Why we need trolls: Even offensive clowns like Milo Yiannopoulos can be good for the left

Published: Salon (September 22, 2016)

Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos is perhaps the most famous troll in the world right now, in large part because he was banned from Twitter last month and because the head of Breitbart News is now the CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This, of course, makes it all the more disappointing that Yiannopoulos repeatedly flaked on me when I tried to interview him for this article. (He did, however, participate in a video shoot for Salon and Out magazine featuring my colleague Amanda Marcotte, which produced memorable results you can watch below.)

If we’d had a chance to talk, I would have told Yiannopoulos that I believe 2016 has proved to be the Year of the Troll and asked him how he views his role in this unique moment of American and world history. Indeed, assuming that the term “troll” is defined as someone who deliberately uses inflammatory and offensive language to create controversy (which will be the working definition used for this article), I’d even go so far as to say that trolls are healthy for politics in general and the political left in particular, albeit unintentionally so and often at a real cost to innocent people.

First, though, a primer on the type of political troll we’ve encountered this election season. Although there have been trolls for as long as the Internet itself has existed, 2016 has been something of a heyday for a very specific use of trolling to make political statements. “Trolling has become a byword for everything the left disagrees with, particularly if it’s boisterous, mischievous and provocative,” Yiannopoulosexplained in a column titled “Trolls Will Save the World” in August.

“Even straightforward political disagreement, not intended to provoke,” he wrote, “is sometimes described as ‘trolling’ by leftists who can’t tell the difference between someone who doesn’t believe as they do and an ‘abuser’ or ‘harasser.’ A real troll, of course, does aim to provoke. They do aim to cause mild rage. They aim to prank, to goad, to wind people up. Their opinions are designed to be outrageous.”

If this sounds like an apt description of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that isn’t a coincidence. Like Trump, online trolls seem to generate attention and support less by having a coherent ideology than by repeatedly flouting the taboos of polite political discourse. In early-21st century America, that quite often means beingbrazenly racist or sexist, whether that entails embracing white supremacist ideology or simply working in concert with the unashamed bigots.

For Trump’s presidential campaign, this has mainly taken the form ofcomments that have been widely regarded as offensive to Mexicans, Muslims and women. For online trolls, it has involved everything from harassing women who work in the video-game industry to targeting the actresses who starred in “Ghostbusters” with explicitly racist and sexist language. Either way, the collectively anti-feminist, anti-PC and anti-antiracist ideals that bind these trolls together (in practice if not in overt philosophy) have been branded with the term “alt-right,” which is relatively useful as far as nomenclature goes.

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Make no mistake about it: Alt-right trolling is a highly toxic trend. As of 2014, nearly three-quarters of internet users had either witnessed or directly experienced online harassment, with women being the most likely to experience it in its most severe forms. I’ve personally been subjected to quite a bit of anti-Semitic trolling whenever I write articles critical of Trump for his alt-right sensibilities.

While many of us who are targeted by these trolls are able to laugh them off or simply ignore them, others find it more difficult to do so. Indeed, when the trolling stops being simply mean and evolves into outright harassment, the targets shouldn’t have to learn to simply let it go.

At the same time, these alt-right trolls perform two valuable services for the left.

First, they force us to examine our own weaknesses when it comes to respecting the basic rights and freedoms of those who disagree with us. Yiannopoulos demonstrated this when he embarked on a speaking tour of college campuses last year, one that led to frequent incidents when he was shouted down, de-platformedand even physically bullied by progressive students who opposed his views.

Because some campus leftists support suppressing opinions they personally dislike, the actions of these protesters perfectly illustrate the point any professional provocateur wants to make: Their enemies’ lack of respect for dissenting opinions is precisely the reason why they need to be exposed to them. Not only can this serve to shake progressives out of the intellectual complacency that comes from hearing only amenable views; it also presents us with an important test regarding our willingness to behave honorably toward those whose opinions offend us. Whenever we try to silence them, we fail that test; whenever we respond by encouraging debate and reasoned argument, we rise to the challenge.

Just as important, trolls reinforce why we have established certain boundaries in the first place. Take the reports that Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused an increase of bigoted bullying among children. While this doesn’t mean that Trump should be censored, it illustrates why the claims that he’s simply “telling it like it is” ring so hollow.

Adults may be able to delude themselves into thinking that accusing Mexico of sending rapists into this country or supporting an outright ban on Muslim immigration aren’t inherently hateful actions. Children see right through that baloney and reflect in a more pure form the prejudices being promoted all around them. While Trump, Yiannopoulos and individuals like them may denounce criticisms of their language as “politically correct,” it’s impossible to touch the raw nerves of racism and sexism without eventually causing real-world harm. It is valuable to have people out there who remind us of that.

Trust me, I’m not writing any of this out of affection or respect for Yiannopoulos. His flakiness about being interviewed — both our scheduled phone calls were arranged days in advance and then cancelled by his representative less than an hour before they were supposed to happen — was at best unprofessional and at worst deliberately insulting. That said, even as the left justifiably opposes the right-wing values he espouses, we ought to acknowledge that the act of trolling for which he has become notorious is not without its social function. In an ideal world there would be no prejudice and bullying at all. Barring that, we’re better off having provocateurs who regularly challenge us to live up to our principles.

The troubling and counterproductive trend of liberals policing free speech: We cannot silence those we disagree with

Published: Salon (August 5, 2016)

co-authored with Mark Schierbecker

When Donald Trump was asked last November to give his opinion on the student-led protests at the University of Missouri, he called them “disgusting,” adding to Fox Business News that “I think the two people that resigned are weak, ineffective people. […] Trump should have been the chancellor of that University. Believe me. There would have been no resignation.”

While Trump’s language was hyperbolic and insulting, he wasn’t simply making these comments out of spite. Throughout his presidential campaign and into the year 2016, free speech issues have been a touchstone among right-wing politicians… and not entirely without cause. Trump may be hypocritical in criticizing others for suppressing free speech, but there is a deeper problem in our political culture that has bred demagoguery like his own.

For the past few years, there have been a number of incidents in which the ethos of free speech has been outright attacked. Recently an elected student official at the University of Houston who posted #AllLivesMatter on her Twitter feed was suspended from her position, forced to attend a “diversity” workshop, and required to participate in three cultural events each month. That same week, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro was banned from speaking at DePaul University because administrators anticipated protests from the liberal students. These are only the most recent incidents in a series that stretches back to similar suppressions at Yale,Wesleyan, and other schools last year… and explains why sixty-nine percent of students would favor prohibiting “intentionally offensive” speech on campuses.

Another example of the ways perceived personal slights have been used and abused is a “microaggression” tip sheet that has been adopted by many universities which labels innocuous expressions such as “America is a melting pot” as “racial microaggressions.” In higher education, programs dedicated to rooting out microaggressions, such as one instituted last year at New York’s Ithaca College, are teaching young people that microaggressions constitute grounds for punishment. The program may even be responsible for the abrupt retirement of Ithaca president Tom Rochon amid anger over improper handling of alleged racist incidents on campus. Among the charges of racism, students complained of a fraternity party’s ‘90s-inspired dress code which suggested attendees appear as their choice of either “Preps” or “Crooks.” Earlier this year, one of the authors of an influential book on microaggressions was horrified to learn that his research was being misrepresented to shame students into compliance. A co-author of the above-mentioned microaggression tip sheet was similarly displeased that it was being used to mete out punishment, rather than as a way of starting conversation.

Just to be clear, this problem is not entirely confined to the left. For all of his focus on speech suppression on college campuses, Trump himself has openly declared that he would use his executive powers to sue journalists who write critical things about him. This is a man who in three months could be elected to the presidency of the United States because many in his own party did not find his declarations to be particularly troubling. Indifference to censorship is no better than actively perpetrating it.

Different facets of this issue have been personally apparent to both of the authors of this piece. Mark Schierbecker, then a student journalist at the University of Missouri, became a national news interest when in November of last year he filmed a viral video showing racial protesters at Mizzou forcing journalists to leave a protest site. When Schierbecker stood his ground, a communication professor assaulted him and then called for “muscle” to forcefully remove him.

That same week when Schierbecker spoke at a skeptic conference in Springfield, MO, several attendees questioned his motives for covering the story, and implied that he had racist intentions. Subsequently the conference’s organizer formally apologized to those in attendance for hosting a speaker whose story “only reflected the views of white people.”

By contrast, Matthew Rozsa (the other author of this article) had an incident from the other extreme – one that a radio host suggested tested the limits of free speech. After he wrote an article criticizing Trump for comments he considered anti-Semitic, prominent neo-Nazi websites wrote several pieces defaming Rozsa in overtly bigoted language. Alongside emails attacking him with racist slurs, Rozsa also received a few from leftists who argued that this proved he should reconsider his earlier views on free speech (which he had written in pieces like these).

The problem with this logic is that it mistakes the right to call out hate speech with the right to suppress it. Certainly it is the moral responsibility of anyone who witnesses racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or other bigoted language to openly call it out as such. Unless they do so, prejudiced ideas and attitudes will not be effectively identified and confronted. A line must be drawn, however, at practices that go beyond simple denunciation and instead try to silence those with contrary opinions (however unsavory they might be). When accusations of bigotry are used to shut down opinions that may not in fact be bigoted, or when the argument is made that a bigoted view should be censored altogether, everyone’s liberty is jeopardized.

This is the main lesson we must learn from the events of 2016. There is a fundamental truth about political debate that seems to have been lost – namely, that there is a difference between the specific ideas you’re supporting in a conversation and the ethics you practice in how you conduct that discussion. Regardless of whether you’re left-wing, right-wing, or anything else under the sun, it is imperative to respect the right of others to express views that are different from your own… even if those opinions, or the language with which they are conveyed, is offensive to you. Not only does this guarantee that your own right to expression will be protected if others find your ideas offensive, but it creates a climate that stimulates creative thought instead of stifling it. This should be true wherever a political debate is being held– on the Internet, at a university campus, or anywhere else.

The Significance of Mike Pence

Published: The Good Men Project (July 16, 2016)

As The New York Times recently reported, there are an awful lot of social issues in which Donald Trump doesn’t now or didn’t in the past line up with his new vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. These range from abortion and gay rights to whether smoking kills people. Considering that Trump has flip-flopped on a number of issues in this election cycle alone, it may not seem particularly noteworthy that he has chosen a veep whose views are so out of whack with what he used to believe.

Nevertheless, the Pence selection forces us to confront a very unsettling reality about how Trump would govern as president – namely, that he would move to the hard right, with all of the base hatreds to be found in that movement.

Think about it. When a presidential nominee chooses his or her running mate, they do so to benefit from the foremost assets that individual will bring to their ticket. When Barack Obama selected Joe Biden in 2008, it was because the latter’s 36 years of experience as a United States Senator was a great antidote to the charge that Obama himself was inexperienced; John McCain, by contrast, chose Sarah Palin because her youth and charisma would supercharge his flagging political brand; and Mitt Romney tapped Paul Ryan to solidify his credentials as a thoughtful conservative alternative to the Obama administration’s policies.

By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Pence, on the other hand, only brings his longstanding reputation as a right-wing firebrand. Sure, he has a decade of experience in the House of Representatives and a single term as Governor of Indiana, so he fulfills the “political experience” requirement that Trump declared would be such an important consideration for him (though not more so than many of the other options he had considered). That said, Pence is best known to the political world for his support for Indiana’s notorious and toxic so-called Religious Freedom law, which allowed business owners in his state to deny service to LGBTQ individuals. Beyond that, Pence developed a reputation as a particularly rabid opponent of abortion rights, not only leading the crusade to defund Planned Parenthood but even comparing American abortion practices to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

It is important to note that when I bring up these stances from Pence’s past, I’m not cherry-picking random positions that he has happened to take. These policies are central to Pence’s political brand, just as much as Trump’s political brand depends on his opposition to illegal immigration and free trade policies. While politicians will obviously need to take a wide range of policy positions throughout their careers, they usually select a handful that ultimately define them. For George W. Bush, it was tax cuts and (later on) the war in Iraq; for Obama, it’s been health care reform and economic stimulus; and for Pence, it’s been his opposition to the rights of homosexuals and women.

This speaks volumes not only about the type of campaign that Trump is prepared to wage, but the manner in which he would plan on governing. Whatever his past positions may have been, Trump has now aligned himself with the hard right, a movement that in turn depends on asserting the superiority of white conservative Christians over the rest of us. By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Needless to say, this clears up any confusion as to whether the Trump who used to be pro-choice and pro-gay rights bears any resemblance to the man now running for president. Moreover, it establishes that the stakes in this presidential election couldn’t be any higher. Whatever else you might think of Trump’s (incredibly inconsistent) policy positions, the main message of his campaign is that he and his team are driven by a multitude of hatreds. If you vote for Trump-Pence, you are electing a ticket that would roll back all of the progress America has made in the past few years at becoming a more pluralistic society.

There can be no doubt what we’re up against.

Jews have a special responsibility to fight Donald Trump

United against hate. (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

Published: Quartz (July 9, 2016)

Donald Trump’s anti-Semitic tweet—I’m sorry, his allegedly anti-Semitic tweet—is still in the news in the US, and with good reason. The presumptive Republican nominee has repeatedly refused to apologize for linking Hillary Clinton, corruption and Judaism all in one ill-advised meme. Meanwhile, his Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner is being publicly pressured by one of his employees at the New York Observer (which he owns) to denounce Trump’s actions.

Which brings us to one of the most popular defenses of Trump–namely, that he can’t possibly be anti-Semitic because of his Jewish family. Trump does indeed have a Jewish son-in-law, a Jewish daughter (Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism upon marrying Kushner), and a Jewish grandchild. And it’s totally irrelevant. This argument is not only specious, it elides the great moral question presented by this election: Will America’s legacy be one of peaceful diversity or hate?

“How can the guy hate Jews when he has Jews in his own family?”

Before answering that question, we need to dispatch with one of Trump’s most popular defenses, particularly among his Jewish supporters. As a friend of mine told me when I mentioned I was writing this article: “How can the guy hate Jews when he has Jews in his own family? Do you think he’d be okay with Nazis supporting him when they’d send his own flesh-and-blood to concentration camps?”

But it is very possible to make generalizations about an entire group of people while believing certain individuals within that group are “exceptions.” If this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because racists often use similar reasoning—I’m not racist, I have black friends. Similarly, one can support Israel’s sovereignty for reasons that have nothing to do with respecting Jews as a whole. As Trump has accurately pointed out, Israel has been America’s sole staunch ally in a region that is overwhelmingly hostile to the West. But considering Trump’s well-known animus toward Muslims, such sentiments could just as easily be a Trumpian version of realpolitik. Or, in light of the controversy over US president Barack Obama’s Iran deal, simply a calculated attempt to sway Jewish voters.

Even if Trump’s periodic dabbling in anti-Jewish iconography and stereotypes (which I’ve discussed before) is purely coincidental, Jews and other members of persecuted groups have to make an important decision. Will we only call out prejudice when it’s directed against our own community? Or will we recognize that this type of collectivist thinking is immoral, regardless of its target?

Jews have to make an important decision. Will we only call out prejudice when it’s directed against our own?

More than any other single theme, Trump’s presidential campaign has been defined by his prejudiced thinking. He refers to minorities in monolithic terms (“the Hispanics,” “the blacks,” “the Muslims”), issues policy proposals based on bigoted assumptions (banning all Muslim travel to the United States, deporting all undocumented Mexican immigrants en masse), and drops sexist comments on a regular basis (a comprehensive compilation can be found here). Along the way, he has unsurprisingly garnered praise from the white supremacist community. Such sentiments have become a central aspect of his campaign, and will send a very clear message if he is elected in November.
Today, I am ostensibly addressing my fellow Jews. But I am also writing to anyone who has faced discrimination because of their race, religion, or gender. As I’ve discussed in the past, I was myself the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime when I was 12. The attack nearly cost me my life. No matter what your ideology, we need to stand united as Americans first, partisans second.

When a candidate tries to dehumanize an entire group of people, every human being has a moral responsibility to fight back.

Even political conservatives don’t have an excuse for pulling the Trump lever. Looking for a non-racist alternative? Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is at least as conservative as Trump (if not more so, at least on economic issues).
The lesson that Jews must take from this election is that, when a political candidate tries to dehumanize an entire group of people, every single human being has a moral responsibility to fight back. When Trump attacks Mexican immigrants, he attacks Jews; when he threatens Muslims with persecution, he threatens Jews with persecution (a point many right-wing Israelis have lamentably failed to grasp). Jews have faced persecution ourselves, and thus should be particularly empathetic to the suffering of others.
Because I am a Jew, this issue is a particularly poignant one for me. But the stakes in this election would impact me even if I was a Buddhist or an atheist. That said, because I am incapable of distancing myself from my Jewish vantage point, I’d like to conclude with my favorite quote from one of my favorite artists. Diego Rivera was, appropriately enough, both Mexican and Jewish, and he spoke openly about the way his background affected his life. As he once put it: “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”

America has had a tyrant like Trump before: We fought a revolution to get rid of him

Published: Salon (July 4, 2016)

As America celebrates its 240th anniversary, the Donald Trump campaign confronts us with the vivid possibility that our democracy could look vastly different if he’s elected.

No, I’m not implying that Trump is another Adolf Hitler. You don’t need to be a latter-day Fuehrer to hold positions antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. That said, when you look at Trump’s avowed ideology, it becomes apparent that he has inadvertently aped the very tyrant whose reign prompted the American Revolution in the first place… King George III.

To understand why, let’s look at three of the grievances identified by the Continental Congress in 1776:

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

The Naturalization Act of 1740 was hardly an ideal immigration law, at least by modern standards, since it only extended to Protestants and (under certain circumstances) Quakers and Jews… and definitely not Catholics. Nevertheless, the statute held that any foreigner who resided in one of the American colonies for at least seven years without being absent for more than two months would automatically become a citizen. Considering that subsequent scholars extended the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all men are created equal” to groups excluded by the founding fathers (including African-Americans and women), it stands to reason that we can do likewise with the importance of the rights of immigrants. When Trump demonizes undocumented Mexican immigrants who come here in the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their families, or when he threatens to bar all Muslims from coming to this country because of the terrorist acts of a small minority, he puts himself at odds with our formative document.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

When Trump attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel for being Mexican-American, he was rightly condemned as a bigot. That said, his comments also revealed a disturbing tendency to violate the doctrine of judicial independence that has been essential to curbing executive power. Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel weren’t just racist; they also contained the implicit threat that he would defy the court if it attempted to act against him during his presidency. Similarly, Trump has promised to “open up the libel laws” so that he can sue his critics, an act that would require him to disregard the entire judicial system when it attempts to protect citizens’ right to free speech. Combine these statements with his basic lack of knowledge about the structure of our Constitution, and it becomes disturbingly clear that Trump doesn’t view himself as beholden to the judiciary.

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.”

When Trump was told that the military would be obliged to disobey his orders if he told them to kill terrorists’ families (which violates international law), he ominously replied that “if I say do it, they’re gonna do it.” Like his comments about Judge Curiel, Trump’s response here belies a belief that upon being elected president, he would quite literally be the end-all of political power in this country. Bear in mind, this answer came from the same man who admitted that he might have supported interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although Trump’s supporters may be voting for an authoritarian, our government was formed in large part to prevent tyrants from using the armed forces to actively violate civil authority and civil rights.

Although this article has criticized Trump for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn’t mean he would be the first president to do so. I’m sure that liberals, conservatives and everyone in between can point to past presidents and policies that they believe were similarly disrespectful to the intent of our founding document. Nevertheless, there is a spirit of overt radicalism to Trump’s campaign that has no parallel in American political history. Even the most overzealous conservative critics of Barack Obama or liberal critics of George W. Bush would have to concede that, despite their shrill declarations that these men would destroy our freedom, they at the very least put on the pretense of wanting to preserve the American way of government.

Trump, by contrast, seems to view himself and his movement as something fundamentally different. He wants to “make America great again” through the imprint of his own personality. To do this, he is telling the people that — as Thomas Jefferson wrote — “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” To do this, he says, we simply need to put him in power. This makes it all the more cruelly ironic that Trump has so much more in common with the tyrant we overthrew than the freedom fighters we celebrate today.

A First Amendment Pioneer’s Take on the Second Amendment (republished after the Orlando mass shooting)

Published: GirlieGirlArmy (June 12, 2016, July 3, 2014)

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Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa

co-author: Liskula Cohen

Editor’s Note: This was republished because, at a time when the media is fanning the flames of Islamophobia, we need to remember that if it wasn’t for our lax gun control laws and belligerent pro-gun culture, that mass shooter may have never had a firearm in the first place.

I have, shall we say, an interesting relationship with the Constitution. Back in 2009, I was involved in a lawsuit with Google over whether libelous speech (in this case that of a cyberbully against me) was protected by the First Amendment. When a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in my favor, a precedent was established that protected victims of bullying against their attackers.

Now there is another constitutional question that has a direct effect on me – and, indeed, on every mother who fears for her children’s safety. That is the issue of gun control and the Second Amendment.

Over the last month, mass shootings have dominated our national headlines. On May 23rd, a violently misogynistic college student killed seven people and wounded thirteen at the University of California, Santa Barbara; on June 5th, a man who “wanted to feel the hate” killed one person and wounded three at Seattle Pacific University; on June 8th, two right-wing extremists killed three people at a Las Vegas shopping mall; and on June 10th, a high school freshman in Oregon killed two people and wounded another.

And those are simply the stories that make the headlines. Since the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, there have been 74 school shootings throughout the nation, to say nothing of the hundreds of additional shootings that took place in other locations. As Hillary Clinton put it in a recent live CNN town hall, “We cannot let a minority of people, and that’s what it is, it is a minority of people, hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.”

Clinton knows what she’s talking about. When a CBS News/New York Times poll asked Americans whether they would support stricter gun control laws in a general sense, 54% wanted laws made more strict, 36% wanted them kept as they are, and only 9% wanted them weakened. In fact, every CBS News/New York Times poll taken on this subject since 2013 has shown 47-54% of Americans wanting stricter gun laws, with 33-39% wanting them kept as is and 9-12% wanting them weakened. More importantly, Americans who were asked how they felt about the specific gun control policy that President Obama and the Democrats tried to pass last year – one that would have required background checks on all potential gun buyers – a whopping 85-92% supported the regulation throughout 2013 (compared to 7-12% who opposed it), with 69% wanting Congress to pass Obama’s bill (including 58% of Republicans).

In short, Clinton was correct when she observed that the people who claimed Obama’s gun control was un-Constitutional are in the minority. But are they wrong?

Gun-Control1

That depends on who you ask. While the pro-gun lobby acts like their interpretation of the Second Amendment is beyond question, the truth is that judges and legal scholars have been fiercely debating it almost since the Constitution was first ratified. In the 19th century there were cases like Bliss v. Commonwealth in Kentucky (which found that “the right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State must be preserved entire”) and State v. Buzzard in Arkansas (which ruled that “the people, neither individually nor collectively, have the right to keep and bear arms”). The 20th century yielded cases like Salina v. Blaksley in Kansas, which determined that the Second Amendment “applies only to the right to bear arms as a member of the state militia, or some other military organization provided by law” (and was later overturned by an amendment to that state’s constitution) and United States v. Miller in the Supreme Court, which declared that unless a weapon “has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 that the Supreme Court officially recognized an individual “right to bear arms”… and even then pointed out that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”

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As I see it, the Constitution is a wonderful piece of American history, one that should be defended when it is practical and in the best interest of the majority of the population. At the same time, it was written when the national population was less than 4 million (as opposed to more than 300 million today), when women had few legal rights and hundreds of thousands of African Americans were slaves. Even if you believe the Second Amendment was intended to protect an individual’s right to bear arms (which, as already established, is hardly a given), we will cripple ourselves in the eyes of the world if we can’t amend the Constitution as our society evolves. If women still couldn’t vote, and if slavery still existed, there would be no American Dream today.

There are common sense regulations that could effectively address this problem. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to have a gun at home to protect their families… but that should be regulated with background checks similar to those proposed by President Obama last year. Our society needs to view the responsibility of owning a gun in the same way that we treat owning a car: If you loan a car to your friend and he hits someone, you are held responsible. The person who left his machine gun in a Target, or the parents whose children find their weapons and kill themselves or other people, should be held liable. Similarly, just like you can’t buy a car if you don’t have a government-issued driver’s license and insurance, so too should you be unable to buy a gun without some form of regulation. It all comes down to personal accountability – a premise with which conservatives, ostensibly at least, agree.

We should also demand that our media change the way it cover these mass and school shootings. Instead of focusing on the victims, the media sensationalizes the stories of the killers. Their reasoning is obvious: The more salacious they make the story, the more you watch and the higher their ratings will be. While that makes sense from a business standpoint, it is wrong for news stations to glamorize these killers to put money in their own pockets. Young people who are lost and confused, who feel like giving up, can see these stories and believe that a mass shooting offers them a chance to go out with a bang and be famous.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the role of race in this issue. According to a study published last year on the open-access peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, there is a link between gun ownership, opposition to gun control, and what they referred to as “symbolic racism” – or racist attitudes that, though not apparent, influence how they view the world. People who agreed with the prejudiced attitudes posed in the eight questions on the Symbolic Racism Scale (which you can see here) were far more likely to own a gun, support concealed handgun laws, and oppose gun control measures. Not coincidentally, this explains why many minorities feel the “right to bear arms” slogan is explicitly not intended for them (when I told an African American friend of mine about this article, he remarked that “there is no way blacks are allowed to walk around openly with firearms without an immediate challenge from those in authority. We would be labeled and perceived as thieves and dealt with by extreme force… While the Constitution is an amazing document, it has no relevance to the black experience in America as it was originally structured, with blacks being 3/5ths of a human being at the time of the signing and many of the writers being slave owners.”)

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Just as anyone who has been bullied can understand why I acted as I did during the Google lawsuit, so too can anyone who is a mother understand why I feel the way I do about guns. As a mother, I am afraid to send my child to school. It disturbs me that I have to ask the parents of my child’s friends if they locked up their guns – a question my mother never had to ask when she raised me – and that every week brings the story of another school shooting. Nothing matters more to me than protecting my child, and to paraphrase Clinton, I am tired of being terrorized by the small minority of people who value their guns more than my child’s life.

Could Gary Johnson end the drug war? Libertarian candidate’s presidential bid could put sane drug policy in our grasp

Published: Salon (June 1, 2016)

A recent survey found that Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who was just nominated to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, does surprisingly well against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Although his 10 percent is nothing compared to Clinton’s 38 percent and Trump’s 35 percent, it’s enough to make his candidacy relevant to our national conversation.

This is where Johnson’s bold and unorthodox view on drug policy could alter the course of American history.

Johnson is perhaps best known for his unabashed support for marijuana legalization. Back in 2000, he became the highest ranking American political official to ever call for ending the prohibition against recreational cannabis use; later that same year, Hawaii Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura joined him in calling for the federal government to decriminalize pot and treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a crime. In the years since, Johnson has remained boldly iconoclastic on these issues, admitting to The Weekly Standard that he smoked pot from 2005 to 2008 to recover from a paragliding injury and vowing during his 2012 presidential campaign that he would pardon marijuana offenders and “defang” the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

There are good reasons for wanting to cut the DEA down to size. According todrugpolicy.org, America spends $51 billion annually (that’s billion with a ‘b’) in its so-called war on drugs, a program that exists for no other reason than to tell American citizens what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. Nearly 1.3 million people were arrested in 2014 alone merely for possessing contraband substances (83 percent of all drug arrests), more than 600,000 of whom were taken in for marijuana possession (88 percent of all marijuana-related arrests). All of this is occurring as America continues to house the world’s largest prison population, of whom adisproportionate number are African American or Latino (even though, when it comes to drug-related offenses, they are no more likely to use than whites). Not surprisingly, a 2015 Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana – the highest number in the survey’s history – with that number rising to 71 percent for 18-to-34 year olds.

Of course, Johnson isn’t simply saying that marijuana should be legalized; he is arguing that, unless a drug user poses a direct risk to others (for example, driving while under the influence), their actions shouldn’t be criminalized at all. The logic here is very similar to that employed in supporting gay marriage (which Johnson does) and a woman’s right to choose (which Johnson also does up to 24 weeks, although as a fiscal conservative he opposes government funding for organizations that perform abortions). While socially conservative Americans have every right to disapprove of recreational drug use, it is profoundly troubling that they are able to use our government to impose their personal moral beliefs on other people… especially considering that, as President Obama admitted last year, the war on drugs has been “very unproductive.”

While there is an inexorable logic of completely legalizing marijuana – Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. have already done so — Clinton and Trump haven’t gone nearly as far as Johnson. Characteristically, Donald Trump has been deliberately vague about all matters related to drug policy; although he supports medical marijuana, his main criticism of the war on drugs is that “we do such a poor job of policing.”  By contrast (and to her credit), Clinton has been much more specific, advocatingrescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance (which would allow further research into its health benefits), supporting its use for medical purposes, condemning the wildly disproportionate racial disparities in drug-related arrests and sentencing, and vowing not to interfere with states that have legalized it entirely. That said, she doesn’t support outright legalization of marijuana, and although she supports sentencing reform for other drug-related offenses (in particular singling out the disparity between cocaine powder and crack cocaine), she still backs both the DEA and the underlying policy goals of the war on drugs – one that, notably, her husband’s administration did a great deal to worsen.

Fortunately for drug policy reformers, a viable Johnson candidacy could be a game-changer. Third-party candidates have a long history of supporting ideas that are ultimately picked up and implemented by one or both of the major parties: Two of the most famous examples include the Populist Party in 1892, which introduced American voters to the secret ballot, the direct election of US Senators, banking reform, and the graduated income tax, and the Progressive Party in 1912, which called for the prohibition of child labor, mandatory workplace safety laws, workers’ compensation, and many of the business regulations later implemented by the New Deal. Because the presidential candidates of those parties (General James B. Weaver and former President Theodore Roosevelt, respectively) outperformed most third-party candidacies, future Democratic and Republican candidates saw the practical as well as moral wisdom in adopting their more reasonable policy proposals.

Given that he has already cracked double-digits in early polls, Johnson is in an excellent position to play a comparable role in this election. After all, it isn’t like Clinton and Trump aren’t already in considerable trouble. Both of them have higher unfavorability ratings than any major party candidates since the dawn of modern polling, and each has alienated large swathes of their party’s bases in order to become their presumptive nominees. If Johnson continues to poll well and increases his mainstream media exposure, he could pose a simultaneous threat to Clinton from the left (he is more liberal than her on a number of social issues) and Trump on the right (he is more conservative than him on a number of economic issues). In order to stave Johnson off, both Clinton and Trump will need to peel off his voters by moving closer to his positions… and, as the surveys of public opinion make clear, drug policy is a shoo-in to be one of them.

This is why, although I’m not a libertarian myself, I can’t help but wish Johnson a fare-thee-well in his upcoming presidential bid. His statements about America’s war on drugs have been courageous and ahead-of-the-curve, and we would benefit enormously if they were enacted into public policy. The 2016 presidential election is already a historic one – from Clinton becoming the first major female candidate to Trump breaking the GOP establishment’s half-century lock on their party’s nomination process – but that doesn’t mean further history can’t be made here. If Johnson’s campaign is able to pressure our next president into doing the right thing about marijuana specifically, and our war on drugs in general, he will have cemented his place as one of America’s great champions of social justice and personal freedom.

On the Police

Published: The Good Men Project (May 26, 2016)

As a progressive, I’ve found there is an argument that seems to be effective in debates with conservatives on law and order issues.

What I’ll say is that police officers have an inherent civic responsibility to be responsive to the concerns of their left-wing critics because they are, in a literal sense, the most important and powerful agents of the state. There are plenty of state officials who have greater overall power over our lives, of course, but a police officer is the one with whom the vast majority of us will directly interact in our day-to-day lives. Even the word “police” is derived from the French “policier,” involving the conduct of public affairs.

As such, the best way to understood the responsibilities of a police officer as an agent of the state in a democratic society is to temporarily sweep away race and other issues and simply establish the relations that should exist between an individual police officer and an individual citizen, regardless of any demographic details.

What Police Owe Us: A recognition that they embody the state in its purest form – they provide a vital service (fighting crime, maintaining order) and can completely overtake any citizen in any way. In a democratic state, the ordinary citizen must be the de facto boss of the police, for the same reason that a voter must be the de facto boss of any politician. If it is otherwise, police officers – as the literal agents of power under the social contract of the most powerful nation in the world – can become petty tyrants in their individual-to-individual interactions.

What We Owe Police: The Golden Rule. We do this both for the same moral reason that justifies democracy in the first place – i.e., the fact that because they are human beings, they deserve to be treated well – but because it establishes, not our subordination to them, but our fundamental equality with them. When we cooperate with reasonable requests and treat police officers like fellow human beings, we recognize that their power does not define them; it is merely the role they play in the game of society. On the other hand, when we treat them with inherent suspicion or hostility, or by being anti-cop in general, we do the very thing that will make it “us versus them” instead of “us.”

Right now, a large number of individuals from racial minority backgrounds believe that the police discriminate against them. By virtue of the fact that an individual police officer is the employee of the individual citizen, the police have an ethical responsibility to be receptive to criticisms such as these, which come from a large number of citizens. When commonsense solutions present themselves, like body cameras, they should be embraced, and even harsh critics like #BlackLivesMatter or Quentin Tarantino should be viewed as citizens asserting their interests to the state that is supposed to be by end of them.

This is my musing of the day.