Monday, July 22, 2013


I don’t want to write about Trayvon Martin; I really don’t. First of all, I wasn’t there when it happened and I didn’t take notes on the trial, so I have no particular expertise to offer, and secondly just about everybody else is already writing, talking or shouting about the case. Most of all, I know that whatever I say, somebody will object to it. But people keep asking me what I think, and failing to answer can be construed as cowardice, so here goes.

Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have gotten killed; I think that’s one thing we can all agree on. The case is a tragedy any way you look at it. But nobody’s arguing about that. The arguments are about whether or not justice was done and what if anything the case proves about American society.

I tend to think that no single court case proves much of anything about American society; you need to look at big sample sizes to draw conclusions. But I was challenged on that recently by someone who thought it was obvious that the case was one more piece of evidence that white prejudice continues to hamper the prospects of African-Americans, and that if I questioned the significance of the case I must be in denial or perhaps harboring some of that prejudice.

I still don’t think one court case is enough to hang big generalizations on, but I understand that a high-profile case is enough to hang a narrative on, and narratives are very powerful. Furthermore, they’re necessary; they help societies organize their thinking about problems and they can contribute to their solutions. But it’s also true that narratives can be manipulated and they can be inaccurate; if they get too entrenched they can help us shut out new information and experiences.

Just to be clear, I don’t question that a young black man bears a burden of suspicion in everyday life that a young white man doesn’t. That is not entirely due to white perfidy; a lot of violent crime is committed by young black men and it’s rational to notice. But based on fact or not (and of course not all of it is), that burden of suspicion is undiscriminating and tiresome (or worse) to black Americans. I don’t have any trouble believing that what happened to Trayvon Martin was a result of that reflex of suspicion. What I question is the rush to claim the outcome of the case (or any single case) as proof of favored narratives.

It’s possible that George Zimmerman went after Trayvon Martin out of pure racial animosity. There’s a lot of it around. It’s possible that he provoked the whole thing with malice aforethought. But it’s also possible he was just being officious and overly zealous in his role as watchman and that he panicked and overreacted when Martin got mad. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know George Zimmerman, so I don’t know which of those is the case, and I marvel at the confidence of those who claim they do.

If this case makes me want to question anything, it’s the Stand Your Ground laws that several states, including Florida, have passed in recent years. I support the right to self-defense, but it has to be subject to legal constraints, and it seems to me that Stand Your Ground weakens those constraints. I oppose attempts to ban private ownership of guns, but I’m a big fan of training and licensing. Panic and overreaction can get real ugly real fast when you have a gun in your hand. So given that the unarmed kid got killed, it’s hard to say justice was done.

But I think some of the narratives that are being peddled are false. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that young black men are routinely in danger from angry white men; I think they are far more routinely in danger from other young black men. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that the judicial system is biased against blacks; I think it proves that prosecutorial overreach is a good way to lose a case. And before you accuse me of naivety, let me say that I think there are other cases that better illustrate systemic unfairness to African-Americans, such as the disparity in sentencing for drug crimes.

The main thing this case proves to me is that emotions run high when racial injustice is invoked. And that’s a pity, because emotion clouds vision. I’d love it if we could all sit down and discuss the complex aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow dispassionately, but that’s not going to happen. The best I can do is state what I think and let people take their shots.

So here’s what I think: The United States has a hideous history of slavery, segregation and lynching. But it also has a history of abolitionist agitation, freedom marches, federal intervention against segregation, lively opposition to discrimination and collective soul-searching. The record, in short, is mixed, like human society. A narrative that recounted only the afflictions suffered by black people without noting the legal, social, educational and economic progress of the African-American community over the past decades would be incomplete.

In short, I’m an optimist when it comes to race relations in the United States. Why don’t I just get on board along with all the right-thinking people and support the narrative of implacable, endless racism? First because I think it’s false, and secondly because I think that the worst thing that could happen to the African American community would be succumb to despair. Tell people that there is no hope of progress and they will withdraw into fortified ethnic camps. Tell them that in spite of setbacks and derailments they live in a society that is capable of responding to their legitimate grievances and they will buy into that society. And that’s what we need.

That doesn’t mean I’m in denial or willfully ignorant of the problems that remain. It means I’m aware of what’s possible in imperfectible human societies. I look around the world and see ethnic conflicts turning lethal in countries that don’t have our mechanisms for noisy debate, messy political fixes and slow but inexorable cultural and institutional change. Our racial conflicts have deep roots, but so does our vocation for reform.

If you’re Trayvon Martin’s parents, you’re not ready to hear that, and who can blame you? But it’s true. There is a risk that high-profile heater cases like Trayvon Martin’s can distract us from the big picture. And the big picture is that African Americans have made heroic gains in the face of opposition that lessens with each generation. That’s a narrative I believe will survive a painful and contentious criminal case in Florida.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Egypt and Legitimacy

Egypt is testing all our notions about democracy and legitimacy. The military has stepped in to oust Mohammed Morsi, the elected president, setting up an interim government pending new elections. The generals were responding to a deteriorating security situation and a rising tide of protest against Morsi's inadequate attempts to solve Egypt's many problems while strengthening his Muslim Brotherhood's hold on the levers of power. If you oppose the Islamization of Egypt you are probably in favor of the coup; if you favor it you're outraged at the nullification of an electoral result. If you are just rooting for the development of a responsive and effective democracy in Egypt, like me, you're probably conflicted.

I've written about democracy before; I've said that mere majority rule cannot be our highest political value. Majority rule can be just as tyrannical as any other kind; if fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, we can't just shrug and say "that's democracy". True democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it is a culture comprising such elements as a commitment to the rule of law, a free press, an impartial judiciary, a tradition of rational debate and responsible opposition, and guarantees of citizens' rights that do not depend on electoral ups and downs.

So Morsi's electoral win alone doesn't make him a democratic paragon. True, Morsi came to power in circumstances that would have challenged the purest of heart and the steadiest of hand; he inherited a deeply polarized country with severe problems in all the areas that affect the quality of daily life: economics, the environment, public services and basic security. All of this was on top of a dysfunctional political system that had gone from ossified dictatorship to who's in charge today under the pressure of massive public protests. And just after Morsi's election, the military council tenuously presiding over the country stripped the presidency of several important powers, reserving them to itself.

It would have taken a lot of luck and a lot of skill for anyone to make progress against those odds, and Morsi's high-handed moves, unilaterally claiming far-reaching powers, can arguably be seen as fighting his side of a tug-of-war with his equally autocratic military foes. Who defines legitimacy when the political rule book has been torn up?

Legitimacy is the central question in any political system. Legitimacy means that the ruled recognize the ruler's right to rule. For centuries legitimacy meant only that the ruling monarch had come to the throne according to the proper rules of hereditary succession. In the modern world we require a little more; we want power to be the product of a fair election and to obey the constraints that are supposed to protect us from tyranny. People will sacrifice to defend a government they view as legitimate; they will grow cynical and indifferent or hostile to one they see as illegitimate. Legitimacy rests on electoral success, but it requires more than that; a legitimate government cannot outrage the sensibilities of a majority or even a substantial minority of its citizens. A genuine mandate rests on electoral success plus an expectation that the electoral winner will follow widely accepted rules.

What's happening in Egypt is that two opposing views of legitimacy are going head-to-head. Those that think Islam is the fount of political legitimacy are on Morsi's side and are understandably angered that he has been deposed by a military establishment they see as the basis of the old kleptocratic regime. Their opponents are adamant that religion and the state are best kept separate. For them the electoral result alone does not justify Morsi's attempts to Islamize the state. Their view of legitimacy is akin to the one prevailing in the Western world. This is a fundamental conflict that goes beyond Egypt.

The idea that religion is the best foundation on which to organize society is still very current in the Islamic world. It used to be current in the West as well: Europe had to undergo a Reformation and a traumatic Thirty Years' War to settle the idea that matters of religion are best left to the individual conscience. Islam has not had its Reformation. Further, the failure of two imported development models, the Western capitalist one and the Communist one, to bring prosperity and good government to the Islamic world has opened the way to those who claim that only a return to Islamic values can lift these populations out of distress.

I make no secret of which side I'm rooting for: I'm for a secular state with religion left to the individual conscience. I believe that is the best model for human progress. But I'm also aware that this notion can't be imposed, either by foreign invasion or domestic military fiat. All those Morsi partisans out in the streets have rights, too, and if I disagree with their world view I sympathize with their aspirations for stability and prosperity. The notion that a secular state is preferable will have to emerge through protracted debate and no small measure of trial and error as Islamic societies confront modernity. I truly hope that Islam's Reformation will be less costly than Christianity's was. But I think it's starting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stars and Stripes

It's the Fourth of July and the flag is flying from my front porch again. I put it out there on national holidays, unless it slips my mind, and I try to remember to bring it in at night or when it rains. I like seeing it out there. I like the fact that the flags come out on the Fourth of July, to add to the handful of homes on our block where the flag is always flying, year round. They don't come out on every house, of course; some people, most in fact, don't participate. And that's OK. I have no axe to grind about it; I just like putting it out there.

I'm not entirely sure why. When I was a kid, my father never hung a flag from our porch. He was a World War Two veteran, but he never made a fuss about patriotism. I don't recall ever discussing it with him. If he had any, his was a quiet and reflective kind of patriotism. And that's probably the best kind. Ostentatious patriotism is no better than ostentatious anything else.

And then I went off to college and came of age in a time when patriotism was devalued and unfashionable, and it would never have occurred to me to put out a flag on the Fourth of July. That was for the silent majority types, the hard hats and the red-baiters and the rednecks. A famous photograph of an appalling incident, with a white protester stabbing at a black man with an American flag on a staff, cemented the idea in many people's minds that waving the flag was equivalent to benighted, reactionary thinking. Intellectuals and sophisticates like me sneered at such things.

And then some years later, when I had a house and a couple of young children, my grade-school age son asked me why we didn't get a flag to put out on the porch on holidays. And I went out and got one. I didn't really think about it much; I just felt like doing it. I was over feeling superior to the hard hats and the rednecks and the silent majority, and damn it, the flag looked good out there fluttering in the breeze.

My politics had moderated over the years, of course, like a lot of people's, but it wasn't really about politics. When I tried to put my finger on it, the best I could do was this: Putting the flag out on my front porch is an invitation to anybody passing by to consider me part of the family, an invitation to acknowledge kinship and shared interests. That's what it boils down to; a healthy patriotism is akin to a recognition of family ties. You don't approve of everything your ne'er-do-well brother does, but you stick up for him in a fight. You roll your eyes when Grandpa launches into one of his rants, but you help him up the stairs.

Patriotism doesn't mean mindlessly signing off on anything the government says we should do; it might even mean opposing a disastrous initiative like an ill-advised foreign war. Patriotism doesn't mean contempt for other nations; it concedes the right of all people to value their family ties. If patriotism is a virtue, it's a quiet virtue. And frankly, patriotism has to be a few places below the top of our value system; things like respect for the truth and striving to define and achieve justice have to rank higher. If you don't like the word patriotism, call it something else. Call it neighborliness and extend the concept to this whole continent-sized neighborhood we live in.

We need things to unite us in this huge, unruly, fractious country of ours. We are polarized and divided by genuine differences of interest and differing views of justice and the right path to take. We're never going to be all on the same page. But we have the great advantage that our nation was founded on a set of ideas rather than an ethnicity. That's what the flag represents: those ideas. The founders gave a great deal of thought to how a fractious population can best organize its communal affairs. They may not have gotten everything right; ideas may need revision as society evolves. But they gave it a pretty good shot, and that's what I'm celebrating when I put out the flag.

I have friends who are baffled by it; they don't get it. The political left has conceded the flag to the political right, just as the political right has conceded the human rights organizations to the left. Liberals don't fly the flag; conservatives don't join the ACLU. That's too bad; there's no philosophical reason why left and right couldn't agree on both human rights and the virtues of a quiet patriotism.

So if you go by my house and see the flag, don't make assumptions about my politics. All I'm doing is inviting you to join me in being glad that we live in what is still, for all its faults, the most powerful and most promising democracy on earth.