Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Minimum Effort

With Seattle set to raise its minimum wage to fifteen bucks an hour and the Democrats making a rise in the minimum wage a campaign issue, the debate seems to have been won by those who think it’s a good idea for the government to mandate a minimum level of compensation for workers. I’m not sure it is; I’ve written about this before, arguing that jobs are lost at the low end of the scale, i.e. among the neediest and most vulnerable workers, when a minimum is imposed. A lot of people agree with me; a lot of others don’t. Everybody’s got a study or two supporting their point of view. I’m not sure the question can be settled by studies; with a large, dynamic system like an economy it’s easy to cherry-pick data and hard to control for variables. People find data to support what they want to believe. That doesn’t mean there’s no right answer; it probably means it’s yet another messy real-world issue involving trade-offs.

The Congressional Budget Office came out with a study earlier this year that both sides are citing. To summarize, the study concluded that there is a trade-off between job losses and raised income levels for people who keep their jobs, with more people raised above the poverty line than lose their jobs. In both cases the percentages we’re talking about are relatively small; a high minimum wage will neither solve the poverty problem nor throw everybody out of work.

I’m glad to see acknowledgement of the trade-off; many advocates of a high minimum wage refuse to acknowledge any negative effects at all. If we’re talking about weighing costs against benefits, we’ve made progress. Too often, anybody expressing doubts about a high minimum wage is demonized as not caring about the poor.

I’m well aware that a lot of people with jobs have a tough time making ends meet. This could be because stingy employers aren’t paying them as much as they deserve, or it could be because they’re in a low-skills job at a low-margin business and there just ain’t enough money in that line of work. When the Chicago Tribune asked a cafe owner what his response to a higher minimum wage would be, he said, “If they raise the minimum wage to ten dollars, I’ll have to close.” Take that, you robber baron.

I think the best thing to do for people who think they are not paid enough is to ask around and find out whether they really have a case. If so, if it looks like their employers are raking in the money while not paying the workers enough to live on, then the best thing to do is good old-fashioned labor action. Organize. Strike if you have to. Call me a left-wing firebrand, but that’s a better response than a government-imposed minimum, because local conditions vary, and there’s no reason to assume that there’s one correct wage level for the whole country.

So I’m not opposed to workers getting the maximum they reasonably can from employers. I’m not even opposed to unions taking up their cause. I am dubious about legislative fixes that require us to decide if raising 900,000 people above the poverty line is worth throwing 500,000 people out of work. (See the CBO study.) There are better ways to keep employers honest than a law that undermines its own credibility by including an extensive list of exemptions. (Here is the one for the federal minimum wage.)

In any event, I suspect we’re about to get another data-gathering opportunity for rival studies as the pendulum swings toward rising minimum wages. I don’t have the numbers to say it’s wrong, and I’m willing to look at the evidence. All I ask is that reporters work just as hard to find the people who lose their jobs to the minimum wage as they have worked to find people who have a hard time living on it.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Freedom and venom

Steven Salaita is having his fifteen minutes of fame. Salaita is a Palestinian-American college professor whose academic field is Native American studies. Last summer he was offered a faculty position at the University of Illinois in Champaign and then had the offer withdrawn because of some sentiments he expressed on Twitter during the Israeli attack on Gaza. The university board of trustees was alerted to the tweets and decided Salaita was not a good addition to the team. The rescinding of the offer set off a firestorm of debate over academic freedom, freedom of speech and related matters, not to mention the usual mutual insults between supporters of Israel and Palestine. Salaita is now suing the university and has embarked on a speaking tour, having achieved martyr status.

I took a look at the tweets, out of curiosity. There are a lot of them. It’s clear right away where Salaita stands, with regard to Palestine and with regard to the big picture. He is pro-Palestine, anti-Israel; he also espouses an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial world view that sees this conflict as just another chapter in the long-running struggle of indigenous peoples to free themselves from corporate-sponsored imperialism.

That’s not a particularly new or unusual viewpoint; it’s well-represented in our universities. So why did the U. of I. trustees pull back? Well, consider this tweet from July 19: Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. Hmm... We begin to see what raised those trustee eyebrows.

Immediately there were the usual accusations of anti-Semitism and the usual indignant denials. It should go without saying that criticism of Israel is not tantamount to anti-Semitism; it is also true that people who don’t like Jews find convenient cover among Israel’s critics. You have to take a look at cases.

So I took a look. It wasn’t much fun, because it’s no fun reading hateful speech. I don’t know if it was hate speech by the definition the left uses, but it sure was hateful. Even allowing for genuine anguish as children died in Gaza, Salaita sounds a little unhinged. If Adam Lanza joined IDF he would be considered a hero by the US. Uh, OK. (Adam Lanza was the guy who killed all those school kids in Connecticut.)

Fuck you, #Israel. And while I'm at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS. You sure you didn’t miss anybody? Salaita is not shy about the f-word, in one tweet addressing a critic as “motherfucker.”

That last one shows that Salaita casts a wide net; here’s what he thinks about the U.S.’s role: The US is knee-deep into both #Israel and #ISIS, along with every other armed outfit in the Arab World. This sectarianism isn't spontaneous. Yeah, we’re behind ISIS, too.

OK, the hysterical edge aside, this is fairly standard stuff. As support for #Palestine increases, let's remember to situate our analyses in broader frameworks of class, race, and state violence. Most of what Salaita posted wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the farther reaches of the political left.

Salaita is even careful at times to make clear that he’s not mad at the Jews: I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs. And a few of his tweets are downright rational: Solutions to #Israel/#Palestine are complicated? How about, "Everybody gets treated equally under the law"? Doesn't get simpler than that. Once he even conceded something astonishing: The mass suicide "Hamas" is curating in #Gaza will soon surpass the death toll at Jonestown.

But too often Salaita just misses rationality or spoils it at the last second: I don't seek community with others based on fixed identifications: race, religion, culture, etc. You're either cool or a dick. That's all. Oh, well, then. Cool or a dick? And dick is defined politically? Who the hell does this guy think his audience is? Did he think this would impress the U. of I. trustees? And at a time when pro-Palestinian protesters in Germany are shouting “Hamas, Hamas; Jews to the gas!”,” even joking that anti-Semitism is honorable is edging perilously close to the hate speech the left claims to abhor.

Look, the problem is not Salaita’s views, though that’s the narrative he’ll be peddling for the rest of his time in the spotlight. There are plenty of people with his views on American university faculties. The problem is that, in a moment of crisis when even many people who support Israel were agonizing over its actions in Gaza, Steven Salaita dashed to abandon the high moral ground and vent an all-too obvious hatred that has to call into question his ability to engage in the dispassionate rational discourse that ought to be the stock in trade of a university.

I have a number of Palestinian friends. Several of them were active on social media during the Gaza war. Their anger and anguish were evident, but I didn’t see hatred in the things they were posting and sharing. There were any number of pro-peace and pro-Palestinian groups frantically spreading news of what was going on in Gaza, but I didn’t see anything that looked to me like hatred-- until I looked at Steven Salaita’s tweets.

My Palestinian friends may well hate Israel, for all I know, but they are rational enough to know that that’s a private matter. It has no place in public debate. Salaita doesn’t know that. He is a poor mascot for free speech, since he is clearly not interested in what anybody else may have to say. It’s not his views that disqualify him; it’s the abuse.

He is, of course, free to express those views; he’s even free to indulge in the abuse. Nobody is questioning his right to send out those tweets. But the University of Illinois is not obliged to hire a man who is clearly incapable of respecting opposing views. Steven Salaita will have you believe that he is the victim of a Zionist conspiracy to silence dissent, but the truth is that he is a victim of his own intemperance.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Judgment and humility

I went to a wake this week. The deceased was a former policeman and a former criminal. Yeah, both of them. He had been a crooked cop with close ties to organized crime. There were a lot of people at the wake; the man had a lot of friends. In addition to the ordinary assortment of people you see at any funeral, there were a number of rough-looking guys there. Some of them were cops. Others were criminals.

I was there to pay my respects because the deceased and I had collaborated on a book. I’m not going to give you his name because the purpose of this piece is not to promote the book. Instead I want to talk about my complicated feelings about the man, our relationship, and the judgments we make about people.

I’m a law and order guy; I have a brother who’s a cop and another brother who’s a prosecutor. We were raised in a religious household with clear-cut attitudes toward right and wrong. I’ve never felt much sympathy for criminals. And crooked cops have always occupied a particularly low place on my scale of infamy. Betrayal is a powerful aggravating factor.

When an acquaintance e-mailed me a few years ago asking if I would be interested in sitting down with a mob-connected ex-policeman who was looking for a writer to help him do a book, I said yes, with some trepidation. I had never met an actual professional criminal and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to. The last line of the e-mail read: “He’s a nice guy.” That piqued my curiosity; we were talking about a hoodlum, weren’t we? I gave it a little thought and decided I had to at least meet him.

When I did, I was immediately hooked by his story. This was a man who had rubbed elbows with organized crime his whole life, been close to some of its most notorious figures, and protected its interests as a serving police officer. It was the type of story that shocks us and fascinates us at the same time.

My prospective co-author told it all with self-deprecating humor. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, but I knew that there was an interesting project here that I would be foolish to pass up. We agreed to begin work as soon as I had spoken to my agent about preparing a collaboration agreement. Over the succeeding months I got 150,000 words of interviews transcribed and cut and shaped into a book. He was frank about his own misdeeds; he was frank about the culture of corruption that he had participated in, with enthusiasm. He cheerfully admitted doing things that appalled me. He didn’t wallow in remorse but neither did he make excuses.

He was generous, funny, courteous and good-humored, if a little rough around the edges sometimes. I wound up liking him quite a bit, in spite of my scruples. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that. “A lot of criminals are charismatic,” my brother the prosecutor told me, by way of a warning against being taken in by his act. I don’t think I was taken in; I cross-checked, fact-checked, prodded and challenged him. I know he wasn’t a choir boy. But he was, as advertised, a nice guy.

That’s not the same as being a good man. I can’t say he was a good man. But I could tell he knew what a good man was, and increasingly, as he saw the consequences of the life he had chosen, including a federal prison term and half a dozen friends slain in gangland killings, he knew he could have been a better one. His father had not been a criminal, and he was haunted by the sense of having failed his father.

We sold the book, got an advance, met with the publisher and started planning the promotional campaign. The book is scheduled for release next year. On a sunny day in late August, my co-author had a severe stroke in front of his house. After lingering for a few weeks in critical condition, he passed away.

I had met his family in the course of doing the book, and I went to the wake for his wife and his children as much as for anything else. His wife knew what he was all those years, and you could call her complicit, but he loved her and they raised a family together and she stood by him when he went to jail. Their children are productive, law-abiding citizens. They loved their father, and they’re hurting. They’re entitled to mourn him, even if his life was in many ways a moral failure.

I had a grandfather who was a racist; he hated black people. That’s a moral failure, too. But it didn’t stop me from loving my grandfather. People are complicated, and we can deplore things they do while cherishing things that redeem them. We are entitled to judge people; we have to, in fact. We have to teach our children right and wrong and hold them accountable. But we should judge with humility. Scorn does not encourage redemption.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Better together?

The Scots have voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and there seems to be a consensus, outside Scottish nationalist circles at any rate, that this was the right call. The prospect of breaking up a centuries-old nation-state at the heart of the developed world was keeping a lot of people awake at night.

Scotland is not the only place where sovereignty disputes are making headlines. In Catalonia the debate is still peaceful, if heated, while in eastern Ukraine there’s a shooting war going on over who should be in charge. Sovereignty is about who should collect the taxes and make the rules, but more deeply it’s about who commands enough loyalty to get people to risk their lives in a fight. The issues are as tangled as the populations.

The apparent orderliness of maps, with their sharp lines between different colored nation-states, obscures the messiness of real-world ethnic and linguistic groups that spill over imaginary borders and mingle in cosmopolitan cities. The idea that if you live in Spain you are Spanish and if you live in Russia you are Russian was always too simple, but the modern ethnically defined nation-state, as it emerged in the nineteenth century and gradually replaced the old feudal idea of diverse communities owing allegiance to a monarch, seemed a reasonable response to the need for large organizational units in a rapidly globalizing world.

A nation-state might be best understood as a defense alliance; when the Huns come sweeping in from the steppes, the more towns you can draw on for volunteers the better your chances are. Of course, aggression is also enabled by bringing more towns under your control; either way the nation-state was designed to consolidate power. And to wield power you need an organizing principle; a common language and culture seemed a reasonable one to adopt.

But the ethnic map is too complex and fragmented to fit with the map of consolidated power. And nobody likes being ruled by foreigners. Centralizing governments repressed regional cultures to varying degrees, leading to today’s map with a relatively homogenized France next to a restive, unreconciled Spain and the unhappy marriage of Belgium next to a fairly successfully unified federal Germany.

What’s the proper approach? Do the Scots and Catalans deserve their own country? What about the Flemish? Was the unification of Italy under Garibaldi a mistake? For that matter, is the EU a mistake? Is it possible to reverse course and go back to smaller, more homogeneous political units? If so, what happens to Britain’s national debt and the million or so residents of Barcelona who are not of Catalan descent?

I don’t have answers, but we can think about principles. One thing we can say for sure is that if we’re going to avoid more of what’s happening in Ukraine, we’re going to have to compromise; not everybody’s going to get everything they want.

There is an inherent tension between the desirability of broader global networks and the need for citizens to identify with the governments that rule them. The European Union has brought great benefits in increased trade and mobility while arousing great resentment as people sense that decisions involving their quality of life are increasingly made in Brussels rather than in their national capitals. Sovereignty requires loyalty, and bureaucrats don’t inspire loyalty. Britain can still get young men to risk their lives for Queen and country (even Scots!), but who is willing to die for Brussels?

The solution to most sovereignty disputes would seem to be some kind of federalism. But there are various models of federalism with varying degrees of success. A successful federation will accommodate local aspirations while inspiring loyalty at the federal level. Ask an American what his nationality is and the answer probably won’t be “I’m a Kansan.” The United States successfully inspires loyalty to the federation as a whole. The same is probably true of Switzerland or Germany.

The UK is not a federal state but may be moving toward that with more devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum; protracted debates lie ahead. (Home rule for England?) Federalism may be the answer in Spain, which has granted a great degree of regional autonomy to its least contented regions but is still constitutionally a unitary state. But then the Franco dictatorship and its efforts to forcibly stamp out regionalism may be too recent for Catalans and Basques who see a better future for their countries as independent states in a federal Europe.

Which would, of course, bring its own problems of sovereignty. The hope for a peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes rests on the degree to which democratic habits of open debate and willingness to compromise prevail. An imperfect solution can be accepted as legitimate as long as the process that gets there is seen as fair. Ultimately, sovereignty is less important than a commitment to the open society.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Islamic Reformation

With their mass executions of prisoners, enslavement of women, threats of genocide against non-Muslims and webcast beheadings of hostages, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or simply the Islamic State as it now styles itself, has established a new benchmark for savagery. These people are, as I heard it put, cartoonishly evil.

It is difficult to imagine what the ISIS leadership thinks it is accomplishing with its provocations; they have already succeeded in prodding a reluctant American administration into military action. Osama Bin Laden’s attack on New York in 2001 hardened western attitudes toward Islam and provoked a reaction that killed thousands of Muslims and radically destabilized the Middle East. ISIS appears to have concluded that another round of violent Western intervention is a good thing. Sober judgment does not appear to be a notable characteristic of jihadists.

There are many difficult calls to make in judging a proper response to ISIS. First, of course, it’s necessary to determine how great a danger it actually poses. Columnist Steven Chapman says action against ISIS will be “another unnecessary war against an overblown foe.” ISIS has established a solid base in northern Syria and swept aside feeble opposition in northern Iraq, but the question for Western leaders is how durable its reign of terror will be and to what extent it can export its violence.

Prudence would seem to dictate that the threat of murderous attacks exported from an ISIS statelet be taken seriously. Survivors in New York, London and Madrid can attest to the lethality of jihadist plots. Some kind of concerted action on the part of the civilized world is certainly warranted; Barack Obama’s attempt to organize a broad-based coalition including Arab as well as Western governments seems a sound approach. A military campaign to reverse ISIS’s territorial gains and degrade its capabilities seems achievable.

But the military effort is only the start. The long-term struggle is to win the cultural war, to defuse the appeal of jihadist ideology in a deeply unsettled world. In the West, opinion seems to gravitate toward either of two competing factions, one claiming that Islam itself is at the heart of the problem, the other apparently desperate to avoid offending Muslims by recognizing any religious element. (“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.)

Of course they are Muslims, and the fact is significant. But it is also true that the latest ISIS outrages have sparked a backlash in the Muslim world, with religious leaders denouncing the group and ordinary Muslims defiantly burning the black ISIS flag on YouTube. ISIS is clearly Islamic, but that does not mean that ISIS is Islam.

The truth is that ISIS, or more generally jihadism, is the latest incarnation of utopian totalitarianism, an ideological virus that may go dormant but never dies. It just mutates and looks for a likely host.

The twentieth century saw the rise and defeat, at great cost, of two totalitarian ideologies. Fascism, a nationalist strain, was destroyed in the Second World War, and Communism, an internationalist variant, expired as a viable system at the end of the Cold War. But the totalitarian temptation is always with us, and now, in the 21st century, it comes linked to a world religion with a billion and a half adherents.

There are reasons for that, and it’s important to understand them. It’s not an adequate response merely to say, “They are not Muslims” for fear of offending constituents. Though jihadism does not invalidate Islam, the Islamic element of jihadism is not an accident.

In Europe, the idea that church and state are best separated, with religion left to the individual conscience, was a hard-won consequence of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. The religious fanaticism and brutal theocracies we see now in the Muslim world would have looked familiar to any European five hundred years ago. Religious wars laid waste to Europe and religious persecution chased whole communities to a different continent before a consensus for the secular state became one of the foundations of modernity.

Islam never underwent a Reformation; the Muslim world has never internalized any concept of separation of mosque and state. “Islam is a nation,” I was told by a Palestinian friend once, an educated, tolerant, forward-looking Muslim who worked as an interpreter at a U.S. embassy. I have no doubt that he is horrified by ISIS. But the idea that Islam is a nation is a pre-modern idea, and if Muslims are to attain modernity they are going to have to find a new way to think about their faith.

That need not mean rejecting their faith; I have known enough Muslims whose integrity is obviously derived from their religious beliefs to know that Islam itself is not the enemy. But I think it’s time for the Reformation; I believe that the Muslim equivalent of the Thirty Years’ War has begun. I only hope, fervently, that it doesn’t take thirty years.

Meanwhile, jihadism attracts the same type of wayward and vicious young male that was attracted to the fascist gangs in Italy and Germany and the Bolshevik shock troops in Russia. Society always throws up a certain number of thugs, and some of them are happy to find a justification for their thuggery. Ideology has the power to make even decent people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, and when combined with a native penchant for violence it produces the type of man who cheerfully slits another man’s throat on camera.

These are our enemies, and they have to be fought. They will have to be defeated militarily, but just as important they will have to be discredited ideologically. And that will involve making distinctions about Islam, respecting the Islam embraced in good faith by peaceable millions while emphatically rejecting its totalitarian variety and insisting on a debate about the role of Islam in society. Modernity will come to the Islamic world; how soon and how thoroughly is yet to be determined.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Monday, October 21, 2013

Redskins on the Warpath

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder insists he is not going to change the team’s name. In the face of mounting criticism of the time-honored nickname, which many insist is a racial slur, Snyder refuses to budge, saying the name is not intended to be offensive and has decades of tradition behind it.

I’m surprised it has taken this long for the debate to catch up with the Redskins; most college teams with Indian-themed names and emblems were ambushed by this years ago. Colleges, which are of course hotbeds of fervent political correctness, have often caved in to the pressure, with Stanford leading the way in 1972 by ditching the relatively respectful “Indians” for “Cardinals” and subsequently the singular and baffling “Cardinal.” It is, they say, a color, and that’s something we can all root for without fear of offending.

I tend to roll my eyes when the ethnic dignity fanatics get going; I think too much can be made of what is intended to be a compliment, if a playful one. After all, you don’t call your team the Vikings because Nordic raiders were known for fainting at times of stress. To most of us, the American Indians, whatever other baggage they carry, represent ferocity, courage and endurance, qualities we hope our teams can at least fake.

However, like Charles Krauthammer, I’m not totally insensitive to the feelings of the people whose names get appropriated. In the first place, it’s interesting that we only adopt mascots when they are no longer threatening, i.e. when they are defeated. I don’t think too many Texas high schoolers thought Indians were cute when the Comanches were still cutting up settlers just over the rise, and I don’t think the good citizens of Havana would have named a baseball team the Pirates when Henry Morgan was still ravaging the Cuban coast. Can you imagine an Israeli soccer team called the Fedayeen? Somehow I don’t think we’re going to see that for a while. By the time a group gets adopted as a team symbol, they’re pretty much finished as an active fighting force. And maybe if you’re the one who got defeated, you see that adoption, however intended, as just rubbing it in.

I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to adopt Indian themes for sports teams, but I do think you have to be aware of history. And I think that if you are going to let a bunch of suburban white kids (or professional athletes) pretend to be Indians, you have to at least have a little respect. And Redskins... boy, I don’t know. Just change the damn name to the Washington Warriors, keep the logo (which, to be fair, is a lot more respectful than that silly cartoon Cleveland Indian) and be done with it. The diehards can keep calling them the Redskins the way Canadiens fans talk about the Habs and Pirates fans talk about the Bucs, but it won’t be the official name. Everybody will be happy.

But OK, Daniel Snyder doesn’t want to change it, and he’s the boss. Let’s take him at his word: nobody intends “Redskins” to be offensive. I’m willing to let him and all the fans keep the name if they show their respect in other ways, and here’s what I propose.

The Washington Redskins made $104.3 million last year. That’s income minus expenses, i.e. profit. Meanwhile, out on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota nation, alcoholism is an existential threat for the defeated people we call the Sioux and mythologize as a great tribe of warriors. Anpetu Luta Otipi is an alcohol and drug treatment center at Pine Ridge that gratefully accepts donations of clothing, bedclothes and toiletries. What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ annual profit would it take to assure that Anpetu Luta Otipi doesn’t have to go begging for basic necessities for its patients? Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota serves 1,800 students, mostly from Pine Ridge. It’s not exactly Harvard, and its endowment is somewhat smaller, but it trains teachers, nurses, social workers and technicians in an attempt, as its motto says, to “rebuild the Lakota nation through education.” What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ profits would it take to meet the needs of the nursing department for one year? Or fund a few fellowships for promising graduates to go on for advanced degrees?

I say let Daniel Snyder call his team whatever he wants, as long as he shows a little concern for the real people who have lent his business their image. Putting some of his money where his mouth is would go a long way toward co-opting the opposition. Of course, my suspicion is that the closer Daniel Snyder got to real redskins the less comfortable he would be with the name of his football team. And then maybe even people at Pine Ridge would cheer for the Washington Warriors.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Disgusted

I’m disgusted with our political scene these days, so disgusted it’s hard even to think about it let alone write about it, but I do have two casual thoughts on the current government shutdown and the tussle over Obamacare:

1. When Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators walked out back in 2011 to prevent a vote on a bill they opposed, turning the state capitol in Madison over to either mob rule or a stirring people’s protest movement, depending on your point of view, I called them on it. I said if they didn’t like the bill, even if they didn’t like the Republican governor’s tactics, the thing to do was to show up and cast their votes and then constitute a principled and tenacious opposition until they could persuade the electorate to give them a majority. That’s how it’s done in a democracy. You don’t retain the high moral ground by running away or by playing obstructionist games.

The shoe is on the other foot now, and I have the same message for the Republicans in Congress: if you don’t like Obamacare, you have to wait until the electorate gives you the votes you need in both houses to repeal it. Until then, it’s the law of the land, and you don’t retain the high moral ground by holding the whole machinery of state hostage in an attempt to starve it to death. If the Affordable Care Act is as bad as you say, the voters will get tired of it soon enough and you’ll have a chance to mend it or even end it then. Right now, you’re just making people all over the world wonder if you’re responsible enough to govern the world’s greatest power. Give it up.

2. Joan Walsh, in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune the other day, claimed that the principal force behind Republican opposition to Obamacare (and the rest of Obama’s agenda) is racism. She says that the Republican party has been working for fifty years to inflame white fears and equate liberal policies with special breaks for blacks. Now, with a black president in the White House, the strategy has come to a head.

I have no doubt that many of Obama’s opponents are motivated, overtly or covertly, by racial prejudice. I also have no doubt that the Republicans are happy to have those people on board; politicians aren’t especially picky about where their votes come from. But I take issue with the attempt to equate Republican policies with racism; that looks to me like an attempt to dodge argument on the issues. If you can smear your opponents with an accusation of moral infirmity which undermines legitimacy (and racism is just about the only moral infirmity left that serves that purpose), then you don’t have to talk about policies. It saves time and trouble and homework.

There are legitimate objections to various aspects of Obamacare and, for that matter, legitimate objections to any number of policies touted by the Democratic party. Now, if you don’t like what our first black president is doing, you have to be able to give a better reason than that you don’t like the color of his skin. And if on the other hand you support Obama you ought to be able to say why you think his approach is better than the alternatives; you can’t just say the only reason people oppose him is because he’s black. The policies are the point, and black politicians should not be insulated from criticism because some of their opponents are motivated by racial hatred. A racist attack speaks for itself and needs no refutation; a reasoned critique of Obama’s policies can be debated on its merits, and the motivations of the people who present it are irrelevant as long as the argument is sound.

When people on both sides of the aisle are ready to play by the rules and engage in rational discussion of the problems facing us, we’ll start making headway on some of our problems. Until then, I’m going back in my shell.

Sam Reaves www.samreaves.com