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Why Liberals Should Stop Cheering Kim Davis’ Arrest

13 Sep

kim-davis-mug

In the days since Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was jailed for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples, liberals have condemned her refusal to “follow the law” and cheered on her imprisonment. But this response is ultimately counterproductive. By embracing the law in this case, progressives are reinforcing the very law-and-order mentality that has been used for centuries to discredit left-wing social movements as “criminal” and pave the way for their destruction.

This is hardly a defense of the now-released Davis, who has cast her lot with segregationists and other villains of U.S. history who violated people’s rights based on race, class, and gender. But the law cuts both ways. The same state that is now punishing Davis for her refusal to enforce marriage equality uses the same legalist arguments to persecute military deserters, government whistleblowers, undocumented immigrants, and black liberation activists – all of whom, when they break the law, have traditionally appealed to a higher moral authority.

And the state jails people in these categories far more frequently than it does religious fundamentalists like Kim Davis. When the state cracks down on political dissidents, it is left-wing activists fighting for the expansion of human rights – not right-wing reactionaries bent on limiting them – who bear the brunt of the repression.

This was true of Vietnam-era draft resisters and civil rights activists, who, after all, were breaking the law when they burned draft cards and forcibly integrated lunch counters. And it remains just as true today for environmental activists swept up in Green Scare dragnets and animal rights activists prosecuted under “ag-gag” laws that criminalize the filming of animal conditions in slaughterhouses.

Liberals have cheered the ruling of George W. Bush-appointed U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning, who said, “The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.” But the logical conclusion of this statement is one Inspector Javert would heartily approve: the law is inviolable; we cannot choose for ourselves which laws are just or unjust; and thus they must all be obeyed, unswervingly. Justice would be left to the whim of the courts.

Fortunately, Americans have for centuries adopted a more hands-on attitude when it comes to achieving social progress.  Without their more practical view of the law, there would have been no abolitionist movement, no labor movement, no women’s suffrage movement. Indeed, there would have been no LGBT liberation movement, which itself was founded on the debris of the Stonewall Riots.

Liberals, in their haste to condemn Davis, forget that Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Mandela all preached illegal action by people of conscience. And the nature of conscientious objection is that one must be free to decide for oneself what is right and wrong – even, and especially, when most people disagree. Davis’ is an unworthy cause. But the right to follow one’s conscience should remain sacrosanct.

Rather than relishing this particular instance in which state power and social justice seem to be momentarily aligned, progressives should redouble their efforts to dismantle the police state. Instead of blindly calling on state officials to “follow the law” and “do their jobs,” progressives should work to empower their own Kim Davises – people who, like hacker Jeremy Hammond and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, put their lives and livelihoods on the line in the fight for social justice.

How the “Take Down the Flag” Campaign Threatens to Co-Opt Black Lives Matter

27 Jun

Focus on Confederate flag whitewashes U.S. history, distracts from struggle to end state violence

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Eyeliam/Flickr

 

In the wake of the Charleston church massacre, the mainstream media has worked overtime to redirect the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus from state violence to vigilante violence, from institutional racism to individual prejudice. Now we are witnessing the emergence of the latest liberal fad: the “Take Down the Flag” campaign, which calls for removing – and in some cases burning – the Confederate battle flag because it is a symbol of white supremacy.

But this is as true for Old Glory as it is for the rebel flag. The Confederate flag was flown by a slave power from 1861 to 1865. The stars and stripes flew over a slave power from the War of Independence to the Civil War – 84 years – and has for the last 15 decades overseen Jim Crow and mass incarceration. In short, there is no horror in U.S. history over which the rebel flag presided to which the star-spangled banner has not also been a party.

Consequently, there is no logical reason to ban or burn the Confederate flag that does not likewise apply to the American flag. Nor is it clear how burning the rebel flag mounts even a symbolic protest against racist violence in today’s Union. It is far easier to destroy the flag of another, long-defunct nation than it is to destroy one’s own. American liberals may as well burn the flags of apartheid-era South Africa or Rhodesia, another white-supremacist state.

Within this context, the campaign against the Confederate flag is laid bare as an essentially conservative project to confine blame for racist violence to the old Confederacy, whitewash the current regime’s role in past and present racial oppression, and absolve whites outside the Deep South of racism. That this prescription for racial justice has found traction in mainstream media like the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, and The Atlantic magazine, and has been eagerly endorsed by right-wing millionaires like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, should discomfit rather than reassure social justice advocates. This is not progress, but co-optation.

The “Take Down the Flag” campaign is only the most obvious attempt to derail the Black Lives Matter movement’s response to the Charleston shooting. Pundits have branded the atrocity with terms like “hate crime,” “white supremacist,” and “domestic terrorism” with an enthusiasm that was never on display when the subject was police brutality. The implication is that these are separate forms of violence – that hate crimes and terrorism in defense of white supremacy can be committed by private citizens, but not agents of the state; that there is more to fear from lone neo-Confederate gunmen than the police who operate under the red, white and blue.

This is a dangerous lie. In the aftermath of the Charleston murders, we must resist the mainstream media’s contention that this latest atrocity was fundamentally different from the police killings that have permeated the airwaves over the past year. We must remember that state violence and private violence have always gone hand-in-hand, protecting and reinforcing the other – that the policeman’s bullet and the lynching rope represent a continuum of legal and extralegal violence that keeps black people subjugated. And we must acknowledge that the savagery of white-power groups simply cannot compete with that of U.S. police, who are on track to kill more than 1,000 people this year.

Similarly, we must reject the media’s insinuation that the victims in Charleston were somehow more innocent than those cut down by police violence, that their presence at Bible study makes them worthier victims than those who – like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Walter Scott – ran afoul of a legal system designed not for justice but social control. For when pundits decry the Charleston massacre as a hate crime or act of terror while downplaying police violence as mere “abuse” or “misconduct,” that devaluation of black life is exactly what is being implied.

Finally, rather than arguing for objective, colorblind definitions of terrorism that include white men like Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, we must recognize that charges of terrorism have never been objective nor colorblind. On the contrary, it is an inherently racialized discourse, one designed to delegitimize the liberation struggles of people of color from South Africa to Iraq to the United States itself. Invoking the specter of terrorism against white-power militants only reinforces a national-security paradigm that harms black and brown people most of all.

With the governor of South Carolina calling for the death penalty in the Charleston case, Roof seems certain to face harsh judgment. But if the state executes him while continuing to shield brutal police from accountability, it will have acted not to promote racial justice but to simply protect its own monopoly on racist violence.

 

When “Free Speech” Isn’t Really About Free Speech

12 Jan

Elya/Wikimedia Commons

In the days since the Paris shootings, people on both sides of the Atlantic have closed ranks around Charlie Hebdo. Notorious for its publication of anti-Muslim caricatures, the newspaper is now being hailed as a brave defender of free speech. But for those who believe not only in free expression but free people, this should be a profoundly disturbing development.

Contrary to the dominant media narrative, freedom of speech is not the primary issue here. Like the “free market,” it is a social construct that obscures more than it illuminates. And just as free markets are not actually free from government intervention when corporate interests are on the line, neither is speech, which is rigorously policed when dissent threatens to spiral out of control.

In his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Herbert Marcuse noted that this so-called freedom of speech was deceptive, privileging ideas favored by the elite and thus deepening the subjugation of oppressed groups. Consequently, the most relevant question in any “free speech” dispute is the extent to which the speech served or challenged power.

It should go without saying that no one should be harmed over a drawing. It should likewise go without saying that not all drawings are morally equal. Art can be used to reinforce prevailing power structures, or to dismantle them. Value judgments must be made.

By publishing racist caricatures meant to humiliate Muslims, who constitute a poor, marginalized minority in France and whose homelands are on the receiving end of Western imperial violence, Charlie Hebdo lined up, in this case, squarely on the side of the power structure.

Such power differentials often go unnoticed in the United States, where people are conditioned to think of their country as a pluralistic, democratic society where everyone is equal under the law. As a result, satire about religion or race seem harmless enough. People offend each other from time to time, but they are operating on a level playing field. It is seen as basically fair.

But this idealized, colorblind vision of society erases the reality of oppression based on race, class, and gender. It ignores an ongoing history of genocide and colonialism. In reality, when members of the dominant group mock those being crushed underfoot, all in the name of “free speech,” it takes on a very different tone from the elite making fun of itself.

That’s why the constant media refrain that Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender, insulting Christians and Muslims alike, is ultimately meaningless. In one case, you are poking fun at your political and socio-economic equals; in the other, you are relishing in the powerlessness of those further down the ladder.

If journalism is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as Finley Peter Dunne put it, Charlie Hebdo’s publication of Islamophobic cartoons did just the opposite. What it did was dangerous, but it was not brave. And it certainly should not be celebrated.

Police Brutality Demands Intervention, Not Just Accountability

23 Aug

Source: YouTube

Between the NYPD killing of Eric Garner caught on camera last month and the ongoing protests over Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, police brutality is back in the national media spotlight. While much of the discussion has revolved around how to hold police accountable for misconduct, such initiatives offer cold comfort to the victims of police violence and their families. Instead, activists must take a more proactive approach to reducing police brutality.

As I write in my most recent column for The Chicago Bureau:

Time after time, the ability to record police-civilian interactions – usually seen as a victory for police accountability – has done less to deter police violence than to document it.

Sometimes this evidence results in police being held responsible for misconduct. Far more often, it leads to procedural slaps on the wrist, reduced charges, and lenient sentences….

Whatever the courts decide to do with such evidence, it can’t bring back the dead.

The nightly news hails as heroes those who intervene to stop crimes: ordinary citizens who foil a mugging or interrupt an assault. But what are people supposed to do when the perpetrators are police officers?

It is long past time to move from an after-the-fact accountability paradigm to initiatives focused on violence prevention and intervention.

Read the rest here.

Bowe Bergdahl and America’s Anti-War Hypocrisy

31 Jul

U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Read this at Antiwar.com

The controversy surrounding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been as notable for its moral poverty as its rhetorical intensity. Conservatives have branded Bergdahl a traitor, hardly worth the five Afghan detainees for whom he was traded. Liberals have defended the exchange while stopping well short of defending the man himself. But if Bergdahl did indeed desert his unit while serving in Afghanistan, he is guilty only of acting on anti-war convictions most Americans claim to share.

That Bergdahl’s homecoming has been met with such disdain exposes the shallowness of anti-war sentiment in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the costs. Nearly 60 percent believe it was wrong to have invaded in the first place. Yet present them with a soldier like Bergdahl, who reached similar conclusions and may have actually dared to act on them, and he is condemned on all sides.

It is easy to criticize Bergdahl for the timing of his epiphany. No doubt it would have been better for all involved if he had left the army before going overseas, or if he had never joined in the first place. But that was not the hand he was dealt. As e-mails released by Rolling Stone demonstrate, Bergdahl did not come to recognize the war’s injustice until he was already in the field – until he was confronted with the brutal reality of troops unbothered by running over an Afghan child with their armored vehicle. Instead of rationalizing his continued participation in an immoral war, like so many other guilt-ridden troops, Bergdahl appears to have removed himself from that violent equation. Tellingly, his father’s last e-mail to him was titled, “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”

This, in the eyes of the political establishment, is Bergdahl’s greatest crime. Not that he endangered his fellow soldiers – who, as occupying troops in a foreign land, were already in grave danger – but that he refused to put his conscience on hold. Rather than waiting for the politicians back home to end the war, Bergdahl stands accused of declaring his own war over. Rather than resigning himself to what Israeli peace activists call “shooting and crying,” Bergdahl appears to have stopped shooting.

The significance of such an action cannot be overstated. Under a system in which suppressing one’s conscience is often necessary to get ahead – from the GM engineers who let people die in preventable car accidents to the Wall Street bankers whose mortgage fraud crashed the economy – to assert one’s principles in the moment is a revolutionary act. Agonized functionaries can be tolerated, as long as they get the job done. If Bergdahl had served out the rest of his tour without incident, if he had applied for conscientious objector status and waited for its approval, he might have returned home to a lucrative book deal with a progressive publisher. Because he allegedly did not wait to do the right thing, he has been savaged by the press and may face prison time.

This should be shocking in a country with an anti-war majority. But while most Americans claim to oppose the war, they remain unable to countenance the sort of actions that ending the war will require. The polite protests of the last decade – petitions, sit-ins, marches – have done nothing to stop the war machine. Americans forget that ending the Vietnam War had less to do with domestic protests than with resistance among U.S. troops, who deserted en masse, refused to engage the Vietnamese in battle, and even took up arms against their own officers.

Can there be any doubt that if troops in Afghanistan had followed their lead, the war would not now be in its thirteenth year? Those who claim to oppose the war while criticizing Bergdahl’s alleged desertion implicitly favor continuing the war over a breakdown of military discipline. They are essentially saying: We do not believe this war should be fought, but we expect you to remain at your post, to kill others and perhaps even die yourself, until we bring it to a proper conclusion. This is the height of privilege, the height of bourgeois self-righteousness.

Such an attitude is particularly shameful given that the American public bears a large share of responsibility for Bergdahl’s predicament. Every day that people on the home front prove unable or unwilling to stop the wars fought in their name, they leave those on the front lines stranded in what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations.” Tortured by their moral complicity and abandoned by the public, it should come as no surprise that some troops will avail themselves of the only option left to them – voting with their feet.

Bergdahl is finally home. But as long as the American people remain missing in action, more troops like him will find themselves trapped on foreign battlefields, forced to choose between their conscience and their country.