State of the Union

Set the Agenda for Conservatism’s Next Generation

TAC staff at our annual foreign-policy conference (L-R: editorial fellow Catherine Addington, senior staff editor Jonathan Coppage, senior writer Gracy Olmstead, executive editor Lewis McCrary) / photo by Tim Markatos
TAC staff at our annual foreign-policy conference (L-R: editorial fellow Catherine Addington, senior staff editor Jonathan Coppage, senior writer Gracy Olmstead, executive editor Lewis McCrary) / photo by Tim Markatos

Dear readers of The American Conservative:

My name is Catherine Addington, and I am the current holder of the Utley Editorial Fellowship here at TAC. Before that, I was an intern, and before that, an enthusiastic reader like yourself. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to experience just about every corner of TAC operations, from getting trained in layout and design to working on our annual foreign-policy conference and even writing from time to time. But by far the greatest privilege of working here has been the chance to get to know you, our readers and supporters.

I’ve gotten to meet you at our events in D.C., take your calls here at the editorial offices, and read your many thoughtful letters to the editor. You’ve made one thing abundantly clear: you’re passionate about TAC‘s ideas, and even—dare I say it?—optimistic. In a year where the general mood seems to be one of doom and gloom everywhere else, TAC readers are excited.

Here are some of the things you’re excited about:

  • our classic roots: “Reflective of the revival of antiquity well underway.”  The Mike Church Show
  • our prescient political coverage: “Could @realdonaldtrump sweep GOP primaries? Sr. editor @amconmag Noah Millman says ‘real potential’” –Alisyn Camerota, CNN
  • our demanding policy analysis: “This is strong stuff and certainly not the kind of fare generally seen in the country’s mainstream media these days.” –Robert Merry, Washington Times
  • our persistent calls for criminal justice reform: “‘Industrial-scale clemency’. The heart of the Christmas gospel, and not only in the US. #mercy” –Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
  • our ability to rise above the fray: “Mainstr[e]am right-wing pubs…often try to paper over ideological divisions. @amconmag thrashed them out” –Jeet Heer, The New Republic

Whether you met us talking new urbanism in Dallas, celebrating Walker Percy in Louisiana, or reimagining foreign policy here in D.C., you’ve told us time and time again that you’re looking forward to what we have in store next. We’d like to invite you to be a part of shaping that future by becoming a member of TAC.

Members of TAC receive a free print subscription to the magazine—and if you’re already a subscriber, we’ll extend your subscription for a year. You’ll also receive our email newsletters, exclusive member updates, invitations to events and meet-ups around the country, and more, all by donating a mere $60 or more. And just $500 per year makes you a member of the TAC Publisher’s Club, a donor circle which enjoys access to our staff and complimentary early previews of the magazine, among other perks.

All the while, you’ll have the satisfaction of investing in the future of TAC in the most literal sense. Your support helps our internship program flourish, and it makes fellowships like mine possible. Because of you, TAC is able to set the agenda for conservatism’s next generation. And if there was ever an opportune moment to invest in a brighter future for conservatism, it’s now.

Thanks for all of your support—and your enthusiasm along the way.

Catherine Addington
Editorial Fellow
The American Conservative

Obama Plays the Long Game in Latin America

On Thursday, March 24, the 40th anniversary of the last Argentine coup d’état, a large crowd filled Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with shouts of “nunca más,” “never again.” They were referring to the U.S.-supported Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 and the repression that characterized it: the imprisonment, torture, and murder of political opposition on a mass scale. “Never again,” then, to such oppression, and “never again” to the overthrow of democracy—the last coup was the sixth in Argentina’s brief history. But President Obama’s visit to Argentina, the first such U.S. presidential visit to the country in decades, added another shade: “never again” to U.S. interventionism in the region.

For activists like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and H.I.J.O.S., two groups that represent the relatives of those killed or forcibly disappeared under the dictatorship, the timing of the president’s visit was an opportunity to demand action and request an extensive declassification on the U.S. involvement in the junta’s activities. For newly inaugurated Argentine President Mauricio Macri, it was an occasion to put to bed the rumors that he was just another right-wing millionaire looking to prevent past right-wing leaders from being brought to justice. And for Obama, the anniversary was an occasion to put the memory of American imperialism in Latin America behind the region.

It seemed like each party got what they wanted. First, the Obama administration granted the request for declassification. “I hope this gesture also helps to rebuild trust that may have been lost between our two countries,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Macri at the Argentine executive mansion, Casa Rosada. “That’s a principal message that I have not only for Argentina but for the entire hemisphere.” Then, on the day of the anniversary, Obama and Macri visited Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park), where 20,000 victims of the junta are memorialized on a long wall near the Río de la Plata that serves as the final resting place for many of them. In his remarks at the memorial, Obama acknowledged the Ford administration’s support for the Argentine junta, but he also praised the U.S. shift toward defending human rights in Argentina under the Carter administration thanks to diplomats like Tex Harris and Patt Derian.

Still, for many Argentines, these wounds are too fresh to be fully healed—let alone by an Argentine president they don’t yet trust. Gastón Chillier and Ernesto Semán detailed human-rights concerns with the Macri administration in an op-ed in the New York Times on the day of Obama’s visit to Argentina, a visit they say “is already an endorsement” for Macri. They write that the new administration has implemented measures “that have weakened the rule of law on the pretext of security, economic freedom and the war on drugs,” such as empowering police to crack down on protesters and using national emergency status to shoot down unidentified planes suspected of drug trafficking.

Argentines are also unlikely to trust any American president. “There is a sense of déjà vu in all of this,” Graciela Mochkofsky wrote in The New Yorker. “Sixteen years ago, another outgoing Democratic President, Bill Clinton, announced the first-ever declassification of diplomatic records relating to the Argentine dictatorship.” Like Clinton, Obama took advantage of a neoliberal, centrist turn in Latin America to promote U.S.-friendly economic policies. Like Clinton, he used human rights as a sign of goodwill.

These concerns, however justly founded, mainly testify to the political polarization Obama was tasked with navigating. According to Argentine polling organization Poliarquía, 64% of Argentines who voted for President Macri view the U.S. positively, while only 24% of those who voted for his opposition (left-wing Kirchner loyalist Daniel Scioli) do—and Macri only won last year’s presidential runoff vote by 2.5 percent. Obama needed to recognize the past without prematurely setting up Macri as a human-rights hero, disrespecting Argentines’ justifiable skepticism, or seeming opportunistic. While he was never going to be able to satisfy all parties, Obama handled the situation with grace.

To start, Obama got the demeanor right. For instance, his remarks in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative town hall were fairly routine, full of classic multiculturalism—Americans need to tune in to the “global community,” he said, expressing a desire for better foreign-language education in the U.S.—but to the young Argentines who participated, like Esteban Rafele, the president was a “rock star.” Throughout the trip, Obama made endearing cultural references: he tried the Argentine infusion mate; name-dropped famous Argentines like Pope Francis, soccer player Lionel Messi, and writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar; now-infamously danced the tango; and even appealed to the “frontier spirit” of American cowboys and Argentine gauchos alike. These seem like small, irrelevant details, the basics of how any president should try to build camaraderie while abroad. Compared to the larger policy shifts at stake, they are.

But style points matter in any political transition, and Argentina’s current one in particular. Taos Turner observed in the Wall Street Journal that while former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave colorful, hours-long speeches railing against critics, Macri meets often with opposition. As he told Turner, “This is a government that doesn’t think it has all the answers.” The way Macri carries himself is much more akin to Obama’s own manner, and marks something of a departure from the personality-driven, often blustery politics of the now-faltering Latin American new left. By tacitly endorsing this administration with such a fraternal visit, Obama is sending a signal of support to the protesters capsizing the new-left political establishment across South America. Follow Argentina’s political lead, and American partnership—with all of its economic benefits—could be headed your way.

If human rights dominated the ceremonial part of the visit, economic partnership was at the heart of the policymaking part. Obama and Macri signed agreements to cooperate on trade and investment with an emphasis on agricultural exchange, as well as crime, security, public works, and facilitating tourism. The agreements affirm Macri’s turn toward the center, a massive economic policy shift that has Argentines feeling equal parts nervous and hopeful. In Macri’s incredibly active first days as president, Nick Miroff detailed in the Washington Post, he lifted the previous administration’s currency controls and export taxes while cutting electrical subsidies, leaving Argentina with a dramatically devalued peso, high food prices, and even higher utility bills. “Macri and his team of economic advisers, many of whom bring Ivy League pedigrees and Wall Street résumés, insist that these shocks are one-time bitter pills to fix a badly distorted economy,” Miroff explained, but Argentina is not in the habit of trusting American-style economics. After a bitter end to the failed protectionism of the Kirchners, however, any change is welcome.

Obama’s visit underscores two major victories for Macri’s administration, and Argentina as a whole. First, American corporations, while suffering in the short-term, are now more confident about long-term success in their business dealings with Argentina in the wake of Macri’s reforms. Meanwhile, Macri’s proposed settlement with Argentina’s American creditors is poised to finally put an end to the 15-year saga that spun the country into default. The result in both cases is a desperately needed influx of foreign currency that will, if all goes according to plan, stem the inflation that plagues the Argentine economy. By improving Argentina’s relationship with the U.S. as well as its finances, Macri’s administration aims to reestablish the country’s place in world markets and declare it “open for business.”

One crucial step, as James M. Roberts and George A. Margulies indicated in a Heritage Foundation report, will be mending Argentina’s tense relations with the International Monetary Fund, blamed somewhat inaccurately for the 2001 crisis that destroyed the Argentine economy. The memory of that 2001 crisis, and the neoliberal, U.S.-friendly era that preceded it, is cause for caution as Argentina gives free-market liberalism another go. But Taos Turner noted that circumstances are significantly improved since the 1990s, and friendlier to success on both sides this time around. “Obama visits an Argentina that is much more than beef and soy. It produces nuclear reactors, satellites, and is a top cultural content exporter.” If, as Nick Miroff wrote, Argentina serves once again as a bellwether for U.S. relations with Latin America, the turn toward free-trade cooperation in the region could prove a major source of economic growth on both ends of the continent.

It’s a smart pivot for the U.S., which is why it isn’t the only country making it. According to CNN Money, China has stepped up its economic activity in the region, lending nearly $30 billion to Latin American governments last year and investing an additional $35 billion in infrastructure projects. By getting rid of the cudgel of past imperialism and taking advantage of an openness to trade, Obama is paving the way for the U.S. to be an influence in a region its history and ideological stubbornness kept it out of—without necessarily incurring the financial liabilities that China is. The Argentina visit is the kind of smart, long-game diplomacy the United States needs more of.

All of this speaks to the short-sightedness of the criticism Obama faced for the optics of his Latin America trip. Photo ops at a baseball game in Cuba and tango dancing in Argentina juxtaposed poorly with the mourning in Brussels, no doubt, but the Brussels attacks and discussion of ISIS as a “top priority” dominated Obama and Macri’s joint press conference anyway. Further, the Pentagon’s announcement that the U.S. had killed top ISIS commander Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli while Obama was in Latin America this week ought to have put paid to the criticism. (“I guess Obama can tango and chew gum at the same time,” Julia Ioffe quipped.)

Ultimately, the U.S. media’s constant focus on ISIS during Obama’s various remarks was taken as yet another reminder to Latin America that the region will always play second (or third, or fourth) fiddle on the world stage. “Like it or not, Argentina is not part of a priority agenda for the U.S.,” Argentine economist Mercedes D’Alessandro tweeted. She continued, “The priority today in the world is what happened in Brussels and terrorist threats. Obviously, in Argentina there is another priority.” Obama rid the United States of one outdated ideological obstacle this week in Latin America, but the country is holding on to so many that it may not notice the lost weight.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

‘No Party Owns Us’

I’m about to break the cardinal rule of winning the youth vote, which is to stop talking about the youth vote. Forgive me, politicos, but your target demographic can’t take it anymore. Free us of your gifs, your hip celebrity friends, and your dancing (but never your accidental memes), and stop thinking that if you just learn how to hashtag gracefully, millennials will turn out to vote for you in droves. Instead, hear us out.

A small but enthusiastic group of Republican party activists recently did just that. At a CPAC breakout session called “Engaging Millennials,” conference attendees took the time to listen to a series of young conservatives give their perspective on what made them feel welcome in the movement—and what deters their friends. Their advice rang true to my own experience as a young person interested in, but often somewhat alienated from, conservative circles. For the sake of a more substantial (or at least less awkward) campaign season, I’d like to start another discussion of this type, and offer this youth guide to getting the youth vote.

As a starting point, let’s return to my cardinal rule: if you want the youth, or “millennials,” to start voting for you, stop thinking of them as a bloc and start thinking of them as individuals. Here’s what works on a personal level—and what will get me interested in hearing what you have to offer.

1. Prioritize principles over party, ideas over ideology.

Alright, I’m a little biased in this formulation, which is TAC’s in-house motto. But it’s also the sentiment I heard from several of the CPAC session’s speakers, including the Bill of Rights Institute’s Anthony Rodriguez. “My ideas matter more than a party,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how I think it should be. That’s how I think a lot of millennials feel. No party owns us. And no party should own us. We are our own people. We have our own ideas. I feel like our generation is independent that way.”

Rodriguez is right—millennials are independent, if nothing else. In fact, half of all millennials consider themselves independents, and only about a third of them see a “great deal” of difference between the two major parties. As such, activists seeking to reach out to millennials shouldn’t expect party loyalty—especially since, as panel organizer Whitney Neal of the Bill of Rights Institute put it, millennials are not “institutionally minded.” Politicians need to really work for their votes.

A lot of that requires starting over, in a sense. Most millennials came of age under the Obama administration and have a living memory of what liberalism means, and especially what it means to voters. Conservatism does not enjoy the same reputation. (I came to work at TAC in no small part as an educational enterprise!) Another speaker at the event, Zuri Davis, is an editorial assistant at Rare Politics who came to conservatism through good-faith argument and conversation with student groups. That never would have happened without a willingness to engage Davis personally and explain how conservative principles could work for her—not because they are conservative, but because they are good. “Politics have to come second,” Davis said. “You have to identify feelings and similarities between people, and from there say…here’s a conservative solution.”

There is nothing more alienating and off-putting to me, as a young voter, than watching candidates squabble about their conservative bona fides. Davis said that millennials “don’t really identify with ideology,” and that’s certainly true for me—I like to reserve the right to contradict myself as I observe, learn, and gain more experience. More importantly, I want to be sold on how ideas will work for me, not on a thoroughly unmotivating ideological tribalism.

In short, the conservative movement has to actually consider young people as real voters and as activists. Without that foundation of trust and equality, we have no reason to care.

2. Put us to work.

Pay your interns. Bernie Sanders does. The American Conservative does. In a not unrelated phenomenon, young people tend to really like Bernie Sanders and TAC. Of course, that affiliation is not just about payment—but I think in this case payment is a good signifier for taking people seriously. It is a statement that young people’s contributions are valued.

Another speaker, Lawrence Jones of The Blaze, recounted his experience as a recruit out of high school for the Obama campaign. He was motivated because on the left, “they want you to be involved. They don’t tell you ‘wait your turn,’ or, ‘um, let’s let the young folks go to the back of the room and have their little group, and we’ll work on the big issues.’” Millennials are “action-oriented,” Jones said. It’s hard to care about something you have no experience of.

3. Be a person, not a platform.

“What I have found is that the best way to connect is through personal stories,” Iris Somberg of the PR firm Counterpoint Strategies said. The speakers revisited this theme frequently throughout the session, much to my relief. People vote for people they like, know, and believe, not just people who make a bullet point list of ideas they agree with. Especially when we feel that the major parties are not substantially ideologically different, that personal connection is what makes all the difference. I don’t have the time and energy to sort out the nuanced distinctions between each plan and platform—but I can recognize common ground when it comes to values.

For instance, political strategists are preparing for the decreasing religiosity in younger generations, but that shift does not necessarily have to be an obstacle in a movement dominated by religious Christians at present.  “You should address millennials on their particular issues, but you should never back down on what you personally think,” Somberg said. “Say why you’re religious. Say why you believe in that, say ‘I understand that’s not where you come from, but this is my personal story.’ … Don’t be one of the politicians who we have all heard many times say different things to different groups of people and end up just seeming like frauds.” The question of religion illustrates that need for heartfelt connection over platform orthodoxy. I will vote for a candidate that doesn’t share my faith, or that doesn’t have a faith at all—but not for someone who fakes or evades it.

This personal, values-based connection is part of why Bernie Sanders is so popular among millennials, even millennials who don’t identify with socialism or particularly understand its history. Whitney Neal got at this phenomenon in the question-and-answer session, when she addressed the Sanders campaign’s success on the issue of student-loan debt.

When you talk about debt, and you say, you know, that we’re 19 trillion dollars in debt, that doesn’t connect to the individual who is struggling with student loan debt. And Bernie and Hillary and the left speak directly to it, and they don’t condescend when they do it. So again, it’s not even necessarily that all of these people are flocking to Bernie saying, yes, the government should pay for my college, it’s that they directly address an issue facing those individual people. And they’re concerned about it. They’re at home and they’re like, well, I don’t have a car but I’ve got a $700 a month student loan payment to make, and Bernie Sanders says ‘I see it, I feel your pain, I’m going to help work with you on it.’ When’s the last time one of the GOP candidates on stage gave a heartfelt response to that question or at a rally? And when they do talk about it, it’s kind of like ‘Well, it’s their own fault.’ … Hundreds of thousands of people are in this situation and they don’t want to be talked down to. So I think from there it’s just address it as a human being. Recognize it as a human issue. … I mean, I don’t think they’re going to Bernie just because they’ve read his tax plan. They’re going because they felt welcome and they felt part of something and there was that one thing he talked about that’s impacting their individual life. And that’s why I think he’s resonating with a lot of people.

Neal is right to emphasize the importance of being genuine. I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders on almost anything, but I trust and believe him. Ultimately, those latter sentiments are a lot more politically potent. The ballot is largely a list of names, after all. People come out to vote for people, not platforms. Millennials are no different.

4. Stop trying to be hip with the youths.

My eyes glaze over every time a candidate tells me to go to his or her website, to google this, to check out that hashtag. First of all, anyone politically engaged enough to be listening to a candidate in the first place already knows where to go to learn more. In addition, it feels so impersonal, reducing our conversation to robotic information transmission. When a candidate chooses to use that time to talk about issues, rather than tell me where to find them, it says to me that my time is valuable.

But mostly, it is very, very hilarious. Guys, we know you don’t run your own Twitter accounts, and we are laughing about it. “Be authentic, don’t be fake,” Whitney Neal urged the activists in the room. Don’t show off how good you are at apps and how you like rap music. We see you. “We’re going to roll our eyes at you.”

Making the millennial vote all about technology and social media is silly because that digital-native adeptness can’t be faked. It also leaves out millennials who engage with politics different ways, as Kirk Higgins, also of the Bill of Rights Institute, pointed out. “As a millennial, I don’t use much technology, so it’s probably hard to find me on Facebook. I’ve never sent a tweet.”

More importantly, it is an incredibly reductive and condescending attitude to take toward young voters. “It’s great to use social media as a tool to keep in touch with people, but it is not the only way,” Somberg explained. “Unless you do the face-to-face, sharing your personal story, actually connecting with other people, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

5. Get identity politics right.

Anthony Rodriguez got the biggest cheers of the event for what should be an intuitive, straightforward point. “Just because my last name is Rodriguez doesn’t mean the only issue I care about is immigration! … Get off that message! There are so many other ways! Why don’t you ask me what I believe in, what my issues are?” For instance, he added, “I think our generation cares a lot more about social entrepreneurship.”

But that doesn’t mean conservatives can afford to act like the issues they consign to “identity politics” aren’t real, and aren’t something that conservatism has an answer to. In fact, issues that are so often reduced to a demographic pander are actually where conservatives have the most opportunity to make headway with voters who want to hear genuine concern and plans for action. Lawrence Jones recalled an episode of The Blaze TV when “we were able to get Black Lives Matter protesters on the show and have a dialogue on real criminal justice reform,” which is a perfect example of engaging the ideas at stake rather than kneejerk ideological withdrawal. Issues like criminal justice reform represent an untapped potential on the right, where ignorance, naivete, or outright racial animosity often get in the way of productive conversation. Dialogues like the one Jones highlighted rely on good faith, which is an increasingly rare commodity in the realm of identity politics. But it’s not outright extinct.

This openness to a complex understanding of identity (whether racial, ethnic, or gender, among others) is important to millennials, and it’s a conversation that liberals dominate because they are willing to have it. If conservatives think their principles will hold up to scrutiny when they are applied in all their specificity, then I want them to make that case—the case that convinced Rodriguez and Jones. I want to be engaged as a woman without restricting the conversation to abortion, to hear about economic opportunity for women, how we have reached parity on the scale of small businesses, how the wage gap is about corporate big-business oligarchy as much as it is about sexism.

I can only speak for my own single millennial vote, but it matters to me that politics accounts for my desire to be seen and heard for who I am.

6. Have a positive vision.

Whitney Neal’s closing remarks said it all:

We also don’t need to keep being told that things are bad. We get it. We understand that it’s rough, and we also know that it’s not our fault, and that we’re the ones who are here to pick up the pieces. What we want to know is how to fix it. … When your vision is negative, when your vision is ‘these are all the things that we are against, so don’t do this, this is all bad,’ people don’t want to emotionally invest in and engage with that. In our generation, we’re more excited by positive visions. There are so many positive things about freedom and opportunity and liberty…but we always tell the negative story. And we need to tell the positive story about freedom and opportunity.

There’s a reason young people voted for Barack Obama, and Ron and Rand Paul, and that they are turning out now for Bernie Sanders. This playbook works, and it would be a relief to see more of it on the right.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

Celebrating American Catholics

Flickr / IIP Photo Archive (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Flickr / IIP Photo Archive (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Immigrants. We get the job done.

As providence would have it, the cast recording of the acclaimed new Broadway musical Hamilton dropped the same week as the Pope’s visit. This line—spoken by the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, before a high-five and a revolutionary victory—played through my earphones on my ride in to the papal parade on Washington’s National Mall, and came to mind throughout the morning as I joined fellow pilgrims to welcome another beloved son of immigrants to our city.

The crowd along the parade route was jovial and kaleidoscopic. A few men and women religious bookended the route—kids asked for selfies when they saw the habits, and the friars and sisters happily obliged—but the overwhelming majority of the pilgrims were families. They brought wide-eyed infants, smiling grandmothers with canes, and an abundance of parade paraphernalia. Mostly, they brought an exuberance so persistent it kept them standing and cheering for four hours in hopes of seeing the Pope speed by for about thirty seconds.

The Pope would later bless and kiss those wide-eyed infants—let the children come to me, we were all caught thinking, watching what Ross Douthat has called Francis’ “living Christian iconography.” The crowd would make space when the elderly and disabled at the front of the line needed a place to rest, putting their coats down for them to sit. Somehow, even more flags and signs appeared in the crowd after they passed security, many purchased on the spot for whatever change they had.

A man in a bright yellow “I <3 Pope Francis” t-shirt wore the Peruvian flag as a cape, and put his toddler on his shoulders. The little boy waved a Vatican flag and squealed “¡Papa!” at every white media truck that went by. While his family chattered in Spanish, the teenagers in front of me livetweeted in Vietnamese and a young black woman next to them prayed the Rosary in English. We erupted into occasional olés together, we prayed together, but mostly we jabbered together, exchanging stories of pilgrimage and commute. Everyone went silent momentarily when the jumbotron outside the Washington Monument began broadcasting the White House papal welcome, as if out of liturgical habit. The entire scene was aggressively Catholic.

Even more so, and in a way more touchingly so, it was fiercely American. In Washington, D.C., what was long one of the most important and proud black-majority cities on earth, a black Catholic choir welcomed the Pope to the White House with the country’s beloved contribution to Christian music: gospel. The crowd clapped when the Pope introduced himself as the son of immigrants—“somos también inmigrantes, Papa,” the Peruvian father shouted, “we are immigrants too.” An enormous group of people who otherwise seemed to have little in common started tearing up when the Pope said “God bless America.”

After the parade, the Pope opened his address to Congress by thanking them for inviting him—another “son of this great continent”—to speak “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” He invoked the spiritual strengths of four prominent American Christians: the freedom-fighting spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the inclusive dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., the passionate social-justice activism of Dorothy Day, and the contemplative dialoguing of Thomas Merton. He thanked the legislature for this opportunity to present “the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people.”

Later that day, he celebrated a Mass at the country’s patronal church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Mass featured the linguistic and liturgical diversity of American Catholicism, from the multilingual petitionary prayers to the inclusion of 18th-century Baroque Mexican music alongside contemporary compositions and traditional Latin hymns.

In Catholicism, this kind of diversity in unity is often described using the biblical image of the Church as the body of Christ: we are many parts, but one body. Throughout the Pope’s visit, the phrase that came to my mind was e pluribus unum.

The Pope’s visit has been accompanied by a media frenzy in search of the “Francis Effect.” The Pope inspires good feelings of inclusiveness and a-partisan identity—so what? Will he change doctrine? Will he revitalize the Catholic left? Will he get more people to go to church? The discussion strikes me as well-intentioned, but misplaced. The “Francis Effect” as a projection for the future was never going to be reasonably predictable. The “Francis Effect” as an atmosphere of belonging and openness is already present and visible. And for American Catholics, if not for the anxious media, that might just suffice.

In his remarks to Pope Francis at Independence Hall, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia name-dropped Alexander Hamilton in praising the contributions of immigrants to the nation’s civic fabric. It may have been a coincidence that Hamilton was mentioned just as so many people are discovering his story for the first time through the popular musical, but it’s wildly appropriate. Hamilton tells the story of the unlikeliest Founding Father using hip-hop and rap, a cast almost entirely composed of people of color, and a lens on the American Revolution that portrays the war as a gritty struggle rather than a fated victory for liberty. It tells an old story in new voices, and in so doing it enables people who have often felt excluded from the narrative of American history to feel it is their birthright. It shows Americans of color that the traditions of their nation belong to them, and what it looks like when they say so.

Pope Francis is doing something similar for American Catholics. He is telling an old story (his politics, however vaguely controversial their stylistic expression, are unsurprisingly traditional and his preaching is about two thousand years old) but throughout his visit he made a point of using new voices—American voices. He canonized an American saint, recalled American heroes, enjoyed American music and American liturgy, and exalted American ingenuity and uniqueness. His visit showed American Catholics what it looks like to be rooted in both of their traditions, and make that visible. Francis does for Catholicism what Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, does for American history: he invites a new audience to take part.

That doesn’t mean the Pope’s visit will produce a surge in American Mass-attendance numbers any more than Hamilton will cause history Ph.D. applications to spike. What it does mean is that for a few days, American Catholics got to look at themselves represented in their fullness and their beauty, and they got to celebrate that. For many of us—who spend so much time writing about the next religious-liberty fight or fitting in at our secular schools or feeling out of place in a country that doesn’t always feel like it counts us among its own—that will be enough.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

What Cuba Means for Latin America

While bemoaning hard-liners’ ideologically motivated opposition to the recent U.S. shift in policy on Cuba, Daniel Larison recently pointed out one of the most underrated features of the change: “Normalization with Cuba also removes one of the irritants in our relationships with the rest of Latin America, which can only make our dealings with the rest of our hemisphere more constructive.”

As one senior Obama administration official told the New York Times, the U.S. policy in Cuba was a primary obstacle in diplomatic negotiations in the region. “In the last Summit of the Americas, instead of talking about things we wanted to focus on — exports, counternarcotics — we spent a lot of time talking about U.S.-Cuba policy. A key factor with any bilateral meeting is, ‘When are you going to change your Cuba policy?'”

Why does Cuba matter so much to Latin America? Certainly, just as Cuba is an ideological touchstone in the United States, where it has represented one of the last vestiges of full-throated Cold War-era Communism, the island nation has a powerful symbolic presence in Latin America as well. Politically, the U.S. policy against Cuba has played as just another episode in the long history of American interventionism in its “sphere of influence,” particularly on the upstart new left.

President Obama has been known to joke about the outdated nature of the Cuba dispute. When asked in 2012 about the prospect of allowing Cuba’s reintegration into the Organization of American States, he said, “Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born. And sometimes I feel as if … we’re caught in a time warp … going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees, and the Cold War and this and that.” For the U.S., the policy has often been shrugged off as admittedly outdated but ultimately in line with American values surrounding human rights and democracy.

But for Latin Americans, the Cuba embargo evokes a visceral living memory of the United States’ destructive interventionism in the region. Decades of U.S. military intervention followed the Cuban Revolution of 1959, aiming to prevent Communist regimes elsewhere. In the process, the U.S. helped overthrow democratically elected governments and install military dictatorships in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973); supported military repression in El Salvador (1980) and rebel groups in Nicaragua (1981-1987); invaded the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989); and operated the U.S. Army School of the Americas (1946-present), which trained many Latin American military leaders who went on to become human rights violators in their home countries.

In short, though the focus has since shifted from fighting Communism to fighting drugs—and, to some extent, to fighting terrorism—the idea that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was instituted, and has been maintained, because of an American commitment to democracy in the region is not seen as credible in Latin American eyes. The pattern is now so established that U.S. involvement is suspected in every disturbance, as was the case with the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela and the 2009 coup in Honduras.

The embargo is even more specifically entangled in the U.S. pattern of economic, not just military, intervention to the south—though the two are often not all that separated. (For instance, the first major U.S.-backed coup in the region, that of Guatemala in 1954, was largely motivated by the impact of labor reforms on the profits of the United Fruit Company.) The populist governments of the new left rose to power across the region in reaction against the “Washington Consensus” neoliberal policies of the 1990s, which they characterize as an imposition by a U.S.-controlled International Monetary Fund on Latin America. Though the United States can not be reasonably blamed for every economic crisis in Latin American history, the country’s domineering past has given it a lasting reputation for manipulation.

Though many Latin Americans would be of a mind with most Americans in their opinions of Raúl and Fidel Castro’s leadership, they also associate these histories of military and economic intervention with the United States in interpreting the Cuba dispute. As such, U.S. policy there is rarely seen as either concerned with or effective on human rights, but rather as part of its longstanding pattern of wielding the “big stick” to quash resistance, no matter the effect on its poorer and weaker neighbors. The American punishment of Cuba has only contributed to the island’s image as a heroic nation standing up against an imperialist behemoth, which has ultimately distracted from the human rights violations committed under the Castros’ leadership.

Many regional diplomatic opportunities will present themselves post-normalization. For instance, one of Cuba’s major regional influences has been its support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). FARC, a guerrilla movement that has been in armed conflict with the Colombian government for decades and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, is currently in peace talks with Colombia—the top U.S. ally in the region. The current ceasefire, particularly if transformed into an armistice, could be spurred on if the U.S. had influence on both sides of the conflict. For Latin American leaders previously disillusioned by Washington’s isolation from the region, normalization with Cuba is a major sign that the U.S. is willing to step up as a reasonable leader.

Restoring ties with Cuba will not be a panacea for all of the United States’ diplomatic problems with Latin America. Even at the most recent Summit of the Americas, held this past April in Panama City, conversation was derailed by a new political distraction: the executive order in which President Obama referred to Venezuela as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” As Cuba’s economic patron and the Caribbean’s main source of oil, Venezuela is hugely influential in the region despite its recent political struggles and economic devastation. But perhaps just as crucially, it is the standard bearer for the leftist Bolivarian movement—so named for the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, who has become a symbol for Latin American and Caribbean solidarity—and the executive order was seen to be right out of the paternalist playbook Latin American countries thought the U.S. was using Cuba normalization to leave behind. The dramatic speeches at that Summit (“The Yankees do not change!” exclaimed Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega) reflect how much unnecessary havoc such ideological missteps can wreak, and how many new obstacles they can create for hemispheric diplomacy.

It matters that the United States gets this diplomatic transition right, not least because the leftist bloc led by ever-poorer Venezuela (and often symbolized by Cuba) is ailing, and its allies are in the market for new friends. Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole are increasingly unable to rely on Venezuelan oil, and they are looking to diversify its economy by engaging with U.S. businesses—even under the embargo, the U.S. has become Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner. A successful thaw will prove valuable: Cuba will be a relatively untapped market if the blockade is removed, and the U.S. needs to increase its influence in the Caribbean due to its growing problems with drug and human trafficking to the U.S.

But it will also go a long way toward becoming a partner that the rest of the Americas can trust again. Earlier this summer, Chas Freeman urged the United States “to rediscover noncoercive instruments of statecraft that can persuade others that they can benefit by working with us rather than against us.” The Cuban thaw is a major opportunity to do just that, and on a larger scale than it may first appear.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

How to Stop Brutality-Adjacent Policing

What happened to Sandra Bland? This is a question many Americans (particularly, and rightfully, black American women) are asking, following the death of a young civil rights activist in a Waller County, Texas jail cell two weeks ago. Was any of it—her arrest after a traffic stop by state trooper Brian Encinia, her three-day detention, the neglect that resulted in her alleged suicide by hanging—legal?

Bland’s death remains under investigation, but the dashboard camera footage of her interaction with Encinia shows the escalation of a warning for the failure to signal into the forceful detention of an epileptic woman. Surprisingly, much of what occurred between Encinia and Bland appears to have been legal, if imprudent. Encinia’s tactics could be called “brutality-adjacent policing,” in which the standard for behavior is the bare legal minimum rather than actively good policing.

The phrase comes from Leah Libresco’s reflection on California’s “affirmative consent” law, which Libresco called an attempt to minimize “rape-adjacent sex”—the “gray area” into which many rape cases fall, in which one partner believes he or she is behaving appropriately, while the other partner experiences the interaction as rape. Libresco continues, “Rape-adjacent sex gives cover to serial predators, who are believed to be the main driver of sexual assaults on campus, since the kind of sex they’re trying to have doesn’t look very different from the sex everyone else is already having.”

Brutality-adjacent policing works in much the same way: the officer believes he or she is behaving appropriately, while the civilian experiences the interaction as brutality. This way of policing gives cover to bad actors, because the kind of policing they are exercising doesn’t look very different from the policing everyone else, “good cops” and “bad cops” alike, is exercising.

For instance, the major legal quandary in Encinia’s arrest of Bland arises from the point at which he asked her to put out her cigarette. When she refused, he ordered her to exit her vehicle. The former order was in fact a request, which Bland was within her rights to decline, but the latter was a command that Encinia had the legal authority to enforce. Encinia was not required to justify his command, and the impression that he gave the command in service of his ego rather than his safety is legally irrelevant—though socially damaging. When a police officer chooses to force compliance (giving a command) rather than encourage cooperation (writing warnings, ignoring frustration, explaining good safety habits), he or she not only wastes police resources on inconsequential issues, but also breaks down trust between police and civilians in a very tangible way. It is legal policing, but it is not good policing. (It is worth noting that most relevant authorities, including the local district attorney and mayor, seem to agree. The State Department of Public Safety is currently conducting an inquiry, having stated that the trooper violated unspecified protocol.)

The obvious, but faulty, assumption is that the civilian side of the encounter could easily be improved. After all, it is fairly clear that Sandra Bland was arrested for an “unwritten crime … contempt of cop,” a phenomenon more or less avoidable by deference to the police. It is true that Bland could have responded more “respectfully” (that is, quietly) to Encinia’s actions. In fact, Orin Kerr explains, the way the law is structured would have pressured her to do so: it is often impossible for a citizen to know when an officer is giving a lawful order, either because of unfamiliar laws or uncontrollable circumstances such as unknown evidence. “Faced with this, a citizen’s cautious strategy might be just to do everything the officer says regardless of whether the officer’s command is lawful.”

In reality, Charles M. Blow is right to say that the parameters of “respectable behavior” vary from person to person, and, crucially, those parameters are informed by race, gender, and circumstance. Everything from Encinia’s mood that day to his socialized expectations of a black female civilian is beyond prediction, and those factors proved just as crucial for Bland’s fate. Her safest option, legally and otherwise, would have been total deference to the police, but this is unreasonable to demand in a democratic society—not to mention impractical, since police, not civilians, are the ones trained to anticipate and resolve conflict.

That training is where concrete progress can be made. Former police officer and legal scholar Seth Stoughton has called the tragic police-civilian encounters propelling the #BlackLivesMatter movement “symptoms of a systemic problem: a police culture that trains and encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior mindset.’” The “warrior” mindset trains officers to prioritize personal survival in each encounter, as if in response to a uniformly hostile environment. The highly-publicized murders of police officers, such as recent killings in California and New York, illustrate the very real nature of the danger faced by police officers in their day-to-day work.

But when danger and defense are the only factors informing a police officer’s default attitude toward civilians, it is easy to lose sight of the power dynamic at play. As Lonnae O’Neal has reported, police officers are, by the numbers, significantly more of a threat to civilians than civilians are to them: according to the FBI, 51 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014, while according to a Washington Post database of police shootings, police have shot and killed 544 people this year thus far. (“Of that number, 76 people were unarmed or had a toy weapon and at least 34 of them were driving a vehicle,” O’Neal notes.)

Without minimizing the occasional necessity of a “warrior” mindset in the face of life-or-death situations, Stoughton proposes an alternate model for everyday use and emphasis in modern policing: that of the community “guardian.” The “guardian” takes a long-term view of how to achieve the goal of community protection, prioritizing “service over crime-fighting.” Training officers to be “guardians,” Stoughton suggests, could involve encouraging more non-enforcement encounters in order to build relationships in the community; training in de-escalating conflict and tactical restraint; and incorporating analysis of police-civilian encounters gone wrong in early training.

In short, better policing requires the recognition that Brian Encinia’s actions would have been devastating even if Sandra Bland were alive. It requires hearing the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s call not just to protect black lives from police brutality, but black living from brutality-adjacent policing. It requires raising the necessary but insufficient standard of legality to a stronger standard of guardianship, and shifting the focus from officer safety to community protection.

Catherine Addington is an editorial fellow for The American Conservative.


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Off the Literary Reservation

“What does it mean when you never see yourself in the reading you are provided at school? Does it mean you don’t exist, you don’t count, you are not important?”

James Blasingame, a professor at Arizona State University, wonders. He works at the intersection of two genres constantly on the defensive: Native American literature, forever overshadowed by the Little House on the Prairie’s of the world, and young-adult literature, trashed regularly as a non-entity invented to market Twilight. He shrugs off the young-adult literature naysayers. “Scholars, teachers, librarians, people who actually work with young people every day and know what reading can mean in their lives do not question its value.”

But with regard to Native American literature, he worries that students in Arizona are being shortchanged. The state’s sizeable population of Native students rarely encounter characters like themselves in the books they read at school. This lack of representation, Blasingame says, “robs the young reader of the power of literature to do what books and reading are so good at: to provide readers with a means for making sense of the world and their place in it.”

To help meet that need for representation, Blasingame teamed up with fellow ASU professor and renowned poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) to design and implement a Native American literature curriculum at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona. The pair worked with Timothy San Pedro (a resident of the Flathead Indian Reservation), then an ASU doctoral student and now a professor at Ohio State University, and Westwood literature teacher Andrea Box, as well as other scholars, teachers, and tribal members to craft the course. Besides the curriculum’s cornerstone―The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene)―Box chooses from a recommended reading list of approximately 70 works by Native American young-adult authors like Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), and Joy Harjo (Muscogee). Box now teaches the course every term as part of the school’s regular literature offerings.

Blasingame outlines a concern common among educators in an increasingly diverse America. Teachers must dig out from under distantly crafted standards to re-engage with cultural traditions long neglected in American life. They seek to understand their students’ contexts not as a barrier to be overcome on the way to assimilation, as in the past, but as a vital asset in expanding what American literature―more literally, the American story―really is.

“I think most Native American literature is unreadable by the vast majority of Native Americans,” Sherman Alexie said in a 2001 interview with the Iowa Review. “If it’s not accessible to Indians, then how can it be Native American literature?”

Educator Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) has similarly remarked at her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, that appropriate literature is in low supply. An overwhelming majority of the books published for young people about Native Americans every year are historical fiction taking place on tribal lands, for instance, despite the fact that there are about five million Native Americans living today and 61 percent of them reside in cities. In the American imagination, the Native population is confined not just to physical reservations but to the historical reservation of the past.

Non-Native authors have also confined Native Americans to a more nebulous cultural reservation, allocating them only two typical representations: the noble savage and the romantic mystic. The menacing, violent Native Americans of Little House on the Prairie―the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears in the children’s classic three times―became by the 1980s the grunting, naïve “chief” of The Indian in the Cupboard. The suspiciously environmentalist Native Americans of Dear America books, “retold” myths, and Disney movies have spawned a commercialized “native” spirituality that offers little in the way of relevance to Native Americans today. Taken together, the noble savage and romantic mystic tropes, alongside a sports mascot or two, are often the only images of Native Americans that young people, Native and non-Native alike, get.

Kenan Metzger and Wendy Kelleher, researchers in curriculum development and teacher training, explained the significance of relatable contemporary characters for students in a 2008 article for The ALAN Review:

Over-generalized, arrested forms of representation created by sports mascots, Thanksgiving and Columbus myths, non-Indian literature, and Hollywood movies perpetuate the perception that American Indian/Alaska Native/Hawaiian Native people still look and act the same as they may have hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Imagine an Indian child, watching Dances with Wolves or reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans looking in a mirror. His mother tells him he is an Indian, but he sees neither feathers, nor war paint, nor other accoutrements associated with the Indians he sees in these visual and literary media. In his confusion, he may ask himself, ‘Are you a real Indian?’

Metzger and Kelleher represent the burgeoning academic community seeking to promote literature by and for Native Americans, not just about them. Most popular books about Native American subjects ― from history to beliefs to ethnography ― are inaccurate accounts by white authors. Sherman Alexie has characterized these books as “colonial literature,” akin to any outsiders’ view of their conquests.

Alexie’s description is politically charged―but so is the literary market of non-Native writers who presently dominate the Native American narrative. In his book God Is Red, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote about this displacement of contemporary Native voices by voices out of the past in the context of the 1960s pan-Indian civil rights movement:

it seemed as if every book on modern Indians was promptly buried by a book on the ‘real’ Indians of yesteryear. The public overwhelmingly turned to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox to avoid the accusations made by modern Indians in The Tortured Americans and Custer Died for Your Sins. The Red Fox book alone sold more copies than the two modern books. … Each takeover of government property only served to spur further sales of Brown’s review [Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee] of the wars of the 1860s. While the Indian reading public was in tune with The New Indians, The Tortured Americans, The Unjust Society … and other books written by contemporary Indians on modern problems, the reading non-Indian public began frantically searching for additional books on the Indians of the last century.

Until the 1960s, literary representations of Native Americans were found mainly in “as told to” autobiographies, a form in which non-Native writers convey personal narratives supposedly transcribed from real-life encounters. The genre is exemplified by John G. Neihardt’s 1932 Black Elk Speaks, in which an amateur white historian unsurprisingly had problems accurately relating the life of an Oglala Lakota medicine man.

“The truth is, the ‘as-told-to’ lives (even that of the primogenitor Nick Black Elk) are the margins of Indian history, not the center of it,” scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Lakota) wrote in Anti-Indianism in Modern America. “The reason for that is they are based in sociology, not the literature of the people.”

Some are based in even less. One of the most popular of these white-written “Native autobiographies,” The Education of Little Tree, was in fact a literary hoax perpetrated by Asa Carter, a Klansman and a speechwriter for George Wallace. Masquerading as a Cherokee memoirist named Forrest Carter, he told of the lessons he learned as a young boy with his (fictional) Indian grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains, all generally related to harmonious living and personal independence. Though Native scholars pointed out the book’s stereotypes, invention of Cherokee words and customs, and overall romanticized picture of Native life, only the author’s objectionable personal history pulled it off Oprah’s shelf of recommended reading and pushed it from the New York Times’s nonfiction list onto its fiction counterpart. The masking of white supremacist beliefs with romanticized Indian narrative had never been so literal, and the non-Native literary world’s indifference to accuracy and relevance had never been so blatant.

The book also exhibited a subtler problem. The Education of Little Tree is about a supposedly “Native” approach to life, a sort of idealized indigeneity that serves as a vehicle to pass down a vague libertarianism to a new generation. It does not try to be a book about Native Americans, but about Native Americanness, or at least the way Carter perceived it.

Metzger, a professor at University of Missouri–Kansas City, says that avoiding stereotypes is just the beginning of a culturally relevant curriculum. “As young-adult literature develops and as it represents more diversity―ethnic diversity, but also gender identity, disability, and other things students are dealing with―we hope to see, as educators and researchers, that we have books that are about young people’s experience wherein characters just happen to be diverse,” he explains. “The book isn’t about Native Americanness, it’s about a teenager or young person who happens to be Native American. That’s a more helpful kind of representation in literature for young people because they can identify with the characters.” thisarticleappears

S.D. Nelson (Standing Rock Sioux), a children’s author with 28 years of teaching experience in public schools, emphasizes contemporariness above all. “Here in the 21st century we still perpetuate this romantic revision of Native Americans with feathers in their hair, riding painted horses … and that’s all fine and well at traditional ceremonies, and we want to keep those alive, but along with that we need to recognize that time continues to move forward. As an author I am speaking to young people today. One of the important things I hope to pass on to young readers, young Native American readers, is a sense of hope and a sense of their importance in the world and in America―today.”

That’s a heavy sense of purpose to attach to a genre. But the Native American novel has always had intense implications: the first Native American novelist was John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee leader in the mid-1800s who called his philosophy of assimilation for survival simply “civilization.” Ridge saw the Native adoption of the English-language novel as a way to preserve Native storytelling in a world dominated by European narrative.

While today the Native American novel is no longer necessarily an assimilation technique, it is not purely entertainment either. As children’s author Christopher Myers has put it, stories are not just mirrors of life as young people live it―they are maps for the road ahead of them.

Sherman Alexie has embraced this role as “cartographer” in defending his books’ occasionally violent material. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011:

When some cultural critics fret about the ‘ever-more-appalling’ YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. … I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons—in the form of words and ideas—that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

The contemporary Native American young-adult novel is not just about Native storytelling traditions or European colonial art forms, then. It is about finding a way to speak to the contemporary reality of American minority youths. Perhaps, as James Blasingame suggests, the key is simply to hand over the microphone. The most important feature of Andrea Box’s Arizona curriculum, Blasingame says, is “a frame of mind that human history has been recorded most often from only one perspective, and literature is also written from one perspective, often an inaccurate and biased one. If we would have the true story of a nation of people, we must hear their story from them.”

Catherine Addington is a TAC editorial assistant.

What Ferguson Has Revealed

“Whatever happened to Michael Brown in the moments before he died has become secondary to what the response to his death has revealed,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. Since a police officer shot and killed the unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, the shooting—and the vigils, looting, volunteer cleanup, peaceful protests, and overwhelmingly disproportionate police response—has become a national microcosm of urban racial injustice and what is being called the “militarization” of police forces.

Deadspin’Greg Howard summarized the tensions at play:

If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.

That war is enabled by military-grade weaponry available to police since the 1990s under the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency and the “section 1033” program over which it presides. In Rise of the Warrior CopJohn Payne explained earlier this year, journalist Radley Balko makes the case that the Founders would have seen that kind of militarized police as an unconstitutional standing army. Balko wrote, “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”

Indeed, to many, the scenes of tear gas seemed more like images from Iraq and Afghanistan than suburban St. Louis (even though tear gas is illegal in warfare, if legal domestically). Jamelle Bouie, writing for Slate, was among them:

This would be one thing if Ferguson were in a war zone, or if protesters were violent—although, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which American police would need a mine-resistant vehicle. But an episode of looting aside, Ferguson police aren’t dealing with any particular danger. Nonetheless, they’re treating demonstrators—and Ferguson residents writ large—as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.

Veterans spoke out against “militarized” police action in Ferguson on TwitterJason Fritz observed, “As someone who studies policing in conflict, what’s going on Ferguson isn’t just immoral and probably unconstitutional, it’s ineffective.”

Adam Weinstein put it more bluntly at Gawker. “The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.” He cites the first page of the Army’s field manual on civil disturbances, which emphasizes proportional, nuanced responses. “Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided.” The manual also notes that “highly emotional social and economic issues” inform such disturbances, and that “it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident” to set off violence “if community relations with authorities are strained.”

Unlike the military, who are trained in nonviolent options for conflict resolution, the police often lack such knowledge. Bonnie Kristian expounded this failure and reasons behind systematic police brutality earlier this summer, noting also that cops are rarely held accountable for abuse. “Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that.”

The entrenched racial injustice behind Michael Brown’s death will be difficult to root out, as it has been over centuries of American history. But the decades of policy that allowed for police abuse of Brown, and his town’s peaceful protesters, could be reversed—and if the public outcry over Ferguson is anything to judge by, Americans will be keeping a closer eye on the police in the coming years.

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Iraqi-American Christians Pray, and Protest, for Peace

As the Islamic State forces northern Iraq’s religious minorities—Christians, Shia Muslims, and Yazidis—to flee, convert, or die, the United States has begun dropping humanitarian aid as well as bombs in an effort to stave off genocide, despite many Americans’ trepidation at getting involved in Iraq again. But many Iraqi-Americans, especially members of the Chaldean Catholic community, have long been protesting and praying for some kind of action.

Chaldean Catholics have a long history in the United States, but their numbers have been growing in past decades as they have fled from aggressors in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic State alike. The American Spectator’s Lucy Schouten recalled their exodus:

Most [U.S. refugees] joined the Chaldean Christian community in Michigan, which began in the 1870s. They had helped build the automobile industry, saving factory wages to bring family members to the land of opportunity. The Detroit community of Chaldeans now numbers 200,000 and has associations for every profession from pharmaceutics to CPAs.

The Iraqi Christians were an enterprising group and established smaller communities in San Diego, Chicago, Arizona, and Las Vegas, while maintaining ties to faith, family, and their home country community.

That community continued to grow and flourish even after the war ended, although, as Schouten put it, “most Americans would not now call Detroit a land of opportunity.”

Now, the community has come together to support family and friends across the ocean. The federal building in downtown Detroit has seen several rallies over the past two weeks. An August 1 procession saw a thousand Iraqi-Americans pray for peace while carrying a large cross around Mother of God Chaldean Church in Southfield. The Detroit Chaldean community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for humanitarian aid in Iraq through parish collections and a new online diocesan initiative, HelpIraq.org.

Detroit Chaldeans have partnered with their smaller, but just as active, brethren in California to raise awareness. San Diego’s “Little Baghdad” neighborhood in El Cajón is home to the second largest Iraqi-American community, including vibrant activists from protest rappers to visiting Iraq-based nuns. Many members of the community have family and friends suffering back in Iraq, and local doctor John Kasawa has noted an uptick in anxiety and depression in the neighborhood as the violence takes a toll “on the collective conscious.”

Little Baghdad’s most visible leader is local entrepreneur and Ending Genocide in Iraq spokesman Mark Arabo, who had been working with Congress and the administration on anti-genocide action and humanitarian aid for months before news of the airstrikes came last week. He now plans to go to the United Nations, where he hopes to convince leaders to give asylum to the nearly half-million newly displaced Iraqi Christians. Meanwhile, some are already preparing for new arrivals in San Diego.

Arabo has described the decision the U.S. faces in Iraq as “an honorable predicament.” In considering the extent of military intervention, the U.S. is “specially positioned to be viewed as a failure for foreign inaction, and ‘imperialist’ for our willingness to act,” he said. “I tend to view our foreign role as a nation of great power, blessed with a moral obligation to enact change on a global scale. This, I must stress, is a blessing.”

Not all members of the Chaldean community agree. “We do not want to see American [sic] involved in a third war in Iraq, Gulf War 3.0. We don’t want that,” Bishop Bawai Soro of the San Diego Chaldean diocese told local news. “At the same time, we want ISIS to be stopped.”

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Google Tries to Conquer the Typography of a Non-English Internet

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Noto Sans (English, simplified Chinese, Russian). via Catherine Addington

The Internet is no longer in English, even if the coding on its back end still largely is. That’s what MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman has concluded as online language diversity has increased over the past decade, from Facebook posts in Afrikaans to tweets in Zulu. But the typographical design world that brings online text to life has lagged behind, producing endless variations on the Latin script used in English (like the documentary-inspiring Helvetica and the font you’re reading right now, Georgia) but far fewer for other languages.

The result is an increasingly bilingual, but visually clunky, Internet that looks like this:

Google is looking to streamline that with its Noto project (so named for its goal, “no tofu,” a reference to the tiny squares that pop up for unsupported scripts). A new, free font family that “aims to support all the world’s languages” for use in web pages and URLs, Noto already supports over 100 scripts (and the 600 written languages they facilitate) from Cherokee to cuneiform. Some of the project’s efforts have been applauded, such as their rejection of Han unification, which detrimentally conflates chunks of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts.

Noto’s inclusion of endangered languages like Inuktitut (an indigenous Canadian languages which has under 40,000 speakers) and Tlingit (an Alaska Native language with just about 1,000 speakers) has also won praise. But since Noto has thus far failed to tackle far more widely-used languages, some are questioning Google’s priorities. For instance, Noto cannot yet be used to type in Oriya, an Indian language with over 30 million speakers, or the nastaliq script used by Urdu speakers.

Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani-American writer campaigning for the online inclusion of nastaliq, has summarized concerns with Noto by saying, “Language is the building block of people’s identities all around the world, and Google is basically saying that, ‘We got this.’ …Whether that strikes you as hubris or whether it’s noble depends on whether they pull it off.”

When it comes to hubris, Google can learn from its own past exploits, as Kevin Roose recounts Google’s struggle to design a suitable universal font for its Android products. The main challenge, Roose notes, is that “unlike most innovations in computing, typeface design doesn’t succeed by grabbing your eye.” Writing all the world’s languages in one style is challenging enough, but doing it in a way that looks good across the Internet—no matter what size screen, or with what resolution, it is accessed—compounds the design challenge.

Noto won’t turn the web’s words uniform overnight. But it is a sign of a permanently multilingual Internet, and the challenges of creating a truly global product.

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What Argentina’s Default Means for the Rest of Us

Argentina has defaulted eight times in its 200-year history, the latest coming on Thursday after a bizarre legal saga that left Argentine sovereign debt in the hands of a Manhattan federal district judge.

Judge Thomas Griesa ruled that Argentina could not make its next payment on restructured debt from its 2001 default—money that is already sitting in the New York bank in charge of mediating the payments—until including another set of bondholders in that exchange. That second set of bondholders, representing only seven percent of Argentina’s creditors, consists of hedge funds represented by Elliott Management’s NML Capital. The funds bought Argentine bonds as the country’s economy spiraled downwards, and they rejected the restructuring, holding out for the bonds’ full original value.

The Supreme Court refused to review Griesa’s decision, while also permitting bondholders to issue subpoenas in order to locate Argentine assets abroad. Argentina refused to pay, as negotiations failed and the country defaulted on its debt last Thursday at midnight. Argentina’s standing in international debt markets, not to mention its domestic economy, is so bad that very little has actually happened as a consequence.

Since its 2001 default, Argentina has been experiencing inflation, recession, and exclusion from international capital markets. None of that has changed, though it is slightly accelerating. Argentines, many of whom lost their savings 13 years ago, have long turned to the U.S. dollar as the under-the-table currency of choice, as Argentina’s own peso is worth less and less every year. Last week’s default is practically a laughing matter in the Argentine papers, perennially full of bad economic news. The ever-opportunistic administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has railed against American injustice rather than making any attempt to minimize the harm.

The case’s international ramifications are even less dramatic, despite concerns over the future of creditors’ rights in debt markets. Peter Eavis and Alexandra Stevenson suggested that “the Argentine dispute will make it much harder for indebted countries to cut their obligations to manageable levels,” since investors now have a greater incentive to demand better deals from countries in crisis. But Hung Tran suggests such worries may be overblown due to the very limited and particular nature of this dispute. In fact, the likeliest outcome is mainly an international study session. After seeing such a small economic problem threatened to cause such a large one in Argentina, countries will likely look to clean up and clarify pari passu clauses, the legal mandate for “equal treatment” in debt repayments that caused the Argentine problem in the first place.

To that end, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called for a global system of debt restructuring. Calling the hedge funds “vultures”—as the Argentine press has—Stiglitz said that the investors had no interests in the country other than to profit from its demise, and that should have consequences. Read More…

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Selfies for Uncle Sam

If you use social media or have a smartphone, chances are you’ve encountered facial recognition technology. FRT allows computers to recognize pixel patterns that suggest human faces, allowing selfie-taking cameras to mugshot-filled databases alike to distinguish when they are looking at human faces. Even though it is fairly commonplace, some would rather avoid it, leading to one journalist’s experiment with clownish black-and-white makeup on the streets of D.C.

Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, tried a camouflage technique called computer-vision dazzle, or “CV dazzle,” which uses face paint and hairstyling to stymie FRT. The makeup deceives FRT by obscuring the eyes, symmetry, and the nose bridge, among other features that characterize the face. “Here was a technology that confounded computers with light and color,” Meyer reflected. But as he learned, CV dazzle is far from a guarantor of privacy. “The very thing that makes you invisible to computers makes you glaringly obvious to other humans.”

Nancy Szokan alarmingly theorized that Meyer’s camouflage experiment is “something a terrorist might want to do”: escaping government surveillance. But in reality, Meyer’s experiment mainly resulted in evading Facebook auto-tagging, a seemingly tame privacy threat. FRT is routinely employed in the private sector beyond social media, from catching cheating gamblers to providing security at large sporting events like the Super Bowl. Now, its capacity to foretell age has stirred interest in insurance companies, while its real-time entrepreneurial applications are being explored by advertisers.

But when it comes to FRT falling into the wrong hands, concerns are generally directed at the authorities rather than vice versa. Though FRT has existed in its most basic form since the 1960s, it has blossomed under the biometrics industry fueled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the need to identify local populations induced the military development of portable biometrics systems. The government has enthusiastically inserted FRT into more routine use with increasing success: it shows up alongside other biometrics at airports and is now being introduced into police detective use. As Sameer Padania noted at Witness.org, “Law enforcement and security services particularly like FRT, as it does not require consent or knowledge of the subject being processed – unlike finger-printing, iris-scanning or similar biometric technologies, this can be done at a distance.”

It’s not the technology that is a major concern, Padania went on.

What’s new is this: this technology, which used to be accessible only to a few agencies, is now being used voluntarily, and unwittingly by millions of us through our use of social media. Our willingness to tag people in photos, and rapid advances in computer vision and object recognition have accelerated the use of FRT. We share so many images now that Facebook has, as this chart shows, the largest photo collection in history.

This voluntary engagement with FRT, which facilitates its intersection of cloud computing, is where change is beginning to occur. Jared Keller explained that the public’s increasing tech savviness opens the doors to “criminal, fraudulent, or extralegal ends” that are “as alarming as the potential for government abuse.” When private citizens organized a Google group to combine FRT with public records in search of identifying London rioters, they illustrated a new model of digital vigilantism.

The question, Keller says, is not how to escape FRT, whether donning masks or makeup. The question is how to live with it. “No matter what you choose to do or not to do, your life exists in the cloud. …Your digital life is becoming inseparable from your analog one. You may be able to change your name or scrub your social networking profiles to throw off the trail of digital footprints you’ve inadvertently scattered across the Internet, but you can’t change your face. And the cloud never forgets a face.”

CV dazzle may not become haute couture overnight. But surrendering selfies to Uncle Sam might, without anyone noticing.


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Derek Khanna Talks Cellphone Unlocking Victory, Copyright

After a popular online campaign to legalize cellphone unlocking, which allows a consumer to change the settings on a phone in order to use it on a different wireless network, the president is about to sign the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act into law. It will legalize unlocking until the Librarian of Congress, who administers the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, reviews exemptions again next year.

The law is a significant victory for copyright reform activists like Derek Khanna, whose 2012 memo for the Republican Study Committee on how current copyright law stifles the free market set the tone for reform (after it got him fired). Khanna has called the ban on cellphone unlocking a denial of “a fundamental tenet of property rights; which is the ability to modify your own property.”

I spoke to Khanna to learn more about where the copyright reform movement will go from here.

A Democratic president standing up for consumer choice certainly represents a sort of conversational victory, but the law itself is something of a temporary fix. Are you happy with how the bill turned out?

Yes. It’s a short-term bill—this needed to be addressed urgently—but at the same time, Congress is considering other long-term fixes. To that end, there are ongoing copyright hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.

The tech field is fast-paced, while American government is purposefully slow-moving by design and by politics. How can Congress ensure the laws are keeping pace with the technologies they regulate?

The particular problem is that Washington hears only one narrow perspective on these issues. A lot of what I call “the forces of the status quo” have lobbyists that make their voices heard. Entrepreneurs and smaller business owners aren’t really being represented, so in Washington they almost don’t know what their regulations are preventing.

As you noted in your cover story for TAC earlier this summer, Republicans only took action on this legislation after the White Houses endorsement, which in turn followed a public outpouring of support. Will it always take that kind of massive push to get congressional Republicans to move forward on regulatory reform?

I hope not. I hope Republicans take the initiative. Our whole campaign here was based on the free market, which Republicans run on across the country. But they’re one step behind on technology, which is a shame, because that’s where the modern economy is.

But they’re starting to turn around on this. Congressmen like Thomas Massie and Jason Chaffetz are real leaders on this issue. The Young Guns Network, which represents Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, included a section on regulatory reform in their “Room to Grow” report. It goes out of the way to say we need wholesale copyright reform and makes a very enthusiastic plea for IP reform. It even directly cites my RSC memo. So these things take a long time, but there are real successes.

Tech policy is a straightforward way to win over the youth vote, but Republicans don’t seem to have noticed. Do you think that disconnect is purely generational? Can young conservatives just hope the party grows out of it?

I don’t know if it’s generational, but I know that it’s changing.

According to the College Republicans National Committee, in 2012, “young people simply felt the GOP had nothing to offer.” Kristen Soltis Anderson concluded, “There is a brand. …And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.” That’s pretty stark. But the thing that polls best among young people is talking about innovation and technology. This isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.

Those congressional offices never knew what hit them with SOPA/PIPA. For some people that was a seminal experience, the first time they had ever engaged in the political process and were able to make a change. And now with unlocking we have the first time an online campaign was able to actually introduce legislation. There is a whole generation of people who see these policies as really stifling innovation.

What’s next for copyright reformers?

There is a lot of work to be done in copyright reform still. How long should copyright terms be? The founders set it at 14 years and today it can be over 120. That’s kind of ridiculous in a world where every text, every tweet, every Facebook post is copyrighted longer than anyone who writes them will ever live.

The phone unlocking bill is great. But other issues are very closely related and if Congress doesn’t act soon, we’re going to see the ‘Internet of things’ collapse. A great example is that the next Keurig coffee machine is expected to have a digital chip technology built in such that you can’t use any other coffee pod. It would be a felony to use any other coffee pod with it! The technology would be used to stifle competition in the coffee market. This is just the tip of the iceberg because the benefits for existing businesses are overwhelming.

Any final thoughts?

There has been a sea of change in policymaking on copyright on the right since 2012, it’s almost impossible to find any conservatives, other than lobbyists for industry, opposed to substantial reform. The conservative position is we need to restore our founding principles on copyright.


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The Ethics of Disability Metaphors

From the teenage romance between an amputee and an oxygen-tank user in the box-office success The Fault in Our Stars to the conjoined sisters at the circus in the Kennedy Center’s Side Show, representations of disability and difference are prominent as of late. But as Christopher Shinn noted yesterday at The Atlantic, the recent plethora of disabled characters also has another thing in common: they are played by able-bodied actors. Once again, Shinn said, “Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people.”

Disability is often used as a metaphor for exclusion and subsequent triumph, themes easier to swallow when an actor twitches sensitively across the stage for two hours only to walk back calmly for the curtain call. So it goes exactly in the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at London’s National Theatre, currently showing in cinemas worldwide before it heads to Broadway in the fall.

Based on a popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, “Curious Incident” is a family drama packaged as a mystery. It is seen from the perspective of a teenager named Christopher with an autistic spectrum disorder that some reviewers have compared to Asperger’s syndrome. The production uses technical elements, from cool blue lighting to projected numerical graphics to dizzying synthesized sound effects, in order to communicate the experience of sensory overload that accompanies neurological conditions like Christopher’s.

Because this manner of presentation merely informs the audience’s experience of a rather simple plot—the titular incident is a quickly resolved mystery, and most of the second act is a train ride—the play, like the book, seems to run counter to the frequent use of disability as plot obstacle and metaphor for triumph. In fact, Christopher remarks that a metaphor “is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. … I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.”

But in the program note for the stage adaptation of “Curious Incident,” Haddon backtracked. Jane Shilling wrote in her review for The Telegraph, “His 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher, exhibits a constellation of quirks that are recognisably on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘Curious is not really about Christopher,’ Haddon concludes. ‘It’s about us.’”

In navigating the ethical implications of work like Haddon’s, blogger Mary Maxfield suggested that the problem is not using disability as a metaphor, but using disability as a metaphor for the wrong thing. Christopher, a beloved son integrated into his family and school structures, does not fit Shilling’s metaphor for solitariness. Likewise, Haddon’s editorial “us,” unambiguously separated from people with physical and neurological differences, would have the value of certain lived experiences dependent on their contribution to a grander “human experience.”

As Shinn asserts, the inclusion of disabled actors and artists can bring lived experience rather than distant research to the table and facilitate the kind of responsible art Maxfield imagines. But a willingness to tell stories that are about disabled people for their own sake, rather than about disability per se, would be an even more welcome change.


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Autonomy and Automation in Old Age

The world’s fast-growing elderly population faces more age-related disease, higher health costs, and fewer children to care for them than ever, while the resulting caregiver shortage puts them at an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Some medical professionals, like geriatrics professor Louise Aronson, are proposing robots as a solution to both assist overwhelmed human caregivers and replace those guilty of mistreatment, as “most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Aronson’s robotic geriatrics are no fantasy but an existing solution in places like Japan, which has the world’s grayest population and the economic resources available for $100K, yard-tall robots to be feasible. Yet Japan’s relationship with robots shows that making robot caregivers cheaper might not make them any more successful. Japan’s elderly have rejected the robots, asking instead for humans. The only robots with modest success among Japanese elderly have imitated pets, providing limited social engagement rather than medical care and companionship—tasks still preferably assigned to human caregivers.

As Japan shows, the robot caregiver solution does not fail on economic or technological grounds, where boundaries are largely surmountable with time. Rather, turning an intimate job like geriatrics into an automated service sector is a misunderstanding of the profession at hand, which requires both emotional and ethical investment in patients.

Caitrin Nicol Keiper, countering David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots, explained that such encouragement of human-robot intimacy stems from a misunderstanding of the human as mere biochemical machine. The caregiver shortage does not merely stem from a lack of medical aides to perform mechanical tasks, but also an absence of loving companions who ensure the experience of disability and old age is not a solitary one. These robots, after all, are often explicitly designed to counter the negative health effects of loneliness.

But that loneliness has been cemented in a medical and legal culture that is guided above all else by the principle of individual bodily autonomy. Advance directives and living wills allow patients to lay out their medical decisions ahead of time, discouraging the real-time participation of family members or other caregivers in the medical lives of the elderly. As Leon Kass, then chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, reflected in a 2005 report on geriatrics, “Living wills make autonomy and self-determination the primary values at a time of life when one is no longer autonomous or self-determining, and when what one needs is loyal and loving care.”

This cultural reluctance to participate communally in the care of the elderly often expresses itself as avoiding the “burdening” of loved ones. But as Gilbert Meilaender asked in 1991, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?” He continued, “I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.”

As Meilaender and Kass suggest, the central problem is not medical incompetence, or even moral indifference, but a break in generational relationships. Neither the elderly nor their medical professionals want them to be dependent on robots rather than people, but, especially among the childless or otherwise socially disconnected, the aged may have little choice. As such, the inhumanity of Aronson’s geriatrics may not be a particularly medical problem, but a social problem. As long as we culturally insist on autonomy, we will technologically insist on automation.


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Congressional Quirkiness on Display @CongressEdits

Twitter has revolutionized the way constituents interact with their representatives in Congress. Will Wikipedia be the next interactive legislative platform?

If developer and Library of Congress employee Ed Summers’ ideas take off, maybe so. This week, Summers created a bot called @congressedits that tweets out anonymous Wikipedia edits from congressional IP addresses. The account has mainly uncovered the innocuous and the banal, from noting the availability of Choco Tacos in the Rayburn building to correcting grammar in the article for Step Up 3D. However, the account also enables the public to see when staffers vandalize or rewrite politicians’ biographical information, whether updating word choice (Justin Amash is an “attorney,” not a “corporate lawyer”) or casually defaming likely opposition (activist Kesha Rogers is a “Trotskyist”).


Rogue political Wikipedia edits have been controversial before. In 2006, staffers for politicians from Rep. Marty Meehan to Sen. Joe Biden were publicly called out for removing criticism from their bosses’ pages. Wikipedia’s usual crowd of vigilant editors reversed the few problematic edits they found after investigating other congressional activity on the site, but left most edits intact as intended “in good faith.”

But Summers’ project is not a series of overt agendas connected to individual staffers. Its real-time, eerily specific feed of edits streams activity from the entire congressional workforce in what Megan Garber has called a project of “ambient accountability.” Like the earlier controversies, Wikipedia can yet again serve as a proxy for political fights happening elsewhere, but it can also serve as a window into everyday life on the Hill at its most bizarre and inconsequential.

There is a significant online audience for Capitol Hill quirkiness. Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson more or less makes a living off it, while members of Congress have social media interns delving into the ever more surreal with legislative doge memes. The @congressedits project could appeal to both easily amused political junkies and to accountability advocates who see it as an opportunity to expand access to the people that they say should be the government’s most visible and engaged group. Read More…

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Why World Cup Culture Wars Vindicate American Soccer

As more Americans than ever tuned in to watch the World Cup over the past few weeks, the American media’s quadrennial habit of analyzing soccer’s place in the country raged on. Cranky right-wingers, embodied by Ann Coulter’s now-infamous ramble, put forth common criticisms of soccer: it has an insufficient gender gap, allows scoreless ties, prohibits using hands, is foreign and liberal, prioritizes team effort over individual prowess, and constitutes all-around “moral decay.” In the face of such resistance, soccer fans like Daniel Drezner proposed simply changing the rules of the game to assuage his fellow Americans’ sense of fairness, rather than asking Americans to adapt to the game’s delightful capriciousness like the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart and other commentators on the left celebrated the “soccer coalition” of youth, immigrants, and liberals—the same one that elected President Obama, he recalled—proving that Americanness is not contingent upon the white working-class culture idealized by Coulter. In short, Americans loudly participated in a soccer nation’s rite of passage by reading domestic politics into the sport every chance they could get.

Though the debate largely focused on whether soccer could possibly have a place in accepted American identity, this process of political theorizing and contention mirrors the way soccer has been absorbed into other cultures throughout the sport’s history. Americans who chafe at the sport’s European origins join the long tradition of our southern neighbors who idealized the “creolization” of soccer while forming national identity after the Latin American revolutions of the 19th century. In Argentina, soccer was the manifestation of the “melting pot” where Italian and Spanish immigrants took over British cultural imports, a process crafted in the pages of the magazine El Gráfico. In Brazil, soccer was a place to reconcile racial tensions by highlighting diversity as a source of American ingenuity and creativity, superior to formulaic and homogenous European play. The contemporary American media’s ongoing narratives of soccer are similar not just in their obsessive nature, but in the diverse subcultures they are trying to weld together.

Soccer has always come with class connotations that plague burgeoning sports cultures. The prevailing image of soccer, both in the U.S. now and in Latin America a century ago, is of white urban and suburban elites who use the sport to moralize. Soccer was formalized in British public schools in the 19th century in order to promote Victorian morality and “muscular Christianity”—as well as to simply keep boys busy—but it largely came to the Americas as the pastime of the “gentleman-athletes” among British immigrants to South America. The “amateur era” of early 20th century soccer parallels the American “soccer mom” values that encourage teamwork and cooperation in children before moving on to more individualist sports as adults, and it is just as widespread and pejoratively viewed as its predecessor. As American pundits critique this intrusion of foreign collectivist values, they are echoing, among others, 1920s and 1930s Argentines calling for “our own style” (“la nuestra”) to counter and replace British beliefs. Read More…

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Republicans Wreck the Vote

This week, seven college students and voting-rights advocates are challenging a North Carolina voting regulation law, alleging age-based discrimination. They argue that the law, which does not permit state university IDs or out-of-state driver’s licenses as acceptable voter ID and ends a DMV pre-registration program for teenagers, violates the 26th Amendment that enfranchised citizens 18 and over. Separately, efforts to shut down voting sites at universities are adding to complaints that the Republican-dominated state and local governments are deliberately blocking the youth vote, which turned out overwhelmingly for President Obama twice in North Carolina and nationwide.

The irony is, Republicans may be moving to depress the youth vote just when it could be starting to turn in their favor. While the millennials who comprise young voters now look to be strongly Democratic in the short term, David Leonhardt argues that today’s teenagers may grow up conservative:

In the simplest terms, the Democrats control the White House (and, for now, the Senate) at a time when the country is struggling. Economic growth has been disappointing for almost 15 years now. Most Americans think this country is on the wrong track. Our foreign policy often seems messy and complex, at best.

To Americans in their 20s and early 30s — the so-called millennials — many of these problems have their roots in George W. Bush’s presidency. But think about people who were born in 1998, the youngest eligible voters in the next presidential election. They are too young to remember much about the Bush years or the excitement surrounding the first Obama presidential campaign. They instead are coming of age with a Democratic president who often seems unable to fix the world’s problems.

As Leonhardt argues, college students and young voters in general are not inherently liberal groups. In the 1980s, Republicans dominated the youth vote: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won first-time voters, under-29 voters, and voters with some college education by large margins. Those then-young voters remain a consistently Republican constituency, lining up with Leonhardt’s argument that politics are more generational than anything. Young voters are entering the electorate while making their political allegiances in reaction to ongoing policies, forming beliefs that they will carry throughout their lives.

Legislating away unfriendly voters is rarely a productive path to long-term future success for a party seeking democratic legitimacy, and voting blocs generally aren’t courted by efforts to impede their franchise or deny their voting rights. With their gaze fixed firmly backward at their past two presidential setbacks, North Carolina Republicans and their counterparts nationwide are at risk of scoring a series of own goals.

This generation in particular could be a political opportunity ripe for Republicans’ taking. The teenagers who voted in the last election, and those entering the electorate now, are voting increasingly Republican in reaction to the current administration’s failures. A Democratic president that leans interventionist and is misleadingly ineffective on student debt makes for even more fertile ground for conservative alternatives. Rather than trying to inhibit the youth vote, Republicans should craft policy solutions that could serve to swing young voters to their side and take advantage of their momentum.

Instead, the GOP seems to be one step behind the data, once more.


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Gangs Bust the False Dichotomies of the Child Migration Crisis

The ongoing Central American child migrant crisis gained the national spotlight last week when the president asked Congress for emergency funds to stem the influx. Many of the children, like other immigrants, are looking for work and education, or are trying to reunite with family. But as Ross Douthat has pointed out, the numbers are spiking in large part because the children are following smuggler-spread rumors of amnesty, possibly inspired by the mixed signals of the DREAM Act. Since smugglers make more profit trafficking children than more logistically challenging adults, the administration’s recent efforts to counter the misinformation have not gone far.

The language surrounding the crisis on the U.S. side of the border can be almost as confused, however. As the crisis made headlines, one false dichotomy dominated the rest: “Please don’t call this an immigration reform issue. This is a humanitarian crisis,” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas recently said. Refugee advocate Jennifer Podkul was quick to echo the juxtaposition. “This is not a migration issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and a foreign policy issue.”

The rush to call this anything but an immigration story is usually intended to highlight the root causes of poverty and violence in Central America. Rhetorically, it creates urgency and helps encourage a distinction between short-term solutions for children suffering at the border and long-term solutions to reform the system.

In reality, though, those are not competing frameworks. The child migration situation is both a humanitarian crisis and a migration issue, and it cannot be resolved without taking both aspects into consideration. A prime example of the importance of both priorities can be found in the motivating factor in this child migration influx that most defies easy categorization: the proliferation of gang violence in Central America.

Central American child migrants widely cite gang violence as a motivation for leaving their countries, and the gangs they flee are fundamentally tied up in the migration issue. The most prominent Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (“MS-13”) and 18th Street Gang (“Calle 18”), began among Latino youth in Los Angeles in the 1960s and the 1980s respectively, but both expanded from the United States to Central America after mass deportations following the 1996 Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This migration policy decision fomented cross-border crime networks that now have an estimated 70,000-100,000 members in several countries.

The gang violence plaguing these children does not just illustrate the long-term consequences of immigration policy, but also the reason for considering this in international refugee terms. As many as 48 percent of Central American child migrants are fleeing violence in their communities, including the violence gangs perpetrate in their recruitment of adolescents. Central American minors specifically seeking international protection as refugees from persecution in the form of gang violence have won asylum in the U.S. in the past. The gangs’ sheer scope, as transnational criminal organizations and sometimes paramilitaries, has led some advocates to describe the child migrants as akin to defecting child soldiers. Read More…

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When Baltimore Bore the “Bombs Bursting in Air”

Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland.
Francis Scott Key standing on boat, with right arm stretched out toward the United States flag flying over Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland.

Today, the United States of America commemorates 238 years of independence from the British—but an approaching bicentennial serves as a reminder that the struggle to establish sovereignty was only beginning when the Declaration of Independence was written. During the summer of 1814, the United States was in the full throes of what historians have long considered a “second war of independence.” The turning point of that war would come at the Battle of Baltimore, known to most Americans today as the inspiration for the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The invading British had just burned the White House and plundered the port of Alexandria. On August 27, the Baltimore Patriot printed a letter from President James Madison, who had recently fled from the burning capital:

“On an occasion which appeals so forcibly to the proud feelings and patriotic devotion of the American people, none will forget what they owe to themselves; what they owe to their country and the high destinies which await it; what to the glory acquired by their fathers, in establishing the independence which is now to be maintained by their sons, with the augmented strength and resources with which time and Heaven have blessed them.”

The letter was addressed to the whole nation, but its exhortation to preserve the young nation’s independence was keenly felt in the notoriously anti-British city of Baltimore. The city was then known for its privateers, who raided British ships’ merchandise, as well as for a series of anti-British riots during which mobs burned the offices of anti-war newspapers. Baltimore was also of great strategic importance as a busy port that connected several East Coast cities by land and sea. The city’s residents were perhaps uniquely prepared for such an invasion due to their strong local tradition of civic self-defense. After the riots, local elites had recognized the authorities’ failure to keep the crowds under control and independently organized patrols of armed citizens to assist in expanding the city’s defensive resources.

But the events of the summer of 1814 pushed the city to formalize their efforts more strongly. After news of the fall of Washington, Baltimoreans set up a Committee of Vigilance and Safety comprised of the existing Maryland militia as well as civilians who served as volunteers on a rotating night patrol. Besides the night watch, the Committee was also responsible for raising funds for the local war effort, which generally took the form of donating at each prominent community center (usually a local tavern). A prescient Washingtonian wrote to Baltimore’s American and Commercial Daily Advertiser: “If the British visit Baltimore I have no doubt you will receive them in American style—we are disgraced.”

The local militia was particularly focused on unity in the face of the national military’s failure. The biggest blow to military success was the strategic blunder made by the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, who was thoroughly convinced that the British would not attack Washington. He saw the city as strategically insignificant, so he failed to prepare for its defense, which ended up drawing military resources to the region in a scrambled last-minute effort. Armstrong resigned after the defeat at Washington, but the local militia were already prepared to count on themselves for the most part. When his resignation letter made it to Baltimore, along with a full account of the disastrous battle, publishers refrained from comment and blame games. Invoking patriotism, the editor of the Baltimore Patriot proclaimed: “An enquiry must be made–when the nation is saved.” This restrained attitude continued through the city’s preparations for war, as the staff printed assurances of the city’s proper defense without giving particulars for fear of over-informing the enemy.

Morale quickly increased as the British made their way back north. A Revolutionary War veteran wrote in to the Baltimore Patriot encouraging the militia: “Be ready to suffer every thing, to attempt every thing in submission to Providence.” It ran alongside an account of the Maryland militia’s bravery in repulsing a surprise British attack in the Battle of Caulk’s Field, just a few miles across the river from Baltimore. The militia’s ability to fend off the British without any national military aid from the Army was a particularly hopeful sign for the Baltimoreans, who were preparing to engage an empire with a force of mainly armed citizens rather than professional soldiers.

The local militia took the brunt of the British force at the initial land engagement when the battle began on September 12 at North Point outside Baltimore. Though the Marylanders ended up retreating, they did major damage to the British forces, killing one of their commanders and scattering the remaining units into confusion. This allowed the national military, mainly the Army infantry under Major George Armistead, time to mount their famous defense of Fort McHenry against the bombardment of the Royal Navy.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” may only describe the more picturesque battle at sea, but the story of the song itself tells the full tale. Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer on a mercy mission to secure the release of an imprisoned American doctor, watched the Army defend the fort while detained on a British ship. He began scribbling away his famous poem there, but he did not finish it until he arrived at the tavern where he would stay the night.

The tavern, called the Indian Queen and maintained by hotelier John Gadsby, had been the central gathering point for the appointment of patrols after the riots. It had hosted the militia as they trained over the course of the war. It had been a neighborhood headquarters for the Committee of Vigilance and Safety. It was the perfect manifestation of the local effort that saved Baltimore behind the scenes of Key’s star-spangled tale. The tavern is a reminder that in Key’s famous words, it was not just a country, but a city, that was “the home of the brave.”


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