Institutions and Trump

I’ve seen pages of digital ink spilled about whether or not our institutions are strong enough to stop the worst of Trump, and just the other day had a conversation where I was told that he was President now, and that we had to trust the system.  Obviously, putting any trust in the “institutions” or “systems” that have already allowed Trump to take power is wrongheaded in the extreme.  But here’s the other thing that anyone who suggests that we calm down, stop over reacting, and trust in our institutions gets wrong.

Institutions are made of people.  They are not living, breathing, sentient beings in and of themselves.  Institutions are created by and sustained by people, and the decisions we make everyday.  Courts can’t stop Donald Trump without people freaking out and filing lawsuits, the free press doesn’t work without people aggressively seeking and reporting the truth, elected officials will too often take the easiest path and so Congress won’t hold anyone accountable without people protesting, marching, and attending townhalls.  Democracy does not just happen on its own through “institutions” chugging along.  Civil rights, extension of voting rights, exposure of corruption, the continuation of democracy, the all happen because people make the institutions work, force them to if necessary.

The protests you see are the institutions working.  Every massive social change and progress in the United States or elsewhere in the world that has been accomplished peacefully is because people trust the systems that are in place, but know that they must be prodded, shored up, protected, or forced to act.  Civil disobedience, protests, and lawsuits show trust in institutions, and that society will do the right thing.  Without that trust you get violent revolution or terrorism, depending on what side you support.  But trust doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility.  It means working through the institutions.  That’s what civil rights heroes, suffragettes, muckrakers, and early unions did.

As the saying goes, democracy is not a spectator sport.  And it should not just happen every four years.  If you don’t like what’s happening, but think things will work out because we’re America, you are wrong.  America works because Americans make it work-and because we are lucky enough to have the tools to make change.  Don’t just trust the institutions, use them.

It’s Never about Race, Right?

I saw this linked to on a friend’s facebook page last week:  “Don’t support laws you aren’t willing to kill to enforce.”  The gist of the article can be summed up here

On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce. Usually they greet this advice with something between skepticism and puzzlement, until I remind them that the police go armed to enforce the will of the state, and if you resist, they might kill you.

The general point, one that I saw repeated by plenty of libertarian acquaintances after Eric Garner’s death, is that the real problem, the real reason that Eric Garner was killed, is that we have too many laws.  No one should have been killed over selling loose cigarettes, they agree, but that is just an inevitable consequence of having a law against selling loose cigarettes.  Follow things through to their logical conclusions.  Surprisingly, I saw this come up again after Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore protests, when a friend quoted Rand Paul* as saying that 80% of the problem was that we had too many laws on the books.

I’m rather amazed to see this getting this amount of play.  Firstly, it is obviously incorrect that we cannot support any law unless we would be okay if someone died for violating the law.  Off the top of my head, I support, and I expect most Americans do as well, laws against speeding, against petty theft, against breaking and entering, and running a red light, even though I wouldn’t be willing to kill to enforce any of those.  (Actually, since I’m anti-death penalty, and generally a supporter of nonviolence, I suppose I can’t support any laws?)

Secondly, though, the problem is not just that we have laws on the books.  The problem is which laws are enforced and which are not, and to whom the laws are applied.  When Eric Garner is dead and Cliven Bundy is still a free man it’s not about the laws.  When riding a bike while black is a crime in Tampa, and officers looking at “broken windows” barely even show up in white neighborhoods–where I guarantee many people still have broken taillights on their bikes and teenagers occasionally have drugs–the problem is not that there are certain laws on the books.

I will acknowledge and agree that we have some pretty terrible laws that we should eliminate and that it would help a great deal towards alleviating structural racism.  The War on Drugs comes to mind.  But really, we shouldn’t make this more complicated than it is.  We shouldn’t be looking for excuses.  I know that we don’t want this to be about race, since it’s Never About Race.  But in Ferguson the 67% African American population made up 93% of the arrests.    North Miami Beach cops used black mugshots for target practice.  And then there’s everything related to stop and frisk.

In most of these cases, cops have stopped people for little to no reason.  And in the tragic cases of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, the cops saw a black child or a black man with a pretend gun and assumed that he was dangerous, not because of a petty violation.   Maybe it’s time to start casting about for any other explanation, and admit that maybe it is About Race.

*I know, right?

One Market, Under God

One Market Under God

One Market Under God

One Market, Under GodThomas Frank

Oh, Thomas Frank.  Returning to things that one loved in high school and college when you’re reading them as an adult is always a little bit scary.  After all, what if you don’t like them anymore?  I loved Thomas Frank in college, partly because one of my favorite professors did, and I still have a heavily underlined and margin-noted copy of Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler on my bookshelf.  But reading One Market Under God, a book I’d somehow missed the first time around, I was left wondering: was I wrong then, or am I wrong now?

In this case, it might be a little of both (or rather, neither. I do hate being wrong.)  One of the big challenges, of course, is that the world has changed.  One Market Under God was written for a different world, in 2000.  Life always changes, and I actually often enjoy political works written a decade or more ago, since I think it’s very good for our historical memory.  However, some books hold up better than others.  Any book that tends to argue repeatedly that there is no difference between the two parties is going to look a little foolish now that we’ve had nearly 15 years of evidence to the contrary.  And it’s especially painful to read for those of us who volunteered for Nader in a swing state in 2000 and still feel the need to make penance.

When it comes to the economy, of course, the parties are closer together than any of us would like, and in 2000 there didn’t seem to be any home at all for those who were concerned about growing inequality and the perils of globalization.  There is still a challenge for many of us, but it’s difficult to understand how different the debate about the Trans Pacific Partnership is than the debate was over NAFTA and globalization in the 90s.  There was barely even any acknowledgement that there was a debate, and anyone who disagreed with the shape of the debate or saw problems with globalization was a radical, an anarchist, a naive youngster, or a lazy unionist who didn’t want competition.  It was absolutely a surreal time, and the more people willing to join in shouting that things were not perfect-pointing to growing inequality, the horrible conditions that lack of labor laws made possible, or potential critiques of the International Monetary Fund-the better.

The problem with Frank is that he never really gets beyond shouting.  His argument critique is not to gather proof or numbers or facts, but merely to use big words and sarcasm to say what he thinks.  And since much of what he’s doing is cultural critique, it’s never quite obvious why we’re supposed to agree with his view of culture rather than others.  Take, for example this paragraph from page 122, where he’s criticizing the rise of interest in day traders and financial advice shows:

Before long the changes underway began to impress themselves on financial commentators of established wisdom and discernment, and the first of what would prove to be an exceedingly long series of hymns, hosannahs, and praise-God-almightys began to pour forth from the organs of cultural and financial orthodoxy: The People and Wall Street have come together at last!  As fell the Berlin Wall, so had fallen that nasty, un-American idea of social class!….The soaring popularity of the mutual fund was, in particular, a sign that equality had trumped hierarchy…..

And so on and so forth for another 6 pages…. in that section.  The entire book is written in that vein, though, strictly through argument by assertion.  I can tell by his tone that Frank disagrees that the Market ushered in an era of democratization, but there’s very little in the book to actually show that.  My AP History teacher would never have let me get away with something like that, and that would only have been in an essay a few pages long.  It’s a very thin premise to build a 373 book upon.

So, with regret, I have to say goodbye to Thomas Frank.  I’ll certainly keep Salvos on my bookshelf, if for no other reason than nostalgia, and to be reminded of political argument in the 90s.  But I doubt I’ll be reading anything new.