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Throughout my career, there have been many times when advice, support, and criticism were critical for my own professional development. Sometimes that assistance came from people who were formally tasked with providing advice; a good example is a Ph.D. advisor (in my case, John Aldrich of Duke University, who has been a fantastic advisor and mentor to a long list of very successful students). Sometimes that advice was less formal, coming from senior colleagues, other academics at conferences, and in many cases from peers. The lesson is professional advice and support — or to put it into a single term, mentoring — comes from many different sources and occurs in many different ways.
However, there is growing concern in political science that more mentoring is necessary, that there are scholars who are not getting the professional support and advice that they need to help them with career decisions, teaching, and the publication of their research. There are many good programs that have developed in recent years to help provide more mentoring in political methodology, for example the excellent “Visions in Methodology” program. And the Society for Political Methodology recently approved the foundation of a new professional award, to recognize excellent mentors. But more needs to be done to improve mentoring and mentoring opportunities in academia.
After the conference I sent Leslie, Tiffany, and Ashley some questions about mentoring by email. Their responses are informative and helpful, and should be read by anyone who is interested in mentoring.
R. Michael Alvarez: How have you benefited from being involved in mentoring relationships?
Tiffany D. Barnes: I have benefited in a number of ways from being involved in a mentoring relationship. Mentors have provided me with feedback on research at multiple different stages of the research process. They have provided me with professional advice about a number of things including applying for fellowships and grants, marketing my book manuscript to university presses, and navigating the negotiation process at my university. My mentoring relationships have broadened my network of scholars with similar research interests and/or professional goals, which in turn have resulted in a number of different opportunities (e.g. coauthors, and invitations to participate in conference panels/round tables, mini-conferences, and edited volumes/special journal issues). Equally important, my mentoring relationships have resulted in a number of valuable friendships that make working in the profession more enjoyable.
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: As a mentee, I really benefited from getting guidance, feedback, and research assistance from many different formal and informal mentors over the years. As a mentor, I get to give that back which is a great opportunity.
Brett Ashley Leeds: I believe fundamentally that no one figures everything out on his or her own. I know for sure that I did not, and I have had (and continue to have) a variety of mentors throughout my career. As a mentee, what I really value is knowing that I have people who respect me enough to tell me when I am wrong and to help me improve. As a mentor, I not only learn a lot from thinking intently about my mentees’ work and articulating my opinions for them, but I also get great personal satisfaction from the relationships that evolve and from helping others to succeed. It feels good to pay forward what has been done for me.
R. Michael Alvarez: Why has the issue of mentoring become an important topic of conversation in academia, and in particular, in political science?
Tiffany D. Barnes: Although it is well established that mentoring is an important aspect of professional development, it has recently become an important topic of conversation because academics have become aware that not all scholars have the same opportunities to develop mentorship relationships nor do they derive the same benefits from mentor relationships. In particular, women and minorities may face more challenges when it comes to identifying mentors in the field and they may not reap the same benefits (e.g. opportunities to collaborate, sponsorship) from mentorship relationships as men do. In the long run, this “mentor gap” may have negative repercussions for the retention and career advancement of some otherwise talented scholars.
If a scholar feels they would benefit by mentoring, how can they seek out a mentor? What should they look for in an appropriate mentor?
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Mentoring relationships can be both informal and formal. Informal relationships often emerge when scholars ask for advice and support from colleagues in their department, subfields, or various disciplinary organizations. Formal relationships sometimes emerge organically or at the initiative of a mentee or mentor, but they also can be entered into through a number of mentoring programs in the discipline. For women, the Visions in Methodology program offers a mentoring program through which mentees can ask to be paired with a mentor. They usually ask the mentee to suggest someone they would like to be paired with and then check with the suggested mentor about interest and availability. The Midwest Women’s Caucus has a mentoring program for women in any subfield. They ask individuals interested in mentoring and being mentored to volunteer to participate and then pair them by interest. Other organizations and groups probably offer similar programs.
In seeking a mentor, either formally or informally, you should think about exactly what you want out of the relationship. Are you looking for someone to provide you with general guidance about the profession or are you seeking someone who is willing to read your work from time to time and talk through research challenges when you come across them? Are you in your first year out, feeling lost, and needing help getting back on track or are you close to tenure and looking for guidance on how to navigate the process? Do you want a mentor whose style is to give “pep talks” or “straight talk?” Knowing what you want out of the relationship will help you identify the right person for the job.
Tiffany D. Barnes: Scholars who want to find a mentor can look for a mentor by signing up for a formal mentor match or by identifying someone in the profession who shares similar research interests or professional goals.
A formal mentor match is good option for identifying someone who is interested in serving in a capacity as a mentor. Typically the mentor program will ask you questions about what you are looking for in a mentor relationship, your research interests, your rank, and your professional interests. The program will try to match you with a mentor based on this information. If you are paired with someone through a program, you can be confident that your mentor wants to help you. These relationships can be very valuable, but, as with all mentor-mentee relationships, it requires initiative on the part of the mentee. It is the mentee’s responsibility to drive the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentees should identify why they want a mentor and reach out to the mentor and ask for help in areas where they can benefit the most. One criticism of formal matching programs is that they may not always result in the best “fit.” Even if you do not think the match is the best fit, there are still a number of benefits you can derive from the relationship. Your research interests do not have to perfectly overlap for you to benefit from the relationship. Indeed, most successful scholars have a wealth of information, advice, and perspective to offer junior colleagues. It is up to the mentee to identify areas where your needs or interests intersect with the mentor’s strengths, experiences, and interests — and to capitalize on these opportunities.
A second option is to develop a more informal mentor relationship. To do this, mentees should identify someone in the field who has similar research interests or professional goals. Mentees should identify different opportunities to get to know scholars with similar interests and try to develop these relationships from there. For example, you may have the opportunity to establish relationships with scholars when you present research on the same panel, when someone shows interest in your work by offering comments or questions about your research (or vice versa), or even when you have the opportunity to bring a guest speaker to your university. By following up with people after the initial meeting and/or taking them up on their offer to read and comment on your research, you can begin to establish relationships with them. These relationships may take time to develop and they may be difficult establish if you are new to the profession or do not know many scholars in your field. Finally, when attempting to establish more informal mentor relationships, it is important to be self-aware. Some people will show interest in you and be eager to get to know and help you, others will not, and no one is obligated to do so. Respect people’s rights to not be interested in you and try not to take it personal.
Brett Ashley Leeds: My view is that it is less important to find one person that can be identified as “a mentor” and instead to focus on finding mentoring, even if it comes from a variety of people. I encourage scholars to identify people who have skills, abilities, and/or information that they think would be useful to them– basically people they would like to emulate in particular areas of their work. Approach these folks politely in person or by email (for instance, asking to have coffee at a conference) and ask questions. Some will not be responsive, but many will be responsive and helpful. Follow up with those who are helpful. In some cases a relationship will develop.
R. Michael Alvarez: What are the most important “dos” and “don’ts” for a scholar who is in a mentoring relationship?
Brett Ashley Leeds: Since below I cover some tips for mentors, here are some tips for mentees: (1) Figure out what it is you want to know/learn. Think of both specific and general questions so you are prepared to ask when the opportunity arises. (2) Recognize the time and costs of what you ask and make things as easy as possible for your mentor by reminding him/her of past interactions and explaining the specific feedback you are looking for. (3) Understand that ultimately you are responsible for your own decisions. Ask your mentor to explain why he/she believes a particular action/approach is best, and for major decisions, seek advice from multiple people. (4) Let your mentors know about the outcomes. For example, if a mentor helps you with a paper, send a note when the paper is accepted for publication.
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: For mentees, be assertive and discuss with your mentor when your relationship begins just what you each want from the relationship and are willing to commit to it. If you need something from your mentor, don’t wait for him/her to reach out to you. Email, call, or arrange to meet with your mentor at a conference. Since the mentee is the one who needs the mentoring relationship the most, the mentee needs to take the initiative to ask for help or guidance from the mentor.
Tiffany D. Barnes: Establish clear expectations and boundaries. Tell your mentor what you are hoping to get out of a mentoring relationship, and don’t be afraid to ask your mentor for help in areas where you could benefit the most. That said, it is important to acknowledge that your mentor may not always be willing or able to help you in the ways you want. Respect these boundaries and do not take them personal.
When establishing boundaries, it is important to respect your mentor’s time and to be cognizant and courteous with the time you ask of your mentor. For example, if your mentor agrees to meet with you for half an hour, pay attention to the time and wrap up your meeting in a timely manner. Your mentor will likely appreciate not having to cut you short, and, if they know you respect their time, it may make them more likely to make time for you in the future.
Don’t expect any single mentor to fulfill all of your mentoring needs. Different people, depending on their experience and expertise, have different things to offer. Try to identify the areas where your mentor is most likely to be of help to you and build on these strengths. Along these same lines, although your mentor likely gives great advice, you cannot expect them to have the answer to all of your questions. It is important to weight their point of view carefully and to seek out a number of different perspectives.
Seek to develop a number of mentoring relationships. It can be useful to have mentors within your own department, in your university (but outside your department), and in the discipline more broadly. Moreover, it is often just as useful to develop relationships with senior mentors, as it is to develop relationships with peer mentors.
R. Michael Alvarez: What are the responsibilities of a mentor?
Brett Ashley Leeds (1) Create an environment in which you can provide effective constructive criticism. This tends to require first establishing an environment of mutual respect. (2) Know what you know and what you don’t, and know that your experience is not universal. (3) Always explain why you are giving the advice you are giving and be willing to consider alternatives. (4) Recognize that in the end, your mentee should make his/her own decisions and may not always take all of your advice. (5) Recognize how important your opinion may be to your mentee; wield this power responsibly.
Tiffany D. Barnes: A mentor should establish clear boundaries with their mentee. Be honest and upfront the role you are and are not willing to play as a mentor. Be clear about your time constraints and the amount of time you are willing to commit to your mentee.
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: If it is a formal mentoring relationship, make sure you and your mentee establish ground rules at the beginning about what each of you wants from the relationship and are willing to give to it. Don’t commit to something you aren’t willing to follow through with and be sure to follow through with whatever you commit to do for your mentee. If you can only commit to an hour of time twice a semester, that is fine, but make sure your mentee knows that and agrees that it is sufficient for him/her. If you are willing to provide general guidance but don’t want to read/comment on your mentee’s work, that is fine. But, again, make sure your mentee knows that from the beginning. Keep in mind that your mentee may place very high value on your advice and guidance so give it carefully.
R. Michael Alvarez: What are the personal and professional benefits of being a mentor?
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: Too numerous to list in a short response!
Brett Ashley Leeds: It has often been said that one only really knows something when she can teach it to others. Mentoring gives me an opportunity to clarify and articulate my views on professional issues and research in a way that I otherwise might not. I frequently learn in the act of mentoring. The main benefits, however, are personal, and come from the satisfaction of helping others to achieve their goals and the feeling of paying forward what has been done in the past for me.
R. Michael Alvarez: How can professional organizations (like the Society for Political Methodology) facilitate professional mentoring?
Brett Ashley Leeds: The most important thing that professional organizations can do is provide opportunities that encourage interaction among scholars who don’t already know one another, and particularly between junior and senior scholars. Small conferences, dinners, and receptions help a lot with this. Poster sessions in which junior scholars are matched with senior discussants also help.
Tiffany D. Barnes: In my experience professional organizations play both, an important formal and informal role in facilitating professional mentoring.
Professional organization can formally facilitate mentoring relationship by matching mentors with mentees. I have two different successful mentoring relationships that were products of mentoring matches. This is a great way to help young scholars identify someone in the profession who is willing to serve as a mentor.
Professional organizations can also facilitate mentoring by simply providing both professional and social opportunities for junior scholars to meet likeminded senior (and junior!) colleagues. By becoming involved in professional organizations that align with your professional interests you will establish relationships with colleagues in your field. Most of these relationships will emerge naturally and develop slowly over time. Although you may not formally call the individuals you meet here “mentors,” they will become an important part of your mentoring community.
Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer: One of many ways is a formal mentoring program. The Visions in Methodology mentoring program is a fantastic example, but it is only for women. This is a very positive feature of the program because women in a field with a small representation of women face different and sometimes more challenging sets of obstacles than men. However, plenty of men in the field would also benefit immensely from mentoring and so offering a similar program for men or a program that is open to both women and men, if it does not already exist, would help to facilitate formal professional mentoring in the methods subfield.
The irony of these descriptions is no doubt evident to anyone who has been following political news over the past weeks — years after Gruber won praise for his adeptness in making the proposed health law easy to grasp, Gruber has become the center of a political storm due to his recent off-the-cuff claim that the language of Affordable Care Act was deliberately misleading and designed to take advantage of Americans’ “stupidity.”
The dust-up has given new life to the Gruber and Schreiber graphic novel, which thanks to the vagaries of Amazon pricing algorithms appears to become an expensive collectible in hardcover. Conservative sites are finding the book funny in unintended ways, although no one has yet to explain the replacement of its originally announced artist, Dean Motter. It’s natural to assume that there may have been issues of scheduling or style, but perhaps there just wasn’t a place for health care in Terminal City.
Whether its the use of Facebook in the 2008 US Presidential election or the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, there are new forms of activism emerging online. But are all these forms of activism equal? With the inclusion of slacktivism on Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.
* * * * *
“I’m sure slacktivism is meant to criticize the “activity” and the slackers who do it. It was probably made up by real activists who felt they had to draw a line and protect their own credibility. Still, the phenomenon may not be as bad as it seems. There are all those partially reformed slackers out there, they came of age with the Internet, and they’ll never be real activists, right, so isn’t it better that they at least be slacktivists? Also, how many activists are there? But there are more than two billion Internet users worldwide — potentially that’s a lot of slacktivists. So here’s the question occasioned by this year’s contest for Word of the Year: Can two billion slacktivists accomplish more than all of the certified activists? Anyway, I’m a sucker for a blend.”
— Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
* * * * *
“This term is a combination of the words slacker and activist and generally refers to actions, largely on the Internet, to influence policy or politics that require little to no effort. Slacktivism typically is used to criticize behavior that appears to have only a marginal utility, but makes the participants feel better about themselves. Slacktivism typically includes signing Internet petitions, joining a Facebook group, changing your online profile picture to a symbolic image, mass e-mail campaigns, and resending political or policy content through social media. While the term is most often applied to Internet activities, it can also refer to offline activism that also requires little to no effort or commitment, such as wearing a ribbon or political button. The primary concern with slacktivism is that it may occupy or satisfy people with ineffective activities who would otherwise be more engaged participants in more influential forms of activism. However, these critiques may be an oversimplification, as slacktivism activities can have a measurable influence and do not preclude more direct forms of activism.”
— Kevin M. Wagner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics
* * * * *
“A bit of a mouthful, but highly descriptive. People who care about political and social causes are usually comfortable with talking about -isms. Too bad they don’t put more of their time where their hearts are. (The political scientist Robert Putnam talked about this decline of social capital in his book Bowling Alone.)”
— Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World
The term slacktivism is based on a question that should never have been asked: are digital activists doing anything worthwhile, or are they mere “slacktivists,” activists who are slacking off?
The word arose from a debate about what value there was to all those people who were willing to click a few buttons to express their outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin or participate in the ALS ice-bucket challenge—but do nothing else. While some have hailed this new era of digital activism as a great democratizing force, opening up the political process and giving voice to people in a new way, others have scoffed at its impact. “The revolution will not be tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote.
Asking whether digital activism is a meaningful lever for social change is the wrong question to ask for several reasons.
First, the forms and capabilities of digital activism itself are changing rapidly, so that answers to the question become obsolete almost as fast as the technologies on which they are based.
Second, the types and uses of digital activism are as diverse as traditional forms of activism, ranging tremendously in what they can accomplish. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Digital activism, like regular activism, can be both effective and ineffective, both thin and thick.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, focusing on digital activism puts the emphasis on the tools, not the people who use the tools. The success of any change effort has always depended on the capabilities of the people who use whatever tools are at their disposal.
The right question to ask, then, is not “How good are the tools?” but instead “How good are the people and organizations who use those tools?” Lots of organizations, campaigns, and movements all over the world try to get people engaged in activism every day. Some are better than others. Why?
Conventional wisdom might argue that an organization’s ability to engage activists depends on a charismatic leader, a catchy message, or, in this day and age, its ability to leverage big data and technology. Those things all matter. But after spending two years comparing high-engagement organizations to their low-engagement counterparts, I find that what really differentiates the high-engagement organizations is their ability to create transformative experiences for their activists.
While most organizations focus on trying to get more people to do more stuff by making participation as easy as possible, these high-engagement organizations are doing more. Whether they are doing it online or offline, these organizations are carefully engaging people in ways that cultivate the motivational, strategic, and practical capacities they need to engage in further activism—as a result, everything from the kinds of activities they plan, to the way they structure their organizations, to the way they communicate with volunteers, is different. Combined with a hard-nosed focus on numbers, these organizations are thus able to achieve both the breadth and depth of activism that many organizations seek.
So let’s put the debate about slacktivism to rest. Instead, let’s begin asking how we can use technology to create transformative spaces where people can develop their individual and collective agency. If technology can create the kinds of interpersonal, transformative spaces face-to-face organizations have built for years, then we’ll be able to get the depth we want, but on a grander scale than we’ve ever had before.
Headline image credit: Protest Illustration. Public domain via Pixabay.
Slacktivism is a portmanteau, bridging slacker and activism. It is usually not intended as a compliment.
The term is born out of frustration with the current state of public discourse: signing an e-petition, retweeting a message, or “liking” something on Facebook seems too easy. When people engage in these simple digital acts around social causes, we wonder: are they fooling themselves into believing they can make a difference? What can these clicks actually accomplish? Do they degrade “real” social activism, or make citizens less likely to take more substantial steps?
But if we examine these digital acts a little more closely, it turns out that slacktivism is a bit of an optical illusion. Simple digital acts of participation can be wispy or powerful. They can be a dead end for social engagement, or Act 1 in a grand narrative of social mobilization. It all depends on the context and the intended purpose of these digital actions, and on how committed, organized groups of citizens make use of them.
Three features are particularly important when deciding whether an act of online participation should be dismissed as “just slacktivism.”
First is what Andrew Chadwick (2013) calls “the hybrid media system.” One major goal of most citizen activism is to attract media attention. Mainstream media still help to set the agenda for the national conversation – whether CNN and USA Today are covering Ebola or the national debt helps to magnify attention to each of those issues. In the pre-digital era, activist groups would stage rallies and send press releases to attract the attention of the media. Today, journalists and their editors often turn to digital media in order to pick out potential stories worth covering. So online petitions, likes, and hashtags can be more than just slacktivism if they are strategically used to attract media attention.
Second is the target of the digital action. All activist tactics – digital or offline – should be viewed within their strategic context. Who is being targeted, and why would the target listen? Marshall Ganz (2010) writes that “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” Digital petitions, by this logic, can be tremendously effective or a complete waste of time. A petition to “stop animal cruelty,” aimed at no one in particular, is guaranteed to make no difference. But a recent wave of online petitions aimed at Boy Scout Troops resulted in the Boy Scouts of America officially changing its position and allowing openly gay youths to participate in the organization. Likewise, when online “slackers” submit millions of online comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, those comments carry the force of demonstrated public opinion. When online citizens tweet or post their displeasure at corporations, reputation-conscious companies have been known to change their policies and practices.
The complaints we hear today about “slacktivism” are identical to an earlier generation of complaints about “armchair activism.” Where today we hear that actions performed via the Internet are too simple to make a difference, in the 1970s we heard that actions performed via the mail or the telephone were too simple to make a difference. Then, as now, those complaints were an optical illusion: the power of these activist techniques depends on what angle you observe them from. The medium through which we engage in politics matters less than the networks, relationships, and strategies we employ along the way.
Like its corollary clicktivism, slacktivism is a term that unites entrenched technosceptics and romantic revolutionaries from a pre-Internet or, more precisely, a pre-social media age as they admonish younger generations for their lack of commitment to “real” social change or willingness to do “what it takes” to make the world around them a better place.
This perception is based on drawing a corollary between the mounting evidence that people are spending more and more time online and the perception that political and social movements are no longer what they were. I would agree with both observations.
I would not agree, however, with this widely held assumption that online forms of sociopolitical mobilization, information-exchange, or community-building are either inferior or less genuine to offline varieties. There are good, bad, and indifferent forms of online political engagement just as there are in the offline world, e.g. going on a demonstration or signing a paper petition are not in themselves signs of above-average mobilization. In this sense then slacktivism, defined as actions in “support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement,” existed long before the Internet came of age in the 1990s with the world wide web. And slacktivism, according to this part of the definition, will exist long after the social media platforms that dominate the internet of today have made way for the next generation of goods and services. Disapproval at the way any given generation makes use — or not — of the media and communications of their time will also continue long after the target of this pejorative term, so-called digital natives, have grown up and started to lament the way their children seem to have become disengaged from the social and political problems of their time in turn. Half-hearted or short-lived forms of political action, empty rhetoric, or fleeting movements for change are neither reducible to, nor are they synonymous with any particular technological artefact or system, even a transformative and complex one such as the Internet. This held true for the Internet’s socio-technological precursors such as television, the telephone, radio, and even the printing press.
My taking distance from this easy dismissal of the way people use the Internet to call to account power abuses at home and abroad, or to share information and get organized by going online, arises from a longstanding concern I have about the way that media pundits — and some parts of academe — look for easy ways to generate headlines or sell books by drawing such false dichotomies between our online and our offline lives. This preference for the simple either/or tends to overlook more pressing questions about the changing face and nature of sociopolitical engagement in a domain that is being squeezed from all sides by incumbent political and economic interests. It is tempting, and comforting to treat online mobilization as suspicious by default, but to do so, as astute observers (not) so long ago have already noted (Walter Benjamin and Donna Haraway for instance) does a disservice to critical analyses of how society and technological change collide and collude with one another, and in complex, over-determined ways. But I would go further here to argue that tarring all forms of online activism as slacktivism is a form of myopic thinking that would condemn the ways in which today’s generation’s communicate their concerns about the injustices of the world in which they live online. It also underestimates the politicizing effect that recent revelations about way in which the internet, the medium and means in which they find out about their world is being excessively if not illegally data-mined and surveilled by vested — governmental and commercial — interests.
Assuming that the Internet, admittedly a harbinger of major shifts in the way people access information, communicate with one another, and organize, is the main cause for the supposedly declining levels of civic engagement of the younger generation is to succumb to the triple perils of technological determinism, older-generational myopia, and sloppy thinking. It also overlooks, indeed ignores, the fact that organizing online is a time-consuming, energy-draining, and expensive undertaking. This holds true even if many of the tools and applications people can draw on are offered “free” or are, arguably, relatively easy to use. Sustaining a blog, a website, a social media account, getting people to sign an e-petition, or deploying email to good effect are activities that require know-how, want-to, and wherewithal. Moreover, mounting any sort of campaign or community project in order to address a social injustice at home let alone around the world, cannot be done these days without recourse to the internet.
What has changed, like it or not, is that in Internet-dependent contexts, any sort of serious political or social form of action now has to include an online dimension, and a sustained one at that. This means that additional energies need to be devoted to developing multi-sited and multi-skilled forms of strategic thinking, deployment of human resources, and ways to make those qualities that can inspire and mobilize people to get involved work for the online environment (e.g. how to use micro-blogging idioms well), on the ground (e.g. face-to-face meetings), and in non-digital formats (e.g. in written or physical forms). It is a sign of our age that sociopolitical action needs to know how to combine age-old, pre-digital age techniques to mobilize others with those that can speak in the 24/7, mobile, and user-generated idioms of online solidarity that can engage people close to home as well as those living far away. Huge sociocultural and political power differentials aside, given that people and communities access and use the Internet in many ways at any one time around the world, the effort and commitment required of pre-Internet forms of organizing pale in comparison to those called for in an Internet age.
The elections, thankfully, are finally over, but America’s search for security and prosperity continues to center on ordinary politics and raw commerce. This ongoing focus is perilous and misconceived. Recalling the ineffably core origins of American philosophy, what we should really be asking these days is the broadly antecedent question: “How can we make the souls of our citizens better?”
To be sure, this is not a scientific question. There is no convincing way in which we could possibly include the concept of “soul” in any meaningfully testable hypotheses or theories. Nonetheless, thinkers from Plato to Freud have understood that science can have substantial intellectual limits, and that sometimes we truly need to look at our problems from the inside.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher, inquired, in The Phenomenon of Man: “Has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without?” This not a silly or superficial question. Earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Transcendentalist, had written wisely in The Over-Soul: “Even the most exact calculator has no prescience that something incalculable may not balk the next moment.” Moreover, he continued later on in the same classic essay: “Before the revelations of the soul, Time, Space, and Nature shrink away.”
That’s quite a claim. What, precisely, do these “phenomenological” insights suggest about elections and consumerism in the present American Commonwealth? To begin, no matter how much we may claim to teach our children diligently about “democracy” and “freedom,” this nation, whatever its recurrent electoral judgments on individual responsibility, remains mired in imitation. More to the point, whenever we begin our annual excursions to Thanksgiving, all Americans are aggressively reminded of this country’s most emphatically soulless mantra.
“You are what you buy.”
This almost sacred American axiom is reassuringly simple. It’s not complicated. Above all, it signals that every sham can have a patina, that gloss should be taken as truth, and that any discernible seriousness of thought, at least when it is detached from tangible considerations of material profit, is of no conceivably estimable value.
Ultimately, we Americans will need to learn an altogether different mantra. As a composite, we should finally come to understand, every society is basically the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. For this nation, moreover, the favored path to any such redemption has remained narrowly fashioned by cliché, and announced only in chorus.
Where there dominates a palpable fear of standing apart from prevailing social judgments (social networking?), there can remain no consoling tolerance for intellectual courage, or, as corollary, for any reflective soulfulness. In such circumstances, as in our own present-day American society, this fear quickly transforms citizens into consumers.
While still citizens, our “education” starts early. From the primary grades onward, each and every American is made to understand that conformance and “fitting in” are the reciprocally core components of individual success. Now, the grievously distressing results of such learning are very easy to see, not just in politics, but also in companies, communities, and families.
Above all, these results exhibit a debilitating fusion of democratic politics with an incessant materialism. Or, as once clarified by Emerson himself: “The reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.”
Nonetheless, “We the people” cannot be fooled all of the time. We already know that nation, society, and economy are endangered not only by war, terrorism, and inequality, but also by a steadily deepening ocean of scientifically incalculable loneliness. For us, let us be candid, elections make little core difference. For us, as Americans, happiness remains painfully elusive.
In essence, no matter how hard we may try to discover or rediscover some tiny hints of joy in the world, and some connecting evidence of progress in politics, we still can’t manage to shake loose a gathering sense of paralyzing futility.
Tangibly, of course, some things are getting better. Stock prices have been rising. The economy — “macro,” at least — is improving.
Still, the immutably primal edifice of American prosperity, driven at its deepest levels by our most overwhelming personal insecurities, remains based upon a viscerally mindless dedication to consumption. Ground down daily by the glibly rehearsed babble of politicians and their media interpreters, we the people are no longer motivated by any credible search for dignity or social harmony, but by the dutifully revered buying expectations of patently crude economics.
Can anything be done to escape this hovering pendulum of our own mad clockwork? To answer, we must consider the pertinent facts. These unflattering facts, moreover, are pretty much irrefutable.
For the most part, we Americans now live shamelessly at the lowest common intellectual denominator. Cocooned in this generally ignored societal arithmetic, our proliferating universities are becoming expensive training schools, promising jobs, but less and less of a real education. Openly “branding” themselves in the unappetizing manner of fast food companies and underarm deodorants, these vaunted institutions of higher education correspondingly instruct each student that learning is just a commodity. Commodities, in turn, learns each student, exist solely for profit, for gainful exchange in the ever-widening marketplace.
Optimally, our students exist at the university in order, ultimately, to be bought and sold. Memorize, regurgitate, and “fit in” the ritualized mold, instructs the college. Then, all be praised, all will make money, and all will be well.
But all is not well. In these times, faced with potentially existential threats from Iran, North Korea, and many other conspicuously volatile places, we prefer to distract ourselves from inconvenient truths with the immense clamor of imitative mass society. Obligingly, America now imposes upon its already-breathless people the grotesque cadence of a vast and over-burdened machine. Predictably, the most likely outcome of this rhythmically calculated delirium will be a thoroughly exhausted country, one that is neither democratic, nor free.
Ironically, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, it seems, we still had a unique opportunity to nudge each single individual to become more than a crowd. Once, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the quintessential American philosopher, had described us as a unique people, one motivated by industry and “self-reliance,” and not by anxiety, fear, and a hideously relentless trembling.
America, Emerson had urged, needed to favor “plain living” and “high thinking.” What he likely feared most was a society wherein individual citizens would “measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.”
No distinctly American philosophy could possibly have been more systematically disregarded. Soon, even if we can somehow avoid the unprecedented paroxysms of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become unsustainable. Then, finally, we will be able to make out and understand the phantoms of other once-great ships of state.
Laden with silver and gold, these other vanished “vessels” are already long forgotten. Then, too, we will learn that those starkly overwhelming perils that once sent the works of Homer, Goethe, Milton, and Shakespeare to join the works of more easily forgotten poets are no longer unimaginable. They are already here, in the newspapers.
In spite of our proudly heroic claim to be a nation of “rugged individuals,” it is actually the delirious mass or crowd that shapes us, as a people, as Americans. Look about. Our unbalanced society absolutely bristles with demeaning hucksterism, humiliating allusions, choreographed violence, and utterly endless political equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to assert, there must be something more to this country than its fundamentally meaningless elections, its stupefying music, its growing tastelessness, and its all-too willing surrender to near-epidemic patterns of mob-directed consumption.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson asked plaintively about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us,” inquired Wilson, “to choose to be genuine?” This earlier American president had answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to stoop so cowardly before corruption, venality, and political double-talk. Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more unsightly even than the death of an individual person.
“The crowd,” observed the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Today, following recent elections, and approaching another Thanksgiving, America’s democracy continues to flounder upon a cravenly obsequious and still soulless crowd. Before this can change, we Americans will first need to acknowledge that our institutionalized political, social, and economic world has been constructed precariously upon ashes, and that more substantially secure human foundations now require us to regain a dignified identity, as “self-reliant” individual persons, and as thinking public citizens.
Heading image: Boxing Day at the Toronto Eaton Centre by 松林 Ｌ. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Anyone who expects bipartisanship in the wake of last Tuesday’s elections has not been paying attention. The Republican Party does not believe in a two-party system that includes the Democrats, and it never has. Ever since the Civil War, when the Republicans were convinced that their Democratic opposition was in treacherous league with the Confederacy, the Grand Old Party in season and out has doubted the legitimacy of the Democrats to hold power. While the Republicans have accepted the results of national elections as facts they could not change, they have not believed that the Democrats were ever legitimately holding power. Democratic victories, in the minds of Republicans, are the result of fraud and abuse.
Consider some examples: In 1876, Republicans in New York said the Democratic party was “the same in character and spirit as when it sympathized with treason.” Half a century later, speaking of Woodrow Wilson, Henry Cabot Lodge told the 1920 Republican national convention that “Mr. Wilson stands for a theory of administration and government which is not American.” When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy spoke of “twenty years of treason” in the 1950s, he was not joking. He meant the statement as literal fact. So too did an aide to George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he observed, “We are America. These other people are not America.”
So when Rush Limbaugh comments that “Democrats were not elected to govern,” or Leon H. Wolf of Redstate says Democrats “should not be even be invited to be part of the discussion lest their gangrenous, festering and destructive ideas should further infect our caucus,” they are reflecting an attitude toward the Democrats that is at least a century and a half old.
If, as many Republicans believe, there are elements of illegitimacy and evil in the Democratic Party under the leadership of President Obama, then a posture of intense resistance become a necessary GOP tactic. Meeting the threat that the Democrats pose in terms of such issues as same-sex marriage, climate change and immigration reform requires going beyond politics as usual and employing any means necessary to save the nation.
For contemporary Republicans, scorched earth tactics and all-out opposition seem the appropriate response to the presence of a pretender in the White House who in their minds is pursuing the collapse of the American republic. There no longer exists between Republicans and Democrats a rough consensus about the purpose of the United States.
How has it come to this? A long review of both political parties suggests that the experience of the Civil War introduced a flaw into American democracy that was never resolved or recognized. The Republicans regarded the wartime flirtation of some Democrats with the Confederacy as evidence of treason. So it may have been at that distant time. What rendered that conclusion toxic was the perpetuation of the idea of Democratic illegitimacy and betrayal long after 1865.
After their extended years in the wilderness during the New Deal, Republicans reasserted their presidential dominance, with a few Democratic interruptions from 1952 to 1992. Republicans thus saw in the ascendancy of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and the two Bushes a return to the proper order of politics in which the Republicans were destined to be in charge and Democrats to occupy a position of perennial deference outside of Congress.
Then the unthinkable happened. Not just a Democrat but a black Democrat won the White House. The southern-based Republican Party saw its worst fears coming true. A man with a foreign-sounding name, an equivocal religious background, and a black skin was president and pursuing what were to most Republicans sinister goals. Under his administration, blacks became assertive, gays married, the poor got health care, and the wealthy faced both a lack of due respect and a claim on their income.
The Republican allegiance to traditional democratic practices now seemed to them outmoded in this national crisis. Americans could not really have elected Barack Obama and put his party in control of the destiny of the nation. Such an outcome must be illegitimate. And what is the remedy for illegitimacy, treason, and godlessness? To quote Leon Wolf again: “Working with these people is not what America elected you to do. Republicans, it elected you to stop them.” Pundits who forecast a new era of bipartisanship comparable to what Dwight D. Eisenhower, Everett Dirksen, Sam Rayburn, and Lyndon B. Johnson achieved in the 1950s are living in a nostalgic dream world. Richard Nixon viewed politics as war and contemporary Republicans will proceed to explore the validity of his insight over the next two years. For the American voter, clinging to the naive notion of the parties working together, each taking part of the loaf, the best guide may be Bette Davis in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Featured image: Members of the Republican Party gather at the 1900 National Convention. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
We need new leaders in Congress and the White House, I don’t see any in either arm of the government. We need leaders who lead according to conscience, not religion. Defending our country, Cutting spending, Not writing legislation for the people who paid to get them elected. Considering ALL the people not just the rich or the poor but all of us. There are leaders in other countries that see us a weak nation. We are NOT a weak nation and we need to stand up and prove it.
Back when Quercus books was starting out (even before they were called Quercus) I wrote a piece for them as proof of concept for a planned volume called Days that changed the World (to follow on from the successful Speeches that changed the World). In the end it became a book by Hywel Williams. I really liked my sample piece, mocked up for the Frankfurt bookfair, and now, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d like other people to be able to read it.
“Every wall will fall some day”
It was 6.57 pm on Thursday 9 November 1989. In a press conference Günter Schabowski, head of the Berlin section of East Germany’s ruling party the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), was trying to answer a question put by an Italian journalist.
Earlier that day at the Politburo (Cabinet) meeting, the continued hemorrhaging of East German citizens to the West, through the increasingly open borders of its communist allies, had been discussed. It was decided that a system of permits would be introduced to allow travel into West Berlin. It was Günter Schabowski’s role to answer questions at the subsequent press conference, but he had only returned from holiday towards the end of the meeting and so missed much of the discussion. The question the journalist had asked was about this very issue of travel into West Berlin, so Schabowski was handed a piece of paper to help him give an answer. It was a press release intended for publication the following day. No one meant for him to read it out loud but that’s what he did. He was then asked when this would actually happen. Unaware of the proposed timetable he mistakenly announced to the surprised group of journalists before him that ‘this is immediate, without delay’.
‘As far as I know, this is immediate, without delay’ Günther Schabowski, Head of Berlin SED, 6:57pm
Within minutes the news wire services AP (Associated Press) and DPA (the German Press Agency) were reporting that East Germany had opened its borders to the West. The citizens of East Berlin flocked to the crossing points in the Wall hoping to gain access. Outnumbered and unprepared the border guards didn’t know what action to take. Telephone calls to their superiors apparently said ‘we’re flooding’ as they held back the ever-increasing crowds. Finally, around 10.30 pm at Bornholmer Strasse they bowed to the inevitable and opened the crossing. After 10,315 days stretching across 28 years the antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protection Wall), the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain across Europe, had finally fallen.
‘I won’t believe it until I’m on the other side’ unknown East Berlin woman
‘We’re flooding’ East German border police
The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was the pivotal moment in a dramatic year across Europe. This followed in the wake of the new philosophies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) coming from Mikhail Gorbachev in The Kremlin. The Poles with their powerful Solidarity trades union were impatient for reform and on 5 April the communist government there agreed to hold free elections. In May, Gorbachev came to West Germany to meet with Chancellor Kohl. He informed Kohl that the Brezhnev doctrine was over – that Russia was no longer prepared to use force to control the satellite states that comprised the Soviet Union. At once the government in Hungary announced its intention to begin the dismantling of the Iron Curtain along the border with Austria. The floodgates were open.
East Germans began pouring into Hungary en route to what they hoped was a new life in the West. The scale of the exodus was unprecedented. Some were allowed through into Austria while others who were turned back ended up camping in the grounds of the West German Embassy in Prague in Czechoslovakia.
A weekly peace vigil had begun on Mondays in the East German city of Leipzig. At first the numbers were small, but despite sometimes violent police action they grew. On 4 September there were a thousand demonstrators – by 16 October there were 120,000. Loudspeakers proclaimed their words of opposition throughout the city:
We, the people, demand:
the right to free access of information
the right to open political discussions
the freedom of thought and creativity
the right to maintain a plural ideology
the right to dissent
the right to travel freely
the right to exert influence over government authority
the right to re-examine our beliefs
the right to voice an opinion in the affairs of state
The Leipzig protests
Gorbachev had returned to Berlin as guest of honour for the 40th anniversary of the East German state on 7 October. In front of the Palace of the Republic the celebrations turned to protest as the crown cried out for Gorbachev to help them. The demonstration was broken up by the police with a thousand arrests. In a warning to the SED Gorbachev announced ‘Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben’ (whoever comes too late is punished by life). In East Germany this was seen as a tacit acknowledgement that the old order was over. Following Gorbachev’s comments and the ever-increasing demonstrations against him, East German President Eric Honecker, who as late as June had claimed the Wall would last for another ‘50 or 100 years’, resigned on 18 October.
Honecker was the original builder of the Wall. More than two and a half million East Germans had escaped to West Germany between 1949 and 1961, an unsustainable drain on the communist state’s resources. Because of this the first East German President, Walter Ulbricht, had secretly decided a wall must be built. He sought the then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s permission to make his plan a reality. At midnight on the morning of Sunday 13 August 1961, Honecker, responsible for security on the SED Central Committee and so the overseer of the construction of the Wall, sealed the border with West Berlin while the citizens in the east slept. In preparation for the day he had stored 25 miles (40 km) of barbed wire and thousands of fence posts in barracks around the city. This was brought out and the Wall was erected behind a line of 25,000 armed police, posted every six feet along the border.
The resignation of Honecker saw him replaced by another hardliner, Egon Krenz, but the exodus from East Germany continued apace. On Tuesday 7 November the government of East Germany resigned en masse appealing to the public that ‘in this serious situation, all energies be concentrated on keeping up all functions indispensable to the people, society and the economy.’ The plan was that the ministers would remain in office until a new government could be formed. The next day the entire Politburo also resigned. However, the Central Committee of the SED unanimously re-elected Egon Krenz as leader. That afternoon party members elected a new Politburo who would meet for the first time the following day under Krenz’s leadership. The rapid changes in the administration and personnel were perhaps the reason for Günter Schabowski’s confused announcement on the fateful evening.
As night fell on 9 November a street party spread all across West Berlin that lasted several days. As each East German Trabi drove across Checkpoint Charlie its driver honked its horn and was cheered by the masses. East German border guards joined the celebrations and were presented with flowers by delighted West Berliners. East Germans were pouring into West Berlin with no money, so it was quickly announced that possession of an East German passport would entitle the bearer to free public transport and museum admission across the city.
‘Berlin was out of control. There was no more government, neither in East nor in West. The police and the army were helpless. The soldiers themselves were overwhelmed by the event. They were part of the crowd. Their uniforms meant nothing. The Wall was down.’ From a personal account by Andreas Ramos, a Dane in Berlin
‘Soon after the announcement was made, my family and I went to the wall with hammers and chisels in order to help knock it down. There were hundreds of people there already. I was surprised at just how difficult it was to break a piece of wall off: it was made of such hard material. Looking at gaps which others before me had managed to create, I could see the thick iron wires which were between the concrete layers making up the wall. One thing I did notice about the wall was that the West side was covered in graffiti and the East was perfectly clean: the East Berliners were not allowed near the wall. I had fun knocking away at the wall, and did manage to break of small chunks, which I still have today.’ From a personal account by Louise Hopper, then a 14 year old English girl living in West Berlin
Tear down the wall
The next day, Friday, saw the announcement of free elections in East Germany to take place the following year. Then, on Sunday 12 November, the Wall was opened at the historic Potsdamer Platz (Potsdam Square) by the mayors from each half of the previously divided city. Walter Momper, Mayor of West Berlin proclaimed ‘Potsdam Square is the old heart of Berlin and it will beat again as it used to.’ Six weeks later the historic Brandenburg Gate, was also reopened in front of enormous crowds.
Systematic demolition of the Wall began on 13 June the following year and Germany was finally reunited on 3 October 1990. However, a watching world that had been caught in the grip of the Cold War for so long remembers 9 November 1989 as the day it ended – the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Improving the transparency of the research published in Political Analysis has been an important priority for Jonathan Katz and I as co-editors of the journal. We spent a great deal of time over the past two years developing and implementing policies and procedures to insure that all studies published in Political Analysis have replication data available through the journal’s Dataverse. At this point in time, we have over 220 studies available in the journal’s Dataverse archive, and those studies have had more than 14,400 downloads. We see this as a major accomplishment for Political Analysis.
We are also optimistic that soon many political science journals will join us in implementing similar replication standards. An increasing number of journals developing and implementing replication standards will improve the quality of research in political science, aid in the distribution of materials that can be used in our classrooms, and make the publication process more straightforward for authors.
In late September, Jonathan and I had the opportunity to participate in a two-day “Workshop on Data Access and Research Transparency” at the University of Michigan. The workshop is part of an initiative sponsored by the American Political Science Association (APSA) to develop a discipline-wide discussion of how to improve research transparency in political science. The primary goal was to bring the editors of the primary journals in political science into this conversation. While there is no doubt that there was widespread agreement among the journal editors present that making research more transparent and making data more accessible are important goals, there are still open questions about how such goals can be implemented.
One of the major products of this workshop was a statement of principles for political science journals. While the statement has not yet been released, it contains a short set of principles, the most important of which are that the signing journals will require authors to make replication materials accessible, and that the signing journals will take steps to make the research published in their journal more transparent. Political Analysis is one of the signatories of this statement: we will continue to work to improve the accessibility of data and other research materials for the papers we publish in Political Analysis, as well as assist other journals as they work to develop their own replication and research transparency standards.
Updated and clarified standards for how authors should present empirical results in their submissions, in particular tables and figures.
More detailed instructions on our replication requirement.
Encouragement and guidance for authors who wish to pre-register their research studies.
We hope that other journals will follow our lead, and that they will quickly develop strong standards for replication and research transparency. The APSA initiative is laudable, and it is helping to position political science as a leader in these areas, certainly in the social sciences but also throughout the sciences and humanities. We welcome the APSA DART initiative, and will continue to work to position Political Analysis as a leader in developing and implementing data access and research transparency standards.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it. From breaking the Congress organization in 1969, to the declaration of Emergency, to the initiation of caste wars, to the encouragement of Sikh militancy, to the decision on Shah Bano, to the opening of the Babri Masjid, and the list goes on, it was Nehru’s bloodline that most effectively downgraded his memory. Experts and commentators connived in this for they were blindsided by the family connection and failed to see the break that was being repeatedly wrought on Nehru’s memory first by his daughter, then his son and then his daughter-in-law and great grandson. So when the time came, and come it would, the haters and baiters of the first Prime Minister easily positioned his memory in the short hairs of their blunderbusses and shot it down.
As it is, Nehru tripped himself up on a number of policies he had staked his reputation on. In times of economic crisis or border threats — as from China — he sidestepped non-alignment and turned to America first. Or, when it came to socialism, he made it known that he would never stand for the Soviet model and preferred the mixed economy instead. That this position was supported by India’s fledgling entrepreneurs of the time only made Nehru’s claim to be a socialist”’ somewhat contrived. Even if socialism were to be interpreted as “welfare statism”, he did precious little on issues like universal health and education.
Nehru, however, played a sterling role in keeping India together in its most critical years after Independence. He was not alone in this, but without his whole hearted support to the making of the Indian Constitution, we would have been a poorer Republic. He weighed in heavily in favour of anti- untouchability, minority rights, and the abolition of feudal privileges which, together, make our Constitution so outstanding. India was a young Republic in 1950, but it looked, talked and walked like a seasoned democratic nation-state. True, he was not alone in this, but as Prime Minister, it was Nehru, more than anybody else, who fleshed out these most singular aspects of our Constitution. It would have been the easiest thing to renege on them given the tensions and uncertainties India faced in the early post- Independence years, but Nehru remained firm.
What made Nehru stand out was his insistence on the principle of fraternity. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine him on this score as fraternity is fashioned on intangibles; it is not made of brick and mortar, nor can it be measured monetarily. Yet, without this all important attribute, neither liberty nor equality makes much sense- they actually ring hollow. Nehru’s contribution to fraternity came through in his insistence on secularism which went all the way from anti-casteism to anti religious sectarianism. He made no compromises on any of these but, unfortunately for him, these can easily be shafted in the name of political expediency. And this is exactly what his daughter, grandson and the succeeding generation did. Secularism has been the single greatest casualty in the five decades of Congress rule after Nehru. It is for this reason that ‘secularism’ today has become the butt of ridicule, and even half literates have a field day in mocking it.
Nehru’s industrialization programme required a long gestation period which people, with a limited time horizon, found difficult to accept. Further, for the mixed economy to succeed, state enterprises had to be super efficient in infrastructure creation. Without laying out this groundwork it would be difficult for the other half of the mixed economy to come of age. This was the true meaning of self-reliance as Nehru saw it and all autarkic versions of it put out by his enemies, and some admirers too, are contrary to this vision. None of this could be accomplished overnight by token gestures and oratorical flourishes; they all required careful calculation, and hard core research and development. Mistakes were made, plans recalibrated, Constitutional impasses overcome and before any of these could be firmed up, Nehru was gone.
Perhaps his record as Prime Minister would have been different had he lived longer. True, he had set himself a gigantic task by standing up for India’s economic sovereignty and battling ceaselessly against traditional prejudices. Yet, sadly and oddly, he failed most monumentally in his lifetime not so much on these grounds as he did because he was an extremely prickly nationalist. Whenever India’s physical integrity faced a threat, even imaginary ones, he was unable to take a proper democratic decision. He blundered on Kashmir and we are still paying for it; he totally miscalculated on China; he did not understand the Sikhs or the sentiments that had been stirred up in the North-East. One could possibly excuse him for these sins for India had just emerged as a Nation-State and the fear of Balkanization was very real in the minds of many. In fact, he feared the breakup of India so profoundly that he was even against the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the unilingual state of Punjab.
That is not quite all. Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. The other unpardonable thing he did was to choose Teen Murti, the biggest house in the capital, as his official residence. This encouraged pomp and splendour among ministers and bureaucrats, and this strain has only become worse over time. The subsequent conversion of Teen Murti as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also set up a negative precedence. Since then, children of many departed Prime Ministers and political heroes have turned their dead ancestor’s home into public monuments.
In balance, Nehru’s legacy is on its way out. It is, however, in our national interest to keep alive his devotion to the cause of “fraternity”. This can best be done if we do not see the regimes of Indira or Rajiv or Rahul as a continuation of what Nehru stood for. If ever fraternity truly becomes relevant in our country again, nobody will remember that Jawaharlal Nehru was its prime mover once upon a time.
Headline image credit: Lord Mountbatten swears in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India at the ceremony on August 15, 1947. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
For those addicted to politics, newspapers and magazines have long provided abundant, sometimes even insightful coverage. During the last hundred years, print outlets have been supplemented by radio, then television, then 24/7 cable TV news. And with the growth of the internet, consumers of political news now have access to more analysis than ever.
One analytical tool that the politics-following public will not have access to this year is Intrade, an on-line political prediction market. Political prediction markets work very much like financial markets. Investors “buy” a futures contract on a particular candidate; if that candidate wins, the contract pays a set amount (typically $1); if the candidate loses, the contract becomes worthless. The price of candidates’ contracts vary between zero and $1, rising and falling with their political fortunes—and their probability of winning. You can see a graph of Obama and Romney contracts in the months preceding the 2012 election here.
Organized political betting markets have existed in the United States since the early days of the Republic. According to a 2003 paper by Rhode and Strumpf, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries wagering on political outcomes was common and market prices of contracts were often published in newspapers along with those of more conventional financial investments. Rhode and Strumpf note that at the Curb Exchange in New York, the total sum placed on political contracts sometimes exceeded trading in stocks and bonds.
Political betting markets became less popular around 1940. Betting on election outcomes no doubt continued to take place, but it was a much less high-profile affair.
Modern political prediction markets emerged with the establishment in 1988 of the Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), a not-for-profit small-scale exchange run by the College of Business at the University of Iowa. The IEM was created as a teaching and research tool to both better understand how markets interpret real-world events and to study individual trading behavior in a laboratory setting. The IEM usually offers only a few contracts at any one time and investors are allowed to invest a relatively small amount of money. As of mid-October, the Iowa markets—like the polls more generally—were predicting that the Republicans will gain seats in the House and gain control of the Senate.
An important feature of political prediction markets—like financial markets—is that they are efficient at processing information: the prices generated in those markets are a distillation of the collective wisdom of market participants. A desire to harness the market’s ability to process information led to an abortive attempt by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2003 to create the Policy Analysis Market, which would allow individuals to bet on the likelihood of political and military events—including assassinations and terrorist attacks–taking place in the Middle East. The idea was that by processing information from a variety disparate sources, monitoring the prices of various contracts would help the defense establishment identify hot-spots before they became hot. The project was hastily cancelled after Congress and the public expressed outrage that the government was planning to provide the means (and motive) to speculate on—and possibly profit from–terrorism.
Another, longer-lived—and for a time, quite popular–prediction market was Intrade.com. This Dublin-based company was established in 1999. At first, it specialized in sports betting, but soon expanded to include an extensive menu of political markets. During recent elections, Intrade operated prediction markets on the presidential election outcome at the national level, the contest for each state’s electoral votes, individual Senate races, as well as a number of other political races in the US and overseas. Thus, Intrade offered a far variety of betting options than the IEM.
Intrade was forced to close last year when the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed suit against it for illegally allowing Americans to trade options (by contract, the IEM secured written opinions in 1992 and 1993 from the CFTC that it would not take action against IEM, because of that market’s non-profit, educational nature). The CFTS’s threat to Intrade’s largest customer base very quickly led to a dramatic drop-off in visitors to the site, which subsequently closed. Alternative off-shore betting markets have entered the political markets (e.g., Betfair), but their offerings pale by comparison with those formerly offered by Intrade and are probably too small at present to spur the CFTC to action.
I regret the loss of Intrade, but not because I used their services—I didn’t. Given the federal government’s generally hostile view toward internet gambling, I felt it was prudent to abstain. Plus, having placed a two-pound wager on a Parliamentary election with a bookmaker when I lived in England many years ago convinced me that an inclination to bet with the heart, rather than the head, makes for an unsuccessful gambler.
No, I miss Intrade because it provided a nice summary of many different political campaigns. Sure, there are plenty of on-line tools today that provide a wide array of expert opinion and sophisticated polling data. Still, as an economist, I enjoyed the application of the mechanisms usually associated with financial markets to politics and observing how political news generated fluctuations in those markets. No other single source today does that for as many political races as Intrade did.
Feature image credit: Stock market board, by Katrina.Tuiliao. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
British politics is currently located in the eye of a constitutional storm. The Scottish independence referendum shook the political system and William Hague has been tasked with somehow re-connecting the pieces of a constitutional jigsaw that – if we are honest – have not fitted together for some time. I have written an open letter, encouraging the Leader of the House to think the unthinkable and to put ‘the demos’ back into democracy when thinking about how to breath new life into politics.
Dear William (if I may),
I do hope the Prime Minister gave you at least a few minutes warning before announcing that you would be chairing a committee on the future constitutional settlement of the UK. Could you have ever hoped for a more exciting little project to sort out before you leave Parliament next May? Complex problems rarely have simple answers and this is why so many previous politicians have failed to deal with a whole set of questions concerning the distribution of powers and the respective roles of various sub-sets of both politicians and ‘publics’. The timetable you have been set is – how can I put it – demanding and those naughty people in the Labour Party have taken their bat and ball home and are refusing to play the constitutional game.
I’m sure you know how to sort all of this out but I just thought you might like to know that amongst all the critics and naysayers who claim the British constitution is in crisis I actually think that a crisis might be just what we need. Not a crisis in terms of burning cars and riots in the streets but a crisis in terms of ‘creative destruction’ and the chance for a new way of looking at perennial problems. What’s more – as the Scottish referendum revealed – there is a huge amount of latent democratic energy amongst the public. From Penzance to Perth and from Cardigan to Cromer the public is not apathetic or disinterested about politics but they feel disconnected from a London-based system that is remote in a number of ways.
The reasons for this sense of disconnection are numerous and complex but as a constitutional historian you will know better than most people that British democracy has evolved throughout the centuries with a deep animosity to public engagement. The (in)famous ‘Westminster Model’ that we imposed on countries around the world was explicitly elitist, centralized and to a great extent insulated from public pressure. These features and values – as Scotland revealed – are now crumbling under the weight of popular pressure that will not accept their legitimacy in the twenty first century. But as I said, this should be interpreted as a positive opportunity for re-imagining, for re-connecting and for breathing new life into the system.
The question is how to deliver on this potential for positive change in a way that takes the people with you?
Now I’m no Vernon Bogdanor or Peter Hennessy and so writing notes to members of the Cabinet is not a common task but could I just offer three little ideas that might help smooth the path you have been asked to map out?
First and foremost, please ignore Russell Brand.
Secondly, make sure all your officials are also ignoring Russell Brand.
Finally, the trick to moving forward is thinking about constitutional reform not as being like moving pieces on a chessboard or as a zero-sum game in which a ‘win’ for one side means a ‘loss’ for the other. This traditional way of thinking about constitutional politics has served us badly and the aim has to be to turn the problem upside-down and inside-out in a way that creates new opportunities. This means starting with the people – with the demos – and viewing the constitutional puzzle not like a board game but as a multi-level game that suddenly focuses attention on the existence of connections or bonds.
The real challenge is not a lack of political interest amongst the public (indeed the appetite for meaningful engagement is huge) but a lack of ways of drawing upon the upsurges of bottom-up civic energy that keep exploding in various forms – from the off-line Occupy Movement to the on-line growth of ‘clicktivism’ – but to which the ‘traditional’ political institutions seem to offer no answers. Put slightly differently, the public no longer believes that traditional forms of political engagement are actually meaningful. In this context the promises of populist movements suddenly become attractive and Mr Farage gorges on a feast of anti-politics. The focus of your committee on a new constitutional settlement might therefore adopt a quite different approach to all those committees, commissions and inquiries that have gone before you by focusing on what I term ‘nexus politics’. That is, on the institutions and processes that can re-connect the spontaneous and the local and the single issue with the pre-existing institutional framework in a way that positively channels, absorbs and welcomes civic energy and activism. In short, British politics must learn to love democracy in a manner that is quite different to the one-night stand of five-yearly elections.
The problem is that despite the Prime Minister’s pledge on the 19 September to ensure “wider civic engagement… we will say more about this in the coming days”, the days have ticked by but the plans for public engagement remain unclear. What we are experiencing is best characterized as a (classically British top-down) ‘constitutional moment’ in which the existing elite decide what they think is best for the public. However, it has not yet evolved into a truly ‘democratic moment’ in which the public decide for themselves. My note – to bring things to a close – is therefore a simple plea for the Creation of a Citizens Assembly on Constitutional Reform that takes party politics out of discussions about the future and puts power in the power of the people. What a radical thought…
P.S. Did I mention avoiding Russell Brand at all costs?
Feature image credit: Union Jack and Scotland, by Julien Carnot. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
In December 2013, Turkish authorities arrested the sons of several prominent cabinet ministers on bribery, embezzlement, and smuggling charges. Investigators claimed that the men were contributing members in a conspiracy to illicitly trade Turkish gold for Iranian oil gas (an act which, among other things, violates the spirit of United Nations’ sanctions targeting Tehran). The scheme purportedly netted a vast fortune in proceeds in the form of dividends and bribes. Among those suspected of benefiting from the trade was Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan and members of his family. The firestorm from this scandal was initially so furious many feared that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party would not survive its implications. Yet as of this September, the investigation into this scandal has all but come to an end. The officials involved in propagating and executing the investigation have all been dismissed or transferred. Consequently, virtually all charges related to the case have been dropped.
Most of the analysis of this scandal has focused upon the political implications of the arrests and the subsequent purges of Turkey’s national police force. Events since December have indeed underscored the intense levels of strife within Turkey’s governing institutions as well as the growing authoritarian tendencies of the country’s ruling party. Yet Turkey’s “oil for gold” corruption scandal also illuminates fundamental, yet long-standing, aspects of the relationship between prominent illicit trades and the country’s politics.
Turkey’s black market, by all accounts, is exceeding large and highly lucrative. As a country sitting at a major intersection in global commerce, Turkey acts as a spring, valve and spigot for multiple illicit industries. Weapons, narcotics and undocumented migrants, as well as contraband carpets, petroleum, cigarettes, and precious metals all pass in and through the country’s borders on a regular basis. Official statistics on cigarette smuggling offer a few hints of the extent of smuggling in and out of Turkey. According to Interior Ministry sources, Turkish seizures of smuggled cigarettes grew fourteen fold between 2009 and 2012 (with ten million cigarettes seized in 2009 and over 145 million in 2012). In January of this year, Bulgarian customs officials purportedly confiscated fourteen million cigarettes illegally imported from Turkey in one seizure alone. The numbers of arrests for cigarette smuggling has also climbed precipitously, with over 4000 people arrested in 2009 and over 24000 arrests in 2012.
Organized crime takes other forms in Turkey. Criminal networks, builders, and lawmakers have been known to violate laws governing land sales, usage, building safety, and contracting. Bribes and kickbacks to government officials and regulators historically have been essential elements in the rapid building projects undertaken throughout the country for much of the last century. Charges levied against the managers of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce soccer club stand as an example of the match fixing and extortion scandals that have rocked professional sports in Turkey in recent years. Gangsters and extortionists, known as kabadayı, have been counted among Turkey’s most noted and notorious figures in the public spotlight. All in all, organized criminal trades have generated an untold number of fortunes for a select few and have provided a subsistence living for an even larger number of average citizens for a very long time in Turkey.
If Tayyip Erdoğan and his family did glean a great fortune as a result of illicit doings (which some reports claim to amount to total in the tens of millions of dollars), Turkey’s president joins a fairly sizable host of Turkish politicians who have benefited from organized criminal trades. American officials in the 1950s, for example, secretly suspected that noted members of Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party had protected major Turkish heroin traffickers. During the 1970s, at least four members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly were official charged with attempting to transport heroin abroad. Other politicians from this era, including one-time Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, were unofficially suspected of engaging in the drug trade but never charged. Accusations of theft and corruption especially dogged the governments of the tumultuous 1990s. Tansu Ciller, the country’s first female prime minister, was implicated in organized criminal activity both before and after she was first elected to office. Tayyip Erdoğan’s JDP came to power in 2002 with the promise of bringing discipline and respectability to politics. Yet even as recent as last year, a regional JDP chairman was implicated in trading in heroin in the province of Van. The revelations of December 2013 now has many in Turkey convinced that the JDP is as dirty and corruptible as any of the parties that had preceded it.
Erdoğan’s ability to deflect last year’s corruption charges has not put the specter of smuggling and corruption to rest. Local media reports and other studies suggest that the Syrian civil war has stimulated a surge in smuggling along Turkey’s southern border. It is now estimated that fuel, cigarette, and cell phone smuggling has risen by 314%, 135%, and 563% respectively since the war began. The initial efforts to arm and maintain resistance groups in Syria were deeply indebted to Turkey’s smuggling trade. As smuggling continues, it is clear that some groups have attempted to tax trade into and out of Syria (al-Nusrah, for example, purportedly levies a fee of 500 Syrian lira for every barrel of fuel that crosses the border). What this means for the present and future of Turkey’s government is not entirely clear. Suggestions that Ankara has allowed for the passage of large numbers of foreign fighters into Syria has cast doubt over the country’s police and customs officials stationed on its borders (particularly after the official purges earlier this year). Trading schemes and corruption allegations like those revealed in December may yet again manifest themselves considering what international watchdogs call Turkey’s “grey” status as a state with loose embezzlement and money laundering controls. Whether these trends will dent the image of Tayyip Erdoğan or upend JDP control over Turkey remains to be seen.
Headline Image: Turkish flag photo by Abigail Powell. CC BY-NC 2.0 by Flickr
Today is Election Day in the United States, and we’ve mapped out some of the stories behind historic American elections. Explore America’s presidential and Congressional history, from Abraham Lincoln’s first Senatorial race in 1858 to George W. Bush’s hotly-contested victory against Al Gore in 2000. We sourced our facts and figures from The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party by Lewis L. Gould and articles from the Journal of American History, Sociology of Religion, and the Journal of Church and State. Some of the contests featured here are widely known, others less so, but all of the locations on our map offer a piece of electoral history.
Heading image: The County Elections by George Caleb Bingham. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.
The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.
The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.
Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.
How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.
From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.
A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”
Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).
“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.
In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.
Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.
The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.
Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
The fatal shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri during a police altercation in Augusts 2014, resulted in massive civil unrest and protests that received considerable attention from the United States and abroad. To gain further perspective on the situation in Ferguson and its implications of race relations in America, I spoke with Wayne A. Santoro and Lisa Broidy, authors of the article “Gendered Rioting: A General Strain Theoretical Approach” published in Social Forces. This articles is freely available for a limited time.
Why do you think there has been so much media attention on the situation in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting?
Police shootings and mistreatment of black citizens is not, unfortunately, an uncommon experience in the United States. Protests like street marches have become so routinized that at best they get covered in the back pages of the local newspaper. But what no one can ignore are protests that turn violent. Whether we call them riots or rebellions, they are front page news. They are dramatic and unpredictable, threaten life and property, and capture the media’s attention. Policymakers cannot ignore them. After all, it is not every day that a state governor calls out the National Guard to maintain law and order. And whether the public views the protestors in a sympathetic or unsympathetic manner, we are mesmerized by the ongoing drama. How long will the rioting last? How will law enforcement respond? What will be the cost in lives lost and property destroyed?
Why do you think that the shooting of Michael Brown sparked protest by citizens? What was unique about the circumstances in Ferguson, or the Michael Brown case?
Four factors stand out, some unique to the incident and to Ferguson while others are more typical. First, the single best predictor of black riots is police shootings or abuse of blacks by police. Indeed, in our research we find that a particularly strong predictor of joining a riot is having experienced police mistreatment personally. Police harassment is the spark that ignites protests that turn violent. This was a central conclusion of the famous 1968 Kenner Commission that studied black rioting in the late sixties.
Second, blacks in Ferguson have long complained about police harassment. Numerous blacks in Ferguson have recited to the media past experiences with police mistreatment. One resident recalled how he was roughed up by the police during a minor traffic stop. Another spoke of how she called the police for assistance only to have the police arrest her upon arrival. There was an incident in 2009 where a black man accused officers of beating him and then found out that he was subsequently charged with damaging government property by getting his blood on their police uniforms. Some of this mistreatment is suggested by data in Ferguson on race, traffic stops, and arrests.
Blacks comprise 67% of Ferguson’s population (in 2010) but account for 86% of all traffic stops by the police and 93% of all arrests resulting from these stops. Blacks are also twice as likely as white drivers to have the police search their car despite the fact that whites are more likely to have contraband found in their car. These data point to racially biased police practices. This is not unique to Ferguson, and in fact national survey data tell us that it is common knowledge among blacks that the police often act as agents of repression. For instance, in a New York Times/CBS News national survey conducted 10 days after the shooting, 45% of blacks report that they had personally experienced police discrimination because of their race (7% of whites report this experience). Similarly, 71% of blacks believe that local police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person (only 31% of whites agreed). Thus, it is a racially charged shooting of a black man within the context of widespread experiences of police racial abuse that fuel motivations for protest and the belief that the use of violence against the state is legitimate.
Third, the circumstances of the shooting matter. Was the shooting a legitimate or excessive use of police force? It is relevant that so many local blacks think that not only was Michael Brown unarmed (which is undisputed) but that he had his hands raised and was surrendering at the time of the shooting. What matters is not so much whether the “hands raised and surrendering” scenario is accurate (this likely will remain in dispute) but that so many local residents found it believable that a white police officer would shoot six times an unarmed black man trying to surrender. People believe narratives that resonate with their personal experiences and this again tells us something about what these personal experiences with the police have been.
Fourth, blacks in Ferguson have been excluded almost completely from positions of power. People protest when their voices are not being heard, and in Ferguson it appears that those who make policy decisions and influence police behavior are particularly deaf to the concerns of the black community. Referring to an incident where Ferguson officials were unresponsive to a relatively minor request, one black resident remarked “You get tired. You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done.” One arena where this exclusion is evident is in the police department. In the Ferguson police department only 3 (some report 4) of 53 commissioned officers — about 6% — are black. Recall that Ferguson is 67% black. Police departments are seldom responsive to minority communities when policy and street-level enforcement decisions are made solely by whites. Moreover, minority distrust of the police is likely when few police officers are minority. The racial power disparity is evident in elected positions as well. As Jeff Smith (2014) wrote in the New York Times, “Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a City Council with just one black member.” Access to political positions and direct influence into policymaking tend to channel discontent into institutional arenas. Protest is a marker that a population is politically marginalized. Protest is inherently a response to blocked access and influence over the political system.
To what degree is Ferguson unique as opposed to being emblematic of race relations in America?
Ferguson is more typical than atypical. There remains in the United States deep and enduring racial disparities in socioeconomic status, wealth, and well-being. No other population in the United States has experienced the degree of residential segregation from whites as have blacks. We imprison black men at a staggering rate. What the Kerner Commission stated nearly 50 years ago remains true today: we are a “nation of two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” This inequality has been noted repeatedly by black residents in Ferguson who see the local governing regime as unresponsive, the police force as hostile, and the school system as abysmal. Ferguson also is typical in that it reveals how views of racial progress and incidents like the shooting of Michael Brown are racially polarized. In the New York Times/CBS News survey noted above, 49% of blacks thought that the protests in Ferguson were about right or did not go far enough — only 19% of whites held such views.
In two ways, however, Ferguson seems atypical. First, in Ferguson the growth in the black population relative to whites is a recent occurrence. In 1990, blacks comprised 25% of the city’s population but that percentage grew to 52% in 2000 and 67% in 2010. This demographic transition was not followed by a corresponding transition in black access to political positions, the police force, union representation, and the like. Sociologists speak of the “backlash hypothesis,” meaning that when whites feel threatened such as by increases in the minority population they respond with greater hostility to the “threatening” population. The recency of the demographic transition likely has altered the social and political dynamics of the city in ways that do not characterize other contemporary major cities in the United States especially those that are majority black like Detroit or Atlanta.
Second, Ferguson is unusual in the degree that the city uses the municipal court system and the revenue it generates as a way to raise city funds. Court fines make up the second highest source of revenue for the city. This created a financial incentive to issue tickets and then impose excessive fees on people who did not pay. Data bear this out. Ferguson issued more than 1,500 warrants per 1,000 people in 2013 and this rate exceeds all other Missouri cities with a population larger than 10,000 people. To put this another way, Ferguson has a population of just over 21,000 people but issued more than 24,000 warrants which add up to three warrants per Ferguson household. Writes Frances Robles (2014) in the New York Times: “Young black men in Ferguson and surrounding cities routinely find themselves passed from jail to jail as they are picked up on warrants for unpaid fines.” Thus, in Ferguson the primary interaction between many black residents and the police take place because of these warrants. Recent work on social movements has argued that such daily insults and humiliations can play a strong role in motivating people to protest, and certainly serve to undermine trust in the local police and city policymakers.
What will be the likely short- and longer-term consequences of the Ferguson protests?
Understanding how policymakers and others respond to a protest — especially one that turns violent — is complex. There is no typical response and historically one could cite examples of elites either trying to ameliorate the conditions that gave rise to the protest or responding in a more punitive manner. Nonetheless, in the short term there are reasons to think that policymakers will respond in ways favorable to the local black community by addressing some of their grievances. As political scientist James Button has written, policymakers tend to respond more favorably to riots when riots are large enough to garner public and media attention but not so severe and widespread to cause major societal disruption. This describes the Ferguson riots, unlike, for instance, the riots during the late 1960s in the United States. Moreover, policymakers who are sympathetic to minorities tend to respond in ways more favorable to minorities than less receptive policymakers. Social movement scholars refer to this as a favorable “political opportunity structure.” In the United States, the former tend to come from the ranks of the Democratic Party while the latter from the ranks of the Republican Party. Thus the fact that the Ferguson protests occurred during the Obama administration suggests a more ameliorative than punitive response, at least at the national level. It is not surprising that three times more blacks, 60% to 20%, report being satisfied rather than unsatisfied with how President Obama has responded to the situation in Ferguson.
There is some evidence that policymakers are indeed responding in ways favorable to the local black community and their grievances. For instance, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced an independent investigation of the shooting and traveled to Ferguson to meet with investigators. Moreover, his office has started a civil rights investigation into whether the police have repeatedly violated the civil rights of residents. At the local level, some changes also are evident. The Ferguson City Council on 8 September agreed to establish a citizen review board to monitor the local police department. The city also has pledged that it would revamp its policy of using court fines to fund such a large share of its city budget. For instance, the city council has eliminated a $50 warrant recall fee and a $15 notification fee.
It is more of a leap of faith, however, to expect major long-term changes in Ferguson because of the insurgency. There remains, for instance, an on-going debate by scholars of the modern civil-rights movement (circa 1955-1968) as to whether the more than decade-long movement produced meaningful change in the lives of most blacks. If a decade of protests produced less than satisfactory change in the opinion of some, what chance do the Ferguson protests have? In particular, there is little reason to think that levels of black poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and educational disparities will improve noticeably in Ferguson unless other social forces are brought into play. These more substantive changes are more likely to be produced by years of community organizing, securing elected positions, joining governing political coalitions with sympathetic allies, and favorable economic conditions like the growth of blue-collar employment opportunities.
Have white police shootings of minorities (or African-Americans) become more or less common in recent years?
This is an empirical question and the relevant data are limited. There are no national data on police shootings that do not result in death. National data on police shootings that result in death come from three sources: the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, data from each of these sources are limited. The FBI collects data on “justifiable homicide” by police as a voluntary component of the Supplemental Homicide Report data collected from police departments nationwide. Unfortunately few departments (less than 5%) voluntarily provide these data, leaving obvious questions about their representativeness and utility. Moreover, even if they were complete, these data would tell us little beyond the demographics of those killed. Particularly, we cannot discern the degree to which these incidents represent excessive use of force by police. BJS collects similar data on deaths that occur during an arrest. These data are collected at the state level and then reported to BJS. Compliance is better, with 48 states reporting. But it is not clear how complete or comparable the data from each state are.
Is there anything else you think we can learn about race relations or racially motivated social movements in the United States from the case of Ferguson?
A few lessons. First, we often talk about the civil rights movement in the past tense. We think of it as something that happened; we might even debate why it “ended” and what it accomplished. But Ferguson reminds us that the struggle for racial justice continues. It is not always so newsworthy, but everyday many blacks and black advocacy organizations struggle to overcome racial barriers. Second, it underscores the deep racial divide in the United States. White and black views, especially concerning racial matters, are often polar opposite. Where whites see progress, blacks see setbacks. Where whites see black advancement, blacks see persistent racial disparities. Especially polarized are views on the criminal justice system and police. Third, there are costs to a society when a population is politically and economically marginalized. These costs may not always be apparent to outsiders nor make national headlines. But the price we pay for racial disparities is that violent protests will continue to be an enduring feature of the US landscape. The national memory of the Ferguson riots will fade only to be replaced by the next Ferguson-style protest. The question becomes what are we as individuals and as a collective willing to do to eradicate the racial inequality that motivates such protest?
Heading image: Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26 by Loavesofbread. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
From L to R: Diana Pho, LeSean Thomas, Alice Meichi Li, Daniel Jose Older, I.W. Gregorio and Tracey J. John
The main stage spectacles of NYCC saw panels filled with celebrity actors and moderators alike, whipping thousands of screaming audience members into a frenzy. No less intense or enthusiastic, however, were the panels scheduled towards the end of the night in the smaller conference rooms at the Javits Center. Once such panel —Geeks of Color Go Pro —filled its room to capacity with a diverse audience of fans and comic book industry hopefuls cheering just as passionately as fans in the rooms twice its size.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo,” declared Tracy J. John, writer for such marquee video game franchises as Oregon Trail and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This comment, which came later in the proceedings, proved to be a kind of mission statement for the panel as a whole. Moderated by Tor Books editor Diana Pho, the panel participants represented a diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Pho opened by asking the panel to tell their “origin stories,” referring to how they arrived at their current careers within an industry that has long suffered from a dearth of diversity. Tracey J. John kicked things off, saying: “a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…I went to NYU and got a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies.” She went on to say that she garnered an internship at MTV News, which led to a job working for MTV.com. “We wrote about these things called ‘music videos,’” she joked. This job placed her in the perfect spot to capitalize on her World of Warcraft addiction when MTV looked to launch a video game focused section of its website. She recalled thinking, “whoa, I can get paid to write about video games?” She later turned to freelance work for Wired, NY Post, and Playstation Magazine. Desirous of a more stable paycheck, she turned to a job at Gameloft and worked in game development. Recently she decided to shake things up again, and has returned to freelance work.
I.W. Gregorio, who claims she’s still getting used to being addressed by the pen name her day job requires, opened by speaking the question on the minds of many an audience member: “How did a urologist end up being a YA author?” She went on to explain she felt the better question to be “why would an aspiring author become a doctor?” She spoke of her racially isolated childhood where she knew immediately she wanted to be a writer, but felt family pressure “like a lot of kids of color” to enter either law or medicine to be deemed a ‘success’ culturally. Her talents in math and science led her to choose the path of medicine, “enough people had told me that I wanted to be a doctor that I ended up being one.” She did attempt, in her words, to “try to have my cake and eat it too” also studying English while in college. She went on to pursue medicine and take a 10 year break from writing before her passion was reignited during her residency. She is, however, grateful to be a doctor because it “enables my writing career…and gives me a lot of stories.” She described how her new book None of the Above was inspired by an intersex teenager she treated during her residency.
Daniel Jose Older, author of the upcoming Half-Resurrection Blues, the first book in what is to be an ongoing urban fantasy series for Penguin Book’s Roc imprint, began by saying that Gregorio’s story “actually really connects to mine. In 2009 I was a paramedic and community organizer doing work on gender violence and intersections of racism. I was trying how to figure out how to have a voice and what that meant as a writer.” He explained that he loved Star Wars and Harry Potter, but that he and the kids of color he was working work didn’t see themselves in those stories, “and there was a disconnect.” This inspired him to “sit down and write Shadowshaper which got picked up by the folks at Scholastic that put out Harry Potter, so it was this really big dream come true.” He went on to explain that the process of publishing that first work took over 6 years and that “publishing will make you learn patience” which drew a big laugh from the crowd. He continued to work on stories during that time, and work on adult fiction, which led him to Half-Resurrection Blues, due out in 2015. He explained that his background as a paramedic directed inspired the new book, saying: “a lot of this comes from being on the front lines…dealing with life and death.”
Author Alice Meichi Li knew she wanted to be an artist since the age of five. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant in a really rough part of Detroit,” she said. She explained how this kept her indoors for her own safety, drawing on the back of the placemats of her parents’ restaurant. She also felt pushed towards a career in more economically dependable fields like law, medicine, or IT technologies. “When faced with the prospect of applying for college, all I could think about was arts school. I was in Army Junior ROTC and my Staff Sargent saw some of my art and he said: what are you doing here? You should be taking art class, you should be pursuing this.” She eagerly took his advice, worrying her family regarding her future. As she graduated High School at the top of her class, they told her she should be making “six-figures somewhere”—not becoming a starving artist. She conceded that’s “pretty much what happened” to the amusement of the audience, “I did have to end up balancing a day job,” with her art career, working at the well-known comic book store Forbidden Planet. “But I was doing Artist’s Alleys and that’s how I made a lot of my connections. If you’re trying to be an artist in comics that’s pretty much your best bet.”
“Everybody’s got all these cool stories,” remarked Black Dynamite producer and director LeSean Thomas. “I was born and raised in the South Bronx, John Adams projects at 152nd Street,” some in the crowd applauded at this mention—then laughed as Thomas joked that he was in the part of the Bronx that exists “past Yankee Stadium” where most New Yorkers’ familiarity with the Bronx begins and ends. “I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, reading comics books, “ he recalled, saying that he felt comic books was a more realistic career path for him, as the tools used to produce comics were more affordable than that of cartoon animation: “they don’t sell light-boxes at the bodegas,” he quipped.
Thomas ended up in a High School arts program called Talent Unlimited. Following High School he took a job at a sporting goods store to make ends meet. While working there, he was spotted sketching by his store manager whose wife worked at a children’s accessories company. The company quickly employed him to work on designs for accessories featuring licensed characters. Through his work there, he met Joe Rodgers who mentored the young artist and eventually Thomas “became a flash artist/storyboard artist on this web-cartoon called WorldGirl, and it got picked up by Showtime, I think it was the first cartoon to get picked up by a major network.” His success there led to his meeting Carl Jones, who moved to Los Angeles and teamed with The Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder on the now famous Cartoon Network series based on MacGruder’s comic strip of the same name. “He needed people who could understand Hip-Hop culture, Anime, and social political racial satire, and it was very hard to find that kind of talent in Hollywood,” he paused as the crowd laughed before putting it bluntly: “let alone somebody who could draw a black person.” This led him to move to Los Angeles to work on the show, which he feared would soon be canceled due to its controversial and sometimes “wildly inappropriate” content.
The series proved a critical and ratings success for Cartoon Network, and Thomas felt liberated by the mostly black racial makeup of The Boondocks’ creative team. “I grew up in a society where the White male was the dominant character…to be able to work on a show where my boss was Black, the characters we were creating were Black and we were saying the things we wanted to say without caring what other people thought, Black or White, was really liberating and was one of the best experiences for me.” He went on to comment that his experience working on The Boondocks “catapulted his career,” gave him the chance to move overseas, and opened many career opportunities for him-not the least of which was his teaming up producer Carl Jones to produce the Adult Swim series Black Dynamite. He noted how rare it was to have three shows in a row to his credit that found him working under Black people, on shows starting Black characters: The Boondocks, Legend of Korra, and Black Dynamite.
“I guess I should pitch in about myself, and I thought: oh, I’m the moderator—just sit here and look pretty,” joked Diana Pho, before continuing: “I grew up in New England, in a very White town. I was always the only Asian girl in my class and my family is from Vietnam: no one knew where Vietnam was, because actually in my High School they never talked about the Vietnam War.” This statement elicited shocked sounds from the assembled crowd, but also some knowing murmurs that appeared to understand all too well the sort of erasure her statement described. Pho explained that she found escape from her outsider status through books, especially science fiction and fantasy novels. While studying English at college, she knew felt her options for employment were limited to work as a teacher, continuing her studies of Russian-her minor field-in order to obtain her Master’s Degree in it, or something else. “I chose something else,” she said, “and that was publishing.”
She explained she felt publishing to be a small field, insular in nature-and a field where it “has to do with the connections you make, that’s what I learned” and mentioned that her first job involved editing test books for college admissions for a summer. “What it did provide me was internship experience in marketing,” Pho remarked, explaining that this led to her getting a job with Hachette Press. She worked there in sales and marketing for several years before a colleague recommended her for a position at the Science Fiction Book Club making catalogues. She ended up following this with a Master’s in Performance Studies-doing her thesis in Steampunk performance-and graduated to assume her current role at Tor Books.
The panel then opened up for questions from the audience where Pho asked that the questions be “tweet-sized” to try and get to everyone’s question , but the line for the microphone grew long enough that the panel was forced to wrap up with audience members still on line. When asked: “what was one thing that you wish you knew when you started out that you know now?” Gregorio explained that as a representative of the We Need Diverse Books campaign (weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com) “I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there are obviously challenges for diverse authors, the first book I wrote had and Asian-American multicultural protagonist-and three different editors said: oh, it’s too similar to another book with an Asian-American character.” She explained that she knew other authors of color who had run into enough of the same problem that they feared they might have to only write about White characters going forward. “The We Need Diverse Books campaign is most effective because it’s been showing the gatekeepers that they are wrong. Fifty percent of children in schools today are children of color, but only ten percent of books have minority protagonists.” She also called upon the audience to open up their wallets and support works by authors of color and/or featuring main characters of color.
John added on to Gregorio’s comments by telling the audience to not be afraid of the status quo, and gave an example of her work in gaming journalism. “Things that I did…aside from asking the questions I needed to do my job, I’d throw in some poignant questions, I’ve asked Shigeru Miyamoto: why does Princess Peach need saving again? Didn’t she get some self-defense classes by then? Or the developer of a family game why there wasn’t an option to be a Black person, they just had different tans? Ask those kinds of questions. It can be intimidating: Oh I have this opportunity to interview a game developer, I don’t want to screw it up. I’d say ask the normal questions and then save those for the end.”
“When you’re starting out as a writer there’s a lot of advice given out to you, like: you have to build your platform, you have to network! And there’s this very common, very White Western narrative of breaking out as an author. Where you’re that singular rocket ship that flies away to become famous overnight…what it requires us to do, especially as writers and creators of color, is to really reimagine what success means to us anytime we’re entering into any kind of project or career.” He went on to emphasize the need to build community, outside of a “putting points on your resume” style of thinking. “What will sustain you is unity. That’s what will have your back when things are hard, and things will be hard.” He noted that more than fans, writers need people who will tell them the truth-people who will give them the “hard critique.” He also said he wanted to shout-out to: fanbros.com, nerdgasmnoire.net as well as blackgirlnerds.com, saying of the organizations: “these groups are collectives of people of color, proudly nerds, proudly of color, talking about racism, talking about Sleepy Hollow. We need to talk about these things because that’s community” to many loud cheers.
Li wished to add “a piece of advice I hear a lot: you are the average of the five people you interact with most in life. So if you have a bunch of people who are ambitious, who are trying to do what you’re trying to do you’re going to kind of automatically get lifted up with them. So you want at least three of them to be in a place where you aspire to be. I add that you should look for someone who is: 1) an older mentor, to get advice from, 2) an equal, that you can be a comrade-at-arms with and share you career path with and 3) someone you can mentor, because you can learn a lot from teaching.”
“The thing that I wish I’d known before getting into animation, that I do now is that all the animation jobs are in California,” said Thomas, to the laughter of the crowd. Thomas clearly meant the comment seriously, adding: “I wouldn’t have stayed in New York as long if I’d have known there were no real animation jobs in New York the way there are in California…I probably would’ve made my pilgrimage a lot sooner.”
Another attendee asked how the artists dealt with accusations of racism. “I just got called racist the other day, so that was fun,” recounted Older, saying that because the bad guys in a recent story were White he had the accusation leveled at him. “There’s no easy answer, but you have to go with your gut and trust your instincts because when the shit flies, you have to be able to stand up for your work. I know what I did in that story—and I have much worse stories about White people than that,” he said, laughing.
Gregorio added: “publishing is a team sport, you’re going to have editors and marketing people-they’ll catch anything really bad. And also you have to realize we’re all going to get criticism. Haters are gonna’ hate, it’s alright!”
A reporter asked if the panel felt any responsibility towards social justice storylines. Thomas replied, “You know on Black Dynamite me and Carl Jones, the executive producer, always used to joke that we were like social workers in animation, not to belittle social work, but we liked to joke that because we were one of the few [shows] that touched on those issues. The most important thing for us is that it has to be funny, that’s the golden rule. The second rule is that it has to be genuine. If it’s honest, if it comes from a good place there’s always humor in it….and the third is to make people uncomfortable, not in a negative way but to make them think outside what they normally expect.”
The final question came from a Bleeding Cool reporter who asked, “Why are we still having this conversation? I feel like we’re constantly having the same conversation: do you see an end to it, do you think? Where we’re not going to need to have ‘Geeks of Color’ in the corner at 8:00pm?”
“So you’re saying Geeks of Color needs to be at noon, is what you’re saying? I agree I think it should be much earlier.” Thomas joked.
Pho added: “we’re going to keep having this conversation until we hit critical mass,” she explained that critical mass was not when people stopped asking questions, but rather that “we need a critical mass of answers from all over the place, not just from us but from you guys—not just from you guys but from everyone at this convention, and not just this convention—about how pop culture functions, how media functions…we all have to hit that critical mass point and that’s when the conversation stops.”
“I feel your point a lot,” Older added, indicating the reporter, “we do need this and part of the reason is the industry is still very racist, still very White, and so we need to have these conversations…the job and the struggle and the challenge for us is to push the conversation forward so it’s not so circular. So that’s why we need diverse books, which is such an important way to get everyone together. We need to talk about power analysis.” Older also stressed that he felt there were necessary conversations that weren’t had before this generation of creators and it was important to recognize: “we’re here because the folks before us fought their fight, so we’re fighting our fight for the next generation of artist of color, writers of color…and that involves getting together and having ‘geeks of color’ panels which makes people uncomfortable, which is good, as it should.”
Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed their presence provided a buffer. They said God promised this Land to the Jewish people and that they should not abandon it. They said Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.
Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery. While it might seem strange, this has also had some benefits for those communities. In support of those who live on the front lines, the government has reduced taxes in those towns. The train ride from some peripheral areas is now provided free of charge. People began purchasing inexpensive real estate and were able to easily commute to their jobs in center of the country. Towns like Sederot became targets of missile fire, but also began to prosper in ways they had not before. More recently, Palestinian missile fire has increased in number and in range, disrupting life for Israelis throughout the country.
The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. This might seem strange, but it was probably entirely predictable.
Such might have been the prediction of James Ron in Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel, for example, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing, as has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”, or what we might think of as a reservation, or a camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.
But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And, he explains, when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, that helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.
We might ask ourselves if the disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if the settlers were right. What if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis?
Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side.
But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation that makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the national group that has sovereignty. As Judith Butler so eloquently explains in Who Sings the Nation-State?: “The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain.”
If the danger lies in that hyphen as chain, then removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating; a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for increased violence. If it is true that war is only politics by other means, or politics only war, then we have to think further. The political terrain of Israel has changed. If, prior to the 2005 disengagement, there was a vibrant Left Wing opposed to settlement in the Occupied Territories, those voices have faded.
The political terrain has changed, but the foundations of the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine have not. Those foundations lie in the normative episteme of nations and states that form the basis for international relations and liberal peacemaking. If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that hyphen as chain will continue and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. As evidenced in Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. Writing Past Colonialism, if Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial polity, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives (Wolfe 1999). It matters little if one believes that Jews have a right to sovereignty in their homeland or if one believes the Palestinian struggle for liberation is justified. If liberation relies on the ethnic purification of territory there can be no winners.
I vacation in a small town on a lovely bay in the northwestern corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. This summer my stay coincided with the run-up to the state’s primary elections. One evening, just down the street from where I was staying, the local historical society hosted a candidates’ forum. Most of the incumbents and challengers spoke pragmatically of specific matters of local concern, of personal traits that would make them good officeholders, or of family traditions of public service they hoped to continue. Some promised to be allies in disputes with the state government in Lansing. One incumbent claimed to have persuaded the state department of environmental quality to drop its longstanding objections to a wing dam that would spare a marina costly dredging. But just when I was ready to conclude that the Tea Party movement had run its course, another candidate, who identified himself as a lawyer and an expert in constitutional history, used his time to develop the claim that bureaucracy was unAmerican and that as it grew so did liberty diminish. I may have seen fewer approving nods than followed the other candidate’s tale of the wing dam, but most in the audience appeared to agree with him.
Several historians have already engaged the popular antistatism I encountered that evening. Some have argued, as Progressives did in the early twentieth century, that, after the rise of vast and powerful corporations, public bureaucracies were needed to make freedom something other than the right to be subjected to the dominion of the economically powerful. Others have taken aim at the claim that bureaucracy was incompatible with America’s founding principles. The University of Michigan’s William Novak blasted this as “the myth of ‘weak’ American state.” Yale University’s Jerry Mashaw has recovered a lost century of American administrative law before the creation of the first independent federal regulatory commission in 1887.
What such accounts miss is a long tradition of antistatism and its shaping effect on American statebuilding. Alexis de Tocqueville was an early and influential expositor. Although Americans had centralized government, Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that it lacked centralized administration. And that, he argued, was a very good thing: if citizens of a democratic republic like the United States ever became habituated to centralized administration, “a more insufferable despotism would prevail than any which now exists in the monarchical states of Europe.” The builders of the administrative state were not heedless of Tocqueville’s nightmare, but they were convinced that their political system was broken and had to be fixed. They believed they lived not in some Eden of individual liberty but in a fallen polity in which businessmen and political bosses bargained together while great social ills went unredressed.
The most important of the statebuilders was no wild-eyed reformer but an austere, moralistic corporation lawyer, Charles Evans Hughes, who, as Chief Justice of the United States, would later out-duel President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Neither Hughes nor anyone else thought that government would control itself. Instead, he and other judges reworked the ancient ideal of the rule of law to keep a necessary but potentially abusive government in check.
Tales of thoughtful people working out intelligent solutions to difficult problems are not, I know, everyone’s idea of a good read. I bet that candidate who imagined himself battling for liberty and against bureaucracy prefers more dramatic fare. Still, I think the story of how Americans reconciled bureaucracy and the rule of law might appeal to residents of that small Michigan town, once they remember that the same department of environmental quality that sometimes balks at wing dams also preserves the water, land, and air on which their economy and way of life depend.
Featured image credit: ‘Alexis de Tocqueville’ by Théodore Chassériau, painted in 1850. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
In July 2014, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, claimed that Ukraine wasn’t fighting a civil war in the east of the country but rather was “defending its territory from foreign mercenaries.” Conversely, rumours abounded earlier in the year that Academi, the firm formerly known as Blackwater, were operating in support of the Ukrainian government (which Academi strongly denied). What is interesting is not simply whether these claims are true, but also their rhetorical force. Being a mercenary and using mercenaries is seen as one of the worst moral failings in a conflict.
Regardless of the accuracy of the claims and counterclaims about their use in Ukraine, the increased use of mercenaries or ‘private military and security companies’ is one of the most significant transformations of military force in recent times. In short, states now rely heavily on private military and security companies to wage wars. In the First Gulf War, there was a ratio of roughly one contractor to every 100 soldiers; by 2008 in the Second Gulf War, that ratio had risen to roughly one to one. In Afghanistan, the ratio was even higher, peaking at 1.6 US-employed contractors per soldier. The total number of Department of Defense contractors (including logistical contractors) reached approximately 163,000 in Iraq in September 2008 and approximately 117,000 in Afghanistan in March 2012. A lot of the media attention surrounding the use of private military and security companies has been on the use of armed foreign contractors in conflict zones, such as Blackwater in Iraq. But the vast majority of the industry provides much more mundane logistical services, such as cleaning and providing food for regular soldiers.
Does this help to remove the pejorative mercenary tag? The private military and security industry has certainly made a concerted effort to attempt to rid itself of the tag, given its rhetorical force. Industry proponents claim private military and security companies are different to mercenaries because of their increased range of services, their alleged professionalism, their close links to employing states, and their corporate image. None of these alleged differences, however, provides a clear—i.e. an analytically necessary—distinction between mercenaries, and private military and security companies. After all, mercenaries could offer more services, could be professional, could have close links to states, and could have a flashy corporate image. Despite the proclamations of industry proponents, private military and security companies might still then be mercenaries.
But what, if anything, is morally wrong with being a mercenary or a private contractor? Could one be an ethical mercenary? In short, yes. To see this, suppose that you go to fight for a state that is trying to defend itself against attack from a genocidal rebel group, which is intent on killing thousands of innocent civilians. You get paid handsomely for this, but this is not the reason why you agree to fight—you just want to save lives. If fighting as a private contractor will, in fact, save lives, and any use of force will only be against those who are liable, is it morally permissible to be a contractor? I think so, given the import of saving lives. As such, mercenaries/private contractors might behave ethically sometimes.
Does this mean that we are incorrect to view mercenaries/private contractors as morally tainted? This would be too quick. We need to keep in mind that, although the occasional mercenary/private contractor might be fully ethical, it seems unlikely that they will be in general. There are at least two reasons to be sceptical of this. First, although there may be exceptions, it seems that financial considerations will often play a greater role in the decision for mercenaries/private contractors to take up arms than for regular soldiers. And, if we think that individuals should be motivated by concern for others rather than self-interest (manifest through the concern for financial gain), we should worry about the increased propensity for mercenary motives. Second, although it may be morally acceptable to be a mercenary/private contractor when considered in isolation, there is a broader worry about upholding and contributing to the general practice of mercenarism and the private military and security industry. One should be wary about contributing to a general practice that is morally problematic, such as mercenarism.
To elaborate, the central ethical problems surrounding private military force do not concern the employees, but rather the employers of these firms. The worries include the following:
that governments can employ private military and security companies to circumvent many of the constitutional and parliamentary—and ultimately democratic—constraints on the decision to send troops into action;
that it is questionable whether these firms are likely to be effective in the theatre, because, for instance, contractors and the firms can more easily choose not to undertake certain operations; and
that there is an abrogation of a state’s responsibility of care for those fighting on its behalf (private contractors generally don’t receive the same level of support after conflict as regular soldiers since political leaders are often less concerned about the deaths of private contractors).
There are also some more general worries about the effects on market for private force on the international system. It makes it harder to maintain the current formal constraints (e.g. current international laws) on the frequency and awfulness of warfare that are designed for the statist use of force. And a market for force can be expected to increase international instability by enabling more wars and unilateralism, as well as by increasing the ability of state and nonstate actors to use military force.
These are the major problems of mercanarism and the increased use of private military force. To that extent, I think that behind the rhetorical force of the claims about mercenaries in Ukraine, there are good reasons to be worried about their use, if not in Ukraine (where the facts are still to be ascertained), but more generally elsewhere. Despite the increased use of private military and security companies and the claims that they differ to mercenaries, we should be wary of the use of private military and security companies as well.
In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counter-terrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the pre-Arab spring period. European governments are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counter-terrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full-circle? Does counter-terrorism once again subordinate any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab spring, ministers, leaders and commissioners lined up to insist they had learnt the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot in practice provide the stability that is their realpolitik justification. Have these same leaders now forgotten their own warnings?
There are certainly signs that the EU is reversing back to the past. Member states are reinforcing cooperation with Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in order to contain Islamic State. Military action against Islamic State is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria towards the Assad regime. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and Europol’s constricted reach.
The prominent foreign policy debates are once again about defeating radical jihadism. Observing this fitful drift in strategic reflection is like watching a replay of the late 1990s or the period after the 9/11 attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace and de-radicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policy-makers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European governments have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime, and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the IS surge. Most stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization. They acknowledge that more not less priority needs to be given to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical towards the re-empowered Egyptian military, but maintain a greater distance than in the Mubarak era; several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
Consequently, the situation is nuanced: the EU has tried security containment, and it has tried (modestly) backing the Arab spring as a route to social stability. Both apparently failed. So, what now?
The answer is that a better synthesis is needed between the security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counter-terrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decision-making than those advocating a focus on supporting democratic reforms. In 2011 and 2012 this situation switched around: EU policy briefly became a more positive enterprise in assisting local Arab demands for better governance rather than a nervous and negative exercise in containment. It seemed that the main players in the region were IT-savvy, modern and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy over-played the counter-terrorism angle and failed to understand the Middle East’s underlying social changes. After 2011, the EU was not particularly ambitious in supporting democratic transitions; but its focus was on national-level reforms more than on the regional, geopolitical ramifications of states’ internal political changes.
It is easy to point out that a focus on political reform must be retained, to get to the root drivers of radicalization. But, the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how this would relate to geo-strategic questions — how reform and geopolitics would condition each other in mutual symbiosis. As Islamic State rampages and Middle Eastern intra- and inter-state order teeters, the challenge is to move towards a better conjoining of security with reform imperatives.
It is now commonly argued that the EU should strike flexible and security-oriented alliances with friendly powers, forget about transformation and conditionality, and abandon its ambitious schemes of regional cooperation. Those favoring a security-first approach insist this is necessary because the logic of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is once again subjugated to sectarian identities.
This argument contains much that is sound, but is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank to European foreign policy, it reinforces the very power dynamics that drive radicalization. It risks worsening the disease it purports to cure.
While regional alliances are needed to contain Islamic State, these should not divert the EU from providing more effective backing for moderate opposition groups in Syria; European governments have conspicuously not matched the United States’ new package of support for the Free Syrian Army. European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement from Iraq. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness not the current divvying out of power quotas between discredited elites. The EU should not forget that long-term stability in the Middle East still requires the tempering of social frustrations within unreformed Gulf states — however closely these regimes now work with Western powers on counter-terrorism.
And, perhaps most crucially, some form of more effective and broader regional security architecture is needed to link together what happens within states with what happens at a regional level. The EU needs strategic deliberation that more systematically connects security actions with domestic political factors in the Middle East.
A focus on reform without security cooperation today looks naïf; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.
Headline image credit: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01 by Email4mobile. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
There is a reason that Congress’s post-election meetings are called “lame duck” sessions. They often aren’t pretty. Senators and representatives not returning to Congress (because they retired or were defeated for re-election) may not have strong incentives to legislate responsibly. Senators and representatives who will be part of the new Congress starting in January may feel that the lame duck session is an imposition on them since they will be returning to Washington in the new year.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes possible for “lame duck” convocations of Congress to be productive. Some observers, for example, thought that the legislative session following the 2010 election was constructive. Among other accomplishments, that session of Congress abolished Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell and extended President Bush’s tax cuts – though, of course, opponents of those decisions would have preferred that Congress hadn’t legislated on these matters.
Can the “lame duck” congressional session following the 2014 election be productive? In the hope that it can be, I suggest that the 113th Congress enact in its final days the Multi-State Worker Tax Fairness Act, previously known as the Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act.
The Multi-State Tax Worker Tax Fairness Act has been introduced in the House by Representatives Himes, DeLauro, and Esty as H.R. 4085. In the Senate, the Act has been introduced as S. 2347 by Senators Blumenthal and Murphy.
The Act is aimed at the pernicious tax practice by which New York (and other states) impose income taxes on nonresident telecommuters for days such telecommuters work at their out-of-state homes and never set foot in the Empire State. New York’s extraterritorial taxation results in double taxation of nonresident telecommuters as New York taxes the income earned on these days while the state in which the telecommuter lives and works legitimately taxes this day also since the home state is providing public services to the telecommuter on the day she works at home.
Telecommuting is growing because, in a modern economy, it can entail significant benefits. Telecommuting extends job opportunities to individuals for whom traditional commuting is difficult, for example, the disabled, parents of small children, persons who live far from major employment centers. Telecommuting is also good for the environment, reducing the carbon footprints of employees who spend some of their work days at home and need not physically commute to work on those days.
Our concerns about Ebola reinforce the benefits of telecommuting. In an earlier time, a firm combating contamination simply had to shut its operations. Today, modern technology – the internet, email, cell phones, social media – can instead permit individuals to work and communicate with each other from their homes.
The benefits of interstate telecommuting explain why a diverse coalition supports the Multi-State Tax Worker Fairness Act to avoid double state income taxation of telecommuters on their days they work at home. Among the groups supporting the Act are the American Legion, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union, The Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, the Association for Commuter Transsportion, The Military Spouse JD Network, and the Telework Coalition.
It is, in short, anomalous for New York to double tax the income of nonresident telecommuters on the days such telecommuters work at their out-of-state homes and never enter the Empire State. New York engages in this double taxation throughout the country. In one instructive case, New York taxed Mr. Manohar Kakar of Gilbert, Arizona on the income he earned working at home in the Grand Canyon State. New York engages in such double taxation despite the long-term costs to New York of chasing from its borders firms which embrace interstate telecommuting. Thus, the Multi-State Worker Tax Fairness Act would be good, not just for telecommuting, but for New York itself by encouraging firms which rely on out-of-state telecommuters to stay in the Empire State.
The upcoming “lame duck” session of Congress might fit the dominant pattern of post-election convocations of the House and Senate which accomplish little. But maybe not. If members of the 113th Congress choose to spend their final days in office productively, a productive place to start would be the Multi-State Worker Tax Fairness Act. Passing the Act would be good for the country by making state income tax systems safe for interstate telecommuting.