What Does the American Flag Mean?

The claim that taking a knee in quiet protest is a disrespect to our military men and women is a woefully misguided assertion. It’s a claim that can only be true if A) the American flag represents the military only, and B) the protesters are opposed to what the flag represents.

What is the American flag, or the national anthem? They are symbols, but of what? Are they symbols that represent only our military? Why would they be fixtures of our civil society if they only represented the military? We don’t play “Reveille” or “To the Colors” in civilian venues. Surely the American flag and anthem are representative of more than just the military. Surely they are symbols of our nation, and not just a representation of a single group within that nation.

And what is a nation? It is a sense of shared identity, but what defines that identity? Is it the geographical boundaries of the United States? No. I do not cease to be an American when I leave American soil. Is it merely our official government-recognized citizenship status? Is that what the flag and anthem represent, what men and women fought and died for – codified citizenship? Of course not. So what binds together a people who are composed of every race, creed, color, ethnicity, and religion? What makes us E pluribus unum? If there is an answer to that question then it must be in the realm of ideals – a commitment to democracy, to liberty, and to the inalienable truth that all men are created equal and thus deserve the equal protection of the laws.

From these ideals we have forged a nation and set pen to paper to turn those ideals into rights and liberties. It has not been a perfect process, and we kept those rights and liberties limited to mostly white men for a long time. Yet, every successive generation of Americans have chipped away at those limitations, pursuing constantly the ideal of liberty for all. Every generation had heroes who laid down their sacrifice upon the altar of freedom in order to preserve and further extend that liberty. This liberty, these ideals, they are what the flag and the anthem represent.

It was not disdain or disrespect that motivated Colin Kapernick’s kneeling protest. It was his conviction that the promise of these ideals was suffocating under the weight of persistent racial inequality in America. That racial inequality, to Kapernick, was a betrayal of the most fundamental ideal that we share as Americans – that all people are created equal and deserve equal treatment in the law. The protest is not about these players dishonoring the sacrifice of our nation’s heroes; it’s about asking the rest of Americans to live up to the ideals for which those heroes made those immeasurable sacrifices.

Critics of the protest say that it’s the wrong time and place for such a demonstration. That appeal is nothing new. From a Birmingham jail in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” Legal segregation in America may no longer exist, but racial discrimination persists nonetheless. It persists even in the institutions charged with enforcing and adjudicating the law, and in ways that are baked into the system rather than merely the actions of a few rogue elements. Acknowledging that is not hating cops, and it’s not claiming that all police officers discriminate based on race. Protesting that is not hating America, or disrespecting the military. The military does not own patriotism, and there are other non-military expressions of patriotism. Asking your country to be better, to honor the sacrifice of so many by making sure we live up to the ideals for which that sacrifice was given, that is patriotic, too. I would not trade one such patriot for a dozen who would wrap themselves in the flag while simultaneously attempting to deny others the rights and liberties which the flag represents.

King’s point in 1963 still holds true: for those who have never been the object of this racial discrimination, there will never be a right time, or place, to protest that social disease. Especially if that protest manages to disrupt the holy shrines of entertainment which we build to amuse ourselves.

Why Even Those Supporting the “Travel Ban” Should Appreciate the Appeals Court Ruling

Preface:  This is not about the merits or demerits of Executive Order 13769 (the “Travel Ban”). I am not taking a position here on it being right or wrong. This is about the courts – the system and the process. My personal, relatively well-informed opinion is that whatever position you take on the travel ban, the process by which the executive order is being scrutinized should be encouraging for all of us.

 

I’ll begin with my admission of ignorance. I am no legal scholar. This is simply my foray into trying to understand the issues involved in the order and the process of judicial review regarding that order. Although I consider myself fairly skilled at digesting lots of material and distilling it into a more understandable form, I always suggest that people go to the source. So if reading through a 29 page court opinion gets you excited (And why shouldn’t it?), then you can read US Court of Appeals recent decision HERE.

First, a quick recap. The President issues an executive order. The state of Washington file suit claiming that sections of the order cause an undue burden on the state, and that they are unconstitutional. A US District Court decides in favor of Washington, and issues an order barring the enforcement of those sections of the order. The executive branch then files a request for an emergency stay on the district court’s order, which would allow enforcement to continue. The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit hears the arguments and rejects the Executive’s request. There, all caught up.

There’s a lot to this ruling, so let me put those aforementioned skills of digestion and distillation to work. The judges on the appeals court had to make their decision partly on the basis of whether or not the appellants’ (the Executive) arguments were likely to succeed. So, at the heart of the matter is why the appellate judges saw those arguments as insufficient.

I have outlined the arguments made by the Executive (referred to as “the Government” in the opinion), and with each argument I have included what seemed to me the most important passages which reveal the court’s reasoning for or against that argument. I have also listed the most relevant cases cited as precedents for the Appeals Court’s ruling.

***

Argument #1  –  The states have no legal standing in this case

“To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate ‘that it has suffered a concrete and particularized injury that is either actual or imminent, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, and that it is likely that a favorable decision will redress that injury.’” (p. 9)

“The States argue that the Executive Order causes a concrete and particularized injury to their public universities…. Specifically, the States allege that the teaching and research missions of their universities are harmed by the Executive Order’s effect on their faculty and students who are nationals of the seven affected countries. These students and faculty cannot travel for research, academic collaboration, or for personal reasons, and their families abroad cannot visit. Some have been stranded outside the country, unable to return to the universities at all. The schools cannot consider attractive student candidates and cannot hire faculty from the seven affected countries, which they have done in the past.” (p.9-10)

“Under the ‘third party standing’ doctrine, … as the operators of state universities, the States may assert not only their own rights… but may also assert the rights of their students and faculty members. We therefore conclude that the States have alleged harms to their proprietary interests traceable to the Executive Order,” and “We therefore hold that the States have standing.” (p. 10-13)

 

Relevant cases cited for precedent:

Hontz v. State, 714 P.2d 1176, 1180 (Wash. 1986)

Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 114-16 (1976)

Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160, 175 & n.13 (1976)

 

Argument #2  –  Executive orders on immigration and national security are unreviewable, i.e. the courts have no authority to question the Executive’s actions regarding national security

The court acknowledges the precedent for showing deference to the political branches (Executive and Legislative) regarding immigration issues. Yet, as the opinion points out, the Executive was not arguing for deference. As the court puts it, “The Government does not merely argue that courts owe substantial deference to the immigration and national security policy determinations of the political branches…. Instead, the Government has taken the position that the President’s decisions about immigration policy… are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.” (p.13)

“As a plurality of the Supreme Court cautioned in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004), ‘Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with other nations or with enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.’” (p.17-18)

 

Most relevant cases cited for precedent:

Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 765 (2008)

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004)

INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 943 (1983)

Zivotofsky v. Clinton, 566 U.S. 189, 196 (2012)

Aptheker v. Sec’y of State, 378 U.S. 500 (1964)

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U.S. 1, 33-34 (2010)

 

Argument #3  –  Non-citizens do not have due process rights, and even if they did the White House counsel issued guidance that the Executive Order does not apply to lawful permanent residents.

The court points out that previous Supreme Court cases clearly acknowledge that “the procedural protections provided by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause are not limited to citizens. Rather, they ‘appl[y] to all ‘persons’ within the United States, including aliens,’ regardless of ‘whether their presence here is lawful, unlawful, temporary, or permanent.’” (p.20-21)

The court also dismissed the argument that the executive order would not be applied to lawful permanent residents based on the White House counsel’s assurance. “The Government has offered no authority establishing that the White House counsel is empowered to issue an amended order superseding the Executive Order signed by the President…, and that proposition seems unlikely…. The White House counsel is not the President, and he is not known to be in the chain of command for any of the Executive Departments.” (p.21) And “in light of the Government’s shifting interpretations of the Executive Order, we cannot say that the current interpretation by White House counsel, even if authoritative and binding, will persist past the immediate stage of these proceedings.” (p.22)

 

Most relevant cases cited for precedent:

Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678, 693 (2001)

Landon v. Plasencia, 459 U.S. 21, 33-34 (1982)

Rosenberg v. Fleuti, 374 U.S. 449, 460 (1963)

***

It appears to me that the court’s decision here was a sound one. First, the executive was not making an argument that the courts should defer to the legislative and the executive branches regarding matters of national security; they were arguing the the courts had no constitutional power to even review the actions of the Executive. That flies in the face of 214 years of legal history in this country, and if accepted would essentially nullify the entire doctrine of judicial review started with Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803). It seems to me that the court had no alternative but to reject that argument. Had they accepted that claim, it would have set a dangerous precedent, and one that should not be taken lightly. Lawyers can argue all they want about the Constitutionality of the executive order. That will, and should happen. But to simply say the no one gets to even question its Constitutionality is unthinkable. Without the right to review and hold the President or Congress’s actions accountable to the Constitution, Constitutional rights themselves become subject to political whims and personal ideologies. They cease being rights, because they can be voted away in a legislature or signed away anytime the President declares a threat to national security – no matter how vaguely defined or ambiguous that “threat” is. The premise of the Executive’s argument in this case would essentially eliminate Constitutional accountability for the Executive and Legislative branches. I’m no legal scholar, but that seems entirely un-American.

Second, the appellate court was basing its reasoning off of Supreme Court precedent, quoting exact passages from cases that directly refuted what the Executive’s lawyers were arguing. Since the appellate court cannot overturn the high court, it was bound to reject those arguments that seemed to be contrary to the Supreme Court’s rulings in previous cases. The Supreme Court can overturn, clarify, or revise its own decisions, though, and it may well be that the case ultimately ends in favor of upholding the President’s executive order. That, however, does not mean that the judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals were acting in bad faith or being “activist judges” (whatever that’s suppose to mean) when they issued their ruling. While certainly not perfect, it seems that the judicial process – Constitutional review based on evidence and precedent – is working. That is a good thing – for all of us.

Climate MIS-information Strikes Again (and again, it’s complete bull***t)

It appears that our representatives in government have taken their cues on information gathering from that most secretive government agency – the Men in Black. They’re checking the “hot sheets.”

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has latched onto “reporting” that supposedly exposes a conspiracy to cover up a pause in global warming trends.  The hard-hitting journalism that has the committee gushing is an article published in the UK Daily Mail, a tabloid akin to our National Enquirer, and one that Media Matters gave the dubious distinction of “Climate Change Misinformer of the Year” in 2013. The article’s author, David Rose, has a history of discredited reporting on climate science. The UK National Weather Service has had to debunk several of his false claims on numerous occasions, and the Columbia Journalism Review describes his work as “outrageous” “pseudoscience.”

If you’re a fictitious government agency monitoring alien activity on Earth, the tabloids may be you’re best “go-to” source of investigative journalism. As a citizen of the non-cinematic universe, though, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology do better than to base its policy positions on a tabloid which has run headlines like, “Woman, 63, becomes PREGNANT in the mouth with a baby squid after eating calamari,” or “Is the bum the new side boob” (actual headlines from Daily Mail).

But information should never be discounted or accepted based entirely on the source. We should examine the information on its own merits. Rose reports that a paper released in 2015 by scientists at the NOAA was rushed to publication with data that Rose first characterizes as “unverified,” then calls “faulty.” The sole source of information in Rose’s article is John Bates, a retired NOAA scientists who dealt with archiving data sets. When read alongside Bates’s blog about this issue and the published paper in question [1], the Daily Mail article makes some demonstrably false claims [2] and misrepresents Bates’s own account. In fact, in an interview with Energy and Environment News, Bates himself said he did not believe there was any manipulation of data. “The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper,” Bates clarified.[3] That kind of subtlety is lost on certain media outlets who skew the already skewed, transforming Rose’s description of “unverified” or “faulty” data into “fake news” (an Orwellian-like tactic of robbing language of its meaning – if you call everything “fake news,” then nothing is “fake news”).

In the simplest terms, the disagreement between Bates and the authors of the published paper is not a debate about the science at all. It is essentially an interdepartmental squabble about waiting until a particular data set was thoroughly archived before publishing. Contrary to Rose’s portrayal, Thomas Karl and his co-authors were working within the established methods of publishing research, and the NOAA did not “breech its own rules for scientific integrity.” That’s because the standard for publishing research and the standard for archiving data are not the same. Moreover, Rose’s claim that the information can not be verified is blatantly false. He ignores the fact that the data used in Karl et al. has been subsequently “validated by independent data from satellites, buoys and Argo floats and that many other independent groups, including Berkeley Earth and the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre, get effectively the same results.”[4]

Rose and the political ideologues who have pounced on his disreputable pseudo-journalism  liken this new story to 2009’s “Climategate,” which was so thoroughly debunked I really don’t feel the necessity to link to it (seriously, Google it). And it was debunked in part by a scientific study funded by the Koch Brothers! To put it another way, the scientific evidence of global warming was so overwhelming that even a study funded by oil tycoons couldn’t justify denying it. I could see how many people might have missed that since media outlets that spent weeks sensationalizing the “conspiracy” only spent about twenty seconds collectively addressing the subsequent debunking. None of those outlets seemed to feel the need to correct the record when eight committees all found zero evidence of scientific misconduct. In that regard, perhaps Rose’s new “scandal” is a bit like “Climategate.” Both have been equally amplified by partisan ideologues. Both are equally sensational. And both are equally wrong.

________

[1] Karl, Thomas R., et al. “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.” Science 348, no. 6242 (2015): 1469-1472. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6242/1469

[2] For example, Rose claims that buoy data was thrown out, when in fact, the researchers gave considerable preference to buoy data over ship gathered date, at a factor of 7 to 1. He also claims that the NOAA refused to provide the data for the House of Representatives when asked, but the data was, in fact, publicly available.

[3] Scott Waldman, Scott. “’Whistleblower’ says protocol was breached but no data fraud.” E&E News. February 7, 2017. http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060049630

[4] Hausfather, Zeke. “Factcheck: Mail on Sunday’s ‘astonishing evidence’ about global temperature rise.” Carbon Brief. February 5, 2017. https://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-mail-sundays-astonishing-evidence-global-temperature-rise

***

There have been a lot of scientific explanations and rebuttals appearing very quickly in the last couple of days, all of which thoroughly dismantle Rose’s tabloid sensationalism. These are three of the clearest that I have read through:

The people over at ClimateNexus have put together an annotated list of some of these sites and more which discuss some of the finer details of the science and false claims made in the Rose article.

 

  • John Abraham provides context in the Guardian, and points out the many factors Rose fails to address that, when considered, completely undercut his allegations of misconduct.
  • Scott Johnson at Ars Technica spoke with NOAA insiders, and explains how tensions between the science and engineering side of things caused conflict between Karl, who wanted the handling of data to reflect the many sources of the data, and Bates, who advocated for using just one approach that could handle data from many different sources, but sometimes added years to the process.
  • Victor Venema of the WMO discusses both the specifics of the data sets as well as some lighthearted context to help understand the “reporting” done by the Mail’s David Rose.
  • Ten climate envoys and ministers involved with the Paris Agreement said there was no truth to Rose’s claim that this study influenced their decisions. In fact, a draft of the agreement was already adopted before the paper was released.
  • In an interview, Bates pushed back on the allegations made by Rose, and “specified that he did not believe that they manipulated the data upon which the research relied in any way.” And said that “The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data, but rather really of timing of a release of a paper that had not properly disclosed everything it was,” he said.

Education: A “Choice” of Public Good and Private Gain

During her appearance before the Senate confirmation hearing,  Secretary of Education nominee Betsy Devos displayed a shocking ignorance of many of the core issues involved in our nation’s education system. She had no idea about the debate over growth versus proficiency as the standard for measuring student performance (and even conflated the two principles). She seemed confused about the legal guarantee to an education for those protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. She was misinformed about the problem of student debt, and had nothing to say that was coherent about the numerous aid plans the Department of Education oversees. And she refused to answer when asked if she believed private schools should be held accountable to the same minimum standards required of public schools. Deovs’s historical support for charters and vouchers makes this last point all the more important.

Misdiagnosing the Problem

The advocates for so-called “education reform” (a linguistic mask for privatization), like Devos, insist that we need vouchers and charter schools as a matter of choice. This “choice” will naturally improve education in America.  This is one of those lines that sounds intuitively true, but when subjected to the slightest analytical scrutiny, it becomes apparent that this is more of an axiomatic statement of belief than it is a conclusion based on evidence.

“Choice” is not the problem with American education. Funding is. As a 2006 study of aggregated data at the state level found:

  • States with higher per-pupil spending outperformed their lesser-funded counterparts on the two measures best suited for comparing educational performance across states – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the SAT.
  • Local revenue is the most important source of funding for driving better educational performance.
  • School system quality is positively correlated to property values and property taxes.[1]

These conclusions present some serious challenges, especially regarding the question of how to increase property values in communities affected by a large inventories of vacant housing, higher crime rates, low employment, and other factors that depress home values. However, the research here clearly dispels certain myths often invoked in opposition to increasing public school funding. Two myths central to such opposition are: 1) Just throwing money at public schools won’t fix the problem, and 2) Public schools only benefit households who have kids attending them. As the study shows, more spending per pupil does in fact improve performance, and everyone in the community benefits from better schools (due to the numerous benefits that higher property values have for a community).

Public Cost, Private Gain

It should not be a shocking conclusion that better funding leads to better schools. Better funded school districts can recruit and retain better teachers, provide more resources for students, and maintain staff levels adequate for manageable class sizes. What is shocking is that Devos and others in the “reform” clique want to divert taxpayer dollars away from the public schools that serve all of the children in a community. Instead, these grand visionaries want to give those public funds to charters which are not obligated to serve all children in a community, and which operate with a primary motive of profit, not education. In short, Devos and other “reformers” want taxpayers to fund the entrepreneurs who see education as a lucrative enterprise rather than a public good.

There is perhaps no better example of how misguided it is to turn over public education to profiteers than the case of William Larger’s online charter, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Larger has exploited Ohio taxpayer dollars to purchase products and services from his two other companies which manage the charter – a lucrative scheme of self-dealing at the public’s expense. In return, Ohio got a school with a pitiful 38 percent graduation rate, which also accounts for 28 percent of the state’s dropouts – even though it only enrolls 1 percent of its students. And while taxpayers were subsidizing Larger’s profits, 589 school districts in Ohio suffered annual funding shortages of about $180,000 per district.

No one would claim that cases like Larger’s are representative. There are certainly many good charter schools. And there are many bad ones. That’s the problem. Discussion about charter schools are too often based on anecdotes and extremely narrow examples.

What We Know

Wide-ranging studies of charter schools are lacking, but there have been a few to date. Most notable is the 2009 study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).[2] In addition, there have been at least two meta-analyses studies which rigorously examined aggregated data compiled from numerous smaller studies.[3][4] There are four key conclusions taken from this research:

  • Charter schools perform better than public schools in reading at the elementary and middle school levels.
  • The advantages of charter schools over public schools are reversed by the time students reach high school – that is, charter schools perform worse than public schools in reading and math at the high school level.
  • Results vary widely from state to state.
  • In general, the overwhelming majority of charter schools performed no better, or worse than public schools. While 17% of charters performed better, nearly half (46%) were neither better nor worse, and more than one-third (37%) performed worse.[2][3][4]

Conclusion

So what do we make of all of this?

The evidence available suggests that funding levels have a clearly positive affect on educational performance. The evidence also suggests that while a small number of charter schools perform better than public schools, the overwhelming majority of charters are either the same or worse than public schools. Therefore, if charters are generally no better than public schools, then why divert public money away from the public schools and into for-profit ventures with no proven benefit? If better funding positively affects educational performance, then why not increase the funding to the public schools, which serve all children? Why should taxpayers subsidize the private profits for the sake of similar or worse academic results? Why set up a two-tiered system where both public and for-profit schools receive taxpayer dollars, but the for-profit schools are not held accountable to the same standards of curriculum, testing, or evaluations?

There may be valid answers to some of these questions, but “choice” is not an adequate answer to any of them.

And one more question for the road: Could it be that the charters that do outperform public schools might do so because of things that could just as easily be done in public schools – less high stakes testing, smaller class sizes, and greater autonomy for classroom teachers? Of course, implementing these reforms in the public schools would require that politicians decide to set aside ideological pursuits and instead listen to educators about what actually works. That decision is the real “choice” we need in education.

***

[1] Mackenzie, J. (2006). Public School Funding and Performance. Christina School District (DE) Board of Education. Newark, DE: FREC/CANR, University of Delaware.

[2] Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. https://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf

[3] Betts, J. R., & Tang, Y. E. (2008). Value-added and experimental studies of the effect of charter schools on student achievement. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Summary_of_Achievement_Studies_Fifth_Edition_2009_Final_20110402T222331.pdf

[4] National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter School Achievement: What We Know. 5th Edition, April 2009. http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Summary_of_Achievement_Studies_Fifth_Edition_2009_Final_20110402T222331.pdf

History: More Than Just the Past

Intl_History_2

What is a historian?

Quite simply, a historian is one who studies and explains history.

Yet, that answer is deceivingly simple, because it’s a definition that hinges on the meanings of three key words – study, explain, and history.

History is a funny word that carries a double meaning. It can mean both the past, and what historians have written about the past. For example, the history of the American Revolutionary Era is one of events like the Boston ‘Massacre,’ the Stamp Act, non-importation boycotts, committees of correspondence, violent protest and destruction of property, economic motivations and relationships, and fierce debates over new ideas about governance, popular sovereignty, or the meaning of human freedom. These are things that occurred in the past, so they are history.

Yet, the historian does not merely chronicle such events. The historian’s effort to study the past entails a careful examination of the historical record, which includes both the evidence left behind from the historical period under consideration (i.e., primary sources), and what others have written about those events (secondary sources). Historians apply numerous methods as part of this examination – literary analysis, statistical evaluations of data sets (like voting records, for instance), anthropological-type methods of observation, logic, scientific analysis of cause-effect relationships, and many others.

The goal of applying these various methods to the historical record is to better understand, and thus better explain what these events and moments in the past mean. Explaining the past is to give it meaning, and these explanations are History – the body of scholarship produced by historians (the second meaning of the word I described earlier).

Historians are therefore interpreters who give the past coherence, rescuing the it from the jumble of “one damn thing after another.”[1] Or as historian John Arnold put it, “The past is…chaotic, uncoordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess.”[2]

Making sense of the mess means understanding it from multiple richterperspectives, as well. The history of westward expansion, for instance, is one of perspective. The perspective is even embedded in the phrase, “westward expansion.” For whom was this a “westward” movement? Who and what was “expanding” in that direction? How might western settlement and expansion be characterized differently if we were, as Daniel Richter’s title suggests, Facing East from Indian Country?[3] What would we call it then? Encroachment? Invasion? An eastern wave of immigrants unwilling to assimilate to the existing culture?

This issue of perspective is an important one, because it helps us develop the ability to empathize with others who look, act, and think differently than us, both in the past and the present. And that ability is fundamental to maintaining civil debate and resolving differences in a democratic society. Democracy cannot function when large groups of people uncompromisingly treat the differing viewpoints of vast swaths of the body politic as completely illegitimate. The historical mode of thinking, as one rooted in the interpretation of evidence from various perspectives, is a check against such dogmatic, unyielding, and ultimately undemocratic tendencies.

***

This talk of History as interpretive, or its dependence on perspective, can make it seem as if History is arbitrary. While it is true that the claims and conclusions which historians draw from their studies are not final proofs, but rather suggestive insights, it does not follow that all historical explanations are equally valid. There are conventions and standards that must be met. Pertinent evidence cannot be ignored or left out of one’s analysis. The selection of evidence must be reasonably sufficient to answer the historical question being pursued. Evidence and methods must be thoroughly documented so that the validity of a historian’s interpretation can be reviewed by his or her peers, as well as by any other reader of that work. Scholarly historical claims are not arbitrary because historians are bound by these standards and the documentary record of the past.

People make claims about the past all the time, often to validate the status quo or to justify a departure from it. Politicians are especially prone to this use of history. Yet, unlike the historian who begins with a historical question, people who seek to employ history in this manner typically begin with an assumption, usually based on opinion or a de-contextualized, highly selective piece of historical “evidence.” For example, some people claim that the Republican Party in the United States has been the ‘true’ party of Civil Rights because it was the party of emancipation, or because it was a Republican (Eisenhower) who deployed troops to Little Rock in support of school de-segregation.

However, that claim ignores certain contexts and other events in the past – the intra-party divisions between “New Dealers” and “Solid South” Democrats; Truman’s (Democrat) order to integrate the armed services; Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s (Democrats) support for civil rights legislation; the political realignment that occurred when many southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond, left the party, eventually migrating to the Republican Party; or Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (what evidence shows to be a concerted effort to convert a good portion of Democrats into Republican voters by appealing to many white southerner’s resentment of the Civil Rights Movement and the dismantling of “Jim Crow” laws).

Which political party presently advocates policy in the interest of African American communities and individuals today is a debatable question, but equating either present-day party with their nineteenth, or even mid-twentieth century incarnations ignores too much evidence, provides too little context, and fails to acknowledge significant change over time. It is, in short, bad history.

Because this kind of ‘bad history’ is ubiquitous in justifying or validating a host of circumstances or proposed actions, learning to think historically – addressing perspective, evaluating sources, and holding claims accountable to evidence, context, and methodology – is crucial to democratic citizenship in the modern age. This is a point which I have increasingly seen made in various venues, including Kevin Levin’s recent call for historical literacy in Smithsonian Magazine.

It is a call I would echo, because the world as it is now did not simply emerge as the result of disembodied forces. People have acted, reacted, and made choices that shaped the world in which we live. Understanding how and why specific choices were made, and identifying the consequences of those choices among varying groups of people, is vitally important. If we as a society can come to terms with those choices and actions, rather than vague references to “forces” like globalization, the market, or progress, then we take ownership of our ability to shape a different and better world through other choices and actions. In that regard, historical literacy is the empowerment and hope of our society.

History

 


[1] Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 94.

[2] John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13.

[3] Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Revised (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

That Time I was a Trump Supporter… in 2011

President-elect Trump has expressed his vision for rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. As long as that legislation is not used to siphon off taxpayer dollars into his personal coffers, then that is certainly something I think all Americans could probably support. In fact, I supported it five years ago when President Obama and Congressional Democrats introduced the American Jobs Act of 2011. That bill included measures to:

  • Modernize roads, railways, airports, and other deteriorating infrastructure (like water and sewer systems)
  • Expand the nation’s the wireless internet access
  • Modernize and improve 35,000 public schools across the country, in both rural and urban communities
  • Provide tax incentives for businesses to hire veterans
  • Cut payroll taxes for workers and employers
  • Institute a complete payroll tax holiday for businesses that add employees or raise wages
  • Increase small business loans
  • Create a $4,000 tax credit for businesses that hire long-term unemployed workers

The American Jobs Act contained not only infrastructure improvements of the kind the current president-elect has suggested, but it contained a lot that Republicans have traditionally advocated (at least rhetorically), like tax cuts, provisions for small businesses, and incentives to hire veterans, a group that politicians on both sides of the isle claim to care about and respect. Various economic analysts, including Moody’s and the Economic Policy Institute, estimated that the American Jobs Act would have created between 1.9 million and 2.6 million jobs and would grow GDP by 1.5 to 2 percent.

Senate Republicans filibustered the bill, though, and when it was brought to the floor to break the filibuster, every Republican with the exception of Sen. Coburn (who did not vote at all) voted against it. Without the filibuster, the American Jobs Act would have passed with a simple majority of 51 to 48.[1]

If Republican representatives in Congress now suddenly find themselves more amenable to  greater investments in infrastructure, maybe people should think about why that is. After all, if a policy is good in principle then one should support it, even if it is suggested by the opposite party, right? That is unless one’s political sentiments have less to do with policy than they do an “Us vs. Them” tribalism.

***

If, as a historian, I were teaching a class 50 years from now, I might ask students to examine the circumstances described above. I would help them find primary sources from our present era (the Congressional Record, role call votes, policy statements, CBO reports, various news accounts, etc.). Then I would assign them the following essay prompt:

Using specific evidence from the primary source materials (supplemented by secondary sources to provide necessary context), answer the question, “Was early twenty-first century American politics driven primarily by ideological principles or by partisan commitments to one’s team?”

(1500 – 2000 words; document your evidence with Chicago style footnotes).


[1] The actual vote was 50-49, but that was because Sen. Reid (D-NV), who supported the bill and introduced it, voted against it so that he would have the option to re-introduce the bill at a later point.

A Brief Explanation of Socialism – and What It’s Not

There seems to be a lot of confusion across the board about Socialism. Whether it is coming from those who claim socialism as their own, or those who cry out against it, misconceptions abound. Having read my fair share of political philosophy over the years, and more than my fair share of history, I thought I might offer an explanation as to: 1) why socialism is so misconstrued in popular discourse, 2) what socialism is and has been, and 3) what is NOT socialism.

Let me get one distracting and erroneous argument out of the way before we begin. It does not matter what a political candidate calls him/herself, and it does not matter what voters or the media call someone either. Words mean things. Those meanings do not cease to exist because people spectacularly misuse words with stunning frequency. How many times have you heard some one say “literally,” when they obviously mean “figuratively”? To my great surprise, my wife grew up calling green bell peppers, “mangos.” Green bell peppers are not mangos, though, no matter long and self-confidently she had referred to them as such. Likewise, whatever a politician like Bernie Sanders may call himself is kind of irrelevant.

The term socialism has been distorted in American discourse over the years, largely as a result of our nation’s interactions with Soviet Communism. Modern popular conceptions of socialism have been filtered through the experiences of Bolshevism, Marxist Leninism, Stalin, the rise of a Soviet empire, and decades of antagonistic Cold War. As a result of political rhetoric as much as anything else, many Americans equated the term socialism with the repressive, authoritarian regimes of Soviet communism. Thus, Americans came to use “socialist” and “communist” somewhat interchangeably during the Cold War, and often in ways that had very little relation to their actual meanings in political philosophy. The word “socialist” became little more than a blunt political instrument used to bludgeon the opposing party, regardless of whether a particular policy stance had anything to do with real socialism. It’s a practice still popular today. By merely equating the opposition’s policy with “socialism,” politicians could (and can) immediately put their rivals on the defensive and sow seeds of doubt in the minds of American voters.

Yet, socialism is not synonymous with authoritarian, Soviet-style communism. That’s not to say that there is no relationship between socialism and communism. There is a relationship there, but that is not saying much; there is also a relationship between capitalism and communism in political philosophy. To understand the relationship between capitalism, socialism, and communism, we inevitably have to address the political philosophy of Karl Marx. It may be surprising to some that Marx viewed capitalism as a vital and necessary stage of economic development. It was not the final stage of economic development for him, though. Marx argued that economic development would naturally proceed past capitalism. Socialism, as Marx viewed it, represented a transitional stage between capitalism and his more fanciful ideal of true common ownership (communism). The link between communism and socialism, therefore, was in the proposition that the means of production should not be undemocratically consolidated in the hands of a few “Robber Baron” capitalists, but instead they should be socially owned – by the state at first (socialism), and eventually held in common property (communism).

What does this mean, having social ownership of the means of production? Put simply, the “means of production” are those elements of economic productivity that are not labor – capital, infrastructure, and so on. Socialism, then, is the proposition that certain elements of these means of production should be controlled by the government.

A key historical feature of political socialism has been its goal of bringing vital sectors of the economy under public control. For instance, in its 1912 platform, the American Socialist Party advocated “collective ownership and democratic management of railroads, wire and wireless telegraphs and telephones, express service, steamboat lines, and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large scale industries.” They also sought “the extension of the public domain to include mines, quarries, oil wells, forests and water power.” They proposed the collective ownership of patents as well. No contemporary politician (even a self-described Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders) would even think about suggesting this kind of stuff. No major political figure of the post World War II era has either campaigned or governed on the idea that the government should take ownership of Comcast, AT&T, Exxon, or United Airlines.

The Socialist Party of the past did not confine its goals solely to nationalizing certain industries, though. They also shared some goals in common with the other political parties. Those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of American political history might be surprised by a few of the elements found in the 1912 Socialist Party platform. The Socialists were arguing for things that we, regardless of party affiliation, take for granted in today’s world – a five day work week, restrictions on the use of child labor, the right of women to vote, and the “absolute freedom of press, speech and assemblage.” Does their support of such policies makes those things socialist? Of course not – a point to keep in mind in today’s political environment. These points express values that reach across party boundaries. They are not particular to socialism, and neither are regulations or public services that have traditionally drawn support from across the political spectrum.

Left unchecked, capital has a tendency to accumulate, leading to monopolies and a consolidation of power that undermines the very idea of free competition in the marketplace. Regulating that tendency has been championed by both major parties since the late 1800s. Just because the Socialist Party also supported such regulation does not mean that regulation itself is socialist. The same is true of public services. Many of the earliest water and sanitation services in the United States were privately owned, and we found out from experience that the private sector is actually quite bad at making these services accessible to all citizens. So we put the provision of water under the control of municipal governments and managed them as public utilities. That has some shades of socialism, but the truth is that in America even public utilities are not totally public. They are often operated as public-private ventures. In other instances, businesses use the apparatus of the state to extend their profit capabilities. That is far from socialism; that is neoliberalism. For example, even though they are private companies, UPS and FedEx depend on the United States Post Office to carry about one-quarter of the parcels they handle because those companies simply cannot make money delivering packages to distant rural areas.

None of these things are socialism, per se. If socialism does exist today, then it is a mere shadow of its former self. Socialism in America only exists now in political parlance as a synonym for taxes, public services, and regulation. However, I think it is safe to say that these things are not socialism. The public provision of schools, police, firemen, nurses, hospitals, roads, Social Security, Medicare, food or aviation inspectors, public libraries, parks, or the U.S. Military – these are not efforts to take state ownership of the means of production. They are efforts to, in the words laid down in the Constitution, “promote the general Welfare” of the members of our society.

And just to be clear, other services like food assistance and unemployment are not socialism either. If they are, then so are corporations. One of the most oft repeated claims about the virtues of capitalism is that it allows people the freedom to take a risk and reap the rewards of that risk. Yet, we have laws that give corporations special protections when their risks go bad, and the price of their failures often falls to the society at large. For example, when financial institutions started gambling with people’s money and retirement funds in derivative markets backed by questionable securities, they didn’t assume the risks of that venture themselves. Instead, American taxpayers bore the brunt of that risk through a government funded bailout in order to keep the global economy from collapsing. What is the “limited liability” of an LLC if not a socialization of the risks of entrepreneurial capitalism?

Socializing the risks for corporations through “limited liability” is no different in principle than socializing the risk of an average citizen. A factory worker whose company is looking to move production overseas faces the risk of unemployment. Why not have unemployment insurance to spread that risk out among us all, many of whom could easily face similar risks ourselves at one point or another? Or why not provide a free lunch to a child in a public school whose family is in poverty? I promise… it’s not socialism if you do.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
–Hubert H. Humphrey

 

Upcoming lesson… Neoliberalism (though you could probably just watch this video explanation)

 

Lessons from Flint: What Flint’s Water Crisis Means to Us All

 

The ongoing story coming out of Flint, Michigan is grim. It was a wholly preventable crisis, and it’s a story of “what ifs?” What if the state’s governor had respected the democratic process over autocracy and not replaced the elected government of Flint with his own appointed emergency manager? What if state and federal political leadership embraced a strong sense of commitment to infrastructure improvements rather than austerity? What if the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had heeded warnings issued nearly a year ago that the corrosiveness of Flint’s water was causing lead to leach into the system?  What if they had added anti-corrosive agents to the water from the very beginning?Cartoon_Snyder

The counterfactuals could go on and on. Unfortunately, what did happen was that an ethos of slashing budgets overshadowed responsible governance, and now Flint faces the daunting task of dealing with the irreversible consequences.

And what of those sought after savings? Turns out that the champions of fiscal prudence have racked up a generation of increased costs in Flint that will not be easily met. Even though Flint has gone back to the Detroit water service, the harm has already been done. Lead will continue to leach into the system for some time, and rehabilitation efforts will not be cheap.

The human cost is far greater, and for the exposed, the injuries will be even more persistent; the social expense more steep.

Lead exposure, especially in children, causes serious damage.  Even if the immediate exposure isn’t high enough to cause coma, convulsions, or death, the long term effects can be seriously debilitating and permanent. Those effects include mental disability, diminished intellectual capacity, decreased attention span, anti-social behavior, and toxicity in reproductive organs, just to name a few. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead contamination are thought to be irreversible.  Flint is therefore looking at a future of greater expenditures for long term health care, special education, mental health services, and probably their justice system, too. Mayor Karen Weaver is right to say that the city and the state cannot possibly meet the costs of this man-made disaster without financial assistance from the federal government. So now the national tax-paying public at large becomes the bearer of the cost-cutting irresponsibility of un-democratically elected officials in Flint. They have externalized their incompetence onto us all.

Okay. So taking Flint off of the Detroit system in favor of using the nearby river for drinking water was a mistake. But why was that water corrosive enough to eat away at the lead pipes and lead soldering in the first place? The likely answer: road salt.

Winter-Salt-Truck

At the risk of recalling painful memories from high school chemistry, the answer lies in ions. When it’s dissolved in water, salt separates into its sodium and chloride ions. The runoff from deicing roads raises the concentration of chloride ions in nearby water sources, thereby making them more corrosive. This is more pronounced in inland water systems (like rivers and streams) than it is in more expansive sources like the Great Lakes. When the town’s emergency manager decided to save money by using the Flint River instead of the Detroit water system (which draws from Lake Huron), he opted for the more concentrated corrosive source (as much as 8.6 times more corrosive). As a result, the water began to eat away at the lead in old supply lines and in the older soldering used in residential copper pipes. Some measurements in Flint found lead levels high enough to classify the water as toxic waste. Thanks to the the salt, though, the winter roads are least passable enough for residents to drive to the store and buy a few cases of bottled water – for those with enough money, that is.

Per person, Americans dump about 130 pounds of salt on the roads during the winter months. Of course, most of that is concentrated in the nation’s snowiest, most heavily populated areas. These areas encompass pretty much all of the Great Lakes, and therefore the region has been a historically high user of road salt. In fact, Detroit was the first city in the world to apply salt to its roads in 1940, so the cumulative ecological effects of winter deicing – higher concentrations of chloride ions and more corrosive waters – are possibly more pronounced there than anywhere else. Already, warnings are being sounded that it’s only a matter of time before the Great Lakes themselves suffer a similar fate. When that happens, we’re talking about altering the ecology of fifteen percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.

When these altered environments run headlong into politicized funding cuts and neglected infrastructures, the results should be cause for reflection and a more vigorous commitment to the public protection of vital resources. Instead, even in the midst of the Flint water crisis, the GOP led U.S. Congress has passed a bill that would stop the EPA’s bolstered enforcement of the Clean Water Act (the President is expected to veto the bill, thankfully).

The situation in Flint is heartbreaking. It represents a failure on many levels – including a subversion of democratic governance and a lack of public investment in infrastructure. But it also holds other, less obvious lessons. The crisis in Flint is ultimately the product of a much broader dislocation between us modern humans and the natural world. We have refused to be inconvenienced by things like weather or distance. We spent the better part of the twentieth century moving our homes and places of recreation further and further from our places of work (although, this is a trend that seems to be reversing in the digital age). We balked at mass public transportation and eagerly adopted an individualized car culture. And when the forces of nature threatened to disrupt our productivity or the speed, ease, and comfort of our mechanized movement to and fro, we invented clever ways to further disregard such antiquated concerns as nature – ways that included climate controls, Aquatred tires, and road salt. By rejecting any limitations – even environmental ones – on either our work or play, we have collectively added to the sorrows of those living in Flint. And now that Flint has garnered the attention of federal disaster relief efforts, we are all paying the price – as we probably should. Je suis Flint.

 

The Wild West of Bottled Water

At a time when southern California residents are asked to ration their water usage due to prolonged drought, Nestlé is taking vast quantities of water from the area for its Arrowhead brand of bottled water. As the Desert Sun reports, no one is really sure how much water Nestlé is taking. The company operates on reservation lands in the Cabazon basin owned by the Morongo band of Mission Indians and are therefore exempt from the local water agency’s oversight and reporting requirements. Although the numbers have not been independently verified, the Morongo report 601 acre-feet of water diverted or pumped from Millard Canyon in 2013 – about 200 million gallons, or enough to supply 400 typical homes in the area. For the water agency and the parched local communities, the bottling operation is understandably a cause for concern.

Nestlé’s extraction of water despite potentially threatening ecological conditions highlights a hallmark of the culture of capitalism. For whatever economic benefits the capitalist culture may bestow, like other cultures it has its own set of values and beliefs regarding the natural world. In his classic study of the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster summed up those values thusly: First, “Nature must be seen as capital.” Second, “Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement.” Third, “The social order should permit and encourage this increase of personal wealth.” In other words, as Worster went on to say, “The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs” of such pursuits.

These maxims constitute the internal logic of capitalism as it relates to the natural world. The consequences of that logic, however, do not play out equally everywhere. Place matters. The ecological conditions in one geographic area may absorb some the harshness of such imperatives. Elsewhere, where ecological conditions are less forgiving, acting according to these maxims results in brutal consequences for individuals and communities.

The West – that geographic area of the nation extending west of the 98th meridian, where average annual rainfall is below 20 inches – is exactly the kind of landscape where the ecological circumstances are less forgiving. It is a “marginal landscape,” meaning that it is an environment not particularly favorable to permanent human settlement, and such settlement is only maintained at great effort and is always tenuous. Look at a precipitation map of the United States and it becomes apparent that the West is categorically a different place than the rest of the country with a different set of environmental realities with which to contend.

Average_precipitation_in_the_lower_48_states_of_the_USA

Much of what we have come to know as the culture of the West was the result of adaptations made to those environmental realities. Walter Prescott Webb noted these adaptations and the world that made them necessary in his work, The Great Plains (1931). As Webb argued:

For two centuries American pioneers had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid regions east of the Mississippi River. They had found solutions for their problems and were conquering the frontier at a steadily accelerating rate. Then in the early nineteenth century they crossed the Mississippi and came out on the Great Plains, an environment with which they had had no experience. The result was a complete though temporary breakdown of the machinery and ways of pioneering.

The kind of crops settlers could plant, their mode of transportation, the form and function of their houses, the style of husbandry and cattle raising, their weaponry, even their property laws – all had to be adapted in response to a new environmental reality. As Webb put it, the 98th meridian represented such a stark change in the lived reality of westward settlers that “practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered.”

Part of Worster’s argument in Dust Bowl was that the culture of capitalism, with its inherent set of values relating to the natural world, ultimately led to catastrophe when those values were applied to the marginal landscapes of the West. In response to a war ravaged Europe clamoring grain, increasing numbers of farmers (encouraged by grain speculators) plowed up the Great Plains at a rapacious pace in order to plant wheat. When the pendulum of alternating decades of drought and rain swung back toward extreme aridity in the late 1920s and 1930s, the wheat withered and died. The soil, once clothed by hardy native grasses, then lay bare and exposed to the blistering winds of the open lands. The result was the Dust Bowl, a disaster that destroyed lives and livelihoods, uprooted families and communities, traumatized a generation, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s agricultural economy.

Nestlé’s bottling operation in the Cabazon basin, while far from the scale of the Dust Bowl, is but one more example in the long history of the West where the pursuits of industries bent on ever expansive profits apply a logic ill-suited to a marginal landscape. Like other incidents in that long history, the corporation operates within a culture that sees nature as merely an instrument for further monetary gain – burdening the community at large with the  ecological costs of that pursuit.

 

“Two Americas,” One King

Standing in front of an audience gathered at Grosse Pointe High School, a suburb of Detroit, in March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “There are two Americas.” One America was flowing with the “milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” while another America lay steeped in “a daily ugliness…that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”[1] At the heart of the “other America,” according to King, was the economic problem: unemployment, underemployment, poor-paying, and poor quality jobs for a great number of the nation’s citizens – especially citizens of color.

In the decades since Dr. King made the “Two Americas” speech, median wages stagnated or declined for most Americans. Household incomes rose slightly, but only because more families became two-income homes (those increases, however, have been largely off-set by the rising cost of childcare for working parents). Low-wage, no benefit service jobs replaced better-paying manufacturing work. Housing prices and college tuition outpaced inflation, putting the promise of gainful employment and property beyond the grasp of an increasing number of Americans. And just as in King’s day, these painful circumstances disproportionately have affected citizens of color. In short, the gulf between the “two Americas” is expanding.

In September 2011, protestors calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” rhetorically quantified the “two Americas” as the ninety-nine versus the one percent. Critics dismissed these protestors as envious and lazy with little grasp of the real world. Some politicians chastised their vocal protests as divisive, saying it was the product of a misguided logic – a logic that concluded the lack of wealth for some is the result of wealth unduly captured by others. In response to that logic, Senator Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor that December to say “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.”[2] Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana echoed the mantra of “haves and soon-to-haves” during the Republican Party’s televised response to the State of the Union Address the following month. The point, it seemed, was to rebuff talk of income inequality by arguing that it was only a matter of time before everyone made good on the American dream – so long as they were willing to work hard. All you need is time and the determination to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Dr. King dismissed the notion that time would eventually alleviate inequality, saying “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” He also rejected the pernicious myth of what he called the “bootstrap philosophy.” Congress, King noted, was more than willing to doll out federal subsidies to large scale farmers and businesses. Not much has changed on that front. Today, many lawmakers are similarly generous to corporate interests while simultaneously cutting aid to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take the enormous budget overages of the Pentagon’s contract with Lockheed-Martin to develop the F-35 fighter jet. Those budget overages attract little or no attention from the very legislators who, in the name of fiscal responsibility, trenchantly defend recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This despite the fact that just the budget overages alone in the fighter program would pay for SNAP cuts two to three times over, or that most SNAP beneficiaries are children, the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor. To make matters worse, the warplane is to be manufactured in Britain, not the United States, so Americans in need not only lose food assistance but are robbed of manufacturing job opportunities as well.[3] Dr. King probably put it best when he said, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.”

Although King’s “two Americas” referred to economic and social conditions, perhaps the more critical cleavage, one that directly affects the success or failure of policy initiatives aimed at abating inequality, is a philosophical one. As a people, we seem to be divided into two camps: those who see the influence of structural factors in our lived circumstances, and those who disregard structural explanations for economic disparity. The champions of the “bootstrap philosophy” sometimes praise the pioneer spirit and individualism that settled the West and made America an industrial giant. Yet they ignore the land grants, irrigation works, coerced labor, legal innovations, and public investments in communication and transportation that made such growth possible. They fail to grasp the structural underpinnings of the success they admire, and so they also fail to see structural forces that contribute to poverty and want as well. Instead, anecdotes and nostalgic appeals to rugged American individualism confirm, in their eyes, that both success and failure are solely the result of personal character. Consequently, they reject government efforts to address inequality as aiding the undeserving.[4] Unemployment benefits, for instance, have come under the axe in recent months, justified on the grounds that they diminish a person’s motivation to find work. The abiding logic being that those who are out of work just don’t want to work – as if joblessness today were a choice rather than the mathematical reality of too few jobs for the number of people seeking employment.

Low pay, lack of education, homelessness, and prohibitively costly healthcare – these are not moral failings or God’s punishment. Only by recognizing that individual choices and opportunities are circumscribed by structural realities will we be able to adequately address the widening chasm between prosperity and scarcity in our country.

As our nation continues to wrestle with the increasingly polarized social divisions and economic inequality highlighted by Dr. King more than four decades ago, perhaps his prescriptions for change offer us some guidelines. As he instructed his audience at Grosse Pointe to do in 1968, we must dispel ourselves of the myths of inevitable progress and “bootstrap” individualism, understanding that there are forces beyond the individual contributing to poverty and want. We need to recognize the potential of government as an institution for improving our lives. We have to reorder our national priorities in a way that values the care of the vulnerable over the incessant desire for war. And we must summon the courage to take direct action in the face of injustice. These were the lessons King sought to impart near the end of his life.

Although the man is now gone, his words and vision are as applicable today as they were that March day in 1968. They are words of our time, and of our society. King’s description of “two Americas” is as much a portrait of where we are now as of where we were then, and his hopefulness for change can be our hopefulness; his dream can be our dream – if we choose to stop making King a token and honor the message as well as the man.



[1] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” speech given at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan, March 14, 1968, http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf (accessed January 18, 2014). Unless otherwise noted, any quotes from King are taken from this speech.

[2] Sen. Marco Rubio, Congressional Record-Senate, December 16, 2011, S8708.

[3] Dave Gilson, “Is This Plane the Biggest Pentagon Rip-Off of All Time?” Mother Jones (December 13, 2013), http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/12/f-35-pentagon-budget-deal-cupcakes (accessed January 18, 2014); Alistair Osborne, “Lockheed Martin’s controversial US warplane project to boost more than 500 British companies,” The Telegraph (January 19, 2014), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/industry/defence/10582903/Lockheed-Martins-controversial-US-warplane-project-to-boost-more-than-500-British-companies.html (accssed January 19, 2014).

[4] Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).