Categories
Justice Politics

The Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race

Bernie Sanders flip-flopped too, and that’s okay. People keep mentioning Hillary Clinton’s shifting on issues as a mark against her, but as she explains, this is only evidence that she is a person who responds to new information and develops their opinion, not a block of granite. Sanders, too, has shifted left on race issues and gun control in the past several months. This is a wonderful thing.

I wrote on Medium about the Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race. Please read the full post there.

I conclude:

When standing in solidarity with others in a diverse, progressive movement, the most important thing you can do is avoid subconsciously projecting your own privilege and predicament, onto others. Diversity is not about erasing differences, it is about embracing them.

Check it out on Medium to see how I come to that conclusion.

Picture by AFGE. Via Flickr. Licensed under CC-by-2.0

Categories
Ethics Justice Politics

Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1

For liberal laypersons, our justification of progressive social policies, as well as our defense for social justice issues in general is often recursive. I discussed this previously, in “I am right, therefore…”—a common pattern of imposing our beliefs on others is often to presuppose that they are right; an unconvincing argument to the other party, but often difficult to detect because the recursive presupposition is often hidden or implicit.

I would like to explore non-recursive arguments for social justice; be it progressive social policies, or ethical arguments of how to deal with others. In academia, of course, the literature is full with sound arguments and in-depth readings into modern questions of social justice. These arguments often to do not make it to the mainstream.

In this part, I have two patterns I would like to establish: First, that social justice questions are questions of compulsion; when is it right to compel others to do the right thing (government policies), when do we say that victims of the regressive system are compelled to do (or not do) something. Second, that questions of compulsion in general ought to be discussed in terms of power: the balance and distribution of power, and its implications on justice for society.

An incomplete effort

This post is an incomplete effort at removing the recursive argument. For now, I am merely widening the recursive nature of the argument. From:

“Discrimination is bad, therefore, discrimination is bad.”

to

“The livelihood of a person ought to be independent of their status as a member of a protected class. An imbalance of power endangers the livelihoods of members of society. Compulsion is a product of an imbalance of power. Compulsion always exists in society and must be managed. It is sometimes acceptable to compel those holding positions of power over others from giving equal access to their resources. Such resources include public spaces, food, medicine, and services rendered.”

This argument is incomplete because it still implicitly presupposes: Who are members of a protected class and Why. In this post, I discuss some protected classes but do not justify the choice of these protected classes. This, in itself, is an important debate between progressives and conservatives: which classes are worthy of playing this important role in society? I will attempt to discuss that separately in the future.

Social Justice as Questions of Compulsion

Compulsion is more often used by libertarians than social liberals, but I think it is indeed the most elegant way to discuss social policies. It is elegant because it grounds and humbles the liberal arguing for change, but, perhaps more importantly, allows us all to use the same language in defending our positions.

Libertarians often frame many government actions in light of compulsion. Taxation is compulsion; compelling individuals to give up their wealth (else they risk jail-time or other punishments) for social good—or worse—taxation is forced labor. Desegregation means compelling private business owner to admit people they do not wish to admit. Laws against discrimination in the workplace prevent employers from hiring and firing whoever they please.

Many lawmakers understand that, and attempt to limit cases of compulsion to enumerated cases. Protected classes, in anti-discrimination law, are enumerated. In the United States, these are often: Race, Color, Religion, National Origin, Age, Sex, Pregnancy, Citizenship, Familial Status, Disability, Veteran Status, and Genetic Information. Some states in the US include Sexual Orientation, and others also include Gender Identity (separate from Sex). It is understood that employers and business owner are allowed to discriminate against all other non-enumerated classes. The annoying, the loud mouthed, the rude, for instance, are un-protected classes that could be asked to leave a restaurant, or be denied a job.

Enumeration is powerful for many reasons, and is often better for protected classes than if they were not enumerated. Enumeration also admits that every time we disallow a private person from treating people differently (which we all do all the time), we are compelling them to change their behavior.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana should be viewed in this light. An interesting development in the continuing debate on compulsion for the sake of social justice: What are the limits of compulsion? What are the grounds for compulsion?

The liberal response is most effective if spoken in the same language.

Justifying Compulsion

Why do we justify taxation? How did we justify that it is right to compel a store owner of admitting people of all races?

I think the common thread tying all of these together is power and the distribution of power.

You see, when someone has so much power more than you, they in effect have power over you. Being denied power means that you become a victim of compulsion more and more often.

Compulsion is a two way street: compulsion takes place when a more powerful entity has control over a less powerful one. The Powerful Goverment™ compels the restaurant owner to admit people she doesn’t want to admit. Business owners, however, also have powers. Take restaurant and cafe owners, for example: they operate social spheres, areas where members of the public interact, network, manage and retain power, and seek it. Public and semi-public spaces are democratizing spaces. A pharmacy owner also has power over the health of her customers.

In a world of unlimited business-owner discrimination, compulsion is a clear problem. Think of the racist, segregated America of the 1950s. If you were part of an un-favored social group, then not only did you lose power (by losing access countless places with higher quality services), but you were often compelled to make choices you didn’t wish to do. Parties discriminated against are denied better livelihoods, and lose options that are entitled to others. They have worse medical options, worse transportation options, limited social spheres for networking, etc.

Compulsion is a balancing act. Whenever one sector of society amasses more power, it begins to compel sectors with less power.

Categories
Arabs Jordan Peace Politics

How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy

It is difficult to overcome the shock generated by the brutal assassination of Lt. Moath Kasasbeh. Indeed in many ways, I—and many like me—have yet to do so. Throughout the ordeal which was brought some closure by the awful news Tuesday, Jordanians, Arabs, and Muslims alike were of many minds. From anger towards ISIS to self-questioning of the country’s role in in the anti-ISIS coalition; from a proportionally cruel response to a calculated power-play, or a pragmatic non-response; from an impulse to double-down on the offense to withdrawing from intervention; we have felt it all, thought it all, and wanted it all.

The need to bring retribution onto those who are too cruel to even respect the last moment of another human is eating at all of us. How could one possibly bring appropriate retribution onto inhumane organizations without descending to proportional inhumanity? How do we resist blood thirsty revenge while still asserting that we—the honorable, peace-loving people of the world—exit, that we have might, that we have true red-lines that cannot be crossed? How does one assert anything when up against a force that it itself uses violence and terror?

Reclaiming Culture and Religion as a Duty

Certainly, the answer our response cannot be nothing. Nothing is not on the table. Our religions, culture, and region are too close to our heart to let them by hijacked by thought that promotes violence and barbarism. We must do something; something to reclaim our religions of peace, to reclaim our culture who—not too long ago—was known as a culture of hospitality and generosity.

The continued existence of the so-called “Islamic State” puts those things we hold near and dear in jeopardy. ISIS is not merely transforming the borders, bureaucracies, and institutions of neighboring countries; it is transforming the Arab culture I love and cherish, it is projecting a new radicalized Islam that is tipping scales, shifting spectra, and redefining what it means to moderate.

By participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, we are not intervening in an external matter, we are simply taking charge of our destiny. A continued, strong participation in the efforts against ISIS (both militarily and intellectually) is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination; we must reclaim our culture and religion from extremist radical thought.

Resisting Revenge

Yet, as we respond—militarily and otherwise—it remains imperative not to become the enemy. As the impulse for proportional retribution eats at each and every one of us, some have felt inclined to call for mass-bombings, burning, even gassing and chemical attacks as appropriate responses in moments of anger. Those should likely be off the table, when it comes to the list of appropriate responses. But what is left on?

A shorthand is to realize that actions with no utility cannot be on the table. Refining this shorthand further, we can say that destructive action whose only utility is to gratify our need for revenge and retribution is not permissible.

Indeed, framing a response in terms of its utility, the positive outcomes it generates, is a powerful first step in the healing process after having faced injustice. A proportional response should be of some benefit. This benefit can lie on many axes and is important to consider such axes individually.

In the international sphere and global balance of power, establishing steadfastness is disproportionately effective. Steadfastness is equally important in the global PR battle for the minds of young Muslims to prevent their radicalization. Steadfastness taking a public stance on ISIS and the radicalization of Islam, and taking action—some action—against those in our custody who directly support and promote such radicalization.

It is also important to realize the existence of a radicalization problem and to own it. The society that birthed these individuals who commit actions I find unfathomable is my own—it is our own. Every mom and pop can own this as a problem from within, not some external plot we have no control over, and take charge of deradicalizing the people around them.

Internationally, we must continue to promote reason and moderation, and must do so while avoiding hypocrisy (tempting as it may be).

A Reasonable, Escalated Military Intervention

If left untouched, ISIS is not going anywhere. It is a state-like organization that is armed, militarily entrenched, and active. Though unrecognized and condemned internationally, ISIS continues to create facts on the ground locally, creating bureaucracies and institutions that further reaffirms their presence and reality, leaving as many marks as it can on society. While it exists, ISIS will continue to brainwash youth locally and internationally. After its eventual demise, ISIS’s impact of society will proportional to the duration it remained active and embedded.

Categories
Arab-Israeli Conflict Politics

“We Come in Peace” – War, Fear, and How You Can Help

Imagine you are among the first settler colonial humans to discover extraterrestrial life. You have landed somewhere in a distant planet, disembarked, and were going about your daily tasks as you encounter the first signs. Some seemingly sentient, intelligent creature approaches you. It looks different, nothing like you or anyone you’ve seen, not even like a reptile or sea creature. It approaches.

You might be afraid–you have no means of communicating with this creature. Your first thought is to reassure it: “I come in peace,” you could proclaim… not that it would understand.

When encountered with an unknown being, one that potentially has the ability to take your life, how do you behave?

I wager that most humans will translate their fear to violence.

Better be safe and kill the thing, right?

I often wonder why humans even bother to say they come in peace as the explore the cosmos. It often feels like we are setting ourselves up for an impossible feat, virtually guaranteeing that Time will judge us as hypocrites if the day comes when we meet extraterrestrials with whom we cannot communicate. Our fear of the unknown “other” often seems insurmountable.

Back on earth, our fear of the unknown other continues to harm us, robbing our humanity day by day. While we have the mans of communicating with other humans, our view of the “other” in military, political, and ideological conflict, is not too different from our view of an alien creature. Our ability to empathize with other humans diminishes as we convince ourselves of their otherness.

This is a problem that plagues every part of our human civilization, and is the root of racism, fanaticism, terrorism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, partisanship, and many, many political conflicts. One of these problems is particularly close to my heart: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the fear of extraterrestrials though, this is a problem with a solution.

Seeds of Peace

The solution is simple: engage in dialogue to achieve coexistence.

In regions plagued with conflict, the sides often mystify each other and refuse to interact. A 2007 study by the Center for Research on Peace Education at Haifa University reinforces this idea: less that 50% of Jewish high school students surveyed were willing to meet Arab students. The percentage of Arab students willing to meet Jewish students is about 75% according to the survey, also a low percentage (the increased percentage on the side of the Palestinian Arabs could be attributed to the fact that Palestinians do interact with Israelis more regularly, through the IDF’s presence in checkpoints, etc.).

Other questions still reveal a disconnect: 75% of Jewish high school students thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized, unclean, and violent. On the Palestinian side, 27% believe Jewish people are uneducated, 40% believe they are uncivilized, 57% believe they are unclean, and 64% believe they are violent.

In this part of the world, Jews and Arabs view each other as strange and exotic. With this strangeness comes fear, then hatred.

Many organizations try to solve this problem by bringing together teenagers from opposite sides of conflict-torn regions and getting them to engage in dialog. Prime among these initiatives is Seeds of Peace. Dialog and argumentation rarely changes anyone’s minds when it comes to the facts. Instead, through dialog and living in close quarters, we get a more valuable outcome: camaraderie.

I will continue to hope that the politicians of today miraculously put an end to the Middle East conflict, but I will not count on it, sitting and doing nothing. What I am counting on, however, is that 20 more years down the line, the leaders of the next generation will be empowered with a new perspective, an insight on the humanity of the Other.

You can get involved or donate to Seeds of Peace if you are also not willing to count on the politicians of today to solve one of the most contentious conflicts of our time.

Categories
Politics

More Nuance and Maturity Required in Arguments against NSA Surveillance

Like many, I feel uncomfortable with much of the information revealed about the NSA’s surveillance program. The reach and scale of the program are alarming at best, and for many of us, it demonstrates an unjustified attack on the right to privacy. Yet, as I read the arguments leveled against the NSA and other spy agencies for their surveillance programs, I find it hard to identify with or feel represented by any of these arguments: they seem somewhat lacking at best, and likely, fallacious. I am writing this post to demonstrate the flaws with most popular arguments against spying, surveillance, and the NSA. The goal—I hope—is clear: a call for more nuanced arguments that more clearly define why and to what extent is the NSA surveillance program ‘wrong’.

The most common arguments against the NSA are variations of the following:

  • The NSA serves no real national security benefits, only usurping the right of the citizens to privacy, or
  • The gains of the NSA surveillance program do not by any means outweigh the harms of becoming a surveillance state, or
  • Surveillance is only justifiable against enemies or in a state of war.

The problem with the first two arguments is that they ignore the clear historical benefits of spying and decipherment, from the Zimmermann telegram in 1917 [1, p. 107], to the cracking of the ENIGMA in World War II [2, pp. 16-17].

To claim that there must be no benefits to spying in recent times because we haven’t seen them is false; the ENIGMA project was secret until 1974, 29 years after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom also exposed the telegram under a false cover (that they obtained a leaked clear-text message from the embassy in Mexico), instead of exposing the cryptanalysis effort to allow the spying effort to continue.

To say the benefits do not outweigh the harms of being a surveillance state is not a good argument: it sounds like an inherently utilitarian claim that involves a cost-benefit analysis. Yet the argument is thrown around saying the harms always outweigh the benefits. What if we were dealing with Hitler, as we were in the 30s?

The argument, therefore, is either a practical one: “there does not seem to be a reason in today’s world to spy”, or an absolutist one: “it is never ok to spy on others”. I have not been able to see an absolutist argument why no benefit ever (i.e. preventing nuclear arms in terrorists’ hands) would outweigh surveillance.

Yet the argument also cannot be a practical one: in today’s world, we do in fact have plenty of reasons. Most political scientists agree that among the greatest geopolitical threats to global stability is nuclear proliferation among non-state actors (namely terrorist organizations) [3] [4] [5]. A world where nuclear weapons have proliferated to non-state actors is a world where deterrence does not work—where second-strike capabilities mean nothing [6]. This is clearly a big deal, and clearly requires spying, not on foreign enemies, but or non-state actors who can be citizens of any country, and reside anywhere.

What we need is a pragmatic argument against the expansive NSA surveillance program. One that says that spying is has benefits which sometimes should be utilized, but that certain kinds and extents of spying do not provide sufficient returns.

A blanket argument: “spying does not work” is clearly incorrect—spying has worked in the past and certainly has the potential to work now. Short of becoming an actual military and surveillance state, with full CCTV coverage, regular checkpoints, and strict closed borders, signals intelligence is our best bet. Arguments that are opposed to any form of spying are not going to fly; we need arguments against certain extents of spying.