Just and Unjust Laws

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr ring true today still:

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

Differing understandings of racism

A couple of years ago, I learned the hard way that there are radically different operating definitions of racism in the US. Someone posted a link to an Austin-area news article to a local Facebook group. The article was about two robbery suspects who had been apprehended. The article included the mugshots of the suspects, and Facebook’s algorithm chose that photo to represent the link in the Facebook post. Both suspects were African-American.

The very first comment on the Facebook post was “thugs!” and several other comments weren’t much better. I naively decided to call out the first caller as politely as I could, so I replied “‘Thug’ is a racially charged term. It’s best to avoid it.” Oh. My. Goodness. I was not prepared for the responses. Hostility, name-calling, etc. But interestingly, the original commenter replied, “I can’t be racist. I’m Hispanic.”

I ended up deleting my comment and withdrawing from that group. But I learned an important lesson: I have a much different definition of racism than the other commenters in that group. This morning, I ran across a really good description of that difference:

The average Trump supporter is simultaneously racist and not racist at all, depending on your definition of racism. This is one example of the polarized philosophy that doesn’t just drive a wedge between the parties but actually makes productive discourse impossible, as both sides already start from a place of fundamentally different definitions and assumptions.

Conservatives–but more predominantly Trump-voting Republicans–come from an understanding that racism equals explicit actions that harm someone based on an explicit hate of their race. Slavery is racism, racially motivated violence is racism, and segregation was effectively the last racist actions of the U.S. government. Anything less, such as jokes or media depictions or off-color remarks, can’t be racist because it doesn’t literally hold a race back; moreover, people who complain about it are the “actual” racists because they’re the ones making a big deal over what is ostensibly nothing.

By contract, Democrats and progressives see racism as a much more nuanced issue that may take many forms. A progressive views a remark like Roseanne’s tweet as racist because–regardless of the intended comedy–it functions within a racist worldview, and the propagation of such views may cause harm indirectly. It’s a different sort of racism than slavery, sure, but Democrats don’t have a problem acknowledging the grey areas there and saying that even casual racism should be shunned on its own level.

So to even say that “X person/group is racist,” you need to understand that implicitly means different things to different people. Your average Trump supporter might be perfectly able to crack a joke about black people being monkeys while also wholeheartedly saying that s/he doesn’t participate in racism, and not have any cognitive dissonance there. It’s worsened by the fact that, at this point in our history, most Americans were educated to specifically not be racist, that racism is BAD, while also not being given much education on what actually constitutes racism or the indirect and implicit biases that constitute casual racism or institutional racism. As a result, everyone wants to say they’re not racist, and therefore everyone has carved out their own definition of racism so that they can personally avoid it and feel like they’ve “beaten” their own personal racism.

The real problem is that most people aren’t willing to say, “Oh shit, I harbor racism on some level,” and then work toward combating that. It’s much easier for liberals to say that conservatives are racist (and aren’t willing to admit it) and for conservatives to say that liberals are inventing racism (and therefore rekindling racial tensions). In reality, we need to acknowledge that we all have personal biases that we need to get over, and that it’s okay to acknowledge racism–on any level–when we see it, if for no other reason than to be critically discerning and self-aware.

While I do agree with the progressive idea that casual or joking racism is racism, and that we absolutely should acknowledge and shun those grey areas of prejudice, I also think it’s ultimately unhelpful to just say “Trump supporters are racist” because you’re asserting something that Trump supporters would flatly disagree with, as you likely don’t even define that term in the same way. The country has truly split into two realities at this point, and political discourse has devolved into a cacophony of those realities trying to exist in the same space without first establishing the ground rules of occupying said space.

“Gun Culture”

I find this op-ed infuriating. The writer explains the change in mindset that he thinks takes place as you learn to use a gun for self-defense:

Your thought-process starts to change. Yes, if someone tried to break into your house, you know that you’d call 911 and pray for the police to come quickly, but you also start to think of exactly what else you’d do. If you heard that “bump” in the night, how would you protect yourself until the police arrived?  You’re surprised at how much safer you feel with the gun in the house.

He may feel safer, but statistics show that he isn’t, in fact, safer. People who mistake perceived safety with actual safety really get my goat.

But even worse, he’s describing the culture that leads a mentally unstable individual to hoard guns and think about using them against those who they perceive as having wronged them vs some other–possibly equally horrible but less deadly–outlet for their feelings.

At the end of this process, your life has changed for the better. Your community has expanded to include people you truly like, who’ve perhaps helped you through a tough time in your life, and you treasure these relationships. You feel a sense of burning conviction that you, your family, and your community are safer and freer because you own and carry a gun.

The guy really needs to join a church or even a bowling team.

As a redditor commented recently:

Many people own firearms in America to protect themselves from ‘bad people.’ This could be a range of people from home invaders to a potentially tyrannical government. When gun ownership for the purposes of killing bad people is a cultural norm, then you cannot be surprised when somebody shoots who they see as the bad people, even if you don’t think those people are bad people.

Racism and the Obama presidency

Ever since Barack Obama became president, I’ve pondered the role of racism in regard to his presidency. Now that we are in the final days before the 2012 election, I have finally come to a conclusion about the issue. Racism is alive and well in the US, but you cannot chalk up  the large number of people who hate Mr. Obama simply to racism. Instead, I have concluded that base-level racism just puts people at a different starting place. I look at it this way: a lot of people really hated Bill Clinton when he was president, but at the heart of the matter, he more or less was a good ol’ boy Southern white guy. Racism gives the same people a different starting place with regard to Obama. The hatred for Obama is fundamentally probably no worse than it was for Clinton, but the race issue puts these same people at a higher starting point, therefore the overall level of hatred is higher.

Common sense fail

I happened to read a little of today’s Austin American-Statesman while I was eating breakfast this morning. Today, the paper’s Politifact Texas column examined the following claim by Rep. Lamar Smith:

“Illegal immigration and unemployment are directly linked,” Smith said on the House floor July 1. “There are 15 million unemployed Americans in the United States and 8 million illegal immigrants in the labor force. We could cut unemployment in half simply by reclaiming the jobs taken by illegal workers.”
Smith later said his assessment reflects “simple logic.”
“If our immigration laws were enforced, illegal immigrants will not be able to get or hold jobs,” he told us in an e-mail, “and they would be available for citizens and legal immigrants.”

I’m always skeptical of appeals to common sense, as they are often oversimplified at best. This claim is a good example. The Politifact journalist talked to several people who are knowledgeable in applicable fields, including some from conservative think-tanks. The consensus is that deporting illegal workers would result in more legal jobs over the long term, but would not result in a short-term one-to-one replacement, thus reducing unemployment as Rep. Smith claims. Factors include:

  • Many jobs held by illegal immigrants are ‘under the table.’ If employers had to pay legal wages and taxes to get that work done, they would be able to hire fewer legal replacement workers
  • There may not be a big enough pool of appropriate legal workers in places where many illegal immigrants hold jobs (think: the meat-packing towns of the Midwest).
  • The skills of the (legally) unemployed don’t match up with the skills necessary for most of these jobs currently held by illegal immigrants. Most unemployed have much higher skills than the mostly manual-labor jobs held by illegal immigrants and would not take such jobs

How facts backfire

From How facts backfire on boston.com, this is not surprising, but depressing nonetheless:

In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

What’s wrong with this picture?

From a recent New York Times article, With No Jobs, Plenty of Time for Tea Party:

When Tom Grimes lost his job as a financial consultant 15 months ago, he called his congressman, a Democrat, for help getting government health care.
. . .
Mr. Grimes, who receives Social Security, has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with the literature of the movement, including Glenn Beck’s “Arguing With Idiots” and Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law,” which denounces public benefits as “false philanthropy.”
“If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how to do it on their own,” Mr. Grimes said.

Or this guy:

[Jeff McQueen] blames the government for his unemployment. “Government is absolutely responsible, not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s,” he said. “The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.”
He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare.

This just makes my head hurt.

Teabagging explained

Fred Clark, one of my favorite bloggers, offers the first explanation of the teabagging movement that makes sense to me (I prefer ‘teabagging’ to ‘tea party’ due to teabagging’s delicious double entendre).

What fascinates me here is not just that the Tea Partiers are choosing voluntarily to abandon reality, but that they’ve elected to fabricate a world that’s far worse than the actual one. They’ve chosen to populate their imaginary world with their worst nightmares. That’s a very strange choice.
What I don’t get is the kind of deliberate delusion in which a person chooses to pretend the world is more horrifying and filled with more and more-monstrous monsters. Why would anyone prefer such a place to the real world? Why would anyone wish for a world filled with socialist conspiracies, secret Muslim atheists, Satan-worshipping pop stars and bloodthirsty baby-killers?
But the Tea Partiers cling to these nightmares with a desperate ferocity. They get angrily defensive at the suggestion that this world isn’t actually as horrific as they’re pretending it is. They’re very protective of their precious nightmares. They cherish them.
In trying to understand this choice, this weird preference for a world more monstrous than it actually is, I’ve come around to two explanations. The imaginary monsters are thrilling and they are reassuring.

Read the rest of Fred’s blog post to find out why the teabaggers find their monsters thrilling and reassuring.


The intro to this article by Matt Taibbi describes the current American political scene quite accurately and explains why I think the US is an empire in decline:

The really beautiful thing about the culture war, from an entertainment standpoint, is that it is fundamentally irresolvable. There isn’t a concrete set of issues involved, where in theory both sides could give in a little and find middle ground, reach some sort of compromise.
That’s because there are no issues at all. At the end of this decade what we call “politics” has devolved into a kind of ongoing, brainless soap opera about dueling cultural resentments and the really cool thing about it, if you’re a TV news producer or a talk radio host, is that you can build the next day’s news cycle meme around pretty much anything at all, no matter how irrelevant — like who’s wearing a flag lapel pin and who isn’t, who spent $150K worth of campaign funds on clothes and who didn’t, who wore a t-shirt calling someone a cunt and who didn’t, and who put a picture of a former Vice Presidential candidate in jogging shorts on his magazine cover (and who didn’t).
It doesn’t matter what the argument is about. What’s important is that once the argument starts, the two sides will automatically coalesce around the various instant-cocoa talking points and scream at each other until they’re blue in the face, or until the next argument starts.
And while some of us are old enough to remember that once upon a time, these arguments always had at least some sort of ideological flavor to them, i.e. the throwdowns were at least rooted in some sort of real political issue (war, taxes, immigration, etc.) we’ve now got a whole generation that is accustomed to screaming at cultural enemies as an end in itself, for the sheer dismal fun of it. Start fighting first, figure out the reasons later.