Ebola, which has now killed most of the population Dallas.

It hasn’t? Of course it hasn’t. For political reasons, the Republicans created these Guantanamo demons, these unstoppable agents of evil – or maybe it wasn’t for political reasons. Maybe they really believed it all. These were supermen, evil supermen. They just assumed that was so. Seeing demons in a world populated by quite ordinary men somehow makes things easier. You can do nasty and unspeakable things with a clear conscience.

That’s playing out again. Jamelle Bouie explains:

To his friends, Michael Brown was a “gentle giant” – a “quiet person with a wicked sense of humor.”

That’s a far cry from the man described by Officer Darren Wilson in his grand jury testimony in the shooting of Brown. To Wilson, who stopped and scuffled with the 18-year-old on the morning of Aug. 9, 2014, Brown was a “demon,” a monster with terrible resilience and incredible strength.

“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson of the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Brown. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

Yes, that is odd, given their relatives sizes, but Wilson saw a demon:

In Wilson’s account, Brown punched like Balrog, with enough force to kill him outright. “I felt another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean, it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

At this point, Wilson says, he drew his gun. “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.” Brown – Wilson said – grabbed his gun and replied, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” Wilson fired, shooting through the glass panel, and prompting Brown to back away. Brown, according to Wilson, “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

The grand jury bought it. These two were evenly matched, except Michael Brown was a demon. What are you going to do? It’s like this:

Brown approached again and hit Wilson, who fired another bullet. At that point, Brown ran away, with Wilson following on foot. He fired more shots – striking Brown at least once – and stopped. But Brown wasn’t down. Instead – like a villain, or perhaps, an evil mutant – he appeared stronger than before. Wilson fired again. “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson said. “And that face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” …

Eventually, after 12 total shots, Wilson hit Brown in the head, killing him and ending the confrontation.

Bouie wonders what’s going on here:

Take Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions and language. He describes a vicious, combative Brown, quick with a quip and eager to fight with police. Based on what we know from his family and friends, this sounds out of character. But more than that, it’s weird behavior. Brown and Johnson were just at a convenience store, where they stole a box of Swisher Sweets. Most people who steal want to get away from the police, not charge in their direction. And while it’s possible Brown was itching to fight a cop, it just doesn’t ring true to who Brown was and how he understood himself.

More troubling is Wilson’s physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the “black brute,” a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The southern press was rife with articles attacking the “Negro Beast” and the “Big Black Brute,” notes Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. To the white public, the “black brute” was a menacing, powerful creature who could withstand the worst punishment. Likewise, in northern papers, it was easy to find stories of “giant negroes” who “spread terror” and rampaged through urban centers. That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality. “Jurors in the Rodney King beating trial were warned early on that the black motorist was not on trial,” notes a March 29, 1993 wire story on jury deliberations, “Yet they have heard King compared to a ‘monster,’ a ‘Tasmanian devil’ and a man with ‘hulk-like strength.'”

This is getting too familiar:

It’s worth noting the extent to which Wilson’s story echoes George Zimmerman’s account of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. Like Brown, Martin is aggressive; he approaches Zimmerman’s SUV, circles it, and threatens him. When he tried to escape, Zimmerman said, Martin punched him in the face, knocked him down, and began beating him on the sidewalk. Like Brown, Martin threatens Zimmerman – “You’re gonna die now” – and like Wilson, Zimmerman shoots him, fearing for his life.

That fear is the odd part:

Wilson was trained, armed, and empowered with the force of law. At almost any point in his confrontation with Brown, he could have called for backup and won control of the situation. But, he says, he was too gripped with terror to do anything but shoot. The same was true for Zimmerman, and the same was true for Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot.

Maybe Wilson is telling the truth. Maybe – like Zimmerman and Dunn and all the others – he faced a powerful black “demon” who wouldn’t stop and had to be killed. But this would be an incredible coincidence, or more likely, evidence of some terrible, criminal pathology among young black men.

Bouie doubts that:

Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this – his fear, his bias, and his training – met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.

If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn’t unique.

Adam Waytz is more scholarly about this:

It is not uncommon, for example, to see advertisements depict black athletes as superhuman. Think Ray Lewis in Old Spice commercials: seven heads spewing lightening, ripping the cosmos (not his heart!) out of his chest. Super-humanization of black people in film is also common – what Spike Lee famously termed, “the mystical, magical negro,” has become a stock character: Morgan Freeman (as God) in Evan Almighty, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Wesley Snipes in Blade, to name a few. Notably, unlike superheroes, which are predominantly white and act as saviors, Lee notes that these figures only show up “only to benefit the white characters.”

This needed investigating:

As psychologists, we examined whether these superhuman depictions exist in the minds of everyday (white) people.

In a first set of studies, we asked white participants to categorize words related to the concept “human” (e.g., person, citizen) and words related to the concept “superhuman” (e.g., magic, wizard). Before each word was presented on a computer screen, a picture of a black or white face appeared briefly, outside of conscious awareness.

Participants were significantly faster at processing superhuman compared to human words following black – but not white – faces, suggesting that whites associate blacks (vs. whites) more strongly with superhuman (vs. human) concepts.

In one study, in particular, whites were particularly adept processing a set of words including Wilson’s depiction, demon, when a black face appeared on the computer screen just before.

In subsequent studies, we found that whites even grant blacks superhuman capacities.

That leads here:

Most pertinent to Wilson’s testimony, our final study found that the strength of participants’ super-humanizing beliefs about blacks, in turn, predicted their perceptions that blacks feel less pain than whites from various injuries.

Wilson seemed to justify his infliction of lethal pain on to Brown precisely because he perceived Brown to be a superhuman threat.

It is easy to feel good or indifferent about super-humanization because it seems to “elevate” black people, celebrating their strength and resilience.

Some might even argue that super-humanization of black people is our earnest attempt to counteract sub-humanization of black people.

Perhaps so, but either way you’re not seeing the guy in front of you. He’s just a guy. Heather Parton (Digby) adds this:

We used to believe that citizens had an affirmative responsibility not to use deadly force when it was possible for them to escape the situation. Certainly, it was not acceptable for citizens to pursue and then shoot unarmed people on the street. The Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground movements have changed all that. Today, in many jurisdictions, if a citizen feels afraid, regardless of his ability to escape his situation, he is allowed to use deadly force. It’s a defense that doesn’t always work out for them, as we saw down in Florida with the Michael Dunn case, but more and more our society is accepting the idea that if you feel afraid you can shoot first and ask questions later.

Meanwhile, we have the police behaving as if they are patrolling the streets of Mosul instead of the town in which they live and raise their families. As former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara put it, they now place the “emphasis on ‘officer safety’ [where] paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed”.

The question then, is who are these people so afraid of that they need to fire blindly rather than run away? Who do the police think are the enemy they must shoot down in the street? It would appear to be the same old frightening stereotype it’s always been: the “black brute” – a “thug” in modern parlance. His super-human strength is so overwhelming that he could kill you with one blow. You fear for your life even when he is running away, even when he is wounded, even when he is unarmed. He is not human. He is “demoniacal.”

Yeah, just like the 142 guys left in Guantanamo, but there’s this:

One of the most troubling things about Darren Wilson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired on ABC News this week was his denial of racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. …

Wilson responded Stephanopoulos’ questions with virtually no emotion.

He said that although he never wanted to take someone’s life, he did his job properly. Wilson does not think he’s responsible for Brown’s death in the sense that he said the shooting was the only possible outcome of Brown’s actions.

He insisted the situation would have unfolded the same way if Brown had been white.

He then went on to deny racial tension even exists in Ferguson. Even more, he implied that police officers in general aren’t ever racist.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” he said. “I help people. That’s my job.”

Apparently he doesn’t help demons, and God’s folks are on his side:

On Wednesday, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer read from the grand jury testimony of Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and concluded that “chances are very good” that the unarmed teenager was possessed by a “homicidal demon.”…

“I think at this point that there was a demonic presence that was operating inside Michael Brown’s body,” the pastor continued, “activating him, energizing him, driving him forward in this homicidal rage. So when he says he looked like a demon, I think that’s because he was looking into the eyes of a demon that was driving Michael Brown to do what he did.”

Well, that settles that, but Michael Brendan Dougherty recommends not discussing demons at Thanksgiving dinner:

These advice columns are becoming a genre unto themselves. The stock villain: crazy right-wing uncle, the jokes about stuffing. But I recognize them by what they unwittingly emulate: guides for religious evangelism. The gentle, righteous self-regard, the slightly orthogonal response guides, the implied urgency to cure your loved ones of their ignorance. Your raging uncle will know the truth, and the truth will set him free.

That’s a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself – and so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Maybe we all see demons, instead of seeing, well, you know – actual other people. Michael Brown was one of those. Darren Wilson still is one of those. But we just can quit our demons.

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The Words That Follow

We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. What, slavery is bad? We fixed that. What, women are fully functional beings? They can actually think in a rational way, and ought to be allowed to vote? We fixed that. They can even hold public office now, although the matter of equal pay for equal work is still a matter of contention. Alcohol is ruining America? We fixed that. We changed the Constitution. Prohibition fixed that problem, and when it really didn’t, we fixed that too. We changed the Constitution back. Then we took care of Hitler and the Japanese. We fixed that problem too, and then fixed the problem of Korea and then Vietnam and then Iraq. We didn’t fix those three? At least we tried – and we did end slavery, and when we discovered that didn’t fix everything, we passed the Fourteenth Amendment a few years after the war that ended slavery.

That fixed the lingering issues, as it defined citizenship more carefully and had that equal protection clause – everyone really was equal under the law, any law. Almost one hundred years later that fix – that one amendment – was used to justify the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hey, some fixes take longer than others. That amendment, establishing a guarantee of equal protection for everyone, and thus equal legal rights for everyone, also desegregated our public schools and legalized abortion and is now legalizing gay marriage. We fixed what the Founding Fathers hadn’t thought through. Everyone is endowed with those certain inalienable rights, or they’re not. There is no middle ground. There can be no exceptions. Exceptions fatally undermine the whole idea of America in the first place.

Okay, we fixed that, even if some never got over desegregation, and now the Republicans are in their fourth year of passing voting laws at the state level that make it hard for the people who don’t vote for them to ever vote again, and the current Supreme Court is fine with that, as that Voting Rights Act of 1965 is so old-fashioned now. Gays will always be an issue. Are they really people like the rest of us? And of course white cops keep shooting unarmed black kids quite dead, and walk away – no questions asked. The kid was mouthing off. He looked kind of dangerous. He gets shot dead. Shoot a pain-in-the-ass white kid dead and there’d be holy hell to pay. There is an obvious equal protection issue here. Are pain-in-the-ass black kids really people like the rest of us? It doesn’t seem so at the moment.

Americans fix things, that’s who we are, but it seems there’s no fixing Ferguson:

Protests unfolded in major cities across the nation Tuesday night as more than 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds of police officers converged in the St. Louis area to guard against the vandalism, arson and looting that erupted in suburban Ferguson a day earlier.

Elsewhere, the demonstrations responding to a grand jury’s refusal to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, were largely peaceful. But as night wore on in Ferguson, the mood turned ugly.

A crowd of about 200 had gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department headquarters, where some chanted, “No justice, no peace.” At times they moved into the street and blocked traffic, only to be pushed back by police and National Guardsmen holding riot shields.

Yeah, it was a second night of this:

Shortly before 10 p.m., protesters marched to City Hall nearby, where two men banged on the front door, screaming, “We want answers!”

People started throwing bricks through the windows. They surrounded an empty police car parked in front, rocking it back and forth, smashing all its windows and setting it afire. Gunfire sounded; several Red Cross officials nearby said the police ammunition in the car had ignited.

Police fired tear gas, and protesters started choking, screaming, crying and trying to find their friends.

St. Louis County police arrived in armored vehicles and ordered people to the sidewalk, threatening to arrest anyone in the street. A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle. Officers picked her up, and the situation remained tense.

A teenage girl knelt in front of an armored vehicle? What’s this, Tiananmen Square? It wasn’t supposed to be the one teenager facing off against the government’s tanks:

Before the grand jury’s decision was announced, the police had made tactical decisions aimed at de-escalating the situation, a sign that with the attention of the world focused on how they conducted themselves, lessons had been learned from their response in August. Unlike in recent days, for instance, the police allowed the protesters to assemble on the street and block traffic outside the police station. …

Earlier in the day, the police seemed to have a strategy of staying out of sight. There was no line of officers in riot gear and no uniformed officers visible in the area around the Police Department, dampening the anger of some protesters.

And then there was. The state and local police weren’t going to show up in massive armored vehicles, in full battle gear, as an invincible army ready to bring on the pain to the locals, who worship strange gods and don’t even speak their language. That effort to deal with these local insurgents, by bonding with them or something, is now slowly being abandoned. These are not “our” people. At least they didn’t call in targeted airstrikes, or send in the drones with the Hellfire missiles to take out a car or two that might be carrying the leaders of the bad guys, and they didn’t use those old B-52 things to carpet-bomb selected neighborhoods. The Pentagon didn’t give state and local police departments everything that they weren’t using at the moment – but this is starting to feel like a war against an insurgency in a foreign country we don’t want to fall, a country we like just as we think it always has been.

This does seem like an insurgency that’s spreading:

In Washington, protesters lay down on a sidewalk outside police headquarters as if dead… Some had handwritten notes on their chests: “Black lives matter.”

There was a shocking moment at a demonstration in Minneapolis where a woman in a group blocking an intersection was run over by a car. The Star Tribune newspaper reported that the driver of the car honked at the protesters before knocking a few people onto the hood of the vehicle and apparently running over one of the woman’s legs. She was hospitalized with “very minor injuries.”

In Chicago, a few dozen protesters gathered Tuesday morning on a downtown street corner ahead of another protest at City Hall… About 200 members of the Black Youth Project staged a sit-in outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office Tuesday afternoon. They plan to be there for 28 hours.

Protesters in the New York area briefly blocked one of the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel Tuesday evening but then headed off to the city’s West Side.

And at Union Square, about 400 people had gathered shortly after dark before breaking into groups of marchers. …

As of Tuesday evening, more than 130 protests had either occurred or were planned for Tuesday in more than 30 states, the District of Columbia and at least three other countries, according to information compiled by CNN from organizers, media reports, social media and a site set up to help organize protest efforts.

It was the same out here in Los Angeles:

Roving groups of protesters in downtown Los Angeles stopped traffic in multiple locations across downtown Los Angeles after rallying in large numbers to protest a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of an unarmed black man.

A group of about 100 protesters briefly crowded an overpass of the 101 Freeway off Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, hemmed in on both sides by police officers and police cruisers, according to Kerri Rivas, spokeswoman with the California Highway Patrol.

One woman had been detained on the overpass in a confrontation with police officers, Rivas said.

By about 9:45 p.m., the 101 Freeway had reopened, but traffic problems had migrated elsewhere. Motorists trying to escape the jam flooded onto side streets in downtown Los Angeles. As cars packed Cesar Chavez Boulevard, a small group of protesters lay down in an intersection and caused another traffic jam.

One man screamed at the police, who were directing traffic and trying to control the flow of the protesters.

“Want to kill someone? Kill me, not some innocent bystander!” screamed one protester.

Cesar Chavez Boulevard is the east end of Sunset Boulevard, down by Union Station and Chinatown. Maybe they shouldn’t have renamed it. Cesar Chavez thought migrant farm workers were people too. Bobby Kennedy met with him out here in a California, just before Bobby Kennedy was shot dead at the old Ambassador Hotel down on Wilshire Boulevard. That was in 1968, just after he won the California Democratic primary. Some things feel like war, a war against an insurgency, where the insurgents keep insisting it’s their country too.

This puts President Obama in an awkward position. Look at him. He looks like one of the insurgents. Hell, his middle name is Hussein. His elegant intelligence, and his unfailing calm and courtesy, and his Harvard law degree and all the rest, can’t change the color of his skin or the history that comes with that. Long ago James Baldwin said that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” – and then he left for Paris and seldom returned. Obama is more than relatively conscious. Is he in a rage? He can’t be. He’s the president of all of us.

That’s why, on the second day of all of this, CNN noted this:

On Tuesday night in his hometown of Chicago, Obama tried to master a balancing act that has become all too familiar during his nearly six years in the White House, reflecting on the African-American experience while standing by the legal system. He offered comfort to those angered by the grand jury’s decision while identifying with the horror of looting and burning businesses in suburban St. Louis.

“If any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk,” Obama said.

But he added that “nothing of benefit results from destructive acts. For those who think that what happened in Ferguson is an excuse for violence, I do not have any sympathy for that.”

It was not quite the rhetoric of the transcendent political figure who spoke eloquently about race during his first campaign, nor was it the impassioned president who reacted so personally in the aftermath of Florida teenager Trayvon’s Martin’s death. Instead, Obama pledged to lead a national conversation on race and address the deep rooted belief in many communities of color “that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly.”

He came back to that Fourteenth Amendment thing again, that 1868 constitutional patch the fixed our system. He wants to fix things, and that does make him quite American. He does, however, know what doesn’t work:

His approach to Ferguson stands in contrast to remarks last year after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of the 17-year-old Martin. At the time, Obama recounted his own experiences as a black man in deeply personal terms.

“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

He continued: “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator.”

He was more circumspect on Monday as the violence in Ferguson first heated up, saying the nation has made “enormous progress in race relations.”

“I’ve witnessed that in my own life, and to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change,” he said.

That was a nice thing to say, but Paul Waldman thinks that didn’t work either:

Seldom in Barack Obama’s presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did last night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm while the cable news split screens showed clouds of tear gas enveloping the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He repeated the same themes as every time he has spoken about this subject – people have legitimate grievances but there’s no excuse for violence, we’ve come a long way but we have a ways to go, and so on. It never rang more hollow.

It’s just that there was no alternative:

What should he have said? Obama never actually promised to bind up the nation’s racial wounds – that was a hope others placed upon him, far too naively. Even before taking office, Obama found that no matter how hard he tried to be unthreatening, to incorporate different perspectives into his rhetoric, and to stress what Americans share, many of his opponents would never see him as anything but an agent of racial vengeance. No matter what he did, whether passing an economic stimulus or reforming health care, some would spin a story of race around it, one in which whites were under threat.

If anyone ever thought that with little more than the power of his example Obama could mitigate racial resentments, let alone fray the institutional ligaments of racism, they were quickly disabused of those ideas. His presidency has seen an extraordinary backlash against racial progress, from the Supreme Court to the statehouse, where affirmative action is dismantled, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, one Republican legislature after another passes laws to make it harder for people (mostly minorities) to vote, and conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black president coming after them because of the color of their skin.

And when Obama even dipped a toe into the waters of racial controversy, it sparked an eruption of outrage – how dare he express solidarity with the black college professor accused of breaking into his own house – or with the parents of a black teen shot down by a vigilante wannabe? How dare he?

There’s no winning. He looks like one of the insurgents:

So there were no words that would have diffused people’s frustration, fear, and rage. There was nothing that could be said from the White House by this president or any other that would have made everything okay.

Healing is not going to come from words, and it won’t be delivered from above by the president. It will come from the creation of a system that produces justice, a system where police treat citizens with respect, where power is distributed equitably, where people can have a modicum of faith that their lives and those of their children are considered to have value.

Didn’t we take care of that back in 1868 or so? It seems not, or we’re still working on it, but Brian Beutler adds this:

The contrast between Obama’s approaches to the Brown and Martin cases has always been overstated. Bracket one poignant but contentious sentence – “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” – and his responses to the two killings no longer seem so dissimilar. Even without an explicit presidential statement of commiseration, the public dialogue surrounding Brown’s killing polarized along depressingly familiar lines. Obama’s most impassioned comments about Martin came only after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman, not before Zimmerman had been indicted.

We have now effectively reached the same point in the Michael Brown case. There is no verdict, because Darren Wilson – the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown – won’t be charged with a crime.

The Grand Jury’s decision has reignited protests in Ferguson, and political leaders of all levels, including Obama himself, are pleading for restraint – mostly from the protestors themselves, but also from those who’ve taken up arms in anticipation of looting and riots. At the same time, Obama says he’s “going to wait and see” how the public reacts to the news before deciding whether to visit Missouri.

But he should go regardless. This is Obama’s first opportunity (for lack of a better word) to use the bully pulpit to steer the national agenda in a positive direction since the slaughter at Newtown, Connecticut, and it’s the first time since he became a national figure that he’ll be able to address a racially charged issue without an election in his future to deter him.

Ah, Obama is finally free to fix this:

For the entirety of his presidency, and for much of his pre-presidency, Obama’s been too encumbered by a real but vague set of hindrances – his ambition, his temperament, an idealistic sense of a president’s significance to the country, and an acute awareness of his position in the country’s racial firmament – to speak about racial issues with the candor that his attorney general, Eric Holder, has exhibited.

Now he has a chance to fix that:

Martin’s killing was in some ways more racially fraught, or straightforwardly racial, than Brown’s. Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, wasn’t a police officer; Martin wasn’t suspected of a crime; and he was walking alone, in a predominantly white neighborhood. His killing sparked a debate about controversial gun laws, but his altercation with Zimmerman, the way the case was handled, and the verdict all spoke to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and to an undercurrent of white vigilantism in conservative parts of the country. In the end, the story was about a zealot who killed an innocent black kid and got away with it.

Some of these factors apply to Brown’s killing and some don’t. But the very complexities that distinguish Brown’s case from Martin’s – that Wilson is a cop; that Brown was shot and killed at a distance with his hands in the air, according to some witnesses; that Ferguson police essentially turned on the residents they are paid to serve; that the overwhelmingly black community is governed by overwhelmingly white public officials – are what make Ferguson such a thorny issue. They’re also the things that make it so urgent for the president, but particularly this president, to give them proper context.

Brown’s killing isn’t just about race, or local police procedure, or the militarization of police, but civil rights, a vast array of racial disparities in America, and the cardinal importance of the franchise, all of which are connected to one another. Obama is uniquely suited to trace those connections.

In short, Obama should get his ass to Ferguson, right now. Ezra Klein isn’t so sure about that:

Obama’s language didn’t soar tonight, just as it didn’t soar in his first set of remarks on Ferguson. And that’s because Obama can manage polarization on immigration in a way he can’t manage polarization on race.

President Obama might still decide to give a major speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want. When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.

Brian Beutler would be disappointed, and Jesse Walker argues that the whole thing is pointless:

I watched an Obama speech tonight. The cable channels aired it in a split screen with footage from Ferguson, so as the president urged calm I could see a live feed of the country ignoring him. His comments were predictable and bland, but even if he’d given us the most stirring rhetoric of his career I can’t imagine that it would have made much difference. This is the news, not The West Wing. Words are cheap.

Julia Azari agrees:

There are a number of perspectives on crisis rhetoric and on the purposes of presidential speech, but one idea that drives at many of the key points is communication scholar David Zarefsky’s argument that presidential rhetoric has the power to “define political reality.” To quickly synthesize Zarefsky’s point with other work on presidential communication… this kind of communication has a few main purposes. These include putting a political situation in the context of the past, particularly our Constitutional heritage, and applying a useful and resonant metaphor to the situation that allows us to understand what caused the problem and what kinds of solutions are available. In other words, presidential speech can provide a common text for all citizens to understand a situation, and provide a sense of what the policy alternatives are, even if agreement among them remains elusive.

This is a tremendously difficult task. When non-white human beings have been historically denied full citizenship, how does anyone begin to forge a common understanding of an event that rings true across racial and ethnic lines? How can anyone transcend the polarized state of American politics?

How can words fix that? How can any of this be fixed once and for all? We’re Americans. If something is wrong, we fix it. But we’ve been kidding ourselves.

Posted in Race and America, Riots in Ferguson, What Obama Cannot Say About Race | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Watching It Burn Again

Los Angeles was supposed to be nice – beaches and sunshine and the big stars up in Hollywood, and Malibu and the surfers just a few minutes up the coast. Everyone was tanned and pretty, and loose and relaxed and creative. The job in aerospace was cool too, even if it was just in Human Resources – others made the spy satellites and missile guidance systems and such. At least the office was just right, high up, with a wall of windows that looked out over the LAX runways and then all the way to downtown and beyond. Imperial Highway was right outside the door. Randy Newman, who grew up in Pacific Palisades and who had three uncles who were famous Hollywood film-score composers – Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman and Emil Newman – and who went on the win his own Oscars for his film scores – wrote his paean to Los Angeles back in 1983 – I Love LA – and it mentions Imperial Highway:

Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride…

It was supposed to be like that, and it was (she was blond, actually) but Randy Newman, being who he is, also added this:

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like ‘em nowhere…

There were things you saw, but didn’t really see, and you moved on, but at that office window, on Thursday, April 30, 1992, we all stopped working and looked out over Imperial Highway and the runway and watched Los Angeles burning. The scattered columns of smoke rose in the distance, all over the city, out to the mountains.

That was the second day of the massive Los Angeles riots – the largest riots since the sixties, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the death toll was fifty-three, the worst death toll since the New York City draft riots way back in 1863, not that anyone remembers those. These lasted six days, with about a billion dollars of damage done to everything. Koreatown went up in flames. Even shops here on Hollywood Boulevard were looted and burned – many of them still have metal roll-up security doors than rattle down each night, in case something like that ever happens again.

We watched from the office window down at the airport. A young African-American computer programmer said she was ashamed for her people. A white guy said he was ashamed for the human race. Management sent us home early, if you could be home. That night, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate out here, KNBC, and asked people to stop what the hell they were doing and watch the final episode of The Cosby Show instead. He’s a strange dude, and seems even stranger now as it may be that he was a serial rapist all along, but back then he was trying to be helpful – or he was worried about his ratings.

That didn’t help:

The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire & Doheny, tearfully saying, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. The 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 Army National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.

Friday evening, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness”, summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the “urgent need to restore order” he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated and he would “use whatever force is necessary.”

And then it was over. Not much force was really necessary. The riots had run their course. There wasn’t much more to burn, and there was no point in burning anything anyway. Nothing was going to change. The previous year, four or five white Los Angeles Police Department officers had beaten the crap out of Rodney King, who was black, after a car chase. King had given up and was on the ground, but they kept beating him with their nightsticks, and then they kicked him around, and then beat him a bit more. It happens, but someone had caught it all on videotape and had shopped that amateur videotape to the media. Everyone out here saw those white cops beating that helpless black guy on the ground, who was just lying there half-conscious, and beating him again and again. It seemed to go on for eight or ten minutes. It didn’t, but the LAPD was still in a fix. The officers were finally brought to trial.

Ah, but then there was that change-of-venue motion. That was successful. They couldn’t have the trial downtown, in the city – the people were too outraged. They couldn’t be fair. The trial was moved out to Simi Valley, at the far end of the San Fernando Valley, where, curiously, almost all the folks were white and where a whole lot of LAPD cops had retired. Ronald Reagan is buried at his ranch in the nearby hills. On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury out there acquitted all four officers of assault, and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. Maybe one of them had gone a bit overboard, but they were deadlocked on that last charge. All four officers walked. The riots followed.

African-Americans had had just about enough of this crap. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Martin Luther King had forced the country to change the law – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been signed, sealed and delivered – but even now white cops, in a pack, could beat a single black man, who had already surrendered to them, nearly to death – and walk. Do you think that’s okay, whitey? You’ll be sorry.

In the end everyone was sorry. Much was lost in those riots and little was gained, except for a few police reforms, not quite implemented yet. Whites did, however, become more fearful, and angry that they were more fearful. Blacks saw nothing much would change. They saw that their anger, while satisfying for a week or so, made them look like thugs – or like fools who burned down their own neighborhoods. They also saw that their anger alone changed nothing.

Los Angeles hasn’t changed much, except that the cops are a bit more careful, or circumspect, and America hasn’t changed much. This time it’s Missouri:

A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.

The decision by the grand jury of nine whites and three blacks was announced Monday night by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert P. McCulloch, at a news conference packed with reporters from around the world. The killing, on a residential street in Ferguson, set off weeks of civil unrest – and a national debate – fueled by protesters’ outrage over what they called a pattern of police brutality against young black men. Mr. McCulloch said Officer Wilson had faced charges ranging from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Darren Wilson walked, and this happened again:

Word of the decision set off a new wave of anger among hundreds who gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department. Police officers in riot gear stood in a line as demonstrators chanted and threw signs and other objects toward them as the news spread. “The system failed us again,” one woman said. In downtown Ferguson, the sound of breaking glass could be heard as crowds ran through the streets.

As the night went on, the situation grew more intense and chaotic. Bottles and rocks were thrown at police. At least one police car was burned; buildings, including a Walgreens, were on fire, and looting was reported in several businesses, including a beauty supply store and a liquor store. Law enforcement authorities deployed gas or smoke to control the crowds. Protesters blocked Interstate 44 in St. Louis in the neighborhood where another man was shot by police this fall.

Before midnight, St. Louis County police officers reported heavy automatic gunfire in the area where some of the largest protests were taking place. Flights to St. Louis Lambert International Airport were not permitted to land late Monday as a safety precaution, officials said.

Cue up George H. W. Bush in 1992:

Mayor James Knowles III of Ferguson, reached on his cellphone late Monday, said he was there and wanted to see National Guard troops, some of whom were stationed at a police command center, move to protect his city. “They’re here in the area,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re not deploying.”

Use whatever force is necessary, and cue up Rodney King:

Mr. Brown’s family issued a statement expressing sadness, but calling for peaceful protest and a campaign to require body cameras on police officers nationwide. “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the statement said. “While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?

The White House also issued its statement:

President Barack Obama is seeking to calm the mood after a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on any criminal charges stemming from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

He recognized the events in Ferguson have revealed a deep distrust between law enforcement and communities of color. Obama expressed his hope that this will lead to a broader discussion of race in America.

“This is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America,” Obama said. “There are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making this up.”

Expect a few weeks of everyone on Fox News saying that communities of color certainly are just making this up, but the outrage was real enough:

Shops were looted and burned on Ferguson’s main street. There were smoke bombs, tear gas, thrown rocks and random gunshots. In Ferguson, the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown was almost as bitter and hollow as his killing itself.

Brien Redmon, 31, stood in the cold watching a burning police car and sporadic looting after the announcement that there would be no indictments for Mr. Brown’s death at 18.

“This is not about vandalizing,” he said. “This is about fighting a police organization that doesn’t care about the lives they serve.”

Thomas Perry, 30, was equally bitter. “I support my people who are out there doing it,” he said. “For years they’ve been taking from us. We don’t care.”

The outrage was also spreading:

In New York City, a rowdy group of hundreds of protesters made its way up Seventh Avenue through Times Square, halting traffic as police officers raced on foot to keep up. “No justice, no peace,” the group yelled as cars honked and tourists snapped photos from the sidewalks.

“Everybody is frustrated,” said Hugh Jackson, 28, who just moved to New York from Atlanta and wore an American-flag-print bandanna over his mouth as he passed Carnegie Hall. Referring to a young black man killed a few days ago in Brooklyn, Mr. Jackson added that “you’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”

In Philadelphia, a large but orderly crowd gathered downtown, singing, playing drums and chanting, “Justice for Mike Brown.”

In South Los Angeles, a crowd of protesters chanted, “From Ferguson to L.A., these killer cops have got to pay,” while about half a dozen police officers stood nearby. By 7:30 p.m., the crowd that gathered in a South Los Angeles park had dwindled to about 70 people. Chanting had given way to somber speeches.

“We’re not here to socialize. We’re here to demand justice,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor and chairwoman of the Pan-African studies department at California State University, Los Angeles.

That wasn’t much, but there are reports from other cities. At this point it’s the middle of the night just before the second day. Back in 1992, the second day was the worst day, but there is this:

Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson’s lawyers said Monday that a grand jury’s decision not to indict him in the shooting of Michael Brown showed that their client’s actions “followed the law.”

“From the onset, we have maintained and the grand jury agreed that Officer Wilson’s actions on August 9 were in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the procedures of an officer,” Wilson’s attorneys said in a statement, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Law enforcement personnel must frequently make split-second and difficult decisions. Officer Wilson followed his training and followed the law,” they continued. “We recognize that many people will want to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. We would encourage anyone who wants to express an opinion do so in a respectful and peaceful manner.”

The man did what he was allowed to do, by law, and you have to respect that. Police work is hard, but there’s this:

Part of Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden’s reaction to the news that a St. Louis County grand jury would not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for shooting her son Michael Brown was caught on tape.

St. Louis alderman Antonio French, who has frequently been present on the ground in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 shooting, posted a brief video of Brown’s mother’s reaction after the announcement.

“They still don’t care,” McSpadden, identified by French in his post, said – “They ain’t never gonna care.”

And there’s this:

About 200 people stood in the cold in front of the Ferguson Police Department, listening on radios as the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, Robert P. McCulloch, read his statement on Monday, reality dawning that they were not going to hear what they wanted.

During Mr. McCulloch’s announcement, Mr. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head, stepped up onto a platform where protest leaders were standing.

“Defend himself from what!” Ms. McSpadden yelled, when Mr. McCulloch spoke of Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mr. Brown, defending himself.

She bowed her head and tears started streaming down her cheeks. …

“Everybody wants me to be calm,” she said, her eyes covered with sunglasses. “You know what them bullets did to my son!”…

Mr. Head then turned and began to yell.

“Burn this down!” he repeatedly shouted, inserting an expletive.

The crowd then began to roar. Some rushed toward the fence near where the police were lined up.

They’d had enough of this crap, and it certainly was crap, as Ben Casselman explains:

Former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Ah, but police shootings are different:

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

Something is going on here:

There are at least three possible explanations as to why grand juries are so much less likely to indict police officers. The first is juror bias: Perhaps jurors tend to trust police officer and believe their decisions to use violence are justified, even when the evidence says otherwise. The second is prosecutorial bias: Perhaps prosecutors, who depend on police as they work on criminal cases, tend to present a less compelling case against officers, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The third possible explanation is more benign. Ordinarily, prosecutors only bring a case if they think they can get an indictment. But in high-profile cases such as police shootings, they may feel public pressure to bring charges even if they think they have a weak case.

“The prosecutor in this case didn’t really have a choice about whether he would bring this to a grand jury,” Ben Trachtenberg, a University of Missouri law professor, said of the Brown case. “It’s almost impossible to imagine a prosecutor saying the evidence is so scanty that I’m not even going to bring this before a grand jury.”

The explanations aren’t mutually exclusive.

That’s not very helpful. But consider this:

Americans are sharply divided along racial lines as to whether Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with murder in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday finds.

Fifty-four percent of nonwhites – including blacks, Latinos and Asians – say Wilson should be charged with murder, while just 23% of whites agree. And 38% of whites say Wilson should be charged with no crime at all, while just 15% of nonwhites hold that position. …

Most Americans agree that Wilson should at least face some form of criminal charges, the poll finds.

But it’s not that simple:

There is broad 63% agreement that peaceful protests are justified if a grand jury doesn’t indict Wilson for murder. But a racial divide exists over whether violent protests are justified in that case, with 22% of nonwhites saying yes while 10% of whites agree.

The differences underscored the broader perceptions of prejudice among police officers.

Only 19% of whites said some or most police officers in their areas are prejudiced against blacks, while 33% of nonwhites held that opinion.

Half of all whites say that “almost none” or “none” of the police in their areas are prejudiced against blacks. Only 35% of nonwhites agreed with that view.

Half of all whites seem to live in Simi Valley, in the shadow of the Reagan ranch. This is like 1992 all over again. Stand at the office window and watch it all burn, again. Six hours have passed since the announcement. The second day begins now.

Posted in Black Outrage in America, Ferguson Missouri | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Life in the Age of Infinite Outrage

People generally quarrel because they can’t argue. G. K. Chesterton is said to have said that, and he was onto something there. Imagine you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, quite lost, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do next – to try to head back and see if anything looks familiar, to take the road to the right, or the road to the left, or to just sit and wait to see if anyone comes along who can tell you where you actually are, so you can decide how to get to where you’re going. And then you hear a pretty good argument for one of those options, calm and well-reasoned, and the tension eases, until someone says about the source of the suggestion – “What does he know anyway?” Maybe he was born in Kenya.

You expected an argument about the options, and you got chin-out and chip-on-the-shoulder posturing intended to display dominance. That never helps, as argument is a process for working things out and quarreling is somewhat the opposite. This seems to be a power and domination thing. Quarreling is about ending up looking good, with everyone else looking foolish. But you still stay lost, as what was won and what was lost in the quarrel was quite irrelevant to the problem itself.

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter, but human nature is what it is – defensiveness and feigned certainty may be necessary evolutionary traits, necessary to perpetuate the species. Self-confidence attracts mates or something. Be sure of yourself – that’s the ticket. Believe in something, no matter how foolish, and believe in it sincerely. You’ll get the girl, or, if you’re a politician, you’ll get the votes. George W. Bush knew this. His father didn’t. His father didn’t win a second term as president. He was merely competent and reasonable. He told everyone to read his lips – no new taxes – and then he raised taxes, to keep the government functioning, which kind of had to be done. His son, who got us into two long and absurd wars, and who ruined the economy for a generation, was neither reasonable nor competent – but he was sure of himself. He was the one who won a second term, in spite of the disasters piling up right and left. He believed what he believed. Somehow that was enough, or enough for enough people. Both elections were close.

No one considered him wise – Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives only found him useful – and that was the problem for many voters. That eighteenth-century British fellow, William Shenstone, put it well – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.”

That differentiation is useful. Zealous men do ask that you stand in awe of their sincerity, of the strength of their beliefs, which is supposed to be impressive, in spite of the facts at hand, which will do just fine – but this had led to political discourse where outrage is the most useful option, the default position for respect. It’s the business model for Fox News too – CNN and MSNBC never got it. That made Bill O’Reilly a rich man. The zeal on the right has a home. Judiciousness will have to find a home somewhere else.

The current outrages are obvious. Obama did no more than announce his administrative adjustments, which really don’t solve any major issues with our dysfunctional immigration system, but it was an outrage anyway. They won big in the midterm elections and all the Democrats ran away from him, and lost, so he’s being arrogant in adjusting the enforcement priorities – or downright uppity here. The House Republicans also finally filed their lawsuit, suing Obama for damages they cannot specify – but they are outraged that he is adjusting a few due dates in Obamacare, due dates that they had insisted he adjust – and then, late Friday afternoon, a Republican-controlled committee released the results of their two-year investigation into Benghazi, hoping no one would notice that they admitted that there was no scandal at all. There never was:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

Ah, that’s settled. That matter will now disappear. Republicans had been looking foolish about this for a long time. Now they can quietly drop it and hope no one notices. Americans have short memories. The eighth Benghazi investigation being carried out by a House Select Committee appointed in May will probably mysteriously disappear. It already has. No one has talked about that for months.

That’s not how things work:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday blasted a House GOP-led investigation that recently debunked myths about the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“I think the report is full of crap,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The House Intelligence Committee released a report on Friday evening, which took two years to compile, that found there was no outright intelligence failure during the attack, there was no delay in the rescue of U.S. personnel and there was no political cover-up by Obama administration officials.

After Graham was asked whether the report exonerates the administration, he initially ignored the question, and then eventually said “No.”

And if judicious men show you the grounds of their belief, there’s this:

Graham didn’t clearly pinpoint why he dismissed the report’s findings, but suggested its information was provided by people in the intelligence community who had previously lied to Congress about the attack.

“I don’t believe the report is accurate given the role [former CIA deputy director] Mike Morell played in misleading the Congress on two occasions,” Graham said.

Host Gloria Borger said the report found no one lied.

“That’s a bunch of garbage,” Graham replied.

This is zeal. Perhaps such zeal is admirable, in a George Bush kind of way, but at his site, The Dish, Andrew Sullivan isn’t feeling it:

Isn’t there something quite delicious in the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusion that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – scandalous about “Benghazi” apart from what we knew already: that the outpost was poorly protected and that the State Department had been complacent about consulate security?

And as for Graham:

His only basis for saying that is that the report relied on the testimony of Obama administration officials – even though it also sought testimony from a bunch of Republican conspiracy theorists, even though it was packed with Republican ideologues, even though it had enormous reach and subpoena power.

At the Dish, we tried long and hard to find something in the Benghazi story that could really stand the test of moderate scrutiny … and failed. I even jumped the gun and impugned the honesty of [National Security Advisor] Ben Rhodes at one point in trying to be as skeptical of administration assurances as any journalistic outfit should be. But after a while, we decided to ignore the issue unless something striking or new came up. In retrospect, that was the right call.

Sullivan wonders what’s going on here:

When you think of the staggering amount of time and resources devoted to chasing down this rabbit-hole, you have to wonder what is really fueling the GOP. I don’t think it’s a positive agenda to tackle some of our obviously pressing problems: eleven million undocumented immigrants, climate change, Iran’s nuclear potential, Jihadism in Iraq, soaring inequality. I think this is rabid hatred of a president who does not share their priorities and desperation to find some kind of quick and easy way of consigning him to a treasonous asterisk. They’ve failed on both counts.

Fox News reports that Graham doesn’t see it that way:

A leading Republican wants to expand the House investigation into the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack by adding a Senate probe….

Referring to the House Select committee Chairman, and the Democratic ranking member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said the current House investigation should be expanded.

“[Republican] Trey Gowdy and [Democrat] Elijah Cummings have done a good job,” he said. “I can’t imagine the U.S. Senate not wanting to be a part of a joint select committee. We’ll bootstrap to what you’ve done, but we want to be part of discussion,” Graham told Fox News. “What I would suggest to [incoming Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell is to call up Speaker Boehner and say ‘Listen, we want to be part of this’.”

Fox News will provide full on-going coverage, although this is curious:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday said Republicans are partially responsible for not passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“Shame on us as Republicans for having a body that cannot generate a solution to an issue that’s national security, that’s cultural, that’s economic” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Senate has passed an immigration bill three times, Graham said, adding that he “loves” his GOP colleagues in the House.

That’s nice, but they may not love him back:

“I’m close to the people in the House, but I’m disappointed in my party. Are we still the party of self-deportation?” he asked. … “Is it the position of the Republican Party that the 11 million must be driven out? I have never been in that camp as being practical.”

They won’t like that, and then there’s this:

“I’m thinking of trying to fix illegal immigration and replacing sequestration. I will let you know if I think about running for president. It’s the hardest thing one could ever do. You go through personal hell. You have got to raise a ton of money. I’m nowhere near there,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Asked if his response could be labeled as a “maybe,” Graham nodded and said, “That’s what it was.”

He probably will run, although he may not survive the first primary. He will offer a mixture of outrage and reasonableness, trying to get the blend just right. That’s an ongoing challenge for Republicans in this age of outrage, but Sullivan is impressed by none of it:

One reason I’ve been somewhat forgiving of Obama’s executive action on immigration deportations is that I see it as a function not of his choice to be an “imperial” president, but as a result of unprecedented Republican obstructionism. It is, for example, jaw-dropping to hear the GOP declare its shock at the president’s refusal to take into account the results of the mid-terms as a democratic norm he should respect. These are the same people who, in January and February of 2009, responded to Obama’s landslide amid a catastrophic and accelerating depression by giving him zero votes on a desperately needed stimulus package.

We now know they decided as a conscious strategy to say no to anything and everything the new and young president, inheriting two failed wars and an imploding economy, wanted or needed. They were nihilist then as they are nihilist now with respect to the practical demands of actually governing the country. At some point, something had to give, and I can see why, after the GOP had again refused to allow immigration reform even to come to a vote in the House, that he might have decided to say fuck it.

Sullivan does note that the New York Times’ resident young conservative Ross Douthat sees things differently:

Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted – as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)


I just do not recognize this reality. What exactly did the GOP want in 2009? That’s hard to say. But on the issues on which Obama had campaigned – say, the stimulus, healthcare, climate change and immigration – he embraced conservative ideas, as Ross concedes. He packed the stimulus with tax cuts (and still got no GOP votes); he embraced Mitt Romney’s and the Heritage Foundation’s version of healthcare reform over his own party’s preference for single payer (and was treated as a commie because of it); he supported cap and trade on climate change – again a policy innovated on the right (and got nowhere); and on immigration, he backed George W Bush’s formula but sweetened it over six years with aggressive deportations and huge increases in funding for the Mexican border. So what on earth is Ross talking about?

The facts of the matter should have settled the matter:

Yes, Obama does have ambitions to be a transformational president, a liberal Reagan. And, after two thumping victories, he still has a solid shot at getting there. And if we had a reasonable or even feisty opposition party – as opposed to a foam-flecked insurrection against everything – that legacy would have been even more informed by conservative thought and ideas. And the idea that no executive action is allowed is just as silly. The executive branch has a key role in determining things like the level of permissible carbon emissions (via the EPA), or priorities in immigration enforcement (via ICE), or national security (via the Pentagon, NSA and CIA).

At some point, in other words, it was the GOP who made this president more executive-minded, by removing every other pathway for him to pursue what the country elected him to do. Because they never really accepted that he had won big majorities twice for a reason. And that reason was change.

That wasn’t the only reason – that’s far too glib an answer. There may be more going on here, something that goes far beyond politics. We do live in an age of unmitigated outrage. The mechanisms that mitigate foam-flecked insurrection against everything have disappeared in the general culture, as Jonah Goldberg notes:

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing – mostly. Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting that it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone – a little – but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

Sullivan goes one step further:

I wonder also if our digital life hasn’t made all this far worse. … When you sit in a room with a laptop and write about other people and their flaws, and you don’t have to look them in the eyes, you lose all incentive for manners.

You want to make a point. You may be full to the brim with righteous indignation or shock or anger. It is only human nature to flame at abstractions, just as the awkwardness of physical interaction is one of the few things constraining our rhetorical excess. When you combine this easy anonymity with the mass impulses of a Twitter-storm, you can see why manners have evaporated and civil conversations turned into culture war.

I’m as guilty of this as many. There have been times – far too many – when my passion for an idea or revulsion at a news story can, in its broadness of aim, impugn the integrity or good faith of other individuals. If I had to speak my words to the faces of those I am painting with too broad and crude a brush, my language would be far more temperate (and probably more persuasive). And so restoring manners to online discourse is a hard task – especially in an era of instant mass communication and anonymity. It’s hard for a blogger or writer not least because you don’t want to sink into torpor or dullness or vapidity. You want to keep the debate fresh and real.

In short, the internet has aided and abetted the default-outrage in our culture, or maybe even created it:

Our web silos – from the Jihadists to the left-blogosphere to the right-media complex – make it easy to thrive and succeed without manners, and even easier to fail in the marketplace by upholding them. But manners matter. They create the climate in which free debate is possible. They are the lubrication that can make a liberal polity actually work.

Outrage is, however, too easy and too rewarding to resist, and now it’s available to everyone. The Republicans have Fox News as a platform for their outrage, and an occasional spot on CNN when CNN needs ratings, but everyone else can blog or Twitter or rant on Facebook, or leave comments here – manners be damned. Of course Goldberg wrote that book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change – so he’s one to talk. When you live in the Age of Outrage resistance is futile.

Kevin Drum continues the thread:

I have not, personally, ever noticed that human beings tend to rein in their worst impulses when they’re face to face with other human beings. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Most often, they don’t. Arguments with real people end up with red faces and lots of shouting constantly. I just flatly don’t believe that the real problem with internet discourse is the fact that you’re not usually directly addressing the object of your scorn.

So what is the problem? I think it’s mostly one of visibility. In the past, the kinds of lapses that provoke internet pile-ons mostly stayed local. There just wasn’t a mechanism for the wider world to find out about them, so most of us never even heard about them. It became a big deal within the confines of a town or a university campus or whatnot, but that was it.

Occasionally, these things broke out, and the wider world did find out about them. But even then, there was a limit to how the world could respond. You could organize a protest, but that’s a lot of work. You could go to a city council meeting and complain. You could write a letter to the editor. But given the limitations of technology, it was fairly rare for something to break out and become a true feeding frenzy.

Needless to say, that’s no longer the case. In fact, we have just the opposite problem: things can become feeding frenzies even if no one really wants them to be. That’s because they can go viral with no central organization at all. Each individual who tweets or blogs or Facebooks their outrage thinks of this as a purely personal response – just a quick way to kill a few idle minutes. But put them all together, and you have tens of thousands of people simultaneously responding in a way that seems like a huge pile-on. And that in turn triggers the more mainstream media to cover these things as if they were genuinely big deals.

The funny thing is that in a lot of cases, they aren’t.

That’s where the confusion begins:

The problem is that our lizard brains haven’t caught up to this. We still think that 10,000 outraged people are a lot of people, and 30 or 40 years ago it would have been. What’s more, it almost certainly would have represented a far greater number of people who actually cared. Today, though, it’s so easy to express outrage that 10,000 people is a pretty small number – and most likely represents nearly everyone who actually gives a damn.

This calls for same statistical realism:

We need to recalibrate our cultural baselines for the social media era. People can respond so quickly and easily to minor events that the resulting feeding frenzies can seem far more important than anyone ever intended them to be. A snarky/nasty tweet, after all, is the work of a few seconds. A few thousand of them represent a grand total of a few hours of work. The end result may seem like an unbelievable avalanche of contempt and derision to the target of the attack, but in real terms, it represents virtually nothing.

The culture wars are not nastier because people on the internet don’t have to face their adversaries. They’re nastier because even minor blowups seem huge. But that’s just Econ 101. When the cost of expressing outrage goes down, the amount of outrage expressed goes up. That doesn’t mean there’s more outrage. It just means outrage is a lot more visible than it used to be.

And that makes this the Age of Outrage. It’s been fully enabled. Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it, and judicious men are pathetic losers. How many “followers” do they have, after all? Republicans get it. Democrats don’t.

Posted in Political Outrage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Something Shifted

Anyone who watches sports knows all about momentum. The play-by-play folks talk about it endlessly, telling everyone what is obvious. Suddenly everything is going right for one team and everything is going wrong for the other. No one knows why it happens, and the football or basketball players have no idea what’s going on either, but one side is now demoralized and can’t do one thing right, no matter how hard they try, and the other side isn’t trying at all – one thing after another just falls in place. This doesn’t apply to baseball of course – baseball moves at a glacial pace, with periodic moments of interest, which precludes anything like momentum. That’s watching grown men try to outthink each other before they actually throw that pitch or swing that bat. Baseball is oddly cerebral, but other sports aren’t. In those, everyone knows when something just shifted, and then they know who’s going to win, unless the momentum shifts again.

What happened? In football it’s usually a minor thing, an unexpected fumble when things are going just fine, or in basketball one more turnover than usual, which shouldn’t make a difference but suddenly does – and there’s no recovery. Try harder – play far more aggressively – and it all falls apart. It must be maddening, and in frustration, the team that’s lost momentum ramps up the aggressive play even more, which makes things even worse. Be too aggressive and you make really dumb mistakes, over and over. It’s a trap, but there’s no alternative. The post-game interview with that pretty woman from ESPN is going to be painful. Be humble.

That’s hard to pull off. Athletes generally aren’t humble – that’s not how they got good at whatever it is they do, which is to physically dominate pathetic losers, which is how they see the other guys over there. Humility gets in the way of that, and it’s the same in politics too. Politics may or may not be a game – some feel that good policy matters more than who wins or loses each news cycle and then each election – but it is about dominance, and often about humiliating the others guys. They’re pathetic losers, after all. Republicans talk about Democrats that way. Democrats talk about Republicans that way. Trash-talk isn’t confined to sports.

Then something shifts. This week it was an address from President Obama, not carried on network television, where he explained that he was going to adjust a few immigration enforcement activities, to concentrate on sending dangerous folks back home to wherever they came from, and getting to everyone else, who really shouldn’t be here, later. That was the outrage that had everyone on the right seething, which was probably an overreaction. They said that Obama was taking unilateral action to change immigration policy, changing the law all on his own without Congress – the folks who create and pass all our laws – when he was, of course, making minor adjustments to the enforcement of current immigration law, such as it is. And now they’re even angrier because Obama has dared them to do what they have taken pride in not doing for six years, he’s dared them to pass some actual immigration legislation instead of bitching about him and whining that it’s just not fair that no one respects them. Given the rifts in their party maybe they can’t pass anything any longer – Ted Cruz wants one thing, shutting everything down to get Obama to stop doing whatever he’s done, and John Boehner wants another, a legacy of some sort of meaningful legislation. That’s their internal gridlock, so their situation may be hopeless, and they know it, which makes them even angrier, and anger leads to more aggressive action. They can’t help themselves.

That’s why, the day after President Obama announced how he would handle resource allocation regarding immigration, which every legal scholar in the world sees as his job, as actually established by specific statutes – here’s a good rundown of that – Republicans got really aggressive and did this:

House Republicans filed a long-threatened lawsuit Friday against the Obama administration over unilateral actions on the health care law that they say are abuses of the president’s executive authority.

The lawsuit – filed against the secretaries of Health and Human Services and the Treasury – focuses on two crucial aspects of the way the administration has put the Affordable Care Act into effect.

The suit accuses the Obama administration of unlawfully postponing a requirement that larger employers offer health coverage to their full-time employees or pay penalties. (Larger companies are defined as those with 50 or more employees.)

In July 2013, the administration deferred that requirement until 2015. Seven months later, the administration announced a further delay, until 2016, for employers with 50 to 99 employees.

The suit also challenges what it says is President Obama’s unlawful giveaway of roughly $175 billion to insurance companies under the law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the administration will pay that amount to the companies over the next 10 years, though the funds have not been appropriated by Congress. The lawsuit argues that it is an unlawful transfer of funds.

This was aggressive, but many have pointed out the problem with this. Congress seems to have no standing – there is no tort – they cannot demonstrate that they were harmed in any way. They cannot point to any damages. Secondly, that “employer mandate” was only delayed. By the time they find a judge willing to hear their case and get this to move up to higher levels, hoping for the Supreme Court to weigh in, that part of the law will have been implemented. That issue will be moot, and no one thinks they’ll find any court at any level that will touch this. The issues here are entirely political, not a matter of law. They also spent a lot of taxpayer money retaining council on this, but the first two firms bailed on them. They didn’t want to be embarrassed. The House Republicans have now retained the rather liberal legal scholar Jeffery Toobin to represent them, and Toobin sees this as kind of a lark – he’s always been fascinated by separation of powers issues. He may soon bail too. The issues here really are interesting, in a theoretical way, but as a practical and legal matter, this lawsuit is obviously absurd. It is, however, aggressive. When you’re down two touchdowns with twenty seconds left to play in the fourth quarter, and it’s fourth and twenty-five on your own ten-yard line, you do something dramatic. You throw that impossible long pass, hoping for the best, even if you’ve lost the game already. That shows you have spunk. Everyone will admire you. That seems to be the idea here. This also shifts attention away from everyone asking these guys what THEY propose about the issue of the day, immigration reform.

This is an attempt to shift momentum, but the same day we got a late Friday afternoon news-dump, after most of the media has shut down their news operations and turned to weekend sports stuff and fluff, the usual thing you do when you want no one to notice what you’re admitting. That one was interesting:

A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

Benghazi? We never mentioned Benghazi. Who’s talking about Benghazi? There’s no scandal there. There never was. What were you thinking?

That matter will now disappear, more or less, in another attempt to shift momentum. They had been looking foolish about this for a long time. Now they can say they never did take the scandal talk all that seriously. The eighth Benghazi investigation being carried out by a House Select Committee appointed in May will probably mysteriously disappear. What House Select Committee? We don’t do foolish things like that.

Will these two things shift the momentum back to the Republicans? That’s questionable, and their aggressiveness in response to Obama doing stuff on immigration because they didn’t want to, or because they really don’t want to, may get them in trouble. ThinkProgress notes their current aggressive statements:

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) didn’t “have the citation at the tip of his tongue,” but he nonetheless claimed Obama might be guilty of a felony for aiding or abetting a foreigner to enter the United States, according to Slate. Brooks made the claim early Thursday before Obama released the details of his plan, so Brooks said he couldn’t be sure. But he added that Obama might end up in jail. “At some point, you have to evaluate whether the president’s conduct aids or abets, encourages, or entices foreigners to unlawfully cross into the United States of America,” he continued. “That has a five-year in-jail penalty associated with it.”

And there’s this:

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach stoked fears about ethnic cleansing in a radio interview discussing President Obama’s planned executive action earlier this week, posted by Right Wing Watch. When a caller worried that “when one culture or one race or one religion overwhelms another culture or race,” they “run them out or kill them,” Kobach responded by suggesting that Obama’s lawlessness could indeed lead to what he identified as ethnic cleansing. …

During the same radio program, he warned that Obama’s real plan was to create “newly legalized voters” who would favor socialism. “The long term strategy of, first of all, replacing American voters with illegal aliens, recently legalized, who then become U.S. citizens,” Kobach said. “There is still a decided bias in favor of bigger government not smaller government. So maybe this strategy of replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens, if you look at it through an ethnic lens… you’ve got a locked in vote for socialism.”

And of course Obama’s executive action is deeply offensive to blacks and Hispanics:

Count on Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) to revive the anti-immigrant refrain that immigration reform hurts African Americans. In remarks to Fox News’ Sean Hannity after Obama’s national address Thursday night, Gohmert doubled down on this claim, saying that Obama’s action is “so offensive” to both African Americans and Hispanics “who have an enormously high unemployment rate.” He then inferred that the 4.9 million immigrants who are being granted deportation relief from Obama would take others’ jobs at a 1-to-1 ratio, saying, “That’s going to leave 5 million people out in the cold.”

And there’s this:

Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) immediately winced when he heard outgoing Tea Party darling Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) warn that Obama’s action will create illiterate immigrant voters. “The social cost will be profound on the U.S. taxpayer – millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language,” Bachmann told reporters the Wednesday before Obama’s address. And when the Washington Post asked Bachmann how she knew that, she said, “I’ve been down to the border.” She added that she was sure that those who aren’t citizens are likely to successfully commit widespread voter fraud. “Even though the president says they won’t be able to vote, we all know that many, in all likelihood, will vote. … People do vote without being a citizen. It’s a wink and a nod – we all know it’s going to happen.”

When you’re losing the game, or the argument, you get more aggressive. What else can you do? And you make things worse. Momentum is a bitch, and sometimes the coach has to get those who are making dumb moves off the field:

All but drowned out by Republicans’ clamorous opposition to President Obama’s executive action on immigration are some leaders who worry that their party could alienate the fastest-growing group of voters, for 2016 and beyond, if its hottest heads become its face.

They cite the Republican Party’s official analysis of what went wrong in 2012, the presidential-election year in which nominee Mitt Romney urged Latinos here illegally to “self-deport.”

“If Hispanics think that we do not want them here,” the report said, “they will close their ears to our policies.”

“Both the president and the Republican Party confront risks here,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. While the danger for Mr. Obama is “being perceived as overstepping his boundaries,” Mr. McInturff said, “the Republicans’ risk is opposing his action without an appropriate tenor, and thereby alienating the Latino community.”

Hey, don’t do dumb things:

“Clearly with Republicans not having gotten to a consensus in terms of immigration, it makes it a lot more difficult to talk about immigration as a unified voice,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises House leaders. “There are some people – because there’s not a consensus – who somehow end up having a little bit louder voice than perhaps they would normally have.”

Among them is Representative Steve King of Iowa, once a fringe figure against immigration and now a voice of rising prominence, to many leaders’ chagrin. Congressional leaders were privately relieved that many Republicans had left Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday before Mr. Obama announced plans for his address, reducing the availability of anti-immigration conservatives for cable-television bookers seeking reactions.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

Ah yes, Steve King of Iowa. The odds of shutting him up are about zero, and with primary season approaching he’s going to become the de facto leader of the anti-immigration forces. In the same way that Republican candidates all have to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring and swear eternal loyalty to Israel if they want access to his billions, they’re going to have to kiss King’s ring and swear eternal hostility to any kind of immigration from south of the border – and they’re going to compete wildly to express this in the most colorful ways possible. And that’s a big problem. Expressing loyalty to Israel doesn’t really have much downside, but effectively denouncing the entire Hispanic population of the United States is going to steadily destroy any hopes Republicans have of ever appealing to this fast-growing voting bloc.

And that’s not all. Republican leaders are not only fearful of next year’s primaries branding the GOP forever as a bunch of xenophobic maniacs, they’re afraid it’s going to wipe out any chance they have over the next two years of demonstrating to voters that they’re a party of adults.

That may be a problem, as Drum cites this in the Los Angeles LA Times:

The strong reaction by Republican leaders has less to do with opposition to the nuts and bolts of the president’s immigration policy and more to do with fear and anger that the issue will derail the agenda of the new Republican majority before the next Congress even convenes.

Republican leaders who had hoped to focus on corporate tax reform, fast-track trade pacts, repealing the president’s healthcare law and loosening environmental restrictions on coal are instead being dragged into an immigration skirmish that they’ve tried studiously to avoid for most of the last year. …

To many, stark warnings from Boehner and McConnell sound more like pleas to the president to avoid reenergizing the GOP’s conservative wing, whose leaders are already threatening to link the president’s immigration plan to upcoming budget talks.

Something shifted. They lost the momentum of the game, and Drum thinks he knows why:

I think Obama deserves credit for an unusually brilliant political move here. Some of this is accidental: he would have announced his immigration plan earlier in the year if he hadn’t gotten pushback from red-state Democratic senators who didn’t want to deal with this during tough election battles. Still, he stuck to his guns after the midterm losses, and the result seems to be almost an unalloyed positive for his party.

The downside, after all, is minimal: the public says it’s mildly unhappy with Obama using an executive order to change immigration rules. But that’s a nothingburger. Outside of the Fox News set that’s already convinced Obama is a tyrant bent on shredding the Constitution, this simply isn’t something that resonates very strongly or for very long. It will be forgotten in a few weeks.

The upside, conversely, is potentially huge. Obama has, indeed, waved a red flag in front of congressional tea partiers, turning them into frothing lunatics who want to shut down the government and maybe even impeach him. This has already turned into a huge headache for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who really don’t want this to be the public face of the party. In addition, it’s quite possibly wrecked the Republican agenda for the next year, which is obviously just fine with Obama. And it’s likely to turn next year’s primary season into an anti-Hispanic free-for-all that does permanent damage to the GOP brand.

And that’s not even counting the energizing effect this has on Democrats, as well as the benefit they get from keeping a promise to Hispanics and earning their loyalty for the next few election cycles.

There may be a price to pay for this, but Drum doesn’t think so:

If you think that maybe, just maybe, Republicans were willing to work with Obama to pass a few constructive items, then there’s a price. Those items might well be dead in the water. If you don’t believe that, the price is zero. I’m more or less in that camp. And you know what? Even the stuff that might have been passable – trade authority, the Keystone XL pipeline, a few tweaks to Obamacare – I’m either opposed to or only slightly in favor of in the first place. If they don’t happen, very few Democrats are going to shed any real tears.

That leaves only presidential appointments, and there might be a downside there if you think that initially Republicans were prepared to be halfway reasonable about confirming Obama’s judges and agency heads. I kinda doubt that, but I guess you never know. This might be a genuine downside to unleashing the tea party beast.

Here’s the final assessment:

The whole thing is politically pretty brilliant. It unifies Democrats; wrecks the Republican agenda in Congress; cements the loyalty of Hispanics; and presents the American public with a year of Republican candidates spitting xenophobic fury during primary season. If you’re President Obama, what’s not to like?

Jonathan Chait sees the same thing:

Substantively, Obama’s executive order gives him less than he hoped to gain with a bipartisan law. But politically, he has ceded no advantage. Indeed, he has gained one. Not only does immigration remain a live issue, it is livelier than ever. The GOP primary will remorselessly drive its candidates rightward and force them to promise to overturn Obama’s reform, and thus to immediately threaten with deportation some 5 million people – none of whom can vote, but nearly all of whom have friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who can.

The emotional momentum in the Republican Party now falls to its most furious, deranged voices.

It has fallen to them, and it’s the wrong sort of momentum. It’s actually the opposite of momentum. It’s that dangerous aggressiveness you try when the real momentum has shifted, and here it just did. Obama did no more than announce his administrative adjustments, which really don’t solve the major issues with our dysfunctional immigration system, but one little thing can change everything in a game – as it does seem that politics is a game. Perhaps this one is over.

Posted in Political Momentum, Republican Overreaction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Limited Relief for Les Misérables

There were no surprises. There was no executive order – this was not Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the Armed Forces once and for all – there was just an address from President Obama, not carried on network television, where he explained that he was going to adjust enforcement activities, to concentrate on sending dangerous folks back home to wherever they came from, and getting to everyone else, who really shouldn’t be here, later. That was the outrage that had everyone on the right seething. Obama was taking unilateral action to change immigration policy, changing the law all on his own without Congress – the folks who create and pass all our laws – when he was, of course, making minor adjustments to the enforcement of current immigration law, such as it is. The dispute over what this was – the work of that devious tyrant-slacker from Kenya, to end democracy as we know it here in America, or some necessary administrative steps to begin to rationalize our hopelessly confused immigration-control activities, because Congress can’t seem to pass anything about anything at all these days – will continue.

The dispute is politically useful. Republicans will whip up outrage over this bully would-be dictator that the American people foolishly elected two times, who uses our government to give stuff to people who deserve only contempt. There are votes there. Democrats get to whip up outrage over this ultimate do-nothing Congress that only says no, to everything, with no ideas of its own, and wants to stick it to the poor and the unemployed and minorities and gays, and to greedy American workers who want too much and are ruining American businesses, and now wants to stick it to these hard-working good folks without papers, because Hispanics make them uncomfortable. There are votes there too – lots of them. There’s no reason each side wouldn’t think of this as a big deal.

That’s a stretch, but maybe not:

President Obama invited as many as 5 million immigrants and international visitors Thursday to openly live and work in the U.S., a controversial, unilateral demonstration of his power that signaled a new phase of activism for the remainder of his presidency.

Without a vote from Congress, Obama set in motion a government program that, starting next year, will begin to evaluate applicants and enroll those eligible to protect them from deportation.

The majority of those affected under the executive action, about 4.1 million, could be eligible for a program that will invite parents of either U.S. citizens or long-term permanent residents to apply for a work permit and three years of protection from deportation. Applicants will have to prove they have been in the country at least five years.

This is a select group of people – fewer than half of the eleven million people living and working here without legal permission to do so – but it’s still a lot of people, and a big change. Is that outrageous? There’s an answer to that:

Wearing a solemn dark suit and repeatedly pointing his finger, Obama challenged lawmakers who doubt his authority to act.

“To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill,” he said.

In the meantime, there’s this:

Short of any legislation, the president is also ordering an expansion of a program that defers deportation of people who arrived in the U.S. as children before June 2007. By opening the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, to people who immigrated as recently as 2010 and removing a cap on the age of the applicant, the directive will make roughly 300,000 more people eligible.

Obama will make other changes affecting another 600,000 people, in part by expanding and adding visas for entrepreneurs and recent graduates in science and technology.

But don’t get too excited:

In arguing that the executive action is within the bounds of the law and Constitution, its architects noted that it is temporary and revocable. It relies largely on the concept of discretion as it is exercised every day by prosecutors.

One senior Obama administration official insisted repeatedly Thursday, “It is not a pathway to citizenship.”

Congress has to decide if it wants to create that pathway. Obama can’t do that. That’s not his business, and thus this is about existing law:

The major changes will come as directives from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to his agency, not as an executive order from Obama, policy advisors to the president said. That’s in keeping with earlier actions Obama has taken on immigration.

In addition to Obama’s other changes, a new memorandum from Johnson will alter his agency’s priorities for deportation. Immigration officers will be instructed not to deport people who were convicted before 2014 of low-level immigration violations.

The priorities for deportation will be revamped to fast-track removal of suspected terrorists and people convicted of gang crimes or other serious felonies.

The second level of priority for removal will be of people with “significant” misdemeanors, multiple misdemeanors or immigration violations committed after Jan. 1, 2014.

A third level of priority will be for people who failed to abide by a removal order given after Jan. 1 and those who left the U.S. and re-entered illegally after that date.

This is about it, a matter of deciding what to do first, because it’s important to do, and then moving on down the list to less important matters, even if they are important too. It’s no more than resource allocation, and common sense:

“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty,” Obama said. “Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today – millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.”

“Mass amnesty would be unfair,” he said. “Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability – a common-sense, middle-ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

It’s hard to see what the fuss was about, and here’s a bit of Andrew Sullivan’s assessment:

Did he make the case that a mass deferral of deportations was the only option for him? Not so effectively. His strongest point was simply the phrase: “pass a bill.” Saying he is doing this as a temporary measure, that it will be superseded as soon as a law reaches his desk, gives him a stronger position than some suppose. There is more than one actor in our system. The president and the Senate have done their part; the House has resolutely refused to do its – by failing even to take a vote on the matter. Why, many will ask, can’t the Congress come up with a compromise that would forestall and overrule this maneuver? What prevents the Republicans from acting in return to forestall this?

The question is obvious, and that was obviously planned out carefully – make the Republicans look like sour old men, bitter in their impotency. It was almost sexual. The young and dynamic and viral guy will at least get something done, and instead of being sour, he will do what they only wished they could do. At least that’s what Sullivan saw as he watched:

His early backing of even more spending on the border, his initial citing of the need for the undocumented to “get right with the law” by coming out of the shadows to pay back taxes, among other responsibilities, was a way to disarm conservative critics. It almost certainly won’t. But it remains a fact that the speech – in classic Obama style – blended conservative stringency with liberal empathy in equal parts.

That’s hard to pull off, but Obama is comfortable in what Sullivan calls the moderate middle:

Obama’s position on immigration – as on healthcare – has always been that. It’s utterly in line with his predecessor and with the Reagan era when many conservatives were eager for maximal immigration. His political isolation now is a function, first and foremost, of unrelenting Republican opposition and obstructionism. From time to time, then, it is more than good to see him openly challenge the box others want to put him in, to reassert that he has long been the reasonable figure on many of these debates, and to remind us that we have a president whose substantive proposals should, in any sane polity, be the basis for a way forward, for a compromise.

Compromise is, unfortunately, not possible these days:

This act of presidential doggedness, after so long a wait, may well inflame the divisions further. I still have doubts about the wisdom of this strategy. But I see why this president refuses to give in, to cast his future to fate, to disappoint again a constituency he has pledged to in the past, and why he is re-stating his right as president to be a prime actor rather than a passive observer in the last two years of his term. That’s who many of us voted for. And we do not believe that the election of a Republican Senate in 2014 makes his presidency moot…

The branches are designed to clash and to jostle over public policy. And the Congress has one thing it can do now that it has for so long refused to do. It can act. And it should.

And it won’t, because they’re angry, or know they’re supposed to be angry, or know that being angry is critical to their political survival, and now they’re even angrier because Obama has dared them to do what they have taken pride in not doing for six years, to pass some actual legislation. Given the rifts in their party maybe they can’t do that any longer – Ted Cruz wants one thing, shutting everything down to get Obama to stop doing whatever he’s done, and John Boehner wants another, a legacy of some sort of meaningful legislation. The situation may be hopeless, which makes them even angrier.

Obama wants something else. Peter Beinart argues here that Obama “decided once again to trigger the hatred of defenders of the status quo because, I suspect, he knows American history well enough to know that real moral progress doesn’t happen any other way.” He’s not like them:

Yes, Obama is a pragmatist. Yes, he is professorial. Yes, he wants to be liked by his ideological opponents and by the powers that be. But he also knows that were he in his twenties today – a young man of color with a foreign parent and a foreign-sounding name – he might be among those activists challenging the vicious injustice of America’s immigration system. When Obama talked about “the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love,” he wasn’t only comparing them to his daughters. He was comparing them to himself.

For progressives, this was always the real promise of Barack Obama. It was the promise that a black man with a Muslim name who had worked in Chicago’s ghettos – a man who had tasted what it means to a stranger in America – would bring that memory with him when he entered the White House. It’s a promise he fulfilled tonight.

How are they supposed to deal with that?

Ramesh Ponnuru isn’t that kind:

I imagine that most left-wingers will rally behind the president’s immigration policy, especially since it appears to be a minority position. But some of them will be complaining that the president didn’t go far enough. And we should take a moment to appreciate that they have a point. The moralizing language Obama used, which essentially cast attempts to enforce the immigration laws as acts of indecency, are hard to square with the limits that he set.

These were, after all, no more than administrative adjustments, and Dara Lind wonder if they can change anything:

In order for the program to be effective when it officially launches (which is expected to be in spring of 2015), people are going to have to apply. And that could be tricky. After all, these are people who’ve been living in the shadows for years – and have learned that any interaction with government officials could lead to their deportation.

The good news is that the administration and community groups have done something of a test run on the new program – via the DACA program in 2012. The push to get unauthorized immigrants to apply for DACA has created an existing infrastructure that can now be built on for the new, expanded relief programs. But in order to build on that, they’re going to need more money and more lawyers. And the government agency running the program, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, doesn’t have much money to spend on outreach.

This may not work as intended, but Byron York says it’s all political anyway:

Obama’s action is not about winning broad support now. It’s a long-term effort to increase the number of Hispanic voters, who chose Obama over Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012. If that support can be cast in cement, and the number of Hispanic voters increased even beyond current demographic trends – well, that would be very good news for the future health of the Obama coalition.

That’s cynical, but Jamelle Bouie argues that now it is not Obama who determines that:

At most, the president’s immigration order might strengthen the short-term bonds among Latinos, Asians, and the Democratic Party. More significant, I think, is the Republican reaction. If the GOP reacts to the immigration order with unhinged hysteria and anti-immigrant animus … it could further estrange itself from these groups. And that, more than anything, could shift the long-term shape of our politics.

Marc Ambinder sees what is coming:

You think you’ve heard the last of talk radio hosts bloviating about Ebola-carrying migrants sneaking across the southern border? It’s about to get much worse, and much more toxic. By singling out certain classes of undocumented immigrants, Obama puts a bullseye on the backs of those who do not qualify for documented status. Add the idea that the president is acting like a dictator and — Kaboom! The act of granting amnesty becomes even more associated with one political party.

And Paul Suderman argues here that real immigration reform just got a whole lot harder:

Unprecedented, unpopular, large-scale, unilateral policy changes are nearly certain to produce a backlash – against the president, against his party, and against the ideas at the heart of the policy change itself.

To me, this is the most significant risk of Obama’s plan – that it will create a backlash, not only amongst congressional Republicans, but within the public at large, a backlash that makes it more difficult to achieve a stable, legal, and politically viable system of expanded and simplified immigration, one that is not dependent on a sympathetic executive or enforcement discretion, but that is codified in law and agreed upon by enough of the country’s residents and legislators.

That may never happen no matter what Obama does, or who decides to oppose what he does. Eric Posner, that pesky professor at the University of Chicago Law School, sees that the real problem here is structural:

America has a huge and insatiable hunger for cheap labor – workers to mind the kids, trim the hedges, pick strawberries, and slaughter chickens. But the United States also has numerous laws that make labor expensive. These laws impose minimum wages and maximum hours, give workers the right to unionize, and protect them from unsafe conditions. They also provide welfare to those who don’t work, and many people prefer no job to a menial job. The result is that few American workers will do the really cheap labor that so many households, factories, and farms demand.

Foreigners, however, will. In Mexico, 40 million people earn less than $2,000 a year. They can migrate to the United States and earn 10 or 15 times that amount even if they work off the books. True, they cannot form unions or complain if the workplace is unsafe, but life is still better than back home. The laws that matter are the laws of supply and demand, as a result of which 11 million people reside illegally in the United States.

Many people who feel threatened by legal immigration have been able to live with this system of illegal labor. Because undocumented immigrants are denied social services, Americans don’t pay taxes to support them. Because they do menial jobs, they don’t undercut the wages of most American workers. Because they can’t vote, they can’t get these rules changed through political action.

Looking at it that way, we don’t have a “broken” immigration system at all. We have one that evolved organically that satisfies everyone, more or less. Obama is messing with a good thing, but Posner does concede that it is rather unstable:

The people who come to work here for cheap wages often settle permanently and become integrated in communities that include American citizens. They intermarry or they arrive as an American’s parent, sibling, or child. The natural sort of sympathy toward the laboring poor that animated many of the protective laws for Americans has led to political pressure to extend the laws to undocumented immigrants as well. People feel uneasy that a large group of second-class citizens resides on our soil – hence the constant drumbeat from many quarters for a pathway to citizenship.

But to give undocumented immigrants citizenship is to acknowledge that they are entitled to it, and that the “illegal immigration system” is unjust. The current system violates deeply ingrained American principles, which hold that everyone should receive equal protection of the law. That is why the obvious solution to illegal immigration – a lawful guest-worker system – is opposed by nearly everyone, but especially liberals, who see it as institutionalizing a caste system. Indeed, countries that use formal guest-worker systems – like the Persian Gulf countries – are routinely accused of exploiting and abusing migrant workers, of maintaining a caste system or even a system of de facto slavery, of violating human rights law, even though those workers benefit massively from wages much higher than they could earn at home.

That’s the problem here:

The contradiction between ideological opposition to guest workers and the huge demand for cheap foreign labor is the key to the present controversy. To avoid the appearance of a legally recognized caste system while allowing one to exist in reality, Congress has given nearly full legal rights to legal immigrants and passed tough laws to keep everyone else out – while appropriating far too little money to enforce them. This throws to the executive the task of deciding whom to enforce the laws against. Because Congress appropriates only enough money to deport 400,000 people per year out of 11 million, the president by necessity must pick and choose whom to deport. It’s no surprise that for decades every president has deported mainly criminals while leaving most everyone else alone.

Obama, then, is just doing what he can to maintain the status quo, like others before him, and this big deal announcement was nothing much:

The president’s discretion to enforce the immigration laws has always been the cornerstone of a de facto guest-worker (or, if you want, caste) system from which most Americans have greatly benefited. That’s why Republicans’ claim that the president is shredding the Constitution sounds so odd to people knowledgeable about immigration law. He’s just doing what countless Congresses have wanted him to do, and have effectively forced him to do, so that Congress itself could avoid charges that it has created a two-tier system of citizenship where the bottom tier is allowed to stay in this country and work, but is not allowed to vote, to benefit from welfare programs, to travel freely, or to enjoy the full protection of workplace laws. Of course, you might say that the whole illegal immigration system, with its two-tier system of rights, violates the Constitution or at least constitutional values, but the fault for that lies with Congress, not with the president.

That would mean nothing will change:

Obama’s action will not fix the problem of illegal immigration; nor would congressional action that created a legal pathway to citizenship. The great irony is that as undocumented aliens gain rights, they will no longer need to, or even be able to, supply menial work at a low wage. Illegal immigration will rise again, just as it did after the last path-to-citizenship-law in 1986. America’s hunger for cheap labor can’t be legislated away.

Is that cynical, or is that just the way things are? It may be both. Obama outraged the Republicans and everyone on the right, and did something vaguely heroic that will cheer Democrats and everyone on the left, but what did he really do? Well, he did make life easier for millions of families that won’t be torn apart now, which is humane and decent and comes at little cost, but there are those who think that those families deserve to be torn apart, as a matter of law – they deserve our contempt. That dispute, between common decency and firm and unambiguous law, will go on forever. There will be another Victor Hugo writing another Les Misérables, and then another and then another, but the underlying problem, as Posner states it, won’t go away. That hunger for cheap labor is the problem here. That makes doing the right thing nearly impossible. Obama did what he could. It will have to do. Now we’ll fight about it for a year or two.

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