Monthly Archives: May 2015

Voting Rights

In any democracy, the question of who gets to vote has important implications for a group’s power and voice within a society.

Voting has taken place within modern America since at least 1607 when the English established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown. At that time, six men from among the colony’s 105 settlers participated in electing Edward Wingfield as president.

While a 5.7% voting rate among colonists may sound like a dismal start to what would become our nation, those six men represented 100% of eligible voters.

In the United States’ first presidential election, held in 1788–89, there were 43,782 popular votes cast from a population of 3 million. Incidentally, “only 6 of the 10 states casting electoral votes chose electors by any form of popular vote.”

At that time, of course, the constitution didn’t provide any guidelines on who could vote. By convention, only white male property owners over the age of 21 had the right to vote. That was the popular understanding of “the people” at the time.

Since then, our definition has expanded.

In 1870, the 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, and in 1920, the 19th amendment allowed women to vote as well. Then, in 1971, amongst the protests of the Vietnam War, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18.

So throughout our history, our understanding of who are “the people” and who should be allowed  to vote has shifted.

And each expansion of voting rights has been met by skepticism by those in power.

In Some of the Reasons Against Woman Suffrage, Francis Parkman argued  “Whatever liberty the best civilization may accord to women, they must always be subject to restrictions unknown to the other sex, and they can never dispense with the protecting influences which society throws about them.”

You can perhaps imagine some of Parkman’s supporting points: “everybody knows that the physical and mental constitution of woman is more delicate than in the other sex.”

In his five page pamphlet, Parkman argues over and over again that women are not fit to vote, that most do not want the vote, that giving them the vote would destroy the moral fabric of our society, that the right to vote is a “supreme device for developing the defects of women” which “demolish[s] their real power to build an ugly mockery instead.”

This history is particularly compelling, because as the definition of “the people” continues to expand, we continue to see similar arguments.

People under 18 shouldn’t vote because they aren’t capable of being informed voters. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because most young people don’t care about voting. They shouldn’t have the right to vote because it is our job to protect them and nurture them – giving them the right to vote would be like letting them vote on whether to have cake for dinner.

But such arguments have proven to be flawed.

Those are the rationalizations of a society that has gotten used to putting a segment of the population in it’s “proper” place. Changing that place may disrupt social norms, but history has shown that change to always be for the better.

Problematic Heroes

Heroes play an important role in our culture.

Whether they come in the form of celebrities, caregivers, or activists, heroes inspire us. They show us what a person can achieve, and they provide guidance – intentionally or not – on how a person should live.

There’s just one thing – heroes aren’t perfect.

None of us are perfect.

I tend to think of Gandhi as the quintessential problematic hero. He is widely revered and his words are often uttered as hallowed. As if we could truly build a better world if only we could internalize what it means to be the change you wish to see in the world.

But despite his near-saint status, Gandhi was not without his faults.

Speaking of Jews in World War II era German, Gandhi wrote:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

That’s some commitment to non-violence.

Furthermore, there is significant evidence that Gandhi was “a most dangerous, semi-repressed sex maniac.” It is certainly well documented that he preferred to sleep “naked next to nubile, naked women to test his restraint.”

I could go on with other problematic elements of Gandhi’s character and beliefs, but I think I’ll stop there.

The point is – the man was far from perfect.

And I don’t mean to pick on Gandhi. I suspect that under the surface of many of our revered, we’d find imperfections and flaws. Racism, dark elements of their past, or simply habits that would trouble our refined sensibilities.

There’s a reason why Jackie Robinson was selected as the first black major league baseball player:

The first black baseball player to cross the “color line” would be subjected to intense public scrutiny…the player would have to be more than a talented athlete to succeed. He would also have to be a strong person who could agree to avoid open confrontation when subjected to hostility and insults, at least for a few years.

And there’s a reason why Rosa Parks’ predecessors weren’t successful in launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, the first to be arrested for not moving to the back of the bus, was “too dark skinned, poor, and young to be a sympathetic plaintiff to challenge segregation.”

Activists Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith and Jeanette Reese were similarly seen as not being the right icon for the movement.

But icons aren’t always selected by shrewd organizers, carefully crafting an effort to shift public opinion.

Sometimes these heroes just emerge.

And we should not be surprised to find them flawed.

Perhaps the Greeks were wise to see their gods as afflicted by the drama of human emotions; a hero always has his hubris.

And none of this is to say we should abandon our heroes – that we should be disappointed with their humanity and cast them aside for their flaws.

But we should see them not as a remote icons of perfection, but as whole people – struggling with their flaws just as we struggle with ours.

And then we much each decide whether we find a person’s failings forgivable – whether we can still find wisdom and insight in their words.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World (?)

There’s a famous adage – or maybe it’s just a Tears for Fears song – that everybody wants to rule the world.

That sounds like a reasonable declaration for a particularly desperate day – when it seems like everybody is just out for themselves, willing to push people over to get to the top.

But there’s another way to interpret this phrase.

Someone once told me a possibly apocryphal story about Ray Bradbury. The author was 18 when the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast originally aired. I am told that after hearing the reports of alien invasion, young Bradbury and his brother packed sandwiches and sat out on a nearby hill.

Because the world was ending.

And it wasn’t just that the world was ending, it was that his world was ending. I’ve never found any documentation of this story, but I’ve always remembered it, and remembered Bradbury’s argument that his own death meant the end of the world.

It wasn’t a self-centered argument, but rather a commentary on the nature of reality and autonomy.

Each person has a unique perspective – not only does each person bring their own unique experience, each person experiences life uniquely. Perhaps the color I see is not the color you see.

We have developed effective mechanisms for translating across these experiences – so you and I may agree the sky is “blue” even if we experience that blueness differently.

But fundamentally, our experiences are different. Our experiences are unique. My world is not synonymous with your world.

Given that approach, wanting to rule the world is no longer about domination of everyone’s world. It’s about domination of one’s own world.

Everybody wants to rule their world.

Everyone wants freedom and autonomy. And everyone wants the right to have a say over their own existence and experience.

Of course, sometimes our needs and desires – our worlds, if you will – come into conflict, and we require collaborative tools such as politics to mediate such conflict.

But fundamentally, I suppose, it’s true – everybody wants to rule the world. And everybody has a right to.

Where the Streets are Reclaimed

There was some news coming out of my hometown this weekend. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf instituted a ban on nighttime protests in response to Sunday’s #SayHerName protest.

Mayor Schaaf argued that “there have been no changes to any city policy or enactment of any new ordinances in any way to prohibit peaceful protests,” however, it seems clear that this is a novel interpretation or implementation of city laws.

After night fall, Oakland Police Officers will “block demonstrators from marching in the streets.”

This, despite the fact that “Oakland crowd control policy specifically states that OPD will facilitate marches in the street regardless of whether a permit has be obtained as long as it’s feasible to do so.”

Of course, since its implementation, there have been protests every night as citizens peacefully test the limits of the new regulations.

Now, too be fair, Mayor Schaaf is in a difficult position. She was harshly criticized at the beginning of the month for the vandalism which occurred at Oakland’s May day protest.

And I don’t imagine Oakland to be a city where keeping demonstrations peaceful is easy. Oakland has long been known for its riots – for social justice and Raider’s games alike.

Some of that reputation is overblown racism from the wealthier side of the bay – but as an Oaklander myself, I have to admit, even riots make me a little proud.

So, reasonable or not, the city government sees two possible actions: minimally impinge on protestors rights, risking significant property damage, OR minimally impinge on property-owners rights, ensuring the safety of homes and businesses but restricting the freedom of protesters.

From that point of view, I’d expect most city officials to go with the property-owners. The first responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety of its citizens and their belongings. Justice will almost always take a back seat to that.

I see similar logic coming out of Baltimore and other cities – when a portion of the population turns to looting and vandalism, best impose a curfew. Keep the law abiding citizens out of the way, and clean up the trouble makers. That’s the best solution for the folks who don’t want any trouble.

In someways, that approach is not dissimilar to the shutdown of Boston which occurred following the 2013 marathon bombing. Police were searching for a suspect, a lot was uncertain, and they asked the rest of us to stay out of the way while they got their work done. Seems reasonable.

There’s just one thing: perusing a man who set bombs off across the city – even hurling explosives at police as they fled – is not the same thing as protecting a city from itself.

These are Oaklanders out on the street protesting. These are Baltimoreans and New Yorkers, and folks from Ferguson.

Whose streets? They chant. Our streets.

These are our streets.

I’m not convinced the problem is really a zero-sum game as it’s been laid to to be. Does it really come down to a choice of restricting freedom for protestors or restricting rights of property owners? Are those really the only choices we have?

That implies that government’s role is primarily to protect the rights of the majority. That whenever conflict arises, it is the minority who must suffer. It’s James Madison’s fear of factions all over again.

Our government was designed to prevent this.

But perhaps it could do a better job. Perhaps too often the rights of the minority are subjugated to the rights of the majority.

Indeed, they are – that’s why we protest.


About a year ago I was called for jury duty.

I was nerdily excited to perform my civic duty, but I was also a little overwhelmed – it seemed somewhat absurd to think that real people could be looking to me to make real decisions about real cases.

As it turns out, they didn’t need any jurors that day, which is probably for the best – my best advice would have been to find someone with more expertise to ask for judgement.

I suspect my reaction was common, but it’s also one of the side effects of the professionalization of civic work.

In some ways this professionalization is good – after all, its generally better to have someone who knows what they’re doing in charge.

But professionalization can also be dangerous – convincing people that there is no expertise in the average citizen, that all civic duties are best left to those with specialized degrees.

There’s a certain danger to that. Surely, there is much value in professional opinions, but – communities better when all their members are involved, when everyone plays a role a society’s continued improvement.

If the work of improving communities always seems like it ought to be someone else’s job or is better left to professionals, then we risk missing out – on the real expertise of community members, and on the genuine benefits that community engagement can bring.

Double Standards in Coverage and Response?

My newsfeed is full of stories questioning the role of race in covering the recent incident in Waco, Texas, where a shootout between rival biker gangs left nine people dead, seven hospitalized, and many more wounded.

Some of these memes have been straight up erroneous, arguing that our country’s racial double standard is clearly demonstrated by the fact that nobody was arrested following this shootout. That’s a tough sell, though, since 170 people were arrested and are each being held on $1 million bond.

Other articles question the language used to describe these white perpetrators – people in Baltimore were described as “thugs” why not these gang members?

That’s a really interesting question and I’d love to see more data on the words used to cover different incidents. For me, the absence of the word “thugs” is not enough to see a clear distinction in media coverage.

After all, the mayor of Baltimore apologized for using that word, and frankly, I’m not sure “gang member” is much better – to me it sounds like a thug with a better network.

(Although I do have to question NBC’s decision to use the word “rumble” – what is this, West Side Story?)

All of this is not to say that there aren’t terrible racial inequities in this country. If the news coverage has been biased, than we should think carefully about how all crimes should be covered.

But while news coverage is important, I’m far more interested in a different question – how do institutions treat people differently?

The shootout happened at an event for which a “coalition of motorcycle groups had reserved the outdoor bar area.”

Just right there that sounds different.

These are groups known for illicit activity and violently defending their territory. Yet their freedom to assemble remains impinged.

Frankly, I think that’s good. While it may come with some risk, there’s a reason that right is guaranteed to us in the Constitution.

However, it’s a right that can be easily taken a way by mandatory curfews for an entire city.

Police arrived on the scene in Waco “within 30 to 45 seconds” of the first gunshots. They opened fire on the warring gang members only after “some bikers turned their weapons on law enforcement.”

From what I can tell, police responded swiftly, strongly, and appropriately – none of which were true in Baltimore. In that city, police set up a situation almost destined to turn into a riot, and then didn’t have enough force to shut down what they created.

Baltimore was a hot mess from top to bottom.

It’s hard to tell empirically just what led to the different responses. Baltimore is a city know for its corruption and mismanagement. Texas is…a place where its not surprising that they have no qualms about hosting a gathering of armed criminals.

It’s almost impossible to believe that race wasn’t a factor in this differing response, but I also wonder – are there lessons we can learn more broadly from Texas about institutional support and police response?

That is to say, we shouldn’t just be asking whether media has a double standard. We should be asking that of ourselves and of all our institutions.

Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Okay?

This morning I was watching the trailer for that 1998 classic Six String Samurai – a film I rather enjoyed in high school for it’s overly-bizarre story.

At one point, my sister made me a mixed tape which included one of the movie’s great lines: “They say he can kill over two hundred men, and play a mean six-string at the same time.”

That’s pretty great, right?

But now that I am older and wiser, now that I have lived in Japan and seriously studied Japanese culture, I watched the trailer this morning and thought, “man, that’s kind of offensive. Right?”

I mean, you’ve got this super white guy pretending to be a samurai. How is that going to go well?

It certainly qualifies as cultural appropriation, “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group.” And cultural appropriation is, most generally, deeply problematic.

But somehow this felt a bit different.

Almost like the Eel’s cover of Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On or the Dynamite Hack version of Boyz in the Hood.

These are all easily examples of cultural appropriation, but I’m not sure they rise to the same level of offensiveness as, say, the cultural appropriation of the Harlem Shake.

When white people everywhere suddenly discover this “new” “meme” that actually has been happening in Harlem for decades, that seems offensive on many levels.

But I’m not sure all cultural appropriation is the same.

The Eels cover of Get Ur Freak On, for example, sounds exactly like its being sung by a bunch of white guys from California. They’re not trying to be something they’re not. I’m not sure they’re even trying to appropriate the genre of rap.

They are singing a song they love and kind of owning the fact they can’t do it justice.

There’s an element of self-awareness in this, I think. An element of knowing that they are not only borrowing from another artist’s creative works, but that that art belongs within a whole cultural context they don’t understand.

I find a similar sense in Six String Samurai. They’re not trying to be samurai, and I don’t think they’re parodying samurai either. If anything, it’s a parody of white Hollywood’s cultural appropriation of Japanese culture – a subtle reminder that that’s how ridiculous white boys as samurai look.

Obviously I am not in the best position to judge this, being incredible white myself. It’s entirely possible that I’m just making excuses for artists I enjoy and hoping that my liberal sensibilities won’t be offended by the possibility that I like something which is actually problematic.

But I think there might be something to this notion. That cultural appropriation can be used as a subtle social commentary. That with an awareness of one’s own whiteness or one’s own separateness from another culture, appropriation can more properly be an homage, and can even intentionally highlight the problems of appropriation.


I recently heard a story that I’ve heard a few times before:

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest skirmishes of World War II. The 82-day battle claimed the lives of 14,000 Allied forces and 77,000 Japanese soldiers. Most tragically, somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Japanese civilians died.

There’s just one thing: that story is a bit of WWII era political propaganda. Or at best, a misunderstanding of Japanese geopolitics.

The horror of Okinawa was used in part to justify the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The two bombings claimed at least 129,000 lives – including many civilians in Hiroshima. But ultimately, we are to believe, the act was just. The Battle of Okinawa showed that the Japanese were exactly the monsters our propaganda made them out to be – cold and bloodthirsty. Willing to sacrifice themselves and their civilian population for a cause they foolishly found to be noble.

Using that logic, the bombings were a mercy, really.

Some estimates put the cost of a land war at 400,000 to 800,000 American fatalities and a shocking five to ten million Japanese fatalities.

The atomic bomb may have been a drastic assault, but ultimately it ended the war faster leading to fewer fatalities for Americans and the Japanese alike.

Now let’s back up a minute.

Let’s put aside the fact that its hard to be precise about the number of deaths in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in part due to the terrible health impacts from radiation exposure.

What exactly did happen in Okinawa?

The number of deaths cited above are about as accurate as war fatality counts are likely to be. Many American’s died, many more in the Japanese army died, and even more civilians died.

But they weren’t Japanese civilians. They were Okinawans . Even amongst the military dead many of those “Japanese” soldiers were Okinawan conscripts.

Why does that distinction matter?

For centuries Okinawa had been an autonomous regime with it’s own distinct culture. The Okinawans faced increasing encroachment from Japanese forces and was officially annexed in 1879 – a mere 66 years before the Battle of Okinawa.

All of that is to say – the Okinawans were not Japanese. They were Okinawan. Culturally distinct and treated as second class citizens or worse by their Japanese oppressors. The Okinawans had no military tradition and “frustrated the Japanese with their indifference to military service.”

Those were the people who died in Okinawa.

Not rabid Japanese nationalists determined to do anything for victory. Simply civilians and civilians dressed up as soldiers. Forced into service for a repressive regime.

Casualties were so high at Okinawa because the Japanese didn’t really care whether the Okinawans lived or died.

We’d be right to judge the Japanese harshly for their disdain for Okinawan life – but we must find ourselves equally wanting. The American government has always cared more for American lives.

Perhaps that is right. And perhaps the nuclear bomb really was the moral thing to do.

But let’s always dig a little deeper, try a little hard to understand a people apart from ourselves. And let us not base our understanding off a caricature or off an outdated piece of propaganda.

And let us remember: Okinawans died here.

Death for Tsarnaev

Today, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013.

I honestly didn’t see this coming.

The death penalty is unconstitutional and highly unpopular in Massachusetts. Victims and their family members have spoken out, asking that Tsarnaev be given life instead. And one juror’s vote against the death penalty is all it would have taken for the sentence to have come back as life in prison.

But Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death.

In the end it is perhaps a greater mercy.

Despite the dreary specter raised by “death” – I imagine a ghastly figure quietly welcomed to suck away Tsarnaev’s cold soul as the the solemn sentence is proclaimed – our system provides numerous protections to safeguard those facing this most monstrous fate.

Safeguards which those only suffering life in a dank, dreary hole don’t enjoy.

Tsarnaev’s case will automatically be appealed.

Lifers get no such privilege.

So perhaps death is a greater mercy.

Had I been a juror in the case, I can’t say what I would have done. Life or death? Death or life?

When you can’t tell which is the greater punishment it is hard to choose.

And this is not all about Tsarnaev. Imagine any trial, any defendant, any case where the crime is great enough to come down to the question: life or death?

Death or life?

When you can’t tell which is the greater punishment, there is something substantially wrong.

How can we choose, for Tsarnaev, for anyone – how can we possibly choose? Life or death. Death or life.

We cannot. Not in good conscious. We cannot know what sentence is right or just when we cannot even tell which sentence is harsh and which sentence is mercy.

We must step back, we must reevaluate the whole system. We must fix this institution which takes the lives and deaths of so many of our fellow citizens.

We can discuss what we hope to accomplish – what outcomes we hope for from punishment or from rehabilitation. We can discuss what is good and what is right, and we can seek to find the best justice we can.

But regardless of your philosophy on the way our criminal justice system ought to work, it seems clear to me that it doesn’t work –

Not when you can’t tell the difference between life and death.

Civic Studies

I attended a seminar with some of my colleagues today on the topic of “Civic Studies” – or more specifically, discussing the question “what is Civic Studies?”

Despite my discomfort with definitions, I did try my hand at explaining the term in this January 2014 post. Here’s what I had to say then:

Civic studies is the exploration of how to improve a complex world. Every person should have a voice in shaping the world around them and, indeed, societies are better when they’re shaped by the people within them.

Civic studies envisions societies where all perspective are valued. Where everyone learns from each other and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Societies where institutions encourage and sustain active participation and where education prepares individuals for that active participation.

Knowing that utopia is a long way off (and, perhaps, unobtainable) civic studies asks, what can we do to move towards it? Literally you and I. Not us, not them. You and I.

And the great thing about civic studies is that you and I may disagree on how to move towards it. You and I may even disagree on exactly what “it” is. We each bring different perspectives, different knowledge and experience. But we know our society can be better. And we know the road to getting there is complex.

I hadn’t gone back to read that post before the conversation today, so it is interesting to look back now to reflect on how my thinking has evolved and on how my definition may differ from the definitions others give.

Perhaps the first thing I notice is that my definition is hardly academic. Civic Studies is an academic, intellectual movement. Not necessarily a school or a department, but a distinctive school of thought which can be distinguished in its similarities and differences to other academic disciplines.

But I’m not much of an academic. Not really, anyway. My background is more as a practioner, and my definition tends to be driven by that practice.

I don’t really care how Civic Studies is related to but distinctive from Political Science, Sociology, Philosophy, or other disciplines. I mean, I do care, but those distinctions do little for me as a definition. Definitions placing Civic Studies in the panoply of academia are valuable but don’t help me, personally, understand it.

I want to know what Civic Studies does. I want to know what Civic Studies believes.

I suppose those are unusual questions for academia, but they seem appropriate for a discipline dedicated to integrating theory and practice.

So my definition is more practice oriented. And looking back, I mostly stand by my definition from over a year ago. In fact, I think I raise some of the same points today.

I suppose if I really had to boil it down, I might say something like this:

Civic Studies puts individual agency at the center of its thought, exploring how you and I (literally – you reading this) can affect change. It studies how we can build and sustain institutions that effectively engage all people, and it firmly believes that societies are better when all people are engaged. Finally, it recognizes that we are all different, and that we are bound to disagree on what makes a Good Society and on how to get there. As such, it embraces debate and discussion as critical to the perpetual work of building a better world.