Living with an Invisible Disability

Published: The Good Men Project (December 31, 2015)

This is an article about invisible disabilities… metaphorical as well as literal.

As many of my readers already know, I was born with a hand-eye coordination disability that mystifies my neurologists to this day. Thanks to my parents’ diligence and the help of wonderful childhood physical therapists, I have sufficiently overcome it so that most people who meet me never even guess I have this problem. This was and remains a blessing – one that many others in my situation may not have been lucky enough to receive – and I am enormously grateful for it.

At the same time, the fact remains that my dysfunction of the vestibular cerebellum still negatively impacts my quality of life. By far the biggest downside is that it has made it impossible for me to learn how to drive a car; although I’ve received extensive lessons, three separate instructors have told me that I will never have the reflexes necessary to safely control an automobile on the road. Similarly, although much less seriously, my disability makes me terrible at video games. Considering the number of intelligent mind from my generation who suffer from video game addiction, I must admit that on some level I’m grateful to have never had the opportunity to succumb to this vice. At the same time, it has put me out of the loop in many social situations, albeit nowhere near to the extent that being unable to drive has done the same thing.

Yet despite these hinderances, my biggest challenge isn’t an inability to drive or win a game of Super Mario Smash Brothers. It’s the fact that many people, when hearing that I have a disability, choose not to believe me because they can’t see it. This brings me to what editors would call the “peg” of this piece – namely, the New Year’s Eve lessons that I draw from it.

1. Never be afraid to tell the truth, even if others aren’t willing to listen to it.

It may be annoying or even embarrassing when people question that my neurological disorder, but that doesn’t mean I intend to stop discussing it. For one thing, it’s going to exist whether I talk about it or not, so at the end of the day it’s just easier to be honest with myself and others than try to conceal my problem simply to avoid being judged. More importantly, though, my writing career has given me a large platform which I can use to draw attention to any issue that I want. With this kind of potential influence, I have a moral responsibility to help others who may be in situations similar to my own but don’t have a public voice.

2. Practice empathy.

Empathy, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” It may seem unnecessary to define that here, but I’ve noticed an increasing number of people seem to view the term with derision. In our cultural consciousness these days, empathy is often associated with weakness – a tendency to let your heart bleed for sinners and weaklings instead of trying to understand the world from their perspective.

This assumption isn’t just factually incorrect, it’s downright foolish. After all, the only way any human being can acquire wisdom is to learn from the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others. This means more than just absorbing the information which others present to you; it requires a willingness to challenge your own assumptions and imagine how the other guy feels.

3. Encourage openness as a general approach to life.

This involves more than simply being honest. Even when we aren’t necessarily lying to other people, human beings play a thousand little games in order to conceal parts of themselves that could and should be aired out. This isn’t always unjustified – there are only so many times one can get hurt by being too open before reflexively closing off – but it still should be discouraged. Unless you have sound reason to believe your completely open words or actions would hurt someone else, it is almost always better to find a direct and open way to communicating than to do otherwise. As the Indian guru Osho once put it, “the social reality is a fiction, a beautiful drama; you can participate in it, but then you don’t take it seriously. It is just a role to be played; play it as beautifully, as efficiently, as possible. But don’t take it seriously, it has nothing of the ultimate in it.”

Whenever we choose to not be open with ourselves and others, we implicitly subordinate our own individuality to our fear of social or other personal consequences. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t play the social game, but it’s important to remember that it is just that – a game. By being open about those aspects of your life that make the game more difficult for you, it becomes possible to take a step back, recognize life for what it is, and empower yourself to master it… lest it master you.

As I reflect back on the course of my life for these past thirty years, and eagerly anticipate the one to come, I must say that I’m a little grateful that I have an invisible disability to teach me these important lessons. For that matter, I’m grateful for all of the struggles that I’ve had throughout my life, from being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome to nearly losing my life at the hands of anti-Semitic bullies as a child. Without these obstacles, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow into the man that I am today. What’s more, these struggles have forced me to appreciate just how lucky I am, and to develop compassion for the millions and millions of people out there who have it much, much worse.

These are my passing thoughts for New Year’s Eve. I hope every one of you has a wonderful 2016!

5 reasons why 2015 was the year of the social justice warrior

Published: Salon (December 31, 2015), The Daily Dot (December 26, 2015)

Although the term “social justice warrior” was constructed as an insult against progressive activists, the year 2015 has amply demonstrated why liberals should embrace the term. Social justice issues dominated the year, from race to sexual identity and beyond. Here are five ways the United States grappled with with social issues in 2015:

1. Same-sex marriage was legalized throughout America

Sixty-one years ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Educationdeclared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. As a result of that decision, the year 1954 is often regarded as a milestone in the history of the civil rights movement for African-Americans.

Sixty-one years from now, the same thing will almost certainly be said ofObergefell v. Hodges, in which our nation’s highest bench ruled that the Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples. While attention will be rightly paid to the five jurists who ruled in favor of Obergefell (and particularly Anthony Kennedy’s powerful brief on behalf of the majority), it’s important not to overlook the decades of activist struggling that made this historic moment possible.

“The LGBT community has always been an early adopter of Internet and the opportunities it presented for personal and professional activism,” explained Pam Spaulding sin an op-ed for the Huffington Post. “In fact, it was a necessity for a slice of the American public faced with few legal rights that faced hostility and violence just for being who they were.”

Because of online social justice activists, the gay community was able to mobilize its supporters and exert pressure on political leaders with unprecedented efficiency. British activist Benjamin Cohen perhaps summed it up best in TheGuardian when he observed that the LGBT community’s success in U.K. politics “was a real demonstration of the power of the internet to bring the electorate and the political elite together.”

2. Transgender issues were brought to the fore of our cultural consciousness

Without question, Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as transgender took the Internet by storm. In addition to trending on social media, Jenner broke the Guinness World Record for fastest Twitter account to reach one million followers and was soon regarded as the most prominent transgender celebrity in modern history.

Beneath the media furor surrounding Jenner, however, there has been a substantive dialogue about the struggles facing ordinary transgendered people every day.

“Transgender teens and adults say they routinely endure discrimination in employment, housing, access to public bathrooms, and government willingness to acknowledge their gender status in official documents,” writes the Retro Report in an interview for Medical Daily. “While momentum may now be on the upswing, the movement that began almost half a century ago still has a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

These problems can’t be fixed in a year, but as the Internet continues to rally behind positive cultural depictions of transgendered individuals (the TV show “Transparent” comes to mind), one can hope that 2015 will at least be seen as a major turning point for transgendered Americans.

3. Online feminism has provided women with a new voice–and perhaps the first female American president

In many ways, the rise of Internet feminism is simply the next logical step for a movement that has always evolved with modern culture.

“The 1910s saw suffragettes using militant tactics propositioning their power to win votes, in the 60s and 70s feminism was radicalized to further include women of color and minorities, and the 90s saw ‘riot grrrl’s come up from underground to wage war on unsolved sexist dilemmas,” writes Lydia Morrish of Konbini, “Now there’s a digital anti-patriarchy army forming, creating safe havens where artists, writers, photographers, poets and, yes, feminists, are reworking the narrative for women’s rights. With added emojis.”

Although Internet feminists have already transformed our public dialogue — from focusing on the subtle undercurrents of rape culture to holding politicians accountable for sexist statements – their greatest achievement yet may actually occur next year. As Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her historic campaign for the presidency, commentators have already noticed her willingness to play the so-called “gender card” when faced with sexism.

“It’s a well-noted dramatic turn from her 2008 campaign, where Clinton famously tried to downplay the gender issue,” observed Amanda Marcotte of Salon. “Clearly, she’s learned that doesn’t work—as the Benghazi hearings show, Republicans will never stop harping on ugly stereotypes of women as weak and mendacious—so instead her campaign is turning her gender and her feminism into a strength.”

Considering that Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, it is entirely possible that the Internet feminists whom Clinton has embraced will ultimately be remembered for producing America’s first female president.

4. #BlackLivesMatter reinvigorated the civil rights movement in the light of a series of terrible tragedies

“In 2015, Black Lives Matter blossomed from a protest cry into a genuine political force,” noted Time magazine in its encapsulation of the movement’s achievements this year. “Groups that embraced the slogan hounded police chiefs from their jobs, won landmark prosecutions and turned college campuses into cauldrons of social ferment.”

All of this is true, but it’s important to understand precisely why it is true. After all, racial profiling by law enforcement has been a major problem long before the#BlackLivesMatter movement rose up to protest it. Over the past twelve months, however, civil rights protesters have developed an unprecedented degree of sophistication in utilizing social media to draw attention to their struggles.

“The thing about [Martin Luther] King or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people,” explainedactivist DeRay Mckesson in an interview with Wired. “The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”

This has been evident in virtually every major #BlackLivesMatter movement this year, from the protests over the execution of Freddie Gray to the campaign forChicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign due to his role in covering up Chicago Police Department abuses.

5. As ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations threaten the world, advocates of religious equality have been fighting Islamophobia at home

Earlier this week, left-wing activist filmmaker Michael Moore created the#WeAreAllMuslim hashtag to protest GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s recent proposals to register Muslim Americans and ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the country. If you had any doubt that such a hashtag was necessary, bear in mind that shortly after the terrorist shootings at San Bernardino, “Muslim Killers” also began to trend on Twitter.

Moore is hardly alone in his determination to fight anti-Muslim prejudice.

Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution created #MuslimAmericanFaces, which told the stories of ordinary Muslims to counter the misperceptions that had been perpetuated by groups like ISIS; a Libyan-American Muslim woman named Hend Amry concocted #HowToStopAMuslimPresident as a way of ridiculing Ben Carson’s Islamophobic statements; and podcasters Zahra Noorbakhsh and Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed came up with #GoodMuslimBadMuslim (also the name of their show) in order to confront the stereotypes and social pressures that are used to determine what separates a “good” Muslim individual from a “bad” one. In addition to fighting Islamophobia, these efforts may very well also assist us in disempowering terrorists who, after all, want nothing more than the West to brand all Muslims as enemies.

It’s important to remember that, despite the this progress, activists still have a long way to go. Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia aren’t going to leave us any time soon, and as long as they linger in our cultural milieu, discrimination and oppression against those groups will continue to happen.

That said, 2015 was the year when progressive movements on behalf of the marginalized seemed to reach a critical mass and, in the process, change how we discuss these sensitive issues. If this doesn’t earn them the right to a title as cool as “social justice warrior,” then I don’t know what would.

Anyone else worried about snowless December?

Published: The Good Men Project (December 26, 2015)

I’ve lived in Pennsylvania for 18 years and, despite the state’s frosty winter reputation, this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed a snowless December.

My personal observations aside, this has been a big month for global warming. On December 12, nearly two hundred countries signed an agreement in Paris that will help bring global warming under control. Less than two weeks later, a controversial article in an academic journal called Nature Climate Change warned that unless global warming is curbed, 72 percent of needleleaf evergreens in the Southwest will be wiped out. On a less contentious (but more apocalyptic) note, the head of the World Meteorological Society pointed out that our warming climate will thrust 1.2 billion people into ‘water scarce’ areas by 2025, mainly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In an ominous foreshadowing of what may come, Arctic temperatures were the highest on record in 2015.

While these data points should be alarming, residents of those northeastern states who have also noticed our snowlessness shouldn’t require them. After all, talk of man-made climate change has been in our public debate for decades. If you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re already roughly aware of the arguments in favor and against the scientific community’s overwhelming consensus that human beings are warming the earth’s atmosphere. At this point, if you haven’t been persuaded by the evidence that this is a real problem, no new information is going to sway you.

Our snowless December, on the other hand, should be different. Even if global warming had been a completely novel concept in the year 2015, it would be reasonable to expect people to at least draw attention to the unseasonably warm temperatures. Our music itself informs us that we should anticipate a white and snowy Christmas (which didn’t materialize) or New Year’s Eve (unlikely to happen). Considering that we do have a widely-known and obvious explanation for what our eyes can see and bodies can feel, though, it’s almost shocking that we haven’t witnessed a major outcry of concern. So why hasn’t that happened?

The answer, I suspect, is that we’ve reached a point where even our own experiences can’t overcome our partisan biases. If you’re a global warming denier, an unprecedented series of natural disasters won’t make you budge, so it’s unlikely that uncharacteristically pleasant late December weather would have that effect. If you support the scientific evidence, you don’t need a snowless December to persuade you. As for the people who don’t know or care about this issue, the chances are that they’ll recognize the debate as so polarizing that they’ll just retain their studied indifference for the sake of convenience.

The net effect is a social climate as dangerous as its meteorological counterpart. We live in the era of anti-proof, in which people can rationalize away facts that literally surround them because “proof” doesn’t count for much anymore. If humanity is going to be saved from destruction, it will be in spite of public opinion rather than because of it… or, even worse, because public opinion isn’t rallied until the devastation has become too terrible to bear. This is a disturbing conclusion to reach, but also an unavoidable one. It has unsettling implications about our capacity for self-preservation as a species, to say nothing of our willingness to utilize empirical logical when the stakes truly matter.

What a bleak note on which to end the year.

Author’s Note: Since I first published this piece, I’ve received several emails discussing the role of El Niño in causing these weather patterns. I stand partially corrected (this is still the longest streak in 116 years without any snow).

Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?

Published: The Good Men Project (December 24, 2015)

Much to my horror, I discovered earlier today that my favorite local Chinese restaurant isn’t open on Christmas Eve.

This may not seem like a big deal – heck, you could even say that I’m a bit of a scrooge for faulting the establishment – but it’s important to remember that, as an American Jew, being denied Chinese food on this holiday is a bit like a Christian hearing their family church has decided to close. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Tribe of Abraham has been enjoying Chinese food on this day for as long as human memory can record.

If you want to learn the real story, though, this piece from The Atlantic manages to explain things pretty nicely:

“The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, ‘Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups’ at the turn of the century.

So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food ‘reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,’ she explained.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story about Jewish culture if there wasn’t at least one Jew out there who disagreed with it. This brings me to another theory, courtesy of Josh Ozersky from Time Magazine:

“The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world.

Personally, I think both versions here are correct. Although Jewish and Chinese immigrants to America hail from very different geographic and cultural backgrounds, they both find themselves regarded as “outsiders” during one of the most important holidays celebrated in this country. While this isn’t solely responsible for the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, it most likely accounts for its genesis; from there, the convenience, deliciousness, and family-friendly qualities of this particular fast food cuisine makes up for the rest.

Having mentioned all of this, I would like to add a third theory – namely, that Jews began eating Chinese food on Christmas because they realized just how funny this would appear to be. After all, comedy is just as much a Jewish tradition as gefilte fish, and Jews love nothing more than setting up a good-natured joke about cultural pluralism. This is why, in my mind, the most important event in the history of Jewish Christmas occurred less than five years ago. It occurred when President Barack Obama appointed Elena Kagan, a Jewish judge, to the Supreme Court:

“When [Senator Lindsey] Graham questioned her about the Christmas Day bomber, Kagan started to answer seriously until he cut her off, asking her instead what she was doing on Christmas Day.

‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,’ Kagan said, prompting the hearing room to erupt in laughter.”

If I could turn the Graham-Kagan exchange into a ringtone, I would do so in a heartbeat. That uproarious laughter at the end was, in its way, the perfect coda to a moment that captures so much about the American Jewish experience. Even though we don’t share the same religious traditions as most of our countrymen, we are overjoyed at the privilege of living in a nation as wonderfully diverse and accepting as this one. The mere thought of it warms my heart and fills my soul with joy… and if that isn’t the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is.

Donald Trump is an epic con man… and is the joke on us?

Published: Salon (December 24, 2015), The Good Men Project (December 22, 2015)

A brief but telling statement about Donald Trump’s early years, courtesy of a former high school classmate:

“He didn’t mingle with the rest of the corps who were not as high ranked. He lived in a different set of barracks.”

I’m drawing attention to this quote because it highlights my main observation about Trump’s candidacy. He is not, despite the protestations of his most zealous supporters, a truth-teller of any kind. If he has meaningful convictions, he has yet to share them with the public. All that we know for certain about Trump is that he likes attention, wealth, and power… and, like most individuals who insatiably possess those cravings, he is willing to resort to sordid means in the hope of attaining them.

At some point in his life, it occurred to him that one particularly effective method would be to run for president. This is where his right-wing racism comes into play.

Think about it for a second – not emotionally, but rationally. When we first heard about Trump making a presidential bid, the year was 2011 and his signature issue was birtherism. President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961, but many Americans believed that he was secretly born elsewhere. Why? Well, it may gauche to say such things in polite society, but the obvious culprit is racism. After all, Obama was the first African-American president, so racists (conscious and subconscious alike) were bound to question his bona fides as an American. What better way to do so than concoct absurd arguments insisting that he wasn’t actually born in this country (an argument that has been conveniently exempt from the current presidential candidacy of Ted Cruz)?

Flash forward to the 2016 presidential election cycle and we’re faced with a similar Trump campaign. The only difference is that, instead of focusing on one racially-charged issue, The Donald has learned to incorporate several. First he played off of racism against Mexicans; then he utilized misogyny, as well as a dash of hyperbole denouncing political correctness; when that began to expire and the candidacies of Cruz and Ben Carson started to take off, he conveniently came forward with discriminatory proposals against Muslims.

If it seems like Trump is able to come up with fresh ways of offending marginalized groups – and, not coincidentally, raising his public profile – at the precise moments when he needs to do so, it’s because you are more perceptive than many in the media. This isn’t to say that Trump isn’t actually a racist (his personal views on racial and religious bigotry mean nothing unless the fates are unkind enough to make him president), but his tactics are so transparent that it’s impossible to believe that he’s sincere. At some point, Trump learned that racism could aid his political ambitions, and since then he has been touching that nerve with gusto.

In short: Donald Trump is an epic con man. The only question that remains is whether we will allow America to be his greatest mark.

I fear that it’s too late to save the Republican Party at this point. This is a shame, when you think about it. While I don’t care for the GOP’s policies in the post-FDR era, that august political institution has a reputation worth saving. It produced several of our nation’s finest presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower being the most obvious examples, although I’d make a point of removing Ronald Reagan from that list and include Benjamin Harrison for good measure) and has stood for admirable principles like abolishing slavery and eliminating corporate monopolies. At the same time, the fact that so many of its supporters are willing to back Trump works to that organization’s lasting discredit. Even if by some miracles he doesn’t get the nomination, what does it say that a miracle is required at all at this point? Trump isn’t your standard issue sub-par politician; he is a transparent huckster, a flagrant fraud, and he is not only duping one-half of the American electorate but doing so while playing to its basest impulses. It is shameful that he has gotten this far, and that fact alone should tarnish the Republican brand for years to come.

While it may be too late for the party of Lincoln/Harrison/Roosevelt/Eisenhower, though, it is not too late for the rest of America. For that to be true, though, we need to call out Trump for what he’s doing. Denouncing him as a latter-day Adolf Hitler isn’t enough, if for no other reason than the “He’s Hitler” card has already been grossly overplayed in our political rhetoric (and, as I’ve argued before, is also demonstrably untrue). Besides, comparing Trump to Hitler implies a level of sincerity that most likely doesn’t even exist. The problem isn’t that Trump holds heinous beliefs, but rather that he says heinous things if he believes they will serve his personal ends. He is a con man, not an authoritarian, and while both are demagogues it is important to distinguish between those types of demagoguery.

When all is said and done, however, the story of this presidential election has very little to do with Trump himself. He is merely the Pied Piper of Hamlin leading America’s angriest fools to a watery grave. Many of them believe that this piper plays for them – that he doesn’t care about their rank because, by virtue of being a white heterosexual Christian male, he is fundamentally their equal – and as a result they merrily dance along, not realizing that he refuses to share their barracks or consider them as his equals.

For the piper’s followers, what follows is a well-earned tragedy. For the rest of us, there is a certain perverse hilarity in the ensuing spectacle, the kind of thing that fables and satires are made of. That said, many of us would rather not be dragged into the muck by his antics, and as such it behooves us to draw attention to them now before permanent damage has been done. In case we have any hesitation left, there is only one question to ask: Do we want the joke to be on Trump or on us?

How America’s fears are letting the terrorists win

Published: The Daily Dot (December 22, 2015)

Forget about the terrorists. At his rate it seems like we’re determined through our own fear to allow the terrorists to win.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with the rash of school closings that have occurred over terrorist threats. The first (and without question most patently absurd) was the “clock boy” incident from earlier this year, when a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas was suspended and held by police for building an elaborate clock that one teacher believed was a bomb. Then, in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the city of Los Angeles shut down all of its schools after receiving an email that administrators believed constituted a credible terrorist threat.

Around the same time, New York City’s schools also received a terrorist threat, although they refused to close on the grounds that it seemed (correctly, it turned out) to be a hoax. Finally, a school district in New Hampshire closed on Monday because of a threat that its administrators also feared might lead to a terrorist attack.

While a certain degree of caution is obviously justified in the post-9/11 era–to say nothing of our current ISIS-plagued time–the problem with such excessive responses is that they empower the Islamic terrorists we wish to fight. After all, by definition, a terrorist’s greatest weapon is the psychological grip they hold over the society they hope to coerce into fulfilling their political agenda.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves. Even worse, when those threats are able to have real-world consequence, it demonstrates that any individual or group willing to scare thousands as a way of drawing attention to itself can do so successfully.

Unfortunately, the damage caused by our fear of terrorism isn’t limited to real and imagined threats. In a Virginia county last week, a high school geography teacher instructed her class to practice Arabic calligraphy… and was treated with such a hostile and threatening response from many parents in the area that the school district was, you guessed it, pressured into closing. While one might think the parents would feel embarrassed at having caused the same type of public safety measure normally reserved for the terrorists themselves, many conservatives are already denouncing her and defending the parents who threatened her. Not only does this violate the teacher’s basic civil liberties, but it teaches the students in that area to implicitly associate the entire religion of Islam with fear and violence.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t to say that our civil liberties haven’t also been jeopardized by the culture of fear. As Edward Snowden exposed two years ago, the National Security Agency began conducting warrantless (and thus illegal) spying on ordinary American citizens in the name of protecting us from terrorism starting shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Americans already had the PATRIOT Act, which was passed after 9/11 to fight terrorism by (according to the American Civil Liberties Union) “ expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” In the process, it acclimated Americans to the assumption that infringements on their liberty which they previously would have never permitted could somehow be rendered acceptable in the face of a sufficiently ominous external threat.

To understand the tragic flaw in this thinking, it’s important to realize that our Constitution wasn’t created by the naïve. Our founding fathers may not have imagined the technological advances that would enable modern terrorism, but they certainly understood that hostile powers from outside a democratic society could theoretically convince its members to forfeit their own freedoms.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin famously observed.

While the context of Franklin’s statement is very different from the milieu of early-21st century anti-terrorism politics, it’s hard to imagine that either he or his counterparts would have wanted federal surveillance of ordinary citizens to become a status quo. Their belief in the primacy of individual liberty was one of the cornerstones of the ideology that built the American republic–and when terrorists are able to effectively compromise it, they have indeed scored an impressive victory over our nation’s values.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to examine GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslim immigration. Despite the wave of criticism that it triggered, Trump’s policy actually has a considerable amount of support, with 50 percent of voters backing it when Trump’s name is attached and 55 percent doing so when it isn’t. For better or worse, this type of xenophobia is hardly new to the United States; groups from Germans to the Japanese have experienced immigration quotas and persecution during periods when their nations of origin were at war with our country. At the same time, the various social justice movements that have emerged over the past few decades had presumably put this type of knee-jerk prejudice to rest. When the menace of Islamic terrorism is able to spark a regression in our pluralistic ethos, this too is a major victory for the bad guys we’re supposed to fight.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

It is through education that our children can learn to view Islam as a complicated religion with over a billion followers, and that while some of them do indeed wish us harm, the vast majority are ordinary people like ourselves. Similarly, it is through education that we can understand that danger has always lurked around the corner in free societies, and that while complacency is foolish because it imperils our physical security, curbing our freedoms and drastically altering our lifestyles to accommodate fear defeats the very goals for which we are fighting. So long as we keep these two lessons in mind, we can continue to strive toward a safer America without destroying America itself.

Of course, for that to happen, we’ll first need the courage to actually keep our schools open.


Democratic candidates blast Trump’s Muslim ban at debate

Published: MSNBC (December 20, 2015)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were unified on one topic during the last Democratic presidential debate of the year Saturday night: The toxicity of Donald Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Each candidate seized on the opportunity to decry racial and religious bigotry — and encouraged the rest of America to follow their example.

O’Malley set the tone in his opening statement when he discussed a recent visit to a mosque in Northern Virginia and talked about “the danger that democracies find themselves susceptible to when unscrupulous leaders try to turn us upon each other.”

Clinton picked up on the theme of anti-Muslim discrimination, stating that “we must work more closely with Muslim-American communities.” The former secretary of state repeatedly warned against “the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, [that] is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a ‘clash of civilizations,’ that there is some kind of Western plot or even ‘war against Islam.’”

At one point the Democratic front-runner even praised George W. Bush over his contemporary Republican counterparts, pointing out that “one of the best things that was done, and George W. Bush did this and I give him credit, was to reach out to Muslim Americans and say, we’re in this together. You are not our adversary, you are our partner.” Jeb Bush was the only GOP candidate to attack Trump on his ban during the Republican debate last week — and he denounced the Republican front-runner as “a chaos candidate” who would be “a chaos president.”

Sanders urged Americans to ignore candidates like Trump who “divide us by race or where we come from,” by saying “the answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists, we’ve got to hate the Mexicans, those are your enemies” or “we hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.”

The Vermont senator returned to this subject again near the end of the debate, responding to a voter’s question about the lack of trust between law enforcement and citizens by emphasizing the need to “come together as a country and end institutional racism,” especially “police officers shooting unarmed people, predominantly African-Americans” and the United States putting “more people in jail than any other country on earth, 2.2 million people, predominantly African-American and Hispanic.” Clinton touched on these themes as well, likewise speaking out against “systemic racism and injustice and inequities in our country.”

There are sound political reasons why the Democratic candidates have been so outspoken about the importance of pluralism and tolerance. Since the days when the Democratic Party was rebranded by Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrats have depended on appealing to the diverse range of marginalized groups who have turned to political institutions for protection against discrimination. During the twentieth century, this took the form of fighting the Great Depression or racist Jim Crow laws in the South; today it involves protecting Muslims from Islamophobia, Mexican immigrants from xenophobia, and African-Americans and Hispanics from law enforcement excesses.

Regardless of the time period, however, the strategic advantage of this approach is that the number of affluent white voters (i.e., the GOP’s base) has continued to shrink while the number of non-white and working class voters (i.e., the Democrats’ base) continues to grow. As a result, appeals to bigotry that helped Republicans win general elections in the past – from Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about “welfare queens” – are now statistically imprudent. The minorities, after all, are now the majority.

That said, the Democrats did more to advance the cause of civility than simply advocate that it be displayed toward minority groups; they also did so by displaying it toward each other throughout the course of the debate. The most notable instance of this occurred in the very beginning, when Sanders apologized to Clinton for several staffers from his campaign who illegally accessed data from her electronic voter registry. In addition to accepting his apology, Clinton echoed Sanders’ famous declaration from the first Democratic debate that he was “sick and tired” of hearing about her “damn emails,” calling for the party to “move on” because the American people are “more interested in what we have to say about all the big issues facing us.”

Clinton and Sanders struck a stark contrast between themselves and the most recent Republican debate, one that was dominated by bickering between Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and virtually every other major candidate on that stage in Las Vegas.

Perhaps the most telling quote of the night came from the Democrat least likely to win the nomination, former Gov. O’Malley himself. “My friend Kashif, who is a doctor in Maryland… was putting his 10 and 12-year-old boys to bed the other night – and he is a proud American Muslim – and one of his little boys said to him, ‘Dad, what happens if Donald Trump wins and we have to move out of our homes?’”

Even as Trump and other Republicans promote a message that can so easily be interpreted as deliberately excluding marginalized racial and religious groups, the Democrats have used their mistakes to place themselves in the best possible light for the upcoming presidential election.

Sorry Hillary Clinton, you still look like a cheater!

Published: The Good Men Project (December 19, 2015)

I suppose I should be happy that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has reversed its decision to block the Bernie Sanders campaign from its own voter data. For one thing, the punishment was grossly out of proportion to the crime – without proof that Sanders himself knew about the leaks from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, denying him access to his network of supporters would have effectively found the Vermont Senator himself guilty based on speculation rather than evidence. More importantly, though, the DNC’s initial move would have destroyed Sanders’ presidential bid before the first ballot was cast. Considering that there are already only three candidates in the Democratic presidential race – and one of them, former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, isn’t taken seriously – this would have been a devastating blow not only for Sanders’ left-wing supporters, but for the cause of democracy within the Democratic Party.

Then again, even though Sanders has had his voter data restored, I’m still not sure that small ‘d’ democracy is actually doing that well in the party which bears its name. Whether we like to admit it or not, it still appears that Clinton is cheating in her campaign against Sanders for the presidency. If anything, the DNC’s decision only exacerbates that perception.

Allow me to explain.

First, as I wrote in an article for The Daily Dot yesterday, the Democratic debate schedule has clearly been developed with Clinton’s best interests in mind. As the frontrunner, she stands to lose the most by appearing in these debates, since a strong performance isn’t likely to help her as much while a poor one could eliminate her lead. This makes it particularly troubling that Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a longtime friend and supporter of Clinton’s, only scheduled four debates to occur before the primaries… and buried three of those events on weekend nights, which are notorious for garnering poor ratings (at least for political television). By contrast, the Republicans will have had eight debates before their primaries kick off, allowing their candidates plenty of time to shake things up within the GOP.

All of this is unsavory enough, but the speed with which the DNC backpedaled on Sanders is arguably just as bad. It’s hard to know how they expected the political world to respond to their blow against the Sanders campaign, but they seemed genuinely shocked at the intensity of the ensuing outrage. Perhaps the most revealing comments came from Miles Mogulescu of The Huffington Post, whose viral op-ed calling for Wasserman Schultz to be fired argued that the chairwoman “is being prosecutor, judge and jury, imposing the death penalty on Bernie Sanders’ campaign for, at worst, a minor misdemeanor which hasn’t even been proven” because “she’s acting as a shill for Hillary Clinton, doing everything in her power to ensure that no one will effectively challenge Hillary’s coronation as the nominee.” Pundits from Jamelle Bouie of Slate to former President Obama aide David Axelrod have all said essentially the same thing, with some even speculating that Sanders might run as a third-party candidate because of this injustice.

Again, I’m not sure what Wasserman Schultz expected would happen, but because the Democratic debate is occurring tonight, it’s obvious that she did not need her decision dominating coverage of that event – or, even worse, empowering Sanders and O’Malley to have powerful new evidence that she’s misusing her power to rig the contest for Clinton. Consequently, despite making a big to-do over how it needed to punish Sanders out of principle, the DNC quickly seized an opportunity to return things to normal. This is the kind of last-minute turnaround that makes perfect sense if you’ve been caught doing something unsavory and want to wipe the slate clean… but considerably less so if you actually believe your initial choice was the morally correct one.

Hence why the DNC’s move only increases my suspicions rather than diminishing them.

In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the only way Wasserman Schultz will convince me that she isn’t shilling for Clinton is by increasing the number of debates between now and the Iowa caucuses. I know that this would be a logistical nightmare, but with its vast financial resources the Democratic Party could still pull it off. What’s more, in light of Clinton’s lukewarm poll numbers in run-offs against her potential Republican opponents, it legitimately behooves them to offer Democrats a meaningful look not only at Sanders, but at O’Malley as well, both of whom could be more electable than the former Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to happen. For better or worse, Clinton will retain the bulk of her unfair advantages over the other two candidates and stroll toward a nomination for which she had to fight (and ultimately lose) eight years earlier. The only difference now is that she won’t be able to deny Sanders his playbook.