Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
They Said It:
But a government by discussion, if it can be borne, at once breaks down the yoke of fixed custom. The idea of the two is inconsistent. As far as it goes, the mere putting up of a subject to discussion, with the object of being guided by that discussion, is a clear admission that that subject is in no degree settled by established rule, and that men are free to choose in it. It is an admission too that there is no sacred authority – no transcendent and divinely appointed man whom in that matter the community is bound to obey. And if a single subject or group of subjects be once admitted to discussion, ere long the habit of discussion comes to be established, the sacred charm of use and wont to be dissolved. “Democracy,” it has been said in modern times, “is like the grave; it takes, but it does not give.” The same is true of “discussion.” Once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal, and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery, or fence it by consecration; it remains for ever open to free choice, and exposed to profane deliberation.
Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics, Chapter V, “The Age of Discussion,” 1872.
OBAMA AND RACE IN AMERICA.
Last week, as you know, the United States celebrated its 240th birthday. Over the course of those years, it has extended the rights of citizenship to every citizen, and its famous “melting pot” has turned millions of individuals from all over the world and from virtually every race and religion into bona fide Americans.
This wasn’t easy. Just over 150 years ago, for example, the nation fought a long and bloody civil war, the end result of which was the abolition of slavery and the de jure realization of the Founders’ vision that all men are created equal. Nearly a century ago, women, at long last, achieved the constitutional right to vote, meaning that the Founders’ vision was updated, to reflect a more civilized, more suitable definition of the term “men.” More than 50 years ago, the government of the United States put an end to the lingering racial and sexual discrimination that still haunted the country, passing a Civil Rights Act, which harnessed the vast power of the federal government to guarantee that the rights of all men and women were expediently and impartially effected. No longer could rights exist as mere philosophical constructs. They were to exist, at least within the borders of this nation, as practical and tangible entitlements.
Now, think about that time line for a minute, if you will. The Civil Rights Act was passed more than half a century ago. A half century prior to that, women couldn’t vote and the nation was led by a segregationist who believed that eugenics could and should be used to regulate the populations of undesirables, racial and otherwise. And fifty years before that, the Civil War was just ending. All of which is to say that the official equality of the races has been the law of the land for a rather significant proportion of the nation’s history. We tend to think of this as a “recent” development, since it took place within living memory for many of us. But it is not really recent. The Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act are, in truth, rather distant memories.
And yet . . . .
Here we are, less four months from the 2016 presidential election – the election to see who will succeed the two-term presidency of Barack Obama, a black man. And race has once again, somehow, become a dominant issue. Over the last several days, two black men were shot and killed by police officers, and, in return, five officers were gunned down by a black man seeking revenge of some sort. The Democratic Party has been roiled by the emergence of a new, powerful, and activist element that seeks to employ radical solutions in pursuit of radical racial equality. And the Republican Party is set to nominate a man who, at the very least, has accentuated race and ethnic/cultural issues in his campaign and who has therefore become something of a lightning rod for those who see race as the defining issue of our time. In other words, more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act, and after two terms of governance by a black president, the question of race in the United States appears as explosive and unresolved as ever.
But is it?
By most measures, the answer is a firm and indisputable “no.” Race relations have not deteriorated. Black men and women, Hispanic men and women, Asian men and women have all integrated nicely into the preponderance of American society. And they continue to do so. Violent crime is down considerably from its historic highs; and the increases we have seen over the last few years can be attributed in part to the policies forced on local law enforcement agencies by black protest movements. White and black cultures continue to amalgamate, creating a uniquely American brew. As Marian Tupy put it last month in a piece for Reason.com, the omnipresent narrative of increased racial hostility and animosity is not necessarily in line with reality. To wit:
In 1942, some 68 percent of white Americans surveyed thought that blacks and whites should go to separate schools. By 1995, only 4 percent held that view. In 1958, 45 percent of white Americans would “maybe” or “definitely” move if a black family moved in next door. By 1997, that fell to 2 percent.
In the 1990s, nonlethal hate crimes against blacks—including simple assault, aggravated assault, and, most often, intimidation—still occurred, but were declining. By 2008, all were less common, with intimidation seeing the most dramatic decline.
Hate-crime murders of African Americans, similarly, decreased from 5 to 1 per year between 1996 and 2008.
According to the 2014 World Values Survey’s most recent data on racist attitudes, the most racist country in the world was Azerbaijan, where 58 percent of the population was against racially different neighbors. In second place was Libya, where 55 percent of the population felt that way. The Palestinian Authority followed with 44 percent, India with 41 percent and Thailand with 40 percent.
The United States ranked 47th out of 60 countries surveyed that year, with only 6 percent of the population opposed to racially different neighbors. By that measure, the United States was less racist than the Netherlands, Germany, Estonia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, to name just a few.
Even on the question of the day, the matter that has motivated peaceful protesters and violent revolutionaries alike, the rhetoric does not match reality. Police are NOT waging a war against young black men. They just aren’t. It really is that simple. Heather MacDonald, one of the most skilled and effective analysts of crime data, recently noted the following in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Myths of Black Lives Matter”:
Apparently the Black Lives Matter movement has convinced Democrats and progressives that there is an epidemic of racist white police officers killing young black men. Such rhetoric is going to heat up as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders court minority voters before the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary.
But what if the Black Lives Matter movement is based on fiction? Not just the fictional account of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., but the utter misrepresentation of police shootings generally.
To judge from Black Lives Matter protesters and their media and political allies, you would think that killer cops pose the biggest threat to young black men today. But this perception, like almost everything else that many people think they know about fatal police shootings, is wrong.
The Washington Post has been gathering data on fatal police shootings over the past year and a half to correct acknowledged deficiencies in federal tallies. The emerging data should open many eyes.
For starters, fatal police shootings make up a much larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths. According to the Post database, in 2015 officers killed 662 whites and Hispanics, and 258 blacks. (The overwhelming majority of all those police-shooting victims were attacking the officer, often with a gun.) Using the 2014 homicide numbers as an approximation of 2015’s, those 662 white and Hispanic victims of police shootings would make up 12% of all white and Hispanic homicide deaths. That is three times the proportion of black deaths that result from police shootings. . . .
Some may find evidence of police bias in the fact that blacks make up 26% of the police-shooting victims, compared with their 13% representation in the national population. But as residents of poor black neighborhoods know too well, violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of murders and 45% of assaults in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, though they made up roughly 15% of the population there. . . .
The Black Lives Matter movement claims that white officers are especially prone to shooting innocent blacks due to racial bias, but this too is a myth. A March 2015 Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception”—that is, the mistaken belief that a civilian is armed.
A 2015 study by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway, formerly acting director of the National Institute of Justice, found that, at a crime scene where gunfire is involved, black officers in the New York City Police Department were 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapons than other officers at the scene.
All of this data – and much, much more – suggest that the discrepancy between the races is actually NOT getting worse, that, slowly but surely, ALL races are making progress toward Martin Luther King’s idyllic “colorblind” society. When confronted by this reality, the partisans in this racial catastrophe respond indignantly.
To the Left, the problem is that white people just don’t “get it.” White people, they say, can cite all of the statistics they want, but until they have actually walked a mile in black Americans’ proverbial shoes, they can’t possibly understand what it’s like to live with a congenital and permanent disadvantage in your own country. Eric Dyson, a New York Times columnist on “race, religion, politics, and culture” recently put it this way: “At birth, you [white people] are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class.”
At its heart, this is the standard post-modern/deconstructionist rationalization applied to social issues. Objective reality (i.e. the actual state of racial matters) is not just irrelevant, but non-existent. The “attractive” paradigm for Dyson, et al. – which is the only paradigm that matter – is that which advances their argument and augments their power, even in the absence of what we unsophisticated bumpkins might call “truth.” Fortunately for you, we can spare you any further discussion of this linguistic power-play, if for no other reason than it is probably not Dyson’s intention to alter perception through language and power relationships. He, we suspect, has merely learned what he has been taught; namely that reality cannot be understood without first understanding the conditions that create it subjectively. Or in other words, no one can understand what it’s like to be a black man except a black man.
Back in the real world, on the opposite side of the ideological aisle, the obvious problem is Barack Obama. To those on the Right, Obama is now and ever shall be the reason that actual, legitimate progress on racial issues is overshadowed. Countless right-leaning pundits and writers have condemned Obama, arguing that he, his administration, and their polices have inflamed racial tensions. Moreover, some have argued that they did so intentionally. Writing at PJ Media, Roger Simon says that Obama purposefully picked at the “scab” that had grown over the wounds of America’s racial division. Writing at Front Page Magazine, Daniel Greenfield suggested that “Obama hurt race relations worse than O.J. Simposn.” And in a piece using accusatory language typical of the genre, Steven Malanga wrote the following in City Journal:
It’s difficult now to ignore the role that President Obama has played in our growing racial divisions. Elected on themes of hope and renewal, his very ascendancy a powerful statement about the country’s racial journey, he chose to use the White House as a vehicle to introduce a new era of racial grievance into our national discourse. Unfortunately, he succeeded in this effort—and failed America.
Now, we think it almost goes without saying that we take a backseat to very few in our distaste for Barack Obama. This is particularly so on matters of public policy, where the great and brilliant lecturer from the University of Chicago Law School has been an embarrassing disappointment. The presidency of the Harvard Law-educated Obama has been, perhaps, the least innovative and least coherent on matters of policy since . . . well . . . since Jimmy Carter’s, probably. We, and many others, have long wondered whether the man dislikes the country enough to sabotage it or is just not smart enough to understand the damage he is doing. In the end, we suspect that neither answer is especially accurate. More likely, he just doesn’t care enough about the painfully dull business of policy to make an attempt to seem engaged. He enjoys the pomp and circumstance of the job. But he thinks the day-to-day drudgery of governance is a real drag. And, of course, there are people in this world who just don’t give a damn what other people think.
All of that said, however, we don’t think that Obama is the principle cause for the recent spate of racial unhappiness in this country. Certainly, his economic policies have been harmful to poor blacks. Moreover, he can be faulted for missing a golden opportunity to act as an inspirational moderator in the on-going race debate rather than becoming an advocate and supporter of the most extreme members of the black community.
While not his fault, one of the most significant consequences of his election as the first black president was the creation of unrealistically high expectations in the black community that a new day of post-racial politics was in the making. After all, Obama represented the full integration of black Americans into the electoral process. He served as a symbol that anyone – even a black man – can make it in America. He and his election offered tangible proof of progress, progress that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago.
Naturally then, black Americans were disappointed and aggravated that his success did not necessarily translate into their own success. And whites were equally frustrated that their own desire to elect a black man earned them no credit for their willingness to do the right thing where race is concerned.
In his “Best of the Web” column yesterday, James Taranto noted that the “The Black Lives Matter movement, is the product of unrealistically high expectations in the wake of Obama’s election. So too is much of the criticism of the president.” Then he offered the following observation from Steven Malanga:
When the country elected Barack Obama president in 2008, those of us who disagreed with many of his policy ideas were nonetheless consoled by the fact that his victory illustrated that America had moved well beyond institutional racism. Certainly the fact that Obama had succeeded in both a hard-fought Democratic primary and a general election meant that the country was ready to move past the intense focus on race in our national politics. Boy, were we wrong!
Everyone was, in short, disappointed by Obama, but through no specific and tangible fault of his own. During the 2008 campaign, he was the vessel into which all Americans (or at least a majority of Americans) poured their hopes and dreams about a post-racial nation. The fact that he was unable to accomplish the impossible and to rectify near half-a-millennium of turmoil almost guaranteed the deterioration of race relations. So much hope, so much progress, so much anticipation, couldn’t help but yield to reality and, in turn, to frustration.
Longtime readers may note that we have, in the past, distinguished between mere “unrealistic expectations,” which are a political phenomenon to be managed by politicians within the political process, and something more serious, the perception of deficiency. As we have noted many times before in these pages, governments, regimes, presidencies, social stability in general is most vulnerable when a population comes to hold expectations that cannot be met, i.e., when the population believes that that to which it is entitled is being kept or taken from it. This is acutely so when said population had just cause to believe that its expectations would, in fact, be realized, which is to say after a period of progress, when said population has become accustomed to advancement.
This is what social scientists call “relative deprivation” or, more accurately, “perceived relative deprivation,” which was most famously described by political scientist Ted Robert Gurr. In his 1970 classic Why Men Rebel, Gurr explained the concept as “a perceived discrepancy between men’s value expectations and their value capabilities,” and noted that, “societal conditions that increase the average level or intensity of expectations without increasing capabilities increase the intensity of discontent.”
The idea was described in more practical terms by Tocqueville, who wrote, “Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds.”
In this particular case the very act of electing Barack Obama made the expectation of permanent racial progress appear realistic. Race problems in this country seemed, for so long, to be intractable. They seemed, in Tocqueville’s parlance, “beyond redress.” But then, all of a sudden, we elected a black man to the highest office in the land. What, pray tell, could possibly be more symbolic of victory over our long national infamy than to elect a black man president? The possibility of “removing” the stigma of racial turmoil crossed our collective mind and became less a pipe dream and more a realistic possibility. Except that it wasn’t realistic, not really. And thus the scourge of race became utterly and completely intolerable.
In this light, the Obama presidency couldn’t help but spark racial turmoil. Taranto argues that “perhaps a nimbler politician could have dealt more effectively with the clamor of the past couple of years.” That’s undoubtedly true. But no one could have averted the collapse of racial hope and the consequent impact on social order. This was inevitable, baked into the cake, as it were.
But, be that as it may, there are other reasons that are not widely known or understood that need to be considered. The first of these is one that we will mention today, but only briefly, preferring to discuss it in more detail in a future, sort-of-related piece. That reason is what we call the “end of secrets” and the threat that this end of secrets poses to the “hidden law.”
According to the author Jonathan Rauch, who has been writing about the subject for nearly twenty years now, the “hidden law” is defined as “the norms, conventions, implicit bargains, and folk wisdoms that organize social expectations, regulate everyday behavior, and manage interpersonal conflicts.” The hidden law is the set of understood rules that allows society to function, that prevent all conflicts from ending either in the legal system (lawyers are the enemy of hidden law, as Rauch tells it) or in serious damage to society.
Simply stated, these are the rules of these street in the real world. The world in which cops and robbers have lived and worked since the beginning of time. These rules operate in the background of the written rules. Authorities know they exist. But they can’t imagine a world without them.
Today, with the ubiquity of technology, of social media, of dashboard and lapel cameras, the hidden law can no longer function in law enforcement. There is no longer anything that is “hidden.” There are no longer any secrets. Every action between cops and robbers must be done “by the book.” Simply stated, the advantage has shifted markedly in favor of the lawbreakers. The cops are confused and scared. It will work itself out, most likely, by a tendency for cops to back off, to “play by the book.” Crime will increase, of course. But, you can’t have an omelet without breaking eggs.
A century and a half ago, Walter Bagehot described a similar phenomenon as the Age of Discussion. We wrote about this nine years ago in an article that focused on water boarding. We noted that there was a time “when it was customary to grant persons in a position of authority a certain degree of license to act according to an understanding of the standards and norms of the community, with the knowledge that the community would support their decisions if they reflected ‘good sense’ and were made in ‘good conscience.’”
These were times, we said, when torture, if administered, was administered in unusual cases at the discretion of the individuals in charge. In those days, however, such individuals would not have to fear prosecution unless they clearly stepped beyond what they had reason to believe was considered by the community they served as proper under the circumstances. Then we asked:
In this day and age, how could you have a rule that isn’t written down? How could you trust a school principal, or employer, or law enforcement officer, or soldier, or judge, for that matter, to enforce something as vague as “community standards,” to exercise discretion, to be governed solely by “common sense.” Wouldn’t that be subject to abuse?
Of course, the answer to this question is, yes. It would be subject to abuse. And it was subject to abuse . . . But the iron chains of the old system, which are made up of community standards, religious beliefs, time-honored customs and traditions, are garlands of flowers when compared to the legal and regulatory shackles that have become the centerpiece of the current one.
We then quoted the great social scientist Paul Nisbit who eloquently described the nature of this situation in his classic 1975 study on American society The Restoration of Authority.
Pluralist society is free society exactly in proportion to its ability to protect as large a domain as possible that is governed by the informal, spontaneous, custom-derived, and tradition-sanctioned habits of the mind rather than by the dictates, however rationalized, of government and judiciary. Law is vital – formal, statute law – but when every relationship in society becomes a potentially legal relationship, expressed in adversary fashion, the very juices of the social bond dry up, the social impulse atrophies. The genius of the English common law lies not only in the social and communal roots of this law, as these are to be seen in the history of England during the Middle Ages, but also in its tacit concern, repeatedly expressed in judicial decision, that as little as possible be transferred from the nonlegal, nonpolitical lives of human beings living in a social order to the necessarily legal and political lives of the same human beings conceived as subjects of the sovereign. Nothing, it would seem, so quickly renders a population easy prey for the Watergate mentality of government as the dissolution of those customs and traditions which are the very stuff of morality and, hence, of resistance to oppression and corruption.
Now, let us be clear: we don’t think that police should be shooting anyone, much less black men. Still, the end of the “hidden law” provides the “bad guys” with a tremendous edge.
Jonah Goldberg put it this way in an article he wrote some 16 years ago.
Cops cannot instill, maintain, or elevate order (the co-equal brother in “law and order”) if they are not respected, and at least a little feared. It is a practical, albeit double-edged, necessity that police exact a price from people who endanger their lives. If shooting at a cop does not have a high cost — on the street — then few cops will be inclined to get out of bed in the morning. Moreover, it is difficult to expect that human beings could do the job at all if they were always expected to turn the other cheek.
When there are no secrets, when the hidden law is undermined, then order breaks down. And when order breaks down along racial lines, racial tensions heat up and everyone perceives that race relations are deteriorating.
The bottom line is that the United States is entering a new phase in its long experiment with the idea of benign “melting pot” that makes all people not simply equal, but equally happy.
In the final analysis, the outcome will depend almost entirely on its success in handling other pressing problems, most notably those involving the global economy.
In the meantime, no one should expect racial hostility and tension to disappear anytime soon. Indeed, we should be prepared to have such tensions remain a part of our societal character indefinitely. The only remedy for this type of progress-expectation-disappointment cycle is for the expectations portion of it to be minimized. And the only way for it to be minimized is for progress to be steady, incremental, and, indeed, almost unnoticeable. The next black president will be saddled with high expectations, but not as high as those that Obama bore. The black president after that will have high expectations too, but lower than his predecessor. And so on. In short, the expectations for a black president will be too high and therefore unrealistic until we reach the point at which black presidents are simply routine.
Obviously, this will require patience, something that nobody in the current racial milieu seems to have in any abundance. At the same time, eventually, the real and tangible progress that Barack Obama’s election represented will be recognized for what it was. After he has left office, after the immediacy of his achievement and the urgency of the expectation that accompanied it have dissipated, tensions will ease. Taranto notes that the progress-expectations-disappointment cycle played itself out before. The turmoil and violence of 1968, he writes, was in many ways a reaction to (i.e. the frustration with) the lack of immediate resolution following the Civil Rights legislation that was passed just a few years before and that served as the “progress” portion of the cycle. That frustration eventually dissipated, and it will dissipate again.
All of this is, of course, exacerbated by a variety of external variables: the economy, the educational system and its post-modern inadequacies, the race-baiting business that serves so many on the Left so well, etc. Nevertheless, there has been real progress on race in this country. And real progress will be made again. In his essay on the turmoil, the aforementioned Roger Simon wrote that “I didn’t vote for him [Obama] for policy reasons, but his election brought tears to my eyes as a former civil rights worker.” We doubt he was alone.
Barack Obama has many faults, as a president and as an ideologue. But his election was and remains a tangible victory for race relations in this country. Ironically, the current turmoil only reinforces this fact.