Monthly Archives: June 2016

Language and Democracy

One of the most intriguing sessions as last week’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference was on “democratic reading and writing,” a topic inspired by Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration.

I’ve only just begun reading Allen’s book, but I am struck by the core of her argument.

“The achievement of political equality requires, among other things,” she writes, “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”

This seems like something of a bold statement. Not that language is explicitly not required, but  there are so many great barriers to political equality, it is easy, perhaps, to dismiss language as the least of our problems.

But words do have power.

In How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin argues that words can, in the fullest sense, be actions. The performative act of an utterance goes beyond the physical action of speaking; something is actually accomplished by the words themselves.

“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons,” Austin argues, “and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…”

Not all utterances are performative acts, but some words do have this power. Words may bind one into an agreement, or may have a real impact on the listener.

The American Declaration of Independence, which Allen close reads in her book, is one example of the power and action of words. It “brings to light the incandescent magic of human politics: the fact that it is possible for people, with ideas, conversations, and decision-making committees – both formal and informal – to weave together an agreement that can define our common life.”

The process of reading and writing democratically is messy, frustrating, and hard. But from it, Allen argues, emerges a greater whole, something better and stronger than would have existed otherwise. “The source of sturdiness is solidarity,” she writes.

The Declaration, Allen finds, “is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all….I believe the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why they art of democratic writing is necessary.”

In short, as Allen argues: this country was built on talk.

Discontent of the Commons

In a session on “The Politics of Discontent” at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, democracy scholar Alison Staudinger proposed considering “discontent” as a common pool resource. I am deeply intrigued by this idea, and interested to understand just what that might mean.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” describing the game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma which communities of people face when utilizing some common resource:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain….the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

This idea has been applied to a wide variety of resources which can be broadly categorized along two spectrums: excludable and subtractable. As the names suggest, excludable indicates whether or not people can be easily excluded from a resource while subtractable indicates whether use of a resource by one person restricts use of the resource by another.

The clothes I am wearing are both excludable and subtractable – I can prevent your use of them, and you cannot use them while I am using them. Wikipedia is non-excludable and non-subtactable – I cannot prevent your use and my use does not diminish yours. If Wikipedia added a paywall or if a State blocked its use, it would become excludable.

Seen as a common pool resource, discontentment would seem to fit in this non-excludable, non-subtactable category. I cannot stop you from feeling discontent, and I can be discontent without infringing on your ability to also be discontent.

Yet, this is perhaps not the most helpful framework. The political challenges we face today are not so much that people feel discontent – rather the challenge is the causes and repercussions of that discontent.

It is a fundamental aspect of a pluralist society that not everyone will agree all of the time. We each have different needs and wants, and our desired outcomes will at times be in conflict. We can’t all get what we want.

Under a simple definition, then, a person is discontent if they do not get their way. Since not everyone in a pluralistic society can simultaneously have their way, it is intrinsic that some portion of people will be discontent with any given issue.

This presents at least two possible social challenges connected to discontent. If discontent is inequitably and systemically distributed, those who have more discontent with have reason to see the system as unjust. If people experience the system as treating them unjustly, they will have reason to try to change the system – minimizing their own discontentment while making someone else more discontent.

Here, discontent seems to no longer be a resource – rather can be better interpreted as the absence of a resource.

The word that comes to mind here is power.

People with power can get the outcomes they desire, minimizing their discontent; people without power are subject to the whims of those with power – increasing the likelihood that they will not get the outcomes they desire and increasing their discontent.

Power, I would argue, is an excludable and subtractable resource. Those with power have certainly been known to exclude others from acquiring power, and if I have power, it does, I think, diminish your ability to have power.

This model unites people from all sides of the political spectrum who feel discontent under current systems and institutions. Some may feel they are losing power, some may never of had much power in the first place.

And the highest elites may feel most secure in the continuance of their power if everyone else is busy fighting over who gets whatever scraps are left.

Elinor Ostrom, the brilliant economist who argued that the drama of the commons need not be a tragedy, traveled around the world empirically studying communal and institutional management of common pool resources.

In Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources, Ostrom argues that conflict and destruction arise when “those involved act independently owing to a lack of communication or an incapacity to make credible commitments.” On the other hand, if members of a community “can communicate, agree on norms, monitor each other, and sanction noncompliance to their own covenants, then overuse, conflict, and the destruction of [common pool resources] can be reduced substantially.”

Managing common pool resources, then, is difficult but not impossible.

“If those who know the most about local time-and-place information and incentives are given sufficient autonomy to reach and enforce local covenants,” she argues. “They frequently are able to devise rules well tailored to the problems they face.”

In addition to this autonomy of the people, communication is essential:

“When symmetric subjects are given opportunities to communicate and devise their own agreements and sanctioning arrangements, then the outcomes approximate optimality,” Ostrom writes. “These findings are surprising for many theorists, because the capacity to communicate without an external enforcer for monitoring and sanctioning behavior inconsistent with covenantal agreements is considered to be mere ‘cheap talk’ having no impact on the strategic structure of the game.”

In seeing the rise of populism, in watching discontented people making bad political decisions, in seeing the mismanagement of a common pool resource, the liberal impulse is often to solve the problem through stronger regulation – to create institutions nominally managed by the people which can step in with rules and authority in order to overcome the destructive self-interest and poorly-informed actions of individual actors.

But perhaps Ostrom’s work on common pool resources ought to give us pause – “the people” may not collectively be wise, but they have the ability to surprise us; to work out their differences and to successfully self-manage in ways that external enforcing institutions could never accomplish.

Whose Voice Matters?

There’s a certain, reasonable narrative of the Brexit vote which sees it as a democratic victory – even if you disagree with the outcome, it does represent the will of the British people.

As I wrote yesterday, there are also plenty of good reasons to find this popular vote a democratic failure, but today I want to focus on a different piece of the issue: whose voice matters?

72.2% of UK’s registered voters cast a ballot in last week’s referendum, with 17,410,742 (51.9%) going to Leave and 16,141,241 (48.1%) favoring Remain. While this is a rather narrow victory, the result ostensibly embodies the collective will of the British people.

This story is complicated, however, when you look at the breakdown of the results. Voters 18-24 voted overwhelmingly (73%) for Remain while voters over 65 largely voted (60%) Leave. All age groups under 44 favored Remain, while those over 45 voted Leave.

Citizens under the age of 18 weren’t allow to cast a ballot at all.

So while the vote may represent the will of (some) people, younger voters, who will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the decision, had their will overturned and may not have even been allowed to vote.

Furthermore, there is the broader question of exactly which people ought to have input into this kind of decision.

I would consider democratic systems to be those in which the people most affected by an issue play a role in shaping the response to that issue.

That role may be mediated by elected officials or other mechanisms of indirect democracy, but ultimately, the democratic spirit is one which gives weight to the voices of those whose interests and rights are most at stake.

A 2015 report from the UK Office for National Statistics found that nearly 3 million (2,938,000) people living in the UK are non-British EU nationals – about 5% of the UK population and 7% of the workforce. These residents have suddenly found their  legal status in jeopardy – as their EU citizenship may no longer be sufficient.

Another 2,406,000 UK residents hold neither British nor EU citizenship.

Of these nearly 6 million residents without British citizenship, those who are migrants from Commonwealth countries – essentially former British territories – were allowed to vote. This includes the UK’s large population of Indian (793,000), Pakistanis (523,000), and Irish (383,000) nationals; but notably excludes the UK’s 790,000 Polish residents and 301,000 German residents not to mention many others from non-Commonwealth countries.

So those people who are now facing threats to “go home” and slurs of “no more Polish vermin” were not allowed to vote. They had no say.

Of the 1.2 million UK-born people living in other EU countries – who may also face residency issues if they lose their EU citizenship – only those who have lived abroad for less than 15 years were eligible to vote.

And none of this is to mention the broader population of 443 million other EU citizens whose economic and political infrastructure is deeply at risk following the vote, nor the millions of other people around the world who are feeling the expansive repercussions from this vote.

Around 33 million people cast a vote; 17 million expressed the “will of the people;” and yet so many, many more who had no vote and voice will suffer the lasting impacts of this historic election.

The “voice of the people,” indeed – but only if “the people” are British nationalists.

Is Democracy Broken?

If my side won a contentious political fight I would no doubt call it a victory for democracy. If I felt passionately about the issue, I imagine I would hardly even care about the immediate negative ramifications. A lot of things are hard, transitions especially, but that doesn’t intrinsically mean they are not worth doing.

I start with this reflection because I do try to be aware of my own political biases – that whether or not I happen to agree with an outcome can have a significant impact on my interpretation of the process and result.

The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union came as I participated in an annual conference on the Frontiers of Democracy. On Thursday night I watched with shock – though, I suppose, not entirely with surprise – as the results came in. And while I grappled to accept that a Leave vote had actually happened, I found myself thinking – isn’t this exactly what we are fighting for?

The people had spoken.

In announcing his resignation the next morning Prime Minister David Cameron, who fought hard for Remain, praised the vote as a noble exercise of the democratic process:

…the country has just taken part in a giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history. Over 33 million people from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar have all had their say. We should be proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions. We not only have a parliamentary democracy, but on questions about the arrangements for how we’ve governed there are times when it is right to ask the people themselves and that is what we have done. 

Perhaps this is the sort of hollow and passive aggressive praise you might expect from a seasoned politician, but the fact remains: this is what democracy looks like.

Arguably, anyone dedicated to the ideals of democracy – particularly those of us who are neither UK nor EU citizens – ought to respect the outcome of vote. With an impressive 72% turnout, it seems fair to say: the people have spoken.

It is reasonable to argue, though, that the question should never have been put to a popular vote in the first place. Cameron – perhaps foolishly – promised the referendum in 2013 as a way to keep his coalition together. If he hadn’t had been so politically short-sighted and naïve, the vote would never have happened.

Importantly, one need not distain democracy in order to disfavor putting such big, important issues to popular vote. Democracy is about far more than voting. Democratic engagement means working with people to solve collective challenges in an ongoing and multifaceted way. Votes and polls may be useful tools of democracy, but real democratic work must take place every day in our schools, workplaces, and communities.

This provides a meaningful path for side-stepping the issue; remaining a champion of democracy while decrying the outcome of a given referendum. Without the deep infrastructure required for real democracy, without opportunities for people to civilly discuss the issue with those who disagree with them; without unfettered access to accurate, unbiased information, without providing the tools necessary for making a good decision, it is foolish to ask the people to decide.

After the referendum, UKIP leader Nigel Farage quickly retracted his pledge to redirect £350 million from the European Union to the National Health Service (NHS). Among the slew of stories about Leave voters who regret their decision, then, one narrative finds that Leave voters are reasonable people, experiencing real economic loss, who were lied to and misled by corrupt politicians.

If they regret their decision, it is not a failure of democracy, but a failure of democratic infrastructure. It is that broken infrastructure that democratic proponents seek to fix.

But there’s another narrative out there, perhaps even more widespread. Stories of foolish voters who never wanted to leave the EU, but who voted Leave in protest, never thinking Leave might actually win. Naïve voters who had never considered that the vote might have broad and lasting ramifications. These voters come off as stupid, foolish, and too lazy to educate themselves about the importance and impact of their vote.

Under this narrative democracy is broken: the people cannot be trusted.

This is a classic debate in democratic theory.

In designing a political system, should we trust the democratic wisdom of everyday people – building systems that promote their education and thoughtful engagement, or should we be skeptical of their – and our own – capacity; building systems that favor the input of those most knowledgeable and effected?

This is an important discussion that gets to the heart of what the Good Society ought to look like.

But while the Brexit referendum seems to perfectly highly multiple theories of democracy – whether you see it as democratic victory, a democratic failure, or a failure of democratic infrastructure – it is just one of many moments poised to have real, dramatic, and long-term repercussions.

The work of civic studies is the work of thinking about how our collective world is and should be structured. Looking around at the pressing problems of our communities, it is working together to ask and answer the question, what should we do?

In truth, I don’t know that I have any answers, but, in these challenging, complicated, and disturbingly dark days, it seems there is no better question.

Dark Times

This weekend, I’m attending the annual Frontiers of Democracy conference, which this year is themed around “the politics of discontent.”

I’m afraid it’s a timely theme.

17,410,742 people just had a profound and long-term impact on European politics and global economic markets.

535 people in the U.S. Congress can’t get anything done.

In his thoughtful opening remarks, Peter Levine quoted Bertolt Brecht:

Truly I live in dark times!
A sincere word is folly. A smooth forehead
Indicates insensitivity. If you’re laughing,
You haven’t heard
The bad news yet.
What are these times, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many misdeeds,
When, if you’re calmly crossing the street,
It means your friends can’t reach you
Who are in need?

There is so much work to be done.



Civic Engagement in the Zombie Apocalypse

Imagine the early days of the zombie apocalypse: a few zombies shamble down the street but society hasn’t quite yet reached full-stage desolation.

It is very clear that something is wrong, but the whole situation is shrouded in chaos and uncertainty. People who seem more or less normal one minute become brain-hungry monsters the next.

Leaving the cities seems like a wise idea. With so many people becoming vicious and unpredictable, it’s probably best to isolate yourself from the mass of humanity.

But at the same time, you can’t cut yourself off all together. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I probably don’t have the skills to survive in the wilderness on my own. I’d like to think I’d have something to contribute to a small, post-apocalyptic society, but I would most certainly need a community – people to help me forage and fight back the zombie hordes. I’m fairly certain I couldn’t do that on my own.

I would also be inclined to argue that community provides broader value – that living amongst at least a few other people would be better than living in total isolation – but I suppose such an argument goes beyond the scope of what I’d like to write about today. Even on purely practical, utilitarian grounds, one must trust at least a few other people in the zombie apocalypse world.

The challenge here is that, especially during the initial waves of the zombie apocalypse, it is entirely unclear who it wise to trust. The zombies, after all, aren’t some inhuman creatures instinctually distinguished from ourselves – indeed, every zombie was a person first.

One might hope that the human/zombie distinction would be clear once the full zombification of a person has taken place, but there’s every reason to think that it would not be clear in the early stages. Indeed, until you properly learn to recognize the signs, a trusted human might go to monstrous zombie more quickly than you could anticipate the tragic transformation.

This leaves the important question of what civic engagement and civil society would or should look like during the zombie apocalypse.

Do you err on the side of welcoming people into your post-apocalyptic community, benefiting from their skills and talents but risking their future thirst for brains? Or do you isolate as much as possible – protecting yourself from infection, but cutting yourself off from the benefits of society and decreasing everyone’s chance for survival?

Both options have risks, and either could be decried as foolish.

For myself, I lean towards community. Isolation may have its benefits and at times may have its appeal, but ultimately, such tactics are a short-sighted solution. Facing the desolation and despair of the apocalypse, one would do well to remember: isolation may help you survive another day; but community is how you go on living.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner

On June 21, 1964, three Americans working to register voters in Mississippi were brutally murdered by KKK members. Their bodies were found 6 weeks later.

The murders were among the most gruesome acts of a summer marked by violence; as America began to come to terms with its racist past and hateful present.

It was Freedom Summer, a remarkable effort led by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC. It was a summer which transformed our nation, though, more than 50 years later, we still have some transforming to do.

For details on this effort, which brought over 1,000 volunteers – mostly white, liberal, college students – to Mississippi to register African American voters, I highly recommend Doug McAdam’s excellent book, Freedom Summer, which thoughtfully details the selection of volunteers, their experiences, and the impact of the summer.

But today, 52 years after the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, I find myself reflecting on what has changed – and how much further we still have to go.

All the Freedom Summer volunteers faced significant violence. McAdams notes that over the course of the 10-week voter registration campaign 1,062 people were arrested, 80 of the Freedom Summer workers were beaten, and 67 black churches, homes, and businesses were bombed or burned.

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested. For speeding. They were denied the right to make phone calls, and civil rights organizers who called the jail looking for them were told the three men were not there. After they were released at about 10pm, the deputy sherif and Klansman who had arrested them followed them in his car – eventually forcing them out of their own car an into his. The Sherif’s deputy then drove the three to an isolated area where they were murdered.

Chaney, a black volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was savagely beaten. All three were shot.

I’d like to think something like this couldn’t happen today, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure. If I read this story in the news today, I would be saddened, but not surprised. People of color face so much violence in our communities – more, I’m sure, than I can truly appreciate.

Freedom Summer transformed our nation because it served as a wake up call for white America. When it was their sons and daughters being jailed, beaten, and murdered they could no longer ignore the deep injustice and atrocity faced every day by black people in the south.

This is exactly what the black civil rights activists who organized Freedom Summer had in mind. They’d been working for justice for decades, but when it was black bodies dying, the sad truth was – nobody cared.

Bringing white volunteers to Mississippi for Freedom Summer put America’s violent, racial injustice on the front page of the news. The nation suddenly cared.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act – which was effectively gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court vote – was a landmark showing just how much we, as a nation, had changed.

But there is so much more work to do, and we have even lost some ground.

Before Freedom Summer, the injustice faced by black Americans was largely invisible to the mainstream. The experience of blacks in places like Mississippi had no effect on the lives of their white, Northern peers. And, as is commonly charged of white, Northern racism – before Freedom Summer, white liberals could comfortably pretend the problem simply wasn’t there.

When Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two nice Jewish boys from New York, were murdered by klansman, when for ten weeks the news was full stories of white Northerners being arrested and beaten registering voters – it became clear that something needed to change.

But there has been so much death already – so many people of color dead at the hands of police or others who felt the need to ‘stand their ground.’ I’d hope it wouldn’t take even more death to galvanize our nation to change.

The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were horrific – and I wish they been the last.

Utah v. Strieff

Yesterday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a powerful dissent in the case of Utah v. Strieff. The full dissent is well worth reading and can be found with other court materials here.

The case centered around the 2006 arrest of Edward Strieff Jr. in Salt Lake City. As explained in the headnote for the Supreme Court’s decision:

Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance on a South Salt Lake City residence based on an anonymous tip about drug activity…After observing respondent Edward Strieff leave the residence, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff…He then requested Strieff’s identification and relayed the information to a police dispatcher, who informed him that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell arrested Strieff, searched him, and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. The trial court denied the motion, and the Utah Court of Appeals af- firmed. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, however, and ordered the evidence suppressed.

In a 5-3 decision, the Court overturned the Utah Supreme Court decision, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan also dissenting.

In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas explained:

To enforce the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” this Court has at times required courts to exclude evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct. But the Court has also held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment viola- tion, this exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits…The question in this case is whether this attenuation doctrine applies when an officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop; learns during that stop that the suspect is subject to a valid arrest warrant; and proceeds to arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence during a search incident to that arrest. We hold that the evidence the officer seized as part of the search incident to arrest is admissible because the officer’s discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.

On its face, this seems reasonable. Strieff was a criminal engaged in illicit activity. Perhaps, then, the officer was right to detain him and to initiate the chain of events which led to the discovery of evidence of Strife’s criminal behavior.

Justice Sotomayor, however, strongly disagreed:

It is tempting in a case like this, where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a civilian, to forgive the officer. After all, his instincts, although uncon­stitutional, were correct. But a basic principle lies at the heart of the Fourth Amendment: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Because the officer did not search Strieff until after he learned of Strieff’s outstanding warrant, the majority opinion found the discovered evidence to be admissible; the search itself was entirely legal.

And perhaps stopping essentially random people, checking for a warrant, and then conducting further searches if needed, seems reasonable. Perhaps its better to inconvenience some people in order to catch criminals.

But, as Justice Sotomayor points out, this is an increasingly pervasive, institutionalized tactic:

Justice Department investigations across the country have illustrated how these astounding numbers of warrants can be used by police to stop people without cause. In a single year in New Orleans, officers “made nearly 60,000 arrests, of which about 20,000 were of people with outstanding traffic or misdemeanor warrants from neigh­ boring parishes for such infractions as unpaid tickets.”…In the St. Louis metropolitan area, officers “routinely” stop people—on the street, at bus stops, or even in court—for no reason other than “an of­ficer’s desire to check whether the subject had a municipal arrest warrant pending.”…In Newark, New Jersey, officers stopped 52,235 pedestrians within a 4-year period and ran warrant checks on 39,308 of them.

I do not doubt that most officers act in “good faith” and do not set out to break the law.…Many are the product of institutionalized training procedures. The New York City Police Depart­ment long trained officers to, in the words of a District Judge, “stop and question first, develop reasonable suspi­cion later.”…The Utah Supreme Court described as “‘rou­tine procedure’ or ‘common practice’” the decision of Salt Lake City police officers to run warrant checks on pedestrians they detained without reasonable suspicion.

There is something wrong with our justice system when police officers are trained to assume people are guilty until proven otherwise. Not only does this go against the heart of what our judicial system ought to stand for, it introduces – or extenuates – opportunities for systemic discrimination.

At the core of ‘citizenship’ is the idea that all people – regardless of legal status – have something of value to add to their communities. That their voices and perspectives matter. Allowing this random stopping of citizens paints an entirely different picture; that people must prove their right to be treated as full-fledged members of a community, that they may not be worthy of respect.

While many elements of the Utah v. Strieff case give weight to the Court’s majority finding, we ought to think long and hard about what kind of society we want to be and what kind of justice system we want to have. As Justice Sotomayor points out, this is the beginning of a very dark path, and – at the very least – we should know what we’re doing before we go down it.

I will let Justice Sotomayor conclude this post, then, with her powerful words of warning:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience sug­gested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.

Although many Americans have been stopped for speed­ing or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact…The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambigu­ous.

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal…he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.” …If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’ ”

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fas­tend.”…At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.” …Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check. And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, supra, at 8, many inno­ cent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner…But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. …For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere….They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

I dissent.

Okinawa and the Shadow of U.S.-Japanese Relations

Yesterday, some 65,000 people in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, gathered to protest U.S. military bases on that island.

The protest was sparked by the recent rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, a crime which has been linked to an American military contractor, and is reminiscent of the 1995 protests which followed the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen.

Among Okinawans, there is a widespread perception of U.S. bases as “hotbeds of serious crime,” though, as the New York Times points out, “defenders of the military point to statistics that show American soldiers and sailors in Okinawa are charged with crimes by the Japanese authorities at lower rates than locals.”

The strain between the U.S., Okinawa, and Japan, however, runs deeper.

Teacher and protestor Noboru Kitano, 59, is quoted in the  Japanese Times as succinctly explaining the heart of the matter: “Japan is still a military colony of the United States. This base symbolizes that.”

The U.S. has had a continuous presence in Japan since the end of the second world war. Following the post-war occupation, the 1952 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan – which has been active in its current form since it was updated in 1960 – provided for the permanent presence of U.S. forces on Japanese soil.

The majority of those forces are on Okinawa.

As of January 2016, the Japanese census puts 1,432,387 people living on Okinawa, including about 50,000 Americans – making it home to about half the American soldiers and sailors stationed in Japan. About three-quarters of the acreage taken up by U.S. bases in Japan is on Okinawa.

But, here’s the thing – Okinawa and the Ryukyu Island chain of which it is a part, has its own distinct culture and a long history as a political pawn between Japan and China. In 1879 – around the same times our own U.S. civil war – Japan’s Meiji government annexed the then-sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom, creating the Okinawa prefecture we know today.

During the second world war, just 66 years after its annexation, Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Pacific, and the largest military engagement in history. The brutal, 82-day, battle claimed the lives of 14,000 Allied forces, 77,000 Japanese soldiers and somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 Japanese civilians died.

Nearly all those civilians were Okinawan, and many of the Japanese soldiers were in fact Okinawan conscripts, drafted by the Japanese government against their will. The shocking death toll of this battle would then be used to justify U.S. use of nuclear weapons – as the American government became convinced that a land battle on the Japanese mainland would be just as horrific as the Battle of Okinawa, if not more so.

It’s entirely unclear if this is true, however. Seen as Japanese by the American troops and considered second-class citizens by the Japanese troops, Okinawan civilians suffered atrocities at the hands of both sides. Caught between the two superpowers, it was Okinawan civilians who suffered – one of the reasons for the horrific toll.

Following the war, the Japanese had little choice but to cede to American interests – which included establishing a strong presence of military operations in the east.

Okinawa, then, provided the perfect setting for rebuilding U.S.-Japanese relations. A strong U.S. presence there mitigated the risk of loosing the island prefecture to China – a manuver in the interest of both U.S. and Japanese officials. Furthermore, the Japanese lost little by ceding Okinawan land, while simultaneously ameliorating their U.S. occupiers. It was a win all around – except for the Okinawans.

This is a history that’s critical to understanding today’s Okinawan protests of American military bases. It’s almost beside the point whether local perceptions of American military crime are accurate or exaggerated. Just a few generations ago, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a proud, independent nation. Desired by China, annexed by Japan, and then colonized by the U.S., Okinawa has found itself continually caught between the interests of these global superpowers. And while great games of politics play out across the world stage, it seems it’s always the Okinawan people who suffer.

That is why they protest.

Utopia and High Modernism

I’ve recently started Erin McKenna’s The Task of Utopia, which thoughtfully explores and compares numerous utopian visions.

Primarily, she critiques the popular conception of utopia as a static, end-state, vision, arguing instead for a process model of utopia. What makes this commentary so compelling is that McKenna deftly dismisses both proponents and detractors of this end-state model.

I have written before about this end-state debate. On the one side are utopians who argue in favor of a static society, peacefully at equilibrium, but in which individuals are devoid of personality and incapable of growth and change. Detractors, on the other hand, find that the cost is too high – the generally bad elements of war and pain and grief may be eliminated, but without them we can not also experience the positives of love and joy and creativity.

McKenna summarizes the debate between these views:

This end-state approach seeks to control the future so completely that any future individual participation will become meaningless and unnecessary. The belief is that by gaining control over nature, over the ordering of society, we will be able to achieve the right ordering of individuals in society and achieve a lasting harmony. It is this idea of rational control leading to final harmony that promotes the view of utopian visions as static, totalitarian nightmares. 

End-state utopias, then, may indeed be well-ordered societies, but they are ultimately little more than a dangerous and destructive expression of high modernism.

In Seeing Like a State James C. Scott argues that high modernist ideology “is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress…” However, “high modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term ‘ideology’ implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”

High modernism goes hand in hand with an end-state vision of utopia: it is the arrogant belief that with enough rational thought, with enough scientific process, and with enough control, a select class of humans have the capacity to bring about a utopian society.

Scott argues that this high modernist ideology – along with a totalitarian state capable of implementing this vision and a weak civil society which is unable to resist – ultimately led to “the great human tragedies of the twentieth century.”

The destruction wrought by the high-modernist experiments led, as McKenna notes, to the end-state utopia more recently falling out of favor. Humans were foolish if they thought they could achieve utopia, and wrong if they thought coercion and control were acceptable means of achieving it. The cost, indeed, was too high.

McKenna, however, finds an alternate path. “Those who call for (or lament) the end of utopia have a limited vision of what utopia can entail,” she argues. “They tend to fall back on an end-state model of utopia…Utopian visions can avoid these problems when they no longer seek a final goal, but realize that it is the process of transformation itself that needs to be addressed.”

I’ll cover her approach, a process model of utopia, in a future post, but it seemed worth spending some time connecting the problems of the end-state model with the dangers of high modernism.

In part, this topic is making me revisit the most resent work of utopian fiction I read – Sándor Szathmári’s Voyage to Kazohinia. While Szathmári clearly favors the well-ordered society of the Hins, I – like those concerned about utopia above – found them too lacking in love and art.

I had attempted to provide some arguments rejecting the premise of having to choose between the well-ordered, equilibrium society and a passionate society of extremes, but I ultimately  decided that this was a question worth exploring.

McKenna, on the other hand, seems solidly convinced that the choice may not be forced – the seeming dichotomy is simply an artifact of end-state thinking.

I note this here because Szathmári’s ideal Hin society is not an end-state utopia. We see the Hins only through the eyes of an Englishman, and it is this proud man of Western civilization who deems their society a repugnant, end-state, dystopia.

But that critique is too simple. Unlike the end-state dystopias described by McKenna, the perfect, peaceful society of the Hins did not come about through totalitarian coercion. The are people who evolved, who collectively decided to act in ways that were better for everyone. Far from suffering under a totalitarian regime, the Hins don’t even have a government – it is not necessary because everyone shares a continual understanding of what is best.

And, most importantly in illustrating that it is not an end-state utopia, Hin society is not static. Our English hero is repulsed by their norms, but throughout the novel, we see Hins interested in growing and learning and changing. They are not static, the have a good society but they still quest to be better.

There still seems something tragic in their loss of love and art, but perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the Hins as little more than a vision of end-state ideal. Perhaps a choice between equilibrium and extremes is not required. Perhaps, indeed, we can have a process model of utopia.