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Is Trump’s Anti-Semitism Deliberate? A Reappraisal

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Whenever I set aside time to write about anti-Semitism in contemporary politics, I block out some time to make substantive updates for the inevitable anti-Semitic scandal(s) that will happen in between my first draft and the potential publication. In the contemporary environment, the probability of a major political figure saying or posting something arguably anti-Semitic in any given week is slowly approaching one.

This time, we had the news that the Trump campaign was using advertising with the red triangle to criticize certain left wing protesters. An identical red inverted triangle was the Nazi symbol used to designate political prisoners in concentration camps. The Trump War Room insists they used the symbol because it appears in anti-fascist graphics, which it does not.

The red triangle advertisements opened up a question of whether the Trump campaign was merely ignorant, as they claim. While I find his criticism too mild, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt argued that “ignorance is no excuse.” That piece was written following Trump’s remarks on Henry Ford’s “good bloodlines,” but it focused on the long-running discussion over whether the use of racist and anti-Semitic dog whistles in the Trump campaign is intentional or not.

Add on the controversy surrounding various Trump campaign images of an eagle similar to the Third Reich’s, which has been adopted globally by neo-Nazi groups. There is some dispute over whether it looks like the Nazi adaptation of the Reichsadler or a variation on the American icon that appears in various United States seals.

There are a handful of possible positions one might take on the presence of these dog whistles. Among them are: The dog whistles are intentional and therefore blameworthy; or the dog whistles are unintentional, but still blameworthy—the position adopted by Greenblatt. This post explores my own shift in appraisal, from the latter to the former.

Hanlon’s razor

One of my most closely guarded commitments, in politics, philosophy, and life, is Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity (or incompetence, or obliviousness).

Hanlon’s Razor is the morally and politically appropriate attitude under most circumstances. People screw things up; people make mistakes. By acknowledging that these are mistakes of some variety, rather than malicious and deliberate, we can try to interact in good faith with people we might otherwise regard as evil, sparing ourselves the painful general worldview that most people are malicious monsters. We get to substitute moral cynicism with the rosier cynicism that people screw up a lot. In many cases, errors may still be blameworthy; gross negligence may be the result of incompetence but still incur moral—or even legal—responsibility. Still, the outlook on the human condition is markedly less bleak.

There is a further moral argument for Hanlon’s Razor. We have an obligation to each other to regard errors as screw ups, to admit of apology and reconciliation where possible. The liberal agreement is to broadly tolerate a diverse range of views and behaviors, but also to hold a second-order attitude of tolerability towards cases on the border of what is tolerable.

I will not flesh out the particular merits or limits of Hanlon’s Razor in detail here. Hanlon’s razor has limits. Things like slavery and rape and genocide are not “adequately explained by ignorance or incompetence.” As such, those don’t fall under the scope of Hanlon’s Razor.

A charitable beginning

My initial inclination towards Trump’s various borderline anti-Semitic claims was to get out Hanlon’s Razor. His remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition could have been a reference to the Jewish Republicans in the audience rather than about Jews in particular. His remarks on Charlottesville could have been an attempt to defend his base, with some malicious input from advisers who clearly wanted to dog whistle to the khaki-shorts-wearing cockwombles chanting “Jews will not replace us” marching to preserve a statue of a Confederate figurehead.

Applying Hanlon’s Razor in such cases does not offer moral absolution. Politicians are responsible for what they say. Double-meanings, whether intentional or not, are frequently taken up by parts of the audience liable to accept interpretations. As such, some politicians will apologize for dog whistles, even with their unintentional invocation. Ilhan Omar’s apology for remarks on hypnotism are illustrative.

The application of Hanlon’s Razor to Trump’s remarks is easy in one respect: Trump is quick to demonstrate that he’s not historically literate, and indeed one wonders at times whether he is literate at all.

I no longer think applying Hanlon’s Razor is defensible; I no longer think the defense of Trump’s long history of anti-Semitic remarks can be either that (a) he doesn’t know what he’s doing or (b) there are figures around him putting that rhetoric in his ear. His media team shows special relish in the use of anti-Semitic dog whistles (as the case of the red triangles illustrates); this will become especially vivid below. At this point, ignorance is not a plausible explanation for Trump’s remarks.

This is not significant for moral reasons. What he was doing has always been wrong. Any competent political leader, much less the head of the government of the United States of America, should know better. Politicians have teams of communications experts around them to help craft a message, even when those politicians are themselves good communicators. In addition, for years folks outside of the White House have pointed out this pattern of remarks, and yet the pattern continues.


One major incident that sparked many to accuse Trump of anti-Semitism were his comments around Charlottesville.

Folks are often accused of taking Trump’s remarks on the Charlottesville protest —which consisted of marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us” and carrying Nazi flags —out of context. The full context is available here. Below is the relevant section

Reporter: “Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?”

Trump: “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this: You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs — and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.

“But there is another side. There was a group on this side. You can call them the left — you just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

Reporter: (Inaudible) “… both sides, sir. You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides. Are the — “

Trump: “Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. If you look at both sides — I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say.”

Reporter: “The neo-Nazis started this. They showed up in Charlottesville to protest — “

Trump: “Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves — and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

The context does not salvage the remark, and the core conceit of the remark is profoundly morally repugnant.

To paraphrase an old joke: What do you call the people who show up at a rally and march with the guys carrying the swastikas? Nazis. If you’re participating in the event and people are waving swastikas around (even “ironic” swastikas), that’s bad. At a minimum, you’re contributing to the impression that American neo-Nazis have political support.

Charlottesville was a mix of Nazi flags with confederate flags, of chants not recognizable to some marchers (“Blood and Soil”) with obviously repugnant phrases (“Jews will not replace us”). Dog whistles are effective, in part, because some members of an audience will not recognize them and endorse the message without understanding. There, Hanlon’s Razor applies. The plausibility of ignorance disappears when the swastika is visible, when the references to Jewish conspiracy are explicit. That is exactly what happened in Charlottesville.

What people tend to miss here is the lie at the beginning. “They came at each other with clubs.” There were a handful of criminal charges filed after the event; they indicate that the violence was one-sided.

In the moment, I interpreted this equivocation as an attempt to try and defend a group that Trump knows many of his supporters are sympathetic with, protesting a cause many of his core supporters like (namely, the “preservation” of Confederate statues). Lumping them in with neo-Nazis was, in other words, an error committed while attempting to defend this somewhat more palatable group.

I now think this was a mistake, not because we should condemn confederate monuments, but because the broader context does not indicate that it was a misunderstanding on Trump’s part. It was deliberate.

“America First” in history

Trump’s campaign and political rhetoric has long embraced the slogan “America First.” While not the official slogan for the campaign, it has taken on the role of an outright position on trade and foreign policy in the administration. There’s a problem with “America First.” It has a fairly deep anti-Semitic history.

The genesis of the slogan was the isolationist policy of Woodrow Wilson, a policy that became used to symbolize American opposition to involvement in WWII.

The America First Committee was opposed to United States intervention in WWII, starting prior to Pearl Harbor. It was weakened significantly and the committee itself disbanded following Pearl Harbor (when US involvement became inevitable), but a group under the banner still ran an isolationist political candidate for President in 1944. Was isolationism itself anti-Semitic? Not necessarily, though it plainly condemned millions of Jewish people to death.

But the rhetoric of the America First movement focused on a narrative of Jewish conspiracy, that Jewish leaders in America and abroad were trying to bait the American government into WWII because of the Nazis anti-Semitic posture. These included denialism about killing of Jews as propaganda by this conspiracy, or outright justification of anti-Semitism, citing the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory work of figures like Henry Ford.

Following WWII and greater public awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust, the phrase was adopted by some neo-Nazi movements in America opposed to American involvement in foreign affairs, the broad non-interventionist ideology coupled with the view that some conspiratorial cabal (generally Jewish or “Zionist” or some euphemism) was behind the American military-industrial complex, a still persistent myth in both far left and right political conspiracy theories.

The phrase briefly gained a new run at popularity with the Presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, directly appealing to the America First Committee and the WWII era non-interventionists. Unsurprisingly, Buchanan himself adopted an enormous amount of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory rhetoric, rhetoric that correctly branded Buchanan as a bigot.

Again, perhaps one might cite political ignorance here on Trump’s part, though this is significantly undercut by the observation that one such figure criticizing Buchanan at the time was Trump himself. That critique didn’t include Buchanan’s use of the “America First” branding, but did include the broad bigotry that is now a staple of Trump’s own political brand.

The America First brand has been discussed at length and criticized all over the political spectrum because of its history. While Trump generally has an indifference to and limited understanding of history, the role of this slogan has been widely criticized to the point where its continued use itself constitutes a statement from the campaign.

I want to couple this with an observation about Trump’s political rhetoric, which has also been criticized extensively for anti-Semitic content and euphemisms. The America First example is one that is ubiquitous, but there are others. His use of “globalists” and appeals to various conspiracy theories frequently incurs similar criticisms. Even if the rhetoric is not intentional, a politician occupying the Presidency of the United States should know better and take more care.

The moral tango on these issues goes as follows.

Trump says something that has anti-Semitic interpretations or content outright.

People criticize Trump’s remarks.

His apologists say, “He didn’t mean it like that.”

Critics suggest that he should be more careful with his language.

His apologists say, “That’s just Trump being Trump.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Plausible deniability of intended interpretation diminishes over time. If someone uses a euphemism, gets called out on it, and then continues to use the euphemism, that impacts whether the remark can be plausibly interpreted as a mistake. At a certain point, following corrections on these matters, ignorance is no longer a reasonable defense. You can’t plead ignorance after doing the same thing and being called on it a dozen times.

Anti-semitism in action

Things get darker when we turn to policy and political messaging within the White House. The White House has routinely invited figures widely regarded as inappropriate by Jewish communities to major events. In some cases, the White House pleads that these were failures of vetting or the fault of someone else (as when Pence had a Jews for Jesus preacher at an event commemorating Pittsburgh) and in other cases they just shrug it off (as when they invited Robert Jeffress to the opening of the new embassy to Israel in Jerusalem). Symbolic gestures are telling in these cases not because they’re especially impactful compared to policy, but because the symbolism of the gesture is supposed to be considered and deliberate.

If you stage a photo-op, then you’re expecting people to take photos. What you put in those photos, or allow in those photos, is considered.

Unfortunately, the policy side is far worse. One of the first moves in the White House was decreasing funding to combat white supremacist hate crime. Hiring Sebastian Gorka, who has outright denied the existence of white supremacist terrorism, was an indicator of a serious lack of understanding. Gorka’s wife was also hired, and purportedly played a major role in the DOJ shift in funding away from combatting white supremacist terrorism, despite expert consensus about the danger of white supremacist domestic attacks.

There are internal reports of significant indifference by the administration to increases in white supremacist terrorism throughout the United States. There is documented evidence of enormous spikes in white supremacist hate crimes and anti-Semitic hate crimes in particular, which evidence indicating that the increase in violence largely comes from the political right. The sources of the data on these issues, the exacerbation of the condition of white supremacist terrorism, comes from sources as diverse as the FBI, Anti-Defamation League, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Even if you have beef with one or two of those sources, the data abounds.

Still, Trump leans on the claims about law and order, about national security, while reducing funding. Why? Because the administration’s priorities, as with America First, represents a commitment not to those principles as such, but to a narrow interpretation of those principles beneficial to a particular group of their constituents. Both White House and GOP Congressional statements and policy priorities have made this obvious at this point. For example, the party has focused on issues with social media content solely through a partisan lens, rather than on the dissemination of white supremacist content; the decision to steer away from such discussions is motivated in part by historical affiliations of white supremacist content posters—like Alex Jones or Prager U—with GOP figures.

Again, these concerns have been brought up to Trump on many occasions, and he has occasionally responded by saying simply he’s the “least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever met.”  All of this while continuing on this policy path, after Tree of Life and Chabad of Poway and many other incidents.

Undeniable intent

I revisited the ascription of malice to Donald Trump when he made public remarks praising Henry Ford and the “good bloodlines” of the Ford Motor Company. As the Algemeiner article notes, Trump frequently speaks of “good genes” and other such phrases. I’d like to say that the reasoning was due to an acute and clearly identifiable symptom in the phrase “good bloodlines,” a feature of its history (like America First or “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”). But it’s not. Trump did the same thing with Henry Ford in 2019. It’s chronic.

When someone is repeatedly corrected on a matter, when the same mistakes are repeated over and over and over and over, without any meaningful direction towards tempering future mistakes, the explanation grounded by incompetence or ignorance dissolves. What remains is the possibility (a) that the person doesn’t care enough about the issue to address it or (b) that the person affirmatively likes doing the thing for which they’re being criticized, and is actively deciding to do it. We might call (a) the passive approach and (b) the active approach. But that’s not really important, because on issues like anti-Semitism—or any bigotry where the fomenting directly contributes to violence—the moral difference is soft.

Historically, philosophers distinguish between “killing” (active) and “letting die” (passive) as a subtle difference that might weigh on the moral calculus of some cases. But the consensus view is that cases where preventing harm would be easy, the moral difference dissolves. Letting a child die from drowning (passive) when you could easily save them at no risk to yourself is seriously morally wrong. Is it as morally bad as actively drowning the child? That may be subject to debate. But both are far in the morally damnable end of the spectrum such that the differences absolve no blame.

And that’s where we are with Trump. Whether he is deliberately invoking anti-Semitic conspiracies, or directing legions of twitter followers towards such theories, is no longer relevant. Even if it is the result of a passive failure to correct his behavior over time, at this point that still requires intent and the adoption of a repugnant moral indifference.

Featured Image is Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, by Anthony Crider

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At the Forefront of the Effort

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In the wake of the tragedy in Minneapolis, even some conservatives have been forced to concur that there may be a need for criminal justice reform, and because of this, change seems to finally be on the horizon. However, it would be egregious not to include the prospect of prison reform in such conversations, given the abundances of data demonstrating that systemic flaws in how they’re run contribute to recidivism. Among those systemic flaws are the shortcomings of current prison educational programming.

People who participate in educational programming while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison, making education the most effective recidivism reducing tool, and providing useful insight into what causes people to become incarcerated in the first place. Yet education must be offered equitably, and strategically. For this reason, some of my peers and I founded a prisoner-led organization, operating inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State has been reaching out to the previously forgotten incarcerated Latinx community.

According to the Washington State Department of Corrections website’s section on Racial Disparity, Latinos are 78 percent more likely than whites to participate in an educational program while incarcerated. Still, until recently, all the courses offered within MCC were taught only in English, and of little-to-no value to prisoners being deported upon release to a Latin American country. This is troubling, considering that Latinx people account for nearly 14 percent of the state’s prison population. Often individuals who have been deported find themselves jobless, and with little education and no support. A lot of them end up returning out of desperation, only to be prosecuted for doing so.

Recognizing the need to develop a multicultural environment which eliminates barriers to education, culture, and resources, a group of Latinx prisoners and outside volunteers structured the Latino Development Organization. In 2019, the LDO was incorporated as a nonprofit, and acquired an office in the city of Monroe. Founded on the concept that in undoing systems of oppression, efforts must be led by those most effected, the LDO functions with a system of horizontal leadership. Prisoner-led committees work with an incarcerated advisory board, an outside board of directors, and volunteer teachers on every level of organizational operations.

Though our emphasis is on the incarcerated Latinx community, our classes are bilingual and inclusive, increasingly gaining popularity among the prison’s population. People from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and gender identities take part in an ongoing Cultural Speech Series where participants gain public speaking skills, self-confidence, and an outlet by which to share about topics of personal interest. LDO students also earn certificates through an Advanced Translation Workshop, Alchemy Art Studio (a bilingual arts program offered in collaboration with The New Alchemists), and Plaza Prep courses which prepare them for the forthcoming Plaza Comunitaria.

The Plaza Comunitaria provides a certificate equivalent to a GED for those participants who will be deported upon release to a Latin American Country. The LDO is currently collaborating with the Mexican Government to implement it in MCC. This will be the sixth Plaza Comunitaria in the state, the first in a Washington State prison.

Members of the prisoner community will undoubtedly benefit from the educational opportunities provided, especially when they meet their future needs. It goes without saying that programs which are conceptualized, developed and run by and for the community they serve must be considered as a priority in the arena for prison reform. If history has taught us anything, it’s that education is most effective when it comes from within. It creates a pathway to success that causes that oft mentioned revolving door not only to stop revolving but to be shut for good.

Featured Image is “School Room B” in State Prison

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3 days ago
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Towards a More Perfect Union

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From our earliest days as a nation, the American story has been one of striving. Born in pursuit of a more perfect union, we have repeatedly sought to animate the ideals of liberty and justice in our laws and mores. Our history lays bare our successes and failures in this endeavor. We’ve learned—often in painful ways—that it is up to each generation to pursue the advancement of these ideals in their time.

Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Americans poured into city streets across the nation to peacefully protest the contemptible injustice Floyd suffered at the hands of law enforcement. Sadly, riots, looting, and more police brutality—towards peaceful protesters as often as not—followed. Floyd’s death catalyzed America in a way unlike other recent police killings. The compounding impact of months of stress from fighting the coronavirus and the visceral horror Americans felt as they witnessed Floyd helplessly calling for his mother has led to a united outcry that transcends racial and political lines.

But how do we effectively channel this growing anger and angst? Demagogues demagogue. Twitter warriors hashtag. Politicians obfuscate. Yet we know justice won’t come by any of those means. Platitudes aren’t enough. It is now time to do the thankless, but necessary, job of policy reform. Hearing the pained voices of demonstrators is an imperative, but policymakers must also be guided by their responsibility to provide equal treatment under the law. Adopting the policy proposals of the loudest voices cannot be an elected official’s benchmark of success.

Most Americans readily acknowledge that due process, a presumption of innocence, and the need for proportionate use of force are imperatives if we are to be, in the words of John Adams, a “government of laws, not of men.” Politicians have a constitutional duty to deliver actionable policy reform in an effort to ensure justice is guaranteed for all Americans. Thankfully, to this end, it is clear that a majority of men and women support a suite of policies that are within the power of our federal and state officials to enact.

We leave it to others to debate whether there is “systemic racism” that cuts uniformly across America’s numerous local police departments. That debate is too easily hijacked by identity politics and partisanship. But we do not contest that the weighty boot of the government falls more heavily on the necks of people of color in a variety of ways. Instead of seeking a more proportional incidence of harm and abuse, real reform means ending the abuses themselves.

There are several policy reforms that stand to receive substantial public buy⁠-in and political feasibility as we work toward a more perfect union.

Ending no⁠-knock warrants

No⁠-knock warrants allow police, “to break into a private residence without identifying themselves.” The intention behind such a warrant is to allow officers to “prevent the destruction of objects for which the police are searching or would compromise the safety of the police or other individual.”

Months ago, Breonna Taylor was killed when officers entered her home after receiving a no⁠-knock search warrant. However they entered the wrong home. The tragic result is that the police killed Breonna in her home over a petty drug search warrant that was not even for her.

Research shows that, “42% of people affected by such [no-knock] tactics were Black and 12% were Latino.” Ending the issuance of no knock warrants is one step toward ensuring the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches is respected. Senator Rand Paul (R⁠-KY) has introduced the ‘Justice for Breonna Taylor’ Act in an effort to protect citizens from egregious, and potentially deadly, invasions from law enforcement in the future.

Reforming qualified immunity

Qualified immunity is, “an atextual, ahistorical judicial doctrine that shields state officials from liability, even when they violate people’s constitutional rights,” according to criminal justice policy analyst Jay Schweikert.

Since qualified immunity is a product of a 1967 Supreme Court decision, efforts to either end or curtail it are currently being pushed at the federal level. Police face grave dangers on an almost daily basis, and they must be prepared to act as prudent as possible, with very limited information. This is undoubtedly a difficult task, but it is sensible to expect law enforcement officers be held to at least a similar standard as the public when it comes to respecting a suspect’s constitutional rights.

Qualified immunity should be reformed through legislation that provides reasonable recourse for victims of police brutality. Legislation that clarifies policing standards so that wrongfully harmed individuals don’t need to overcome unattainable legal hurdles in order to hold an unprincipled officer to account for their actions would be a step in the right direction.

Removing the chokehold police unions have on justice

“Defund the police” might be a catchy phrase, but rather than monetarily starve law enforcement of the ability to provide the services necessary to ensure public safety, the smart policy—and quite possibly achievable victory—is to strip police and police unions of the tools of abuse.

Peter Suderman suggests that police unions, “defend the narrow interests of police at the expense of public safety. They exist to demand that taxpayers pay for dangerous, and even deadly, negligence.”

In the case of former Officer Derek Chauvin, the truth of this proved deadly. Chauvin had at least 17 misconduct complaints filed against him over the years, yet he was still allowed to patrol the streets. The federal government has far less ability to curtail the hold of police unions, but state attorney generals—who are accountable to voters—could be empowered with the responsibility of “policing the police,” in an effort to rein in rogue police departments and check the power of unions.

Foundations for a just society

As we pull ourselves out of the morass that is 2020, we must remember that soaring rhetoric, alone, is insufficient. Eloquent and timely words can inspire us and cultivate our empathy. But while noble and caring sentiments of solidarity are welcome, this is also a time for the tedious, thankless work of examining and reforming policy. If America wants to be the “city upon a hill” that both puritans and presidents spoke about, she must have just laws.

Thankfully, for all of our flaws, America has a history of bending its arc toward justice. From our earliest days of calls for just representation to the blood drenched battlefields during our Civil War to today’s demands for equal treatment under the law, we strive. We know our work isn’t yet complete, and, if we’re honest, the human condition all but guarantees that there will always be more to do. However, despite the moral compromises of the Founders and ensuing generations, America is based on worthy ideals of equality before the law and the innate dignity of every person. As long as these truths remain each generation’s north star, a more perfect union, rooted in liberty and justice for all, is on the horizon.

Featured Image is George Floyd Protest, Columbus, by Paul Becker

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4 days ago
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How Money Bail Perpetuates Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

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Money bail is the payment a person arrested and charged with a crime is required to pay in order to be released from jail while awaiting trial. Determined by the judge at a pre-trial hearing, the amount varies depending on the alleged crime, the defendant’s flight risk, and their perceived “dangerousness” to the community in which they reside. For those who can afford it, bail will be paid by way of cash or bond, and they will be free to return home until their scheduled court date.

For many, however, that is not the case. 

People who are unable to post bail will remain in jail until their trial date, leaving them in prison while legally innocent for months or even years. Kalief Browder was just 16 years old when he was falsely accused of stealing a backpack in 2010. His initial bail was set at $3,000. Unable to pay this amount, Browder was sent to Rikers Island, where he spent the next three years in prison for a crime he not only did not commit, but was never convicted of. Prosecutors pressured him to take a plea deal with the promise of either releasing him early or reducing his sentence, but Browder maintained his innocence. After spending 74 days in prison, he finally appeared before a judge and pleaded not guilty. Because this was not his first arrest, however, the judge remanded him without bail, sending him back to prison.

During his time at Rikers, Browder endured beatings from both guards and inmates alike and spent long stints in solitary confinement, during which he attempted suicide by fastening his bedsheets into a noose. While his case was eventually dismissed in May 2013, the damage had already been done. Due to the mistreatment he endured and his time in solitary, he had suffered significant mental, physical, and emotional trauma—all for nothing. Six months after his release, Browder attempted suicide again and was rushed to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, where he was treated for depression. After spending the next two years in and out of hospitals, Browder killed himself in his home in the Bronx on June 6, 2015.

What happened to Browder could have easily been prevented if his freedom had not been entirely contingent on his ability to pay bail. The money bail industry keeps nearly 700,000 unconvicted people in jail by placing a hefty price on their freedom while they await trial.  In fact, five out of six people are currently in pretrial detention simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

This not only disproportionately harms low-income people and people of color by keeping them in prison, but it also creates two separate systems of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor. Black people are two times as likely to be jailed pre-trial than their white counterparts, and the average bail amount is almost as much as the average income of those incarcerated. In 2015, the median bail in the US was $10,000, while the average income among those in jail was $15,000. 

The money bail system completely negates the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” by keeping people in prison before an innocent or guilty verdict can even be determined. By placing a price on freedom, we have effectively created a criminal justice system that treats only those of a certain wealth or race as deserving their freedom until they have been convicted by a jury of their peers. 

It is precisely the poorest who can afford to be out of work the least, whereas a wealthy person would have a higher chance of bouncing back financially after being held pretrial and would be more likely to afford or have access to health care when they’re finally released.

Remaining in jail for months or years at a time while awaiting trial can cause significant harm to a person’s health and well-being and can often cause them to lose their job, their home, and even their children, regardless of whether or not a crime has actually been committed. It can also cause people to suffer unnecessary physical and emotional trauma.

As a result, people who are jailed pre-trial often choose to plead guilty in order to put an end to their case and hopefully return home. This means that people who are detained while awaiting trial are not only more likely to be convicted, but the charges and punishment will be even more severe if they are ever arrested again. If they plead guilty to a felony, they will no longer be able to vote and their job and housing prospects will be extremely limited.

The money bail system places wealth above fairness and justice and allows legally innocent people to be treated like criminals. 

Around 68% of people who are jailed pre-trial are charged with nonviolent offenses. Despite this fact, supporters of pre-trial detention argue that bail is essential to protecting both civilians and the police from further harm.

After a series of bail reforms were passed in New York last spring, media outlets and police departments across the state launched a campaign of fear-mongering, calling for the reforms to be repealed. While the reforms only eliminated money bail for those charged with minor offenses, the New York Post and Daily News published a host of stories claiming the new laws were allowing violent and dangerous criminals to be unleashed back onto the streets, citing court cases that the reforms did not even affect. In January, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea wrote an op-ed in the New York Times claiming that that there had been an increase in certain crimes solely because of the reforms even though they  had only been in effect for a few weeks at the time, running well ahead of available evidence. Shea went on to urge the public to contact their local lawmakers and request the reforms be repealed. Shea and others like him are not only participants in the injustice of excessive pretrial detention; as this incident demonstrates, they actively seek its perpetuation.

Eliminating the money bail system allows people who have been arrested and charged with a crime from being jailed while legally innocent, all while allowing them to keep their jobs, children, and housing while they lawfully await trial. Bail reform not only ensures that freedom is not solely contingent on wealth, it also ensures that due process is rightfully upheld.

While there are a whole onslaught of other problems with the prison industrial complex and how prisoners are treated in the US, money bail only further perpetuates the wealth and racial disparities within the criminal justice system by pre-determining what types of people “deserve” to be treated with dignity and fairness by placing a price tag on freedom. 

Pushback on any and all future bail reform bills will be inevitable, but working towards establishing an equal system of justice is a battle all liberals should be willing to fight for.

Featured Image is Pictures of S&H Bail Bonds store front and sign of bail bonds company, by Darylosswald

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5 days ago
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The Limits of Standpoint Epistemology for Politics

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In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez repeatedly refers to the time Bernie Sanders said: “it’s not enough to say ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’” This line seemed to irritate her. Later in the book, she concludes that it is enough to say such a thing, because having more women in power leads to greater attention to women’s issues. This is also the rationale behind Biden claiming the VP he chooses will be a woman, and the sentiment behind the phrase “elect women” in general. There is an implicit consensus here that i) women’s issues need particularized recognition and attention in politics, ii) women are more likely to address issues that are uniquely female and iii) therefore we need to, in the interest of women, elect more women. 

This is not a line of reasoning I am particularly sympathetic to; particularly in electoral politics. It is meaningless to me, for instance, if a woman fights for a particular class of women within her own state while advocating for bombing or sanctioning women in another state. But I do think it relies on a particular line of thought that requires acknowledging and addressing: namely, what philosophers have called “standpoint epistemology.” Like most frameworks, standpoint epistemology has legitimate uses and has also been perverted to gain an upper hand in political discourse. Its prevalence is significant enough to merit unraveling this phenomenon.

While we rarely invoke the term “standpoint”, it’s implicit in identity politics discourse. To grasp what I mean, consider the use of the term “lived experience” where one centers on the experience of oppressed people when discussing the features of the oppression they face. For instance, when discussing sexism, women may counter men’s theorizing by claiming that men’s social situation qua men, doesn’t let them fully grasp sexism. We are all, to an extent, epistemologically deficient when it comes to understanding how others experience structural barriers. We do not have the lens that gives us the same insight into how oppression is experienced phenomenologically in every circumstance. 

Theorizing that centers experiential knowledge is not a new feature of contemporary identity politics or of “postmodernism.” Early modern philosophers also spoke of socially situated knowledge. In Discourse on Method, René Descartes argued that diversity of opinion arises from different experiences. As such, those with different experiences will bring us different perspectives about how they experience the world and how we relate to each other. 

Other theorists of this era made a more explicit connection between experience and theorizing. For example, renaissance humanist Mario Equicola argued in De mulieribus (On Women) in 1501 that male theorists’ failure to consult women while theorizing about women’s natures caused them to commit naturalistic fallacies and moralistic fallacies. In this way, institutional metaphysics and epistemology were compromised as a result of women’s exclusion.

One of Descartes’ arguments is that simple facts are self-evident; we start with them, then move to complex knowledge. For example, a woman possesses experiential knowledge of simple facts relevant to her life as a woman that men cannot experience. This does not mean that men cannot access any knowledge about women’s experiences. It simply means that they are methodologically limited in accessing one kind of knowledge; namely, experiential knowledge. 

Importantly, incorporating experiential knowledge and social situation into our lines of thought helped us depart from earlier superstitions about different groups’ innate capacities. 

Descartes warned against theorizing about knowledge in a vacuum. Instead, we must acknowledge that our judgments are both motivated by earlier circumstances and contribute to future ones. He points out, for instance, that we should look at the stakes certain people hold in making truth claims. 

These stakes are relevant. Slave owners used to believe slaves were naturally constituted for slavery as a matter of metaphysical fact. Obviously, this was not through careful scientific examination. Instead, this ‘truth claim’ was made on the basis of social interests (and social standpoint). This observation brought us to Hegel’s classic Master/Slave dialectic, which shifted how we understand power relationships by bringing in the viewpoint of the slave as well as the master.

Although standpoint theory has brought about both social and philosophical usefulness, it has been overzealously adapted in politics. Some of its adaptation has been disingenuous; some has been genuine. Motives aside, the way standpoint theory typically gets wielded in politics today is ridiculous, and manifests on all regions of the political spectrum.

The use of standpoint in politics typically individualizes the experience of oppression, which should instead be understood to refer to systemic barriers people with shared characteristics face in virtue of how they are consistently perceived. What a standpoint analysis should do is give us epistemic access to otherwise private and personal experiences. Someone’s lived experience can contain valuable information about particular ways systemic inequalities manifest. However, while standpoint can give one unique epistemic access in certain domains, it doesn’t necessarily dictate the terms of structural oppression or make anyone of any oppressed group morally infallible.

The left will sometimes use standpoint theory for social capital within leftist circles to avoid accountability. They will take criticism of a marginalized person as an attack on the group(s) they belong to rather than a criticism of their personal views or behaviour. Kai Cheng Thom articulated this problem by recalling discourse she observed: 

“Online, I sometimes see arguments in which people try to shut each other down using identities as weapons, ie “You can’t talk to me that way! I’m trans and you’re being transphobic!” “Oh yeah? Well I’m a femme and you’re a masc! Shut your misogynist, femme-phobic mouth!”

The left’s abuse of standpoint is bad for marginalized people because it puts them on a moral pedestal and expects them to be saintly while acting like only people with privileged identities can hurt other people. This is off the mark. Standpoint should draw on marginalized voices to explain why marginalized people are systematically subject to violence and economic subordination, but it doesn’t give us information on the character of every individual marginalized person and how morally good their actions are. Creating a virtuous/vicious category to parallel oppressed/oppressor is profoundly condescending and dehumanizing. Recognizing the humanity in another—and recognizing them as an equal—includes an acknowledgement of their capacities to act cruelly, deceptively, and immorally. For example, treating women as saintly beings that cannot do as much wrong as a man is the act of an outdated chauvinist, and not of anyone genuinely interested in advancing equality. 

The liberal misuse of standpoint epistemology is exemplified in Criado Perez’s disagreement with Sanders’ comment. The notion that the election of Hillary Clinton over a more progressive male would be a feminist victory simply because she is a woman is absurd. It postulates a universal “woman” and declares “women’s interests” to be the interests of white, upper middle class American women in order to avoid Clinton’s less progressive history with women that fall outside of these lines. Further, like the left, liberal standpoint abusers take criticism of a politician and their record as an attack on their entire racial or gender identity. Unfortunately for the state of our girl power, Iraqis, Libyans, and Syrians are not moved by the gender of those that advocate bombing them. 

Typically, identity victories like the election of Barack Obama or the would-be election of Hillary Clinton are offered as appeasements to those concerned with racial and gender politics. Meanwhile, politicians of this sort are just as capable of advancing reactionary policy as their white male counterparts. The celebration of “identity victories” is especially common during election season where progressive liberals celebrate the “first women,” “first woman of color,” and “first Muslim” in the imperial core. Standpoint might dictate that it’s good to have diverse voices legislate on issues that pertain more strongly to the groups they belong to. For instance, more women might mean better legislation on reproductive health. This, however, is a limited approach. It assumes, first, that anyone that occupies a particular identity will serve the interests of all that belong to that identity. Reproductive health is an apt example: In America, for instance, women are less likely to be pro-choice than men are despite the fact that pro-life politics has broadly been antagonistic to women. It is important, in general, not to disqualify someone for office based on their gender, religion, class, or race, but identity is not a sufficient qualifier for office, either.

Perhaps the most amusing abuse of standpoint comes from those that explicitly claim to disdain identity politics. This often comes in the form of using one’s status as a minority to claim something that ostensibly impacts one’s group is not a problem. The kind of standpoint epistemology embraced by numerous ideological groups has paved the way for people of various identities to believe that their identity makes them individually authoritative on a given subject. 

Unlike the liberals that openly embrace identity politics, others in the centre tend to be part of circles that typically reject it but make use of it when they need to silence their way out of being challenged. In other words, they will still try to claim rightness based on their identity but will not hesitate to condemn others doing the same

Ironically, the right’s tactics here mimic the problem with leftists who use identity as social capital and act like marginalized people can’t be morally blameworthy or complicit in oppression. But there is no reason this should be the case.

Other right leaning commentators take liberal abuse of identity politics to make their own case. Liberals typically limit themselves to lauding any woman who is also a liberal (though not always). They will, at the very least, not support a far-right woman that supports Trump, but the conservatives’ interpretation of their politics sees that this ought to be the case. This results in calling for women to support their candidate of choice because here, identity politics would actually suit their cause.

In sum, we can’t speak authoritatively about some things we don’t have access to e.g. epistemic access via lived experience, phenomenology. But having that access and phenomenology also does a limited amount of work. 

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a character claims: “There would be no civilization if God hadn’t been invented. And there would be no cognac either. But even so, we will have to take your cognac away from you.” There would be a lot missing from philosophy and politics if standpoint epistemology hadn’t been invented. But there are parts of it that will just have to be let go. 

Featured image is an allegorical painting of Elizabeth I

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18 days ago
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How James Marion Sims Became the Father of Modern Gynecology by Experimenting on Slaves

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In the 1890s, our society put colonialist abuse on a pedestal when the monument honoring James Marion Sims was erected in Central Park in New York City. James Marion Sims was once applauded for his achievements in gynecology. He perfected surgeries that treated women with vesicovaginal fistulas, ruptures of the wall separating the bladder from the vagina that was caused by complications in labor. He also developed techniques and tools that changed gynecology forever, such as the speculum, which he initially crafted out of bent spoons. His developments improved the lives of many women throughout history and are even used today. Unfortunately, Sims pursued those developments without any scruples over the consent of the patients he experimented on.

Sims performed his most important experimental surgeries on slave women who didn’t have the capacity to consent. Part of the reason why these women were accessible to him in the first place is that the nature of their ailment significantly reduced their quality of life. Historical accounts describe women living with the condition in a piteous fashion:

The urine passing into the vagina as soon as it is secreted, inflames and excoriates its mucous lining… causing great suffering. It trickles constantly down her thighs, irritates the integument with its acrid qualities, keeps her clothing constantly soaked, and exhales without cessation its peculiar odour… In cases where the sloughing has been extensive, and the loss of substance of the tissues great, and where neither palliative nor curable means have availed for the relief of the sufferer, she has been compelled to sit constantly on a chair, or stool, with a hole in the seat, through which the urine descends into a vessel beneath.

Because Sims’ slave patients were in an unbearable amount of pain and probably were willing to undergo anything to stop it, some historians believe that Sims had received consent from his slave patients. Sims himself claims that the women who he performed on “had ‘clamored’ for the operations to relieve their discomfort.” L. Lewis Wall, a medical doctor from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine defends Marion Sims’ medical ethics, stating that “it is not surprising that these patients, even though they were enslaved, would have jumped at the opportunity to have surgery” as well as reminding readers that Sims “lived and worked in a slaveholding society” and that we can only evaluate him from the “distant vantage point in a society that has moved in a different direction.” Wall says that modern activists and writers who are bringing to light the historical injustice that his slave patients experienced “have [unfairly] denounced Sims with the kind of righteous indignation that is usually heard only from pulpits.” While it’s true that Sims’ work will continue to improve the lives of countless women, it doesn’t require us to pretend that his legacy is morally pure. A detailed examination of what is known about how he handled patient consent sheds important light on the extent of that impurity.

Sims performed the majority of his procedures on three slaves, in particular, Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy, making a deal with their owners that he would fix their fistulas  “in exchange for unlimited access to his patients’ bodies.” These women were preferred test subjects because they were more likely to have difficult childbirths and suffer from vesicovaginal fistulas due to limited medical care. From the owner’s perspective, a slave suffering from a vesicovaginal fistula isn’t going to be as efficient as a worker, facilitating access to such patients. Lastly, there would be fewer repercussions if things went wrong while experimenting on a black slave woman than on a free white one. Unsurprisingly, white women with vesicovaginal fistulas weren’t experimented on until after Sims could reliably perform the surgery on slaves with success. The disenfranchised social position of the slave is precisely what made the arrangement so desirable to all enfranchised parties.

Many of the Sims’ satements that are used as evidence that the patients consented also show how he may have been able to bypass consent. For example:

For this purpose [therapeutic surgical experimentation] I was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners in Alabama, I agreeing to perform no operation without the full consent of the patients, and never to perform any that would, in my judgment, [jeopardize] life, or produce greater mischief on the injured organs—the owners agreeing to let me keep them (at my own expense) till I was thoroughly convinced whether the affection could be cured or not.

In addition to his own records prioritizing the consent of the owners rather than patients, we know that Sims legally was not obligated to ask for consent from the slaves for the surgery. By law, “slaves were the property of others and Sims could not have legally operated on them without the consent on their owners.” All questions of consent lead back to the slave owners’ decisions rather than those of the slaves. 

Moreover, even if Marion Sims intentionally sought out the consent of his patients, even though he didn’t legally need to, it doesn’t really mean that patients actually elected to have these surgeries. Just as prisoners today are not considered capable of consenting to have sexual relationships with their jailers, we should not pretend that slaves were in a better position. Slaves weren’t given the freedom to be stakeholders in their own medical care, or to risk the dangers involved in going against their owner’s wishes.

Considering the invasiveness of the procedures, it’s difficult to imagine that someone could willingly endure as much as some of his patients did. In 1849, after four years of experimentation, “on Anarcha’s thirtieth surgery, Sims successfully closed the fistula and Anarcha made a complete recovery” and replicated the procedure on Betsey and Lucy after. It’s frightening to see the way these women were reduced to pawns in Marion Sims’ game of scientific discovery. While it shouldn’t surprise us that the road to scientific discoveries is paved with the blood of the socially disenfranchised, we should not shrink from taking a critical look at how even very valuable discoveries were made by those in a position of power.

Because Sims had success, it is tempting to frame his actions purely in terms of their benefits to humanity. This blinkered view is hard to maintain when we turn our attention to his medical experimentation outside of his work in gynecology. Before and after he worked with these particular women, he “tested surgical treatments on enslaved black children in an effort to treat trismus nascentium (neonatal tetanus),” which resulted in little to no success. He would also “operate on African-American children using a shoemaker’s tool to pry their bones apart and loosen their skulls” because he believed their skulls were growing too quickly around their brains. Unlike his work in gynecology, these experiments did far more harm than good and further demonstrate that he perceived slaves to be objects and treated them accordingly. 

While these procedures sound cruel and barbaric to us today, a commonly held belief in medicine at this time was that blacks experienced less pain than whites and were therefore the preferred subjects in experiments. This very convenient assumption may have been formally dropped today, but medical professionals still tend to take the physical pain of racial minorities less seriously than their white counterparts. One study from 2019 showed that “black patients were 40% less likely to receive medication to ease acute pain and Hispanic patients were 25% less likely” than their white counterparts. The racist beliefs and stereotypes that empowered Sims and others to devalue black lives in search of scientific advancements still exist today and continue to perpetuate the medical mistreatment of racial minorities.

By acknowledging the history of abuse that people have faced at the hands of people in power, we can see how history informs the injustices that marginalized groups face. We no longer put James Marion Sims on a pedestal.  In January 2018, New York City removed the statue of J. Marion Sims from a pedestal in Central Park after a mayoral commission examining controversial monuments in the city deemed the statue unfit for its location.

Featured image is Statue of J. Marion Sims on Fifth Avenue, on the wall of Central Park, by Jim Henderson

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19 days ago
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