Archive for March, 2012

Institutions Empower Racist Fringe

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Notwithstanding the broad appeal of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama and despite widespread acceptance of racial integration, racism continues to thrive.  Skin color may not mean as much to individual citizens as it used to, but in key social institutions like entertainment, law enforcement, advertising, education, and health care, skin color defines stark distinctions among human beings, with consequences–principally, violence and disunity–for the whole society.

Some people think that racism is personal: some of us, maybe most of us, just don’t like people of other colors.  If the predisposition to discriminate isn’t inborn, says this logic, it’s learned early, and it’s almost impossible to shed.  I’m not persuaded.  I think racism is mostly social and hardly personal at all.  I’ve known too many people who, once exposed to humans of all colors, outgrew their racism completely.  Some of them are still narrow-minded bigots, but skin color isn’t an issue with them.

Even as individual people of various colors got thrown in together and found communion, what didn’t happen was any sort of corresponding institutional change.  Educators, as part of a mass dumbing-down, kept academic expectations low for dark-skinned kids.  Police agencies continued to equate dark skin with suspicion of wrongdoing.  Commercial interests continued to exploit skin-color differences for profit.

A visible underclass is a windfall for our controllers, reminding us all of what’s in store if we don’t toe the mark inscribed by the authorities.  Those authorities can be expected to preserve stereotypes based on skin color as a convenient means of getting their compliance message across.  And some number of us can be expected to respond accordingly, regardless what the rest of us might think.

Since the elevation of Barack Obama, who is neither white nor black, I’ve argued that we should stop citing racism as an explanation for misconduct.  I’m confessing now that my arguments were, at best, premature, and maybe just plain wrong. A day will certainly come when various ethnic groups on this continent will be so completely integrated that people won’t be able to distinguish races, but that day isn’t here yet, and a battery of institutional forces is arrayed to postpone it.

George Zimmerman, who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy in Florida a few weeks ago, is a case in point.  He made a practice of patrolling the streets of his gated “community” in Sanford, armed with a pistol and a cell phone.  He was in frequent contact with the local police, more than once complaining about “suspicious” non-whites in the neighborhood.  Recordings of some of his 911 calls reveal that he used racial epithets to describe those he stalked.  The police let him continue his patrols until he finally killed one of his targets.  At this writing, a month after the shooting, he hasn’t been charged with any crime, and for all we know he’s back out on the streets with a full clip of ammunition.  Same with Sergeant Bales’ accomplices in Afghanistan, aggressive Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, and the cloistered assassins in American uniforms who launch missiles from remote-controlled aircraft, all deployed for mayhem against dark-skinned innocents.  That’s institutional racism.

The problem may be that light-skinned people will soon be outnumbered. Even without melanoma and interracial marriage, people of European stock aren’t reproducing at a rate sufficient to maintain their plurality, especially if all the other races are combined into one population.  Some “white” people don’t want to give up their numerical advantage, and so they resort to racism.  It’s not inborn in these folks, and it’s not even hatred.  It’s what Zimmerman would call–and did call–self-defense, and the Sanford, Florida, prosecuting attorney agreed with him.  Trayvon Martin, the child Zimmerman shot, was on his way home from the store when his innocent life came to an end.  To credit the Sanford authorities’ self-defense rationale, we must believe that the child’s mere presence in a white neighborhood made him a mortal threat to Zimmerman.  That’s racism.

People of all colors are lodging protests over the Sanford authorities’ failure to arrest Zimmerman. If we hadn’t been through a general dumbing-down in recent decades, there might be a mass movement to oppose stereotyping, profiling, incarceration, and discrimination based on skin color, even in the face of institutional pressure to preserve these longstanding injustices.  We can only hope that our social institutions will someday reflect the sensibilities of the people that maintain them.  Leaders will have to speak out in defiance for that to happen.  Don’t hold your breath.

T&A Club

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

I’m thinking of starting a torture and assassination (T&A) discussion group. Along with the central issue–the propriety or impropriety of T&A–we’ll talk about the tactics themselves: the purposes, processes and proper application of torture and assassination.

T&A is a growth industry, but it lacks consensus values and standards, and so it’s been left to us citizens to make sense of this new democratic institution. We get a glimpse of the confusion and arbitrariness that attends T&A from Attorney General Eric Holder, who finds such scant support in the laws for his government’s position on assassination that he has to resort to “necessity” instead. A T&A club could hold discussions every week for a year, just parsing and analyzing the government rationale as set forth by Holder, and a portion of every meeting should be dedicated to legal issues.

The question that Holder’s argument raises in my mind as a lawyer is how, in a republic, you and I can be prohibited from killing bad people in violation of the laws when our government has a license to do so. If ours is not a government of laws, then by what logic are we residents subject to obligatory legal strictures? If necessity is the standard, it’s no more pressing on government than on ordinary citizens. When bad people need to die, any of us must have as much right (or duty) to kill them as our president does. Obama and his predecessors have, with universal congressional approval, gone so far as to launch missiles on a carload or houseful of people in order to destroy just one of them, and the determination of our leaders must certainly empower all of us.

If there is a general right or duty of assassination, the next question is whom to kill (or “take out,” in the metaphoric vernacular of our bemused leaders and pundits). We haven’t been introduced to the standards our president applies in making such decisions, but there have been frequent expressions of approval among neojournalists, fiction-writers and subordinate government officials of T&A as a means of saving innocent lives. If sparing innocent lives is the primary criterion, our own leaders and opinion-mongers would have to occupy a good portion of the top of the list of candidates for T&A. Who hasn’t dreamed of locking Joe Lieberman in the trunk of his car for a couple of days, or flaying the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Hillary Clinton? If these people feared for their safety, many observers think the world might be a safer place. It’s certainly worth discussing, and I would dedicate a portion of every meeting to who belongs on the people’s list of candidates for assassination.

How-to issues are also worth talking about. One of the big obstacles to clear thinking on T&A is squeamishness. Assassins and torturers have a big advantage over critics of T&A in that they are numb to feelings of disgust and shame. Critics need to overcome this disadvantage, and frank discussions of means and methods might well serve as a desensitizing antidote to humane misgivings.

The plots and strategies would all be speculative, of course, and altogether fictitious, and the discussions would be for the sole purpose of moral prophylaxis. All discussions would be open–participants wouldn’t want to be mistaken for conspirators–and the proceedings on means and methods might even be published as an additional security measure. Of course, it’s possible that actual conspirators would adapt some of the tactics discussed at T&A gatherings, but it’s not the responsibility of the fiction-writer or movie-maker or propaganda-peddler to police the predilections of his audience; neither should T&A groups have to worry about such eventualities.

Without question, T&A chapters would be infiltrated, and infiltrators should be tolerated, if not invited. Keeping the intelligence agencies busy with fictitious plots might cut into some of their routine work sifting through the phone calls and emails of the general public. Every so often, a group could “out” an infiltrator, and these outings would help publicize the doings of the police state.

Could T&A groups be prosecuted for discussing crime? The First Amendment says they couldn’t, but don’t trust the laws. The Constitution of the United States is just a scrap of parchment, and our law enforcement authorities, so-called, consider the provisions for due process of law quaint and outdated and would gladly use the Bill of Rights for toilet paper if it were a little gentler on the butt. If innocent people can be kidnapped off the street and imprisoned by the US government without charge, odds are the members of a T&A discussion group could be herded into a paddy wagon and never heard from again.

So there’s a risk in forming a T&A discussion group. On the other hand, there’s the challenge of discussing T&A without getting busted, and I would expect chapters to compete with each other to find out how far they could go before the police showed up. Maybe I’m taking a risk asking this question, but would anybody like to join?