In a review of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen, Gordon S. Wood writes: This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view — historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual — but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one. If we read the Declaration of Independence slowly and carefully, Danielle Allen believes, then the document can become a basic primer for our democracy. It can be something that all of us — not just scholars and educated elites but common ordinary people — can participate in, and should participate in if we want to be good democratic citizens.
Allen, who is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, came to this extraordinary conclusion when she was teaching for a decade at the University of Chicago. But it was not the young bright-eyed undergraduates whom she taught by day who inspired her. Instead, it was the much older, life-tested adults whom she taught by night who created “the single most transformative experience” of her teaching career.
As she slowly worked her way through the 1,337 words of the Declaration of Independence with her night students, many of whom had no job or were working two jobs or were stuck in dead-end part-time jobs, Allen discovered that the document had meaning for them and that it was accessible to any reader or hearer of its words. By teaching the document to these adult students in the way that she did, she experienced “a personal metamorphosis.” For the first time in her life she came to realize that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument about equality, an argument that could be made comprehensible to ordinary people who had no special training.
By reading and analyzing the words of the Declaration deliberately and with care, her night students
found themselves suddenly as political beings, with a consciousness that had previously eluded them. They built a foundation from which to assess the state of their political world. They gained a vocabulary and rhetorical techniques for arguing about it.
The entire experience with her students “re-gifted to me a text that should have been mine all along. They gave me again the Declaration’s ideals — equality and freedom — and the power of its language.”
Allen is most interested in the idea of equality, and rightly so. Equality has always been the most radical and potent idea in American history. [Continue reading…]
— Quartz (@qz) June 26, 2015
Soon after the Supreme Court announced its decision, the White House Facebook page changed its profile photo to a picture of the iconic building’s walls in the colors of the rainbow, the universal symbol of the gay rights movement.
At 11am, the President addressed a crowd in the Rose Garden behind the White House—whose walls, alas, remain white despite the Facebook change—heralding the Supreme Court’s decision as “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
“This ruling is a victory for America,” Obama said. “This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”
Tom Ginsburg writes: Magna Carta, on which King John placed his seal 800 years ago today, is synonymous in the English-speaking world with fundamental rights and the rule of law. It’s been celebrated, and appropriated, by everyone from Tea Party members to Jay Z, who called his latest album “Magna Carta Holy Grail.”
But its fame rests on several myths. First, it wasn’t effective. In fact, it was a failure. John was a weak king who had squandered the royal fortune on a fruitless war with France. Continually raising taxes to pay for his European adventures, he provoked a revolt by his barons, who forced him to sign the charter. But John repudiated the document immediately, and the barons sought to replace him. John avoided that fate by dying.
The next year, his young son reissued Magna Carta, without some of the clauses. It was reissued several times more in the 13th century — the 1297 version is the one on display in the National Archives and embodied in English law. But the original version hardly constrained the monarch. [Continue reading…]
They say that imperial wars come home in all sorts of ways. Think of the Michigan that TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener describes today as one curious example of that dictum. If you remember, in the spring of 2003, George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of that country’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein. The invasion was launched with a “shock-and-awe” air show that was meant to both literally and figuratively “decapitate” the country’s leadership, from Saddam on down. At that time, there was another more anodyne term for the process that was also much in use, even if it has now faded from our vocabularies: “regime change.” And you remember how that all worked out, don’t you? A lot of Iraqi civilians — but no Iraqi leaders — were killed in shock-and-awe fashion that first night of the invasion and, as most Americans recall now that we’re in Iraq War 3.0, it didn’t get much better when the Bush administration’s proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, disbanded the Iraqi military and Saddam’s Baathist Party (a brilliant formula for launching an instant insurgency), appointed his own chosen rulers in Baghdad, and gave the Americans every sort of special privilege imaginable by curiously autocratic decree in the name of spreading democracy in the Middle East.
It now seems that a version of regime change, Iraqi-style, has come home to roost in parts of Michigan — but with a curious twist. Think of Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, as the L. Paul Bremer of that state. He’s essentially given himself regime-change-style powers, impermeable to a statewide recall vote, and begun dismissing — or, if you will, decapitating — the local governments of cities and school districts, appointing managers in their place. In other words, his homegrown version of regime change involves getting rid of local democracy and putting individual autocrats in power instead. What, you might ask yourself, could possibly go wrong, especially since the governor himself is going national to limn the glories of his version of austerity and autocratic politics?
As it happens, TomDispatch dispatched our ace reporter, Laura Gottesdiener, who has been traveling the underside of American life for this site, to check out what regime change in Michigan really looks like. As with all her reports, this time with photographer Eduardo García, she offers a grim but startling vision of where this country may be headed. Tom Engelhardt
A magical mystery tour of American austerity politics
One state’s attempt to destroy democracy and the environment
By Eduardo García
Something is rotten in the state of Michigan.
One city neglected to inform its residents that its water supply was laced with cancerous chemicals. Another dissolved its public school district and replaced it with a charter school system, only to witness the for-profit management company it hired flee the scene after determining it couldn’t turn a profit. Numerous cities and school districts in the state are now run by single, state-appointed technocrats, as permitted under an emergency financial manager law pushed through by Rick Snyder, Michigan’s austerity-promoting governor. This legislation not only strips residents of their local voting rights, but gives Snyder’s appointee the power to do just about anything, including dissolving the city itself — all (no matter how disastrous) in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” since what happens in Michigan stays in Michigan, think again. The state’s aggressive balance-the-books style of governance has already spread beyond its borders. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed bankruptcy lawyer and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to be a “legal adviser” to Atlantic City. The Detroit Free Press described the move as “a state takeover similar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s state intervention in the Motor City.”
Keith Ellison writes: A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks and Native Americans in Minneapolis are nine times more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses than whites. The study was released two weeks after 10-year-old Taye Montegomery was pepper sprayed while peacefully protesting against police brutality in Minneapolis. “At least I got maced and not shot,” Taye said.
Taye’s not being overly dramatic: young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white men in US.
The fatal encounter between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t take place in a vacuum. Freddie Gray wasn’t the first black man thrown in the back of a van in Sandtown. Eric Garner wasn’t selling loosie cigarettes for fun. Harsh police tactics in black communities and a history of high rates of unemployment and poverty go hand in hand. [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: The U.S. and Israel have the worst inequality in the developed world, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The OECD found that the gap between rich and poor is at record levels in most of its 34 member countries. But the U.S. and Israel stood out from the pack.
In the U.S., the richest 10% of the population earn 16.5 times the income of the poorest 10%. In Israel, the richest 10% earn 15 times that of the poorest.
That compares with the average ratio of 9.6 times across the OECD. [Continue reading…]
Harvard Magazine: Toward the end of World War II, while thousands of Europeans were dying of hunger, 36 men at the University of Minnesota volunteered for a study that would send them to the brink of starvation. Allied troops advancing into German-occupied territories with supplies and food were encountering droves of skeletal people they had no idea how to safely renourish, and researchers at the university had designed a study they hoped might reveal the best methods of doing so. But first, their volunteers had to agree to starve.
The physical toll on these men was alarming: their metabolism slowed by 40 percent; sitting on atrophied muscles became painful; though their limbs were skeletal, their fluid-filled bellies looked curiously stout. But researchers also observed disturbing mental effects they hadn’t expected: obsessions about cookbooks and recipes developed; men with no previous interest in food thought — and talked — about nothing else. Overwhelming, uncontrollable thoughts had taken over, and as one participant later recalled, “Food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life.” There was no room left for anything else.
Though these odd behaviors were just a footnote in the original Minnesota study, to professor of economics Sendhil Mullainathan, who works on contemporary issues of poverty, they were among the most intriguing findings. Nearly 70 years after publication, that “footnote” showed something remarkable: scarcity had stolen more than flesh and muscle. It had captured the starving men’s minds.
Mullainathan is not a psychologist, but he has long been fascinated by how the mind works. As a behavioral economist, he looks at how people’s mental states and social and physical environments affect their economic actions. Research like the Minnesota study raised important questions: What happens to our minds — and our decisions — when we feel we have too little of something? Why, in the face of scarcity, do people so often make seemingly irrational, even counter-productive decisions? And if this is true in large populations, why do so few policies and programs take it into account?
In 2008, Mullainathan joined Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, to write a book exploring these questions. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) presented years of findings from the fields of psychology and economics, as well as new empirical research of their own. Based on their analysis of the data, they sought to show that, just as food had possessed the minds of the starving volunteers in Minnesota, scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs—from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor.
That’s a phenomenon well-documented by psychologists: if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills — attention, self-control, and long-term planning — often suffer. Like a computer running multiple programs, Mullainathan and Shafir explain, our mental processors begin to slow down. We don’t lose any inherent capacities, just the ability to access the full complement ordinarily available for use.
But what’s most striking — and in some circles, controversial — about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character — impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions — may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.
This is one of scarcity’s most insidious effects, they argue: creating mindsets that rarely consider long-term best interests. “To put it bluntly,” says Mullainathan, “if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.” And just like many poor people, he adds, you’d likely get stuck in the scarcity trap. [Continue reading…]
In the part of Baltimore hardest hit by the recent riots and arson, more than a third of families live in poverty, median income is $24,000, the unemployment rate is over 50%, some areas burnt out in the riots of 1968 have never been rebuilt, incarceration rates are sky high, 33% of the homes are vacant (thanks to an ongoing foreclosure crisis), and water service is being shut off for people who can’t afford to pay rising water rates. Residents, mainly black, live in what is really an unofficially segregated, hollowed-out Rust Belt city that just happens to be located on the East Coast.
As Max Blumenthal pointed out when the city’s mayor started denouncing “outside agitators,” more than 70% of Baltimore’s police force lives beyond the city limits, at least 10% of them out-of-state. The Baltimore PD is also notorious for its brutality, for the numbers of (black) residents it seems to gun down, and for its give-not-an-inch “broken windows” policing policies. In a city that is 62% black and 28% white, police officers are still 46% white and 80% outsiders heading into neighborhoods that are almost totally black. Unlike the residents of such neighborhoods, Baltimore’s police lack for little. Thanks in part to Pentagon and other government programs, the force is armed to the teeth in the increasingly military fashion that has become the post-9/11 state of things (and that TomDispatch has been covering since 2004.) It acts as if it were, that is, an occupying army, not a neighborhood protector. In this sense, “community policing” is now a joke in the U.S.
When the CVS stores go up in flames and local stores are looted, politicians denounce what’s happened and demand an instant return to law and order, while calling on police departments to wear body cameras and rethink their attitudes. But there’s another reality that has to be faced. Give some credit to Hillary Clinton. In her recent speech on the police killings of black men from Ferguson to Baltimore, she included this single on-the-mark sentence: “We can start [building on what works] by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.” Put another way, you can’t arm and militarize the police, as both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing since 9/11, and send them into impoverished communities as if for war, sporting a mind-set from the global war on terror, without getting what you’ve functionally wished for. In a sense, in the arms race that is America today, you might say that you are what you “carry.”
Among the illusions of our age, there’s this: the idea that the U.S. can fight wars in whatever fashion it pleases, year after year, in distant lands without changing our society as well. In fact, those wars have been coming home for a long time in myriad ways, and never more obviously than with American police forces and their practices. It’s not just that the police (and SWAT units) are now filled with vets from the war on terror, or that they are armed with weaponry directly off its battlefields, but that the mentality that has made those wars such disasters has come home with the troops and weaponry.
As Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of the new book The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, suggests, thoroughly militarized, surveillance-heavy forces are bringing counterinsurgency thinking from Iraq and Afghanistan back to this country. The record of such thinking abroad brings to mind a question first raised by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren about Washington’s new war in Iraq: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt
The wars come home
A five-step guide to the police repression of protest from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond
By Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Last week, as Baltimore braced for renewed protests over the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) prepared for battle. With state-of-the-art surveillance of local teenagers’ Twitter feeds, law enforcement had learned that a group of high school students was planning to march on the Mondawmin Mall. In response, the BPD did what any self-respecting police department in post-9/11 America would do: it declared war on the protesters.
Jed S. Rakoff writes: For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.
The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.
Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.
And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males. [Continue reading…]
Paul Blumenthal writes: The issue of big money in politics is receiving increased attention as the country barrels toward a presidential election cycle where all spending records are expected to be smashed. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken out on tackling the problem, as have a handful of Republican candidates.
What is this problem, exactly? Represent.Us, a group that supports campaign finance reforms and is advocating for them at the city, municipal and state levels, presents an answer in a new video.
Pulling from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the video explains how legislative actions taken by politicians in Washington do not reflect the priorities of the broader population, but instead are moved by the opinions of the wealthy elite.
These elite have the means to influence government through lobbyists, campaign donations and public relations campaigns. And studies by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have shown that wealthy elites dominate political spending. A study released Thursday by these two groups found the percentage of donations made by the .01 percent rose to nearly 30 percent in the 2014 elections, up from 25 percent in 2012. [Continue reading…]
New Scientist reports: Dead men cast no votes. A new study has found that the premature death of millions of black voters in the US has affected the outcome of several elections.
“We are talking here about deeply entrenched biases and prejudices in the operation of the economic, political and socio-cultural system which place blacks at a severe and systematic disadvantage,” says Chik Collins of the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley, UK. “It is a very well-founded challenge to the claims of America to be a ‘decent’ – let alone a ‘democratic’ – society.”
This week saw protests in Baltimore and across the US touched off by the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died of a spinal cord injury sustained in police custody. His death has now been ruled a homicide and six police officers involved will face criminal charges.
Karen Attiah writes: If what is happening in Baltimore happened in a foreign country, here is how Western media would cover it:
International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.
Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.
The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony. [Continue reading…]
Bertrand Olotara writes: Every day, I serve food to some of the most powerful people on earth – including many of the senators who are running for president: I’m a cook for the federal contractor that runs the US Senate cafeteria. But today, they’ll have to get their meals from someone else’s hands, because I’m on strike.
I am walking off my job because I want the presidential hopefuls to know that I live in poverty. Many senators canvas the country giving speeches about creating “opportunity” for workers and helping our kids achieve the “American dream” – most don’t seem to notice or care that workers in their own building are struggling to survive.
I’m a single father and I only make $12 an hour; I had to take a second job at a grocery store to make ends meet. But even though I work seven days a week – putting in 70 hours between my two jobs – I can’t manage to pay the rent, buy school supplies for my kids or even put food on the table. I hate to admit it, but I have to use food stamps so that my kids don’t go to bed hungry.
I’ve done everything that politicians say you need to do to get ahead and stay ahead: I work hard and play by the rules; I even graduated from college and worked as a substitute teacher for 5 years. But I got laid-off and I now I’m stuck trying to make ends meet with dead-end service jobs.
American voters should ask themselves: if presidential candidates won’t help the workers who serve them every day, will they really help the millions of low-wage American workers who they don’t know or see? [Continue reading…]
Consumption. By a strange shift of meaning, this 19th-century word describing a serious and often fatal disease is the same word used now for a way of life focused on material goods. Is it time to bring back its negative, and often deadly, associations into our public discourse?
Consumption as reality and metaphor operates on many levels – personal, communal and economic. Most importantly, it causes profound consequences for the planet and its resources.
The forty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day provides a fitting occasion to think more broadly and deeply about what these patterns of consumption mean for us, our communities, and for planet Earth.
We all want stuff, but in our overdeveloped, fast-paced culture we seldom challenge ourselves to ask ourselves the one important question: how much is enough?
I noticed recently that the catastrophe area that was once the great city of Detroit — bankruptcy, busted neighborhoods, acres of deserted houses, water shutdowns, and now, as TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener reports, an almost biblical foreclosure crisis that could result in tens of thousands of people being thrown out of their homes — regularly gets compared to “Katrina”; that is, to the destruction Hurricane Katrina visited on New Orleans back in 2005. Here are some typical headlines: “Is the Motor City ‘a five-decade Katrina?,’” “Unprecedented ‘Katrina’ of Tax Foreclosures to Hit Detroit, Wayne County March 31,” “Water Shutoffs: Detroit’s Katrina?,” “Comparing Detroit to Nola After Katrina Not So Far Off,” “A Hurricane Without Water: Foreclosure Crisis Looms in Detroit as State Takes Action.”
But in a country in which Congress has trouble raising money for essential highway upkeep, not a single mile of real high-speed rail exists (the Acela Express in the Northeast being a high-speed joke), the national infrastructure gets a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and one of its formerly great cities makes the phrase “hollowed out” sound like a euphemism, perhaps we should change our metaphors. Maybe when something devastates part of this country, it’s not a “Katrina” any longer, but a “Detroit.” Maybe the next time a city is hit by a hurricane, the headlines should refer to it as “a five-hour Detroit.” Maybe when the next set of aging natural gas pipelines blows up, we should speak of “an underground Detroit.”
It’s a small wonder of American life that something close to a trillion dollars a year goes into what is called “national security,” while the actual security of Americans has generally been starved of funding and insecurity is on the rise. Meanwhile, the biblical continues to happen to the former Motor City, a sign of what neglect means in the insecure heartland of twenty-first-century America. Gottesdiener, TomDispatch’s roving correspondent in forgotten America, offers a devastating account of the latest chapter in the saga of a city on the road to hell. Tom Engelhardt
A foreclosure conveyor belt
The continuing depopulation of detroit
By Laura Gottesdiener
Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.
On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture — rotating or otherwise — could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.
Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.
The Daily Beast: The academy might seem like a bastion of American liberalism but an extensive database of faculty salaries compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education paints a damning picture of gender inequality at U.S. colleges and universities.
Not only does the data reveal a substantial gender pay gap at both private and public schools, it also shows that male-dominated college faculties disproportionately rely on the labor of women in instructor and lecturer positions.
Women may keep our colleges running but the American university is still an old boys’ club.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new tool displays faculty and staff salary data from over 4,700 colleges and universities stretching from 2003 to 2013. The federal data powering the database isn’t brand new but it provides the starkest and most accessible visualization yet of the gendered distribution of labor in the American academy.
The New York Times reports: The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.
His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.
“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”
If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year. [Continue reading…]