Category Archives: Politics

Voting for Bernie Sanders as a Parent

1. Looking Forty Years Forward, and Forty Years Back

When I was younger, to the extent that I thought about the future, it was in a detached way. It would be a time where things would be weird and different, but not particularly concerning. I now have a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. Having children has in some ways made me more focused on the present moment; the alternative is tomato-sauce handprints on the kitchen walls. But it has also made the concepts of history and future more concrete for me. Looking back to when I was four, the world of 1980 is quite different: no cell phones, only the  palest glimmers of possibility for same-sex marriage and the internet, and a looming threat of nuclear war. That past is now a foreign country, but it is one that I’ve visited and which is very real for me. The slow voyage into the present makes the idea of arriving forty years in the future more concrete.

The default destination for what the world is going to look like in 2060 is not so great. As an individual I am clearly out of control about the world my children will be living in when they reach the age I am now. At our house, I can provide a stable and caring home environment, but I can’t personally provide my children with a stable planetary environment. I can buy an air filter for our house, but I can’t filter out the smoke outside from climate-fueled wildfires. I can show my kids videos of the Great Barrier Reef on YouTube, but I can’t prevent its total ecological collapse during their lifetime. My family is teaching them to speak German, and taken them on trips to meet their German relatives, but I can’t personally ensure that an environmentally stable way to get to Germany will exist in 2060. This month is the driest in California in 150 years. These things are due to critical flaws in the way we live. Any they are minor inconveniences compared to large areas of the Earth becoming literally uninhabitable because they are too hot for humans or the crops they depend on. 

Continue reading Voting for Bernie Sanders as a Parent

Human Rights Reading: Nussbaum, Sunstein, Morsink, Beitz

A couple of experiences related to human rights recently got me thinking about what the basis is for their existence, and how to think about them as individuals, as political constructs, and his philosophical constructs. I hope to put together an essay that actually makes sense on that topic, but in the meantime here’s my thoughts on four of the books I’ve read as background reading.

Martha Nussbaum: Creating Capabilities (2011)

Of the four books listed here, I think this is the most useful for me personally. Two key concepts I got from this book are:

(1) They can be both a political construct and a philosophical construct.

(2) As a political construct, human rights can be an “overlapping consensus”, as a conclusion that can be arrived at from different philosophical constructs: as an Aristotelian observing humans as animals, a Mill-style utilitarian, from various religious traditions, as a Marxist, et cetera.

Ironically, these are not the two concepts of the book is really about. They’re just two concepts that Nussbaum goes over as she is making her way to her primary thesis, which is to describe her “species” of human rights, which is the Capabilities Approach. The capabilities approach I think is a helpful incremental addition to human rights theory, in that it adapts it slightly to make it more inclusive, especially in dealing with people with disabilities and nonhuman animals.

Nussbaum also gives excellent ripostes to arguments that human rights are a sort of cultural imperialism, partly from the way the Universal declaration as drafted, but also that the overlapping consensus extends to other cultures whose values mirror many of those are found in human rights. More importantly, she points out to the reality that the international adoption of human rights instruments is been stronger and a lot of non-Western countries than it has in Western countries (especially the United States as to social economic rights), with India and South Africa as the two most notable examples, using human rights in part as anticolonial political constructs.

Richard Rorty’s Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality (pdf) is also very much worth reading. I don’t really agree with his lack of grounding of human rights in some empirical reality – I think human rights does line up with actual common human needs in most cases – but he makes excellent points about how the purpose of human rights should be more pragmatic and about changing the world, rather than about establishing a perfectly coherent account. In this way I find he lines up a little bit with Martha Nussbaum, in that he prioritizes the political use of human rights over philosophical construction. For another way of saying it would be, that neither one of them is particularly bothered that they can’t give a unified logical explanation for why human rights are what they are, because they actually make people’s lives better. I do think, however, that Nussbaum gives the more coherent account with the use of “overlapping consensus” because for different people there are very real groundings in human rights that cause them to be persuaded that they are worthwhile. Continue reading Human Rights Reading: Nussbaum, Sunstein, Morsink, Beitz

Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

Continue reading Smoke Days

Thoughts on Srinivas Kuchibhotla; and A Love Letter To India

So there’s this guy who yelled “get out of my country” in Kansas, before firing on two Indians, killing one of them, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from Hyderabad. The Washington Post reported that the father of the other Indian, the injured one, “pointed to the election of President Trump, who has routinely described a threat posed to Americans from people outside the country’s borders, and pleaded with parents in India ‘not to send their children to the United States.’” Maybe that’s the correct call for right now, I dunno. Parents of India will have to decide for themselves.

What I can tell you, though, is that I think parents in the United States should think about sending their children to India. In 2005–2006, I spent six months traveling around India and it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. By now I’ve been to probably a couple dozen countries, and so every now and again someone will ask me “What was the best or most interesting place you’ve traveled?” The answer is always India.

India is politically interesting: it has a wide range of cultures and religions, but is a functional democracy. If Ladakhis and Tamils can figure out how to participate in a government together, it seems like people from California and Kansas should be able to as well. India’s people are super-welcoming, and very similar to the United States in a lot of ways (we’re both former British colonies after all), but very different in a lot of others. The diversity of cultures you can see, all on the same railway system, is much greater than in Europe, and the castles are larger and more exotic. The food is amazing, extra amazingness if you’re a vegetarian. Walking down a given street in Mumbai, Jodhpur, or Kolkata is more entertaining than any television show: there are so many people, colors, activities, and animals (Mumbai and Kolkata: elephants and brahma bulls; Jodhpur: camels).

Man on the street, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.

Recently this famous Mark Twain quote has been drifting through my head frequently: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” It’s perhaps a bit saccharine . . . but as a kid from a little corner of Indiana who had his mind blown by India, I can also tell you it is true.

I so wish more Americans would get out of their country for perspective. That might come across as elitist (“not everybody has the luxury to head off to the other side of the world for six months”), but it’s not that much harder to afford than a semester of college; the hard part is finding the time. The big expense is the plane ticket and after that, a lot of countries, including India, are pretty affordable. United States dollars go a long way elsewhere. I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms until now, but I hope for my daughter to go visit India with almost the same degree that I aspire for her to go to college.

My first response to hate of the shooter in Kansas is condemnation, like with any hate crime. I have realized recently that when it’s an Indian, though, the reaction is more visceral for me, a strong, immediate gut reaction of rage and sadness. This is also the case when I read stories of Sikhs receiving hate or prejudice on account of their turbans. I don’t really have any close friends who are Sikh, but I can tell you that of all the places of worship I’ve been to, Sikh temples are the best. Because of the practice of langar, they’re always like “Come in! Have something to eat!”, and in the temple at Amritsar, which ought to be one of the wonders of the world, I also stayed in free accommodations they have for visitors. So whenever I see in the news that a Sikh that got beaten up by crazy bigots (recent example in Richmond, California, a few miles from me), a little voice in my head says “He’s one of the *free food people*, fools! Leave him the fuck alone!” The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; maybe it is a quick route to the end of prejudice as well.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar, India.

I feel guilty that I didn’t have this same immediate emotional reaction to, for example, Travon Martin or Eric Garner being killed. I mean, I know intellectually that those killings are deeply wrong, but the flavors of anger and sadness they brought were cooler and more subdued. Or saying “I feel guilty” is perhaps not the right phrase; you can’t create an emotion you don’t have. Perhaps what I feel is more like a recognition that reaction isn’t the way it should be, and that my wrong emotional reaction is just a reflection of the wrongness of the social structure of the United States. It is the bizarre nature of racism in America, that 150 years after the end of slavery, I’ve managed to live forty years in America and have more personal contacts with Indians (1.25% of the US population) that Black people (13.2% of the population). That’s certainly not a conscious choice on my part; it’s the history of redlining, the end of affirmative action, the economic oppression that makes the racial divide also a class divide. At least my experience in India makes me cognizant of the difference, and how I ought to feel.

I want to close out by counterbalancing crazy Kansas man’s hate with my own love here: I love India, I love its people, and I hope our people keep making the trek back and forth (including me, ten years is too long). Last year I came across the question “What Places Are Worth All The Hype?” on Quora, and astonishingly no one had yet written about India. So I wrote one. Thus far it’s gotten 4200 upvotes, which makes it clearly the most popular thing I’ve ever written on the Internet. If you want more convincing that you, or your children, should go to India, take a look: it has lots more pictures and reasons to go.

My Resistance Era Reading List

A couple of friends have posted to Facebook asking “What are some good books for understanding the current situation”? I’ve been on something of a reading frenzy in the last six months on that topic, and here are my favorite books, essays, publications, and a couple of videos and graphics. In the ongoing torrent of news stories and blog posts and books one might read, these are the ones I have found most insightful.

1. Books

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. In the wake of the election, I sort of understood the Trump voters, a little. I’m from Indiana. I grew up with some of those people. What I didn’t understand were the Paul Ryans, the Lindsay Grahams, the Koch Brothers, the Ayn Rand and Heritage Foundation people. How could these seemingly intelligent people have so little regard for others? Especially Ryan, this guy who cares enough to want to have an anti-poverty plan, but apparently has no idea how to go about it. Robin helped me with this: and the main thesis is that conservativism is essentially the defense of hierarchy, especially hierarchy that is under threat or that has been lost (or perceived to have been lost) recently. At the top level that is a perennial threat of loss of wealth by super-elites, like the rich donors to the Republican party, and to a lesser extent to the Democratic party as well. The strategy for those top-level conservatives (i.e., rich white people), then, is to offer lower positions in that constellation of hierarchy in exchange for their vote. So maybe you aren’t rich, but hey at least you’re not Black and at the bottom of the totem pole. Maybe your a man and lost your factory job, but at least you are the boss of your wife at home.

The job of liberals has to be to explain how these are all just flavors of hierarchy, and that even white men (except the centimillionaires and billionaires, and even those guys, in a more egalitarian society, would get some peace of mind and not have to worry about buying luxury bunkers) would be better off in a society where economic, race-based, and gender and sexuality hierarchies were flattened. If I seem overly focused on economic hierarchy throughout this selection of books and commentary, it’s not because it’s more morally important, but just because it seems like it’s the easiest quick sell to a large segment of the population — namely, poor white dudes.

In addition to the defense of hierarchy, Robin demonstrates how there is also always an underlying conservative fascination with strength, glory of domination, and violence, often merged with a resentment of prior elites who were too soft or weak to hold on to their power. This is not a new thing; he extends it back to Burke the French Revolution, and I think connects it pretty well to modern day politics and the neoconservative obsession with warfare, and aversion to comfortable times like the Clinton years.

Robin says he is re-editioning this book to be “from Edumund Burke to Donald Trump” that will come out around Labor Day. He writes prolifically on his blog,, and has the rather unique position of being a person on the left who has managed to slog through about the right a lot, and can explain Trump in contrast to conservative history. A nice, slightly hopeful, counterpoint to the theories that the sloppy immigration order was all Bannon’s plan to set things up to consolidate power (possibly true) is his recent post, “If Trump is a fascist, he may be the most backassward fascist we’ve ever seen”.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Let’s start this by looking at the List of Countries by Incarceration Rate on Wikipedia and click twice on the double arrow below “incarceration rate” to get it sorted highest to lowest, you can see how clearly the United States is #1. It is above every other country; highest in the world, well past Russia, Iran, and, well, any other country that we consider repressive, or not repressive, or anything. The only country that beats us is the tiny Seychelles and that’s only because they are the home to an international prison for Somali pirates. This is not a #1 status you want to have as leader of the free world.

For me, The New Jim Crow felt like two books in one. The first part is an excellent concise history of the Southern Strategy: how white southern elites have, for 150 years, used racism as a class warfare tool, to prevent the political unity of poor whites and poor blacks. While there are other explanations of the Southern Strategy, this is the best I’ve read. The second part of the book is about “The New Jim Crow”, which is the use of the criminal justice system to systematically repress black people socially and politically. She makes this case fairly well, although I wouldn’t necessarily say airtight as to intentionality, except on the part of Wallace-style southerners.

The takeaway I get is that we are all implicitly biased against Black folks, because of the culture we have (if you think you’re immune, take a race-based IAT); and Southern elites have marketed that culture because it has been profitable. Those implicit biases, while obnoxious in ordinary people, are devastating when found in people with state power, like district attorneys and police. The judicial system, especially the Supreme Court, has been indifferent to this because at no stage can intentional discrimination been shown (“Oh, did we raid/arrest/kill/prosecute more Black folks than whites? Oops, didn’t mean to”), even though the racist effects are easily demonstrable as an aggregate. This book is from 2006, but still very relevant. A nice companion essay — both critical and supportive of Alexander — is Marie Gottschalk, “It’s Not Just The Drug War“, which essentially says “Alexander is right, Black people and the War On Drugs are ground zero for this problem, but it’s more pervasive than that.”

Noam Chomsky, Who Rules The World? Noam Chomsky is the classic modern leftist, a prolific writer who has been criticizing American power for a generation. I first learned about him when I was a computer science major, since about 60% of my undergraduate course on Computer Language Theory was based on Chomsky’s work, which gave him some credibility with me. Then I started reading his essays on politics, which were essentially a hobby or sideline for Chomsky from his work as a linguist. Every work by Chomsky reads like it was written by a slightly despondent alien anthropologist: very objective, and a bit overwhelmed by the negative implications of his analysis. With past books I’ve tried to read by him, his main failing is his thoroughness: there are so many footnotes and supporting details — one gets the sense that he is aware that his theories will meet with skepticism, so he is paranoid to source everything to death — that he gets lost inspecting trees instead of describing the forest. In his old age, with this book, he mostly gets over this: the essays are summary-level, all forest with specific trees only visited to make a point.

The first essay, on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is part of what convinced me to try to write more, on this chain of logic: (1) it made me realize “well, shit, I guess if I have a good education, have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the world, and I have some free time, I’m an ‘intellectual'”; (2) along with Robin, he made me realize ideas actually matter in the way that we shape our society; and (3) that leads to responsibility. As Chomsky puts it in the closing paragraph to that essay:

As for the responsibility of intellectuals, there does not seem to me to be much to say beyond some simple truths: intellectuals are typically privileged; privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity conveys responsibilities. An individual then has choices.

One of the other key takeaways from Chomsky is that the two existential threats to humanity are climate change and nuclear weapons, and I believe that to be true.

George Monbiot, The Age Of Consent: A Manifesto For a New World Order. For a while I have enjoyed Monbiot’s essays at The Guardian (all republished with a few days’ delay at and so I decided to read one of his books. Although Monbiot doesn’t describe it this way, this book could be called a work of “political science fiction”, in which he works out what international organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN could look like if they were truly run democratically, in a way that reflected the interests of individual humans rather than those at the top. In some ways, it seems like fantasy, but I think it is important to be thinking this way, to keep a sort of lodestar on what the end game actually is. A lot of what he gets into deals with theories of international trade and finance systems; the main takeaway I get is that the United States chose, in the wake of World War II, to design a system that benefited it immediately in an economic sense, but in the long run undermined its interests by preventing the development of other countries.

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedIt has been several years since I read this book, but at a time when we’re looking for hope, it has stuck with me as a hopeful book. That’s because its overarching concept is that humanity can change, and is in fact changing for the better. When liberal utopian ideas (see Monbiot, above) seem like unattainable fantasy, I think of this book. The premise, supported by seemingly innumerable chapters that painstakingly evaluate various categories of violence (murders, warfare, corporeal criminal punishment, rape, etc. etc.) over time, is this: we’re a lot less violent than we used to be, and a lot of that has to do with ideas about how we treat each other. It also leaves you with some worry, since while the 20th century was overwhelmingly peaceful, even accounting for the world wars, but the world wars stand out as huge anomalous spikes in violence to remind us that we’re not completely out of the clear yet.

In this same vein, also see Hans Rosling’s TED talk on “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen”, an oldie (2006) but goodie about how far the developing world has developed while we weren’t looking. The world is getting better, if we can just avoid exterminating ourselves first.

Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? I am midway through reading this now, but I like it. Streeck sort of takes as a given that capitalism is struggling and in some kind of decline, and is trying to work though what happens next. So far it seems fairly grim: he doesn’t think there will be any sudden transformation, but rather an interregnum between world orders while this order — the post-1970s version of capitalism, where money sloshes around the world to profit wherever it can, without a care to any social or environmental damage left in its wake — struggles to sustain itself and fails.

2. Essays

I spend a lot of of time reading things on the internet. Of all the essays I’ve read in the last two months, these stand out:

Joseph Stiglitz, Vanity Fair, Of The 1%, By The 1%, For The 1%. This is an essay from 2011 in the Occupy Wall Street era, but it is still important reading. I was thinking about reading a book by Stiglitz, and an Amazon reviewer pointed me to this essay as being better than any book-length thing he’s produced. The international nature of capital, and the extreme nature of wealth segregation, has led to an elite class that considers its fate as separate from the other 99%. I don’t particularly mind being in a somewhat hierarchical society, so long as I have a sense that those elites are more or less interested in the development or even maintenance of the country. I don’t really get that sense in present day United States.

Evan Osnos, New Yorker, Doomsday Prep For The Super-Rich. This is a recent essay on the (seemingly widespread) trend among Wall Street and Silicon Valley elites to have a home in New Zealand or in an armored bunker somewhere. This seems like a particularly graphic illustration of how modern-day elites (centimillionaires and billionaires) consider themselves disconnected from the fate of the United States.

Bill McKibben, We Need To Literally Declare War On Climate Change. When I think “what should we do, then? What is the path forward?” this is one of the top immediate items: a large scale mobilization to build a non-fossil-fuel energy system. Under-employment and too many minimum wage jobs? Coal miners that need new work? Let’s create tax incentives and financing systems that result in those folks building rooftop solar on every home in America, and turn plains states into giant wind farms. McKibben’s essay Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math is also important, not so much for the math — that’s been done elsewhere, and anyone who would be convinced by math would have been convinced years ago — but for the argument (in the section entitled “The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons”) that the fossil fuel industry is directly and unavoidably the enemy of humanity. There is no choice but to write off trillions of dollars in assets by leaving coal and oil in the ground, and they will fight that to the bitter end. Not everything is a zero-sum game, but this one is. Incidentally, the CEO of Exxon is currently likely to be our next Secretary of State.

Graphical Representations: 

Politizane, YouTube, Wealth Inequality In America. This is several years old, but I think it is important for graphically illustrating the extravagant extent of wealth distribution. I keep thinking about the steepness of that ski slope between the tippity-top and the rest.

On climate change, if you need to illustrate it to a nonbeliever or doubter, in non-math terms: XKCD, A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature and Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi, Bloomerberg, What’s Really Warming The World?.

If anyone knows of a good description — a vivid, science-fiction-like play-by-play — of how global warming will affect the lives of ordinary Americans, I’d be interested in that. Species loss and submerged islands don’t seem to be doing the trick.

3. Ongoing Publications.

As I mentioned above, I usually read the essays at, and On Medium, I follow Lessig and Alex Steffen and read them fairly regularly. How I Accidentally Became the World’s Greatest Fake Russian Troll by some random guy gave me insight into why there are always so many weird reactionary comments on major news sites — they are probably from Russian troll farms. Yonatan Zunger, who is a Distinguished Engineer of Privacy and Chief Architect of Social at Google (LinkedIn), wrote pieces this week (in his personal capacity) on “What ‘Things Going Wrong’ Can Look Like” and Trial Balloon for a Coup? Both are interesting — perhaps alarmist, but then again he has a good point that, as a Jew, he has twenty generations of experience and anecdotes about when things are really heading downhill for minorities. If he’s worried, I’m worried.  If Brietbart thinks it’s a conspiracy theory, I think it might be true.

VerySmartBrothas. On race, I read Damon Young all the time, at I found him when a friend from high school linked to “President Obama’s ‘Folks Wanna Pop Off’ Is The Blackest Thing That Ever Happened This Week” in 2015, and I haven’t left since. I wish he demonstrated more awareness of how race is used to create class divisions a la Michelle Alexander. But he is one of the funnier writers on the internet. The comments section of VSB is amazing, lots of funny an interesting thoughts, with hardly any trolls.

Jacobin. I follow Jacobin magazine on Facebook. They bill themselves as the publication of the “left of left of center”, so like Bernie Sanders and then everything left of that. I consider myself merely “left of center”, but I think it’s good to read some things that are on either side of that . . . and often I find that I am a bit left of left of center, because Bernie was, after all, pretty much just a New Deal guy.  The quality seems somewhat variable, but some of them are quite good and will give you non-establishment left views. As a random good starting point I’d direct you to A Blueprint for a New Party. The premise is fairly interesting (why isn’t there a class-based workers party?) but it really lights up halfway through with a historical perspective on repression of third parties in the United States. Excerpt:

The Council of Europe, the pan-European intergovernmental body, maintains a “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters,” which catalogs electoral practices that contravene international standards. Such violations often read like a manual of US election procedure. In 2006, the council condemned the Republic of Belarus for violating the provision of the code proscribing signature requirements larger than 1 percent of a district’s voters, a level the council regards as extremely high; in 2014, Illinois required more than triple that number for House candidacies. In 2004, the council rebuked Azerbaijan for its rule forbidding voters from signing nomination petitions for candidates from more than one party; California and many other states do essentially the same thing.

Newspaper. For newspapers, I favor The Guardian. All newspapers are struggling to figure out a way to survive these days, most are loss-leading, and many have billionaire ownership: Bezos owns the Washington Post outright; the NYT’s largest single shareholder is Carlos Slim; WSJ is owned by Murdoch. While I’m sure those guys are not directly calling the editorial staff and giving directions, I think it limits the range of what those papers can write about. The Guardian is owned by a nonprofit trust that also owned Auto Trader and sold it off for a billion dollars or so, which is about the closest thing to financial independence you’ll find in a news outlet these days. They are center-left in their views, and won a Pulitzer in 2014 for the coverage of Snowden.

I also read The Intercept, which is funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. It’s a bit new and seems skeletally staffed, but is getting more robust over time. Glenn Greenwald, the guy who ran the Snowden series for the Guardian, is an editor, as is Jeremy Scahill.

I read the New York Times. I’m not in love because I feel like NYT is a little too Wall Street friendly. It has such magnitude and reach that it’s almost like you have I feel that it is necessary to read it to know what’s going on, and it is sort of an anchor on shared reality that you can use it as a reference point with some conservatives. The Washington Post now feels a tier down under Bezos leadership, more partisan. I lost faith in it when they ran a pretty consistent string of sort of trashy anti-Bernie op-eds for multiple weeks during the primaries.

Ok. Gotta stop. I read a lot of things apparently. Do you have suggestions for more?

On the Immigration Order

I took this picture in Damascus, Syria, in the summer of 2001:

Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.
Bicycle with American Flag, Damascus, Syria, 2001.

On the day after the President of the United States issued an executive order to ban Syrian immigrants indefinitely, this image has been hovering in my mind.

In 2001, while traveling in their country, Syrians treated me with a mixture of surprise (“You are American, you could travel anywhere, why do you choose here?”) and what I can only describe as Hollywood glamour. It was respect for the wealth, style, and openness that America represented internationally. There is this half-joke among American backpackers that they should put a Canadian flag on their pack so that no one gives them a hard time about U.S. Foreign policy. But in 2001, at the end of the Clinton years, the overall feeling I got traveling through the Middle East was a sort of grudging respect, and more than that, envy. The American dream was alive and well, worldwide.

In the sixteen years since then, we invaded a neighboring country and destabilized the region, bombed their country, and now have shut them out of our country entirely.

I wonder where this bicycle owner is today. He could be one of the many Syrians holding a visa that, even after arriving in the US, is being sent back.[1] Maybe he got lucky and is one of the 1.4 million refugees that were welcomed by Germany in the last two years (if the US accepted refugees at the same rate, that’d be over five million refugees).[2] Maybe he got unlucky and is one of the 400,000 civilians killed in the Syrian civil war.[3] Most likely he is still in Damascus, trying to make do with less and just stay alive.

Wherever he is, it seems very likely he is no longer flying an American flag on his bicycle.

Personally, I’m always aware that I arrived here from immigrants. I don’t have writings to say exactly what motivated Thomas Morris and Anne McGovern to separately leave Ireland around 1910. It was after the big potato famines; but Ireland was still a mess at the time, governed and oppressed by Britain and economically stagnant, so it’s fairly easy to infer some reasons. I don’t know how actively America welcomed them, but it certainly let them in. They they met each other in New Jersey, got married, prospered. My father was born in 1928. Here I am.

Immigration is complex. Certainly not every person who wants to live in the United States can live here. Even as I admire the fact that Germany has admitted over 1% of its population in refugees in the last two years (!), I worry that assimilation will be difficult or result in political blowback; it’s like watching someone you admire trying to scale a mountain that has never been climbed before. However it goes, I admire them for trying.

On the other extreme is this executive order. First, it is very abrupt, and in that abruptness is cruelty. There are people who have been given the greatest hope — a visa to the United States — and told to turn around and go back to somewhere else.

Second, it is immoral for a country in the position of power that the United States has — largest GDP, largest military, whatever ranking you might want to choose — to choose to turn its back on what is probably the largest humanitarian crisis going on in the world. Perhaps admitting three million refugees is too much; certainly the 12,587 Syrians that were admitted in 2016 seems low; setting a target at or near zero is reprehensible.

Third, the religious element is troublesome: written to prioritize Christians, the executive order, continuing to frame the world order in terms of a “Clash of Civilization” between Islam and Christianity. This is a prophecy that will only be fulfilled if we believe it. Christianity is supposed to be the religion and the morality of taking care of the weak and oppressed:

“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33–34 and 24:22.

Sure, there are those paint the United States in broad strokes as the great evil, but it is a tiny minority of Islam, the crazies. We have crazies too. The answer to is not to paint in broad strokes as well and deem Islam a great evil, or to use national boundaries or religions as an indicator of a person’s worth. The answer is tolerance, acceptance, and taking care of humans that need taking care of. It is of recognizing gray area and subtlety and taking each person evaluating them as an individual. That is how you make the United States the kind of country where everyone worldwide wants its flag on their bike.

[1] NBC Philadephia, Two Syrian Families Detained at Philadelphia International Airport, Then Put on Return Flight Home, Family Member Says

[2] The Guardian, Germany expects up to 300,000 refugees in 2016, official says

[3] Wikipedia, Casualities of the Syrian Civil War

If you want to put more eyeballs on this essay, consider giving it a green heart. More my pictures of Syria 2001 here.

On Obama

In the summer of 2005, I was a summer associate at the law firm Winston & Strawn in Washington, D.C. There were lots of events for summer associates: dinners, concerts, speakers, that kind of thing. One of them was that a newly-elected senator from Illinois was visiting the office for a happy-hour reception. I really wanted to impress some partner with a memo I was writing, so I showed up late. It was too late to talk to him, but not so late that I missed out on shaking his hand and the photo op.

I’m going to miss this guy. I could have done with fewer drone strikes, I wish Guantanamo was closed, I wish he was less friendly with Wall Street and stayed closer to his activist roots — but at all times in the last eight years I could think that someone was in the White House who was brilliant, understandable, thoughtful, and trying to do more or less the right thing given the constraints and the status of the world. I might have differed with him on tactics, but I felt like we were using the same operative set of facts and values. As my mom always puts it: “I always felt so safe with him in charge.” There may be a president someday whose politics I agree with even more, but I seriously doubt there will be a president in my lifetime who was so stylish, relatable, soulful (I shed a few tears watching that Charleston Amazing Grace, who expects that from a president?) and personally amazing as Barack Hussein Obama.


Let’s Review The Leaders Who Have The Bomb

The list as of January will be: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, François Hollande, Theresa May, Narendra Modi, Mamnoon Hussain, Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, and maybe Kim Jong-Un.[1]Federation Of American Scientists: Status Of World Nuclear Forces

I don’t really completely trust any of those people not to use it, and several of them I really don’t trust, including Trump. The lesson I take from this is that no nation should have a nuclear weapon.

In the last year or so, whenever the end of the Obama presidency came up, my Mom would say “I just feel so safe with him as the President.” She said that a couple of times, in different conversations at different times. Usually it was in contrast to Hillary or Bernie. I don’t think she meant it as a criticism of the Democratic candidates, as much as she meant it as praise for Obama. Like everyone else, she didn’t believe Trump could actually win, and like most of us she definitely feels a lot less safe now.

I think we’ve all gotten a little complacent about nuclear weapons safety, maybe because Obama was so good and projecting  an overall sense of safety, and by repeatedly assuring us that his goal was a nuclear-weapon-free world.[2]Personally the drone strike wars in particular make me feel a lot less safe, but that’s kind of an aside here While he made a good show of it, the actual progress was moderate, at best.[3]Reduction of Nuclear Arsenal Has Slowed Under Obama, Report Finds

There is no safety while there are nation-states that have the bomb. Humans are subject to failure in how we organize ourselves. Any state, including our own, can be taken over by a megalomaniac. Megalomaniacs are bad, but megalomaniacs with nuclear weapons should be intolerable.


1 Federation Of American Scientists: Status Of World Nuclear Forces
2 Personally the drone strike wars in particular make me feel a lot less safe, but that’s kind of an aside here
3 Reduction of Nuclear Arsenal Has Slowed Under Obama, Report Finds

Note To Coasts: Please Do Not Un-Friend The Midwest.

As a current coastal elite that was raised in Northwest Indiana I’m writing this note to both the Midwest and to the coasts — but mostly people the coasts — to try to get you guys on the same team. Specifically, the team of the Democratic Party. I think historically coastal Democrats have assumed the Midwest would follow along with their lead at all costs, because the Democrats are the party of the working people and the Midwest is historically full of working people. In the wake of the Trump election, I’m afraid that a lot of elites are reflexively going to go along a downward spiral of saying “well screw you white bigots!” to the Midwest, to which the Midwest will continue to respond “screw you! preppy special rich people!”

Let’s take a look at what happened. Here is the electoral map from 2008 and 2016, the states that changed between this election and last are in Midwest (Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio) plus Pennsylvania, Florida, and South Carolina.

Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.
Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.

I’ve also lived in Florida — I went to college there — it’s a weird and less straightforward state. South Carolina I know nothing about. Pennsylvania I also don’t know much about, but I think of it as sort of like a cultural continuation of Indiana and Ohio — rural/industrial — except for Philly which should just be part of New Jersey.

I grew up in Michigan City, Indiana. Indiana, the Mike Pence state. Indiana that voted for Obama in 2008, but not in 2012, and certainly not for Hillary in 2016. Indiana that has flip-flopped its governorship between Democratic and Republican parties for the entire 20th Century.[1]Wikipedia, list of Governors of Indiana There have been few other articles by Midwesterners who are now themselves liberal urban dwellers that I’ve read recently,[2]David Wong, Cracked: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind[3]Jeff Guo interviewing Kathy Cramer for WaPo: A new theory for why Trump voters are so angry — that actually makes sense but I want to add my voice because I think this is important, and I may have a slightly more political bent than the other ones I’ve read.

I lived in Michigan City from age four to age eighteen. I then left for college in Florida, and moved to California where I became a computer programmer and then went to law school at Berkeley.

Until the age of sixteen, I did not meet any Black people, or LGBT people (some could have been closeted, of course), Muslims, Jews, or basically anyone else who was non-white or non-Christian. There were a couple of girls from Korea in high school, which was exotic and interesting, and one guy who was half-Asian, and one half-Lebanese family. That’s all I can think of for twelve years of school, K-10. I went to Catholic schools, so for me growing up a “minority” was a Polish kid. Michigan City has a fair number of Black residents, mostly segregated, mostly in a housing project.

The most racist statement I can recall was a friend telling me that whenever I drove past the projects I should hope my car didn’t break down. Saying “nigger” was on par with saying “fuck”; one did not do that. It didn’t carry the rage-inducing historical context that it would for a Black person to hear it, but no kid I knew would’ve gone around saying it in front of any responsible adult.

I don’t want to say that the Midwest isn’t racist. I very much believe in implicit racism — across the entire country we all got, and still get, messages that white is superior to black in movies, television, advertising, and all the rest of mass media. But the racism of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan is fairly weak by American standards. Looking at lynchings as a historical indicator, there have been lynchings in Indiana, but more white people have been lynched there than Blacks — 33 to 14 respectively. There is only a record of a single Black person being lynched in Michigan, and none in Wisconsin. That stands in contrast to, say, Tennessee at 352 lynchings of Black folks, or 539 in Mississippi. The numbers for all states are for the years 1882-1968.[4]Charles Chestnutt Digital Archive, “Lynchings by state and race, 1882-1968” Indiana might have elected Mike Pence as its governor, but Wisconsin holds the title for first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

On the Daily Show a few days ago, Hasan Minhaj said in criticism of Trump voters: “You may not personally be a racist, sexist xenophobe, but that comes with the package […] so if you take that deal, what you’re telling me is, ‘Hey man, I don’t hate you. I just don’t care about you.’ ” [5]Marissa Martinelli at Slate: The Daily Show Did a Very Good Segment on Why Trump’s Bigotry Wasn’t a Dealbreaker

Although he meant it as a criticism (as in, “Hey assholes, why don’t you care about my civil rights, my ability to go about my business and not be in fear?”), I think it’s actually also pretty descriptively accurate for most white Midwesterners. For most people in those states, the idea of Black people, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and LGBT people are abstract concepts. As Patrick Thornton put it about is fellow Ohioans, “Denying marriage rights to gay people [for someone from rural Ohio] isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.”[6]Patrick Thornton at Roll Call, I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America It’s not that they want to harm you, it’s just that you — and the idea of oppression based on skin color or other protected subcategory — are outside their experience.

I would take Hasan’s words differently: if they don’t hate you, that means they are potential allies. I read recently (unfortunately I can’t recall where) about an American adviser that was sent to somewhere like Turkey or Greece in the ’50s or ’60s to help mobilize a pro-US political party in upcoming elections. Reviewing the various political constituencies with them in a strategy meeting, he was like “How about the gypsies? They are probably as afraid of right-wing oppression as you are.” And the Turks (or Greeks) were like “They gypsies? They are dirty and disorganized. We wouldn’t stoop to asking for their help.” And the American adviser was like “Ok, well you lost that chunk of the vote then right off the bat.” I feel like the Midwest and coastal elites are both kind of doing that to each other: failing to engage because the other seems so different.

Educating The Midwest? Like Thornton, I started to encounter different people as I pursued higher education. I was sixteen and went to the Indiana Academy, a public magnet boarding school that was in Muncie, about three hours from home. Although still mostly white, there were more minorities; some of my best sources for reading about the modern Black experience is from a couple of Black friends from the Academy. I went to college in Florida (still mostly white, but some openly gay people), and then moved to the San Francisco Bay area (lots of openly gay people, and everything else). I traveled around Asia for a year; I went to Berkeley Law school, where I was surrounded by people who were interested in social justice, representing all manner of different underprivileged groups.

It is hard to provide a similar experience to everyone in the Midwest, at least on a short timeframe, like before 2020. Many of the people you are trying to reach are dogs that are too old to teach new tricks. You are not going to be able to reach them on the basis of your anger, or shaming them into voting for you candidate. While I think that across-the-board radical increase in funding for public K-12 education is one of the main lessons Democrats should draw from this election, the time frame on that is too slow to be the only thing.

Allying With The Midwest.  The Midwest was union country, once. In 1964, Michigan was the most unionized state, followed by Washington state and Indiana.[7]NPR: 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map Although the demographics have changed somewhat since then, the unions have more or less been broken, I think there is still enough of a memory and a culture of that kind of class-warfare mindset that could provide a hook to reaching them.

There is no doubt that the Midwest is angry. It is a disappointed flavor of angry. Disappointment, as an emotion, is a result of expecting something, and not getting it. The Midwest grew up expecting to make, build, assemble, and farm things. There’s not much of that left to do in those fields. The largest employer in Michigan City is now a casino, followed by a hospital and then a prison. I suspect big-box retail stores are also high up on the list. There’s jobs, but not ones that pay well or that match the expectations set by the past.

The ideas of fighting big banks and big corporations resonate strongly. Midwesterners feel like a giant truck of some kind of financial nature hit them and they’re not sure what it was. All the manufacturing jobs going away, the subprime mortgage crisis, high costs of healthcare — all kinds of anonymous elite bad stuff that happened to them. They are pretty much open to any kind of solution that strikes back against the abstract elitism, or that proposes a constructive plan for employment and dignity for them.

The strategy of the Democratic party has to be to communicate a “strike back against elites” strategy that has an underlying constructive plan. Right now it seems like Democrats are the party of the top 30% of the population — right all the way to the top. For me, the emblematically fatal moment for Hillary Clinton in this campaign was not the emails, or Benghazi, but the unapologetic alliance with Goldman Sachs. Why did she take so much money to talk to them? “That’s what they offered.”[8]Hillary Clinton is going to really regret saying these 4 words about Goldman Sachs Lots of less-educated less-political Midwesterners were turned off by that financial elitism in a way that Trump was able to channel. You can’t say you’re sticking it to the big banks when you’re taking whatever they offer.

The top one percent is in such a different category from anyone below them that it should be an easy alliance. To be in the top one percent (by wealth, not income) you have to have eight million dollars. To be in the top ten percent, you have to have almost a million dollars.[9]Net Worth in the United States: Zooming in on the Top Centiles Most people who are coastal “elites” are not elite enough to fit into even the latter category — many are elite by education but not by finances.

The challenge for Democrats, then, is focus communicating about sticking it to big banks, taxing the top 1%, and trade agreements: the Sanders-Warren-Reich strategy, in other words. And put it in the hands of those that can deliver that message with honest passion. I’m not trying to say that civil rights, gender equality, or any other issue shouldn’t be more important — just that you can’t connect with the Midwest en masse on those issues.

Chuck Schumer isn’t going to cut it as that messenger. We do not need the voice of the Democratic Party to be another New York Senator. Bernie is the obvious choice, with his national profile and popularity. However, I think that everyone is making a big error in understating the power that Sherrod Brown from Ohio, or Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin could have, if we were all paying attention to them — including perhaps Brown and Baldwin themselves, who may not be doing enough to stand up and lead.  Both are as progressive as it gets, beating even Sanders on the Progressive Punch index, and yet both were elected by Midwestern states.[10]Progressive Punch Senate Index If they were shoved forward by their party as the voice of leadership, or they chose to ally with Sanders to help provide a coherent class-based message of the Democratic Party, I think its odds of success in the future would be much better.