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Triggering Introspection

One of my favorite columnists is Charles Blow of the New York Times. I appreciate his writing for two seemingly contradictory reasons: as a Black male, he provides this White female with insights from a perspective that is alien to my own experience; on the other hand, he frequently reinforces perceptions and insights common to those of us who spend some time thinking about the human condition generally.

A recent column fell into that second category, and I hope readers will indulge me in a bit of (non-political) Sunday philosophizing.

Blow was pondering what he called the “second phase of adulthood,” which begins, in his estimation, when one’s children graduate from high school or college and leave home. (By that calculation, perhaps those of us who have watched our grandchildren leave the nest are in our third or even fourth “phase of adulthood.”)

No matter how we calculate the phases of our lives, death becomes an inescapable intrusion. As Blow notes, parents decline and die, we lose friends and relatives, and those losses change us.

This seemingly sudden intrusion of death into your life changes you. At least it is changing me. It reminds me that life is terribly fragile and short, that we are all just passing through this plane, ever so briefly. And that has impressed upon me how important it is to live boldly, bravely and openly, to embrace every part of me and celebrate it, to say and write the important things: the truth and my truth.

Blow enumerates some of the changes he is making in his “second phase”–as he says, he’s started to manage his regrets, to forgive himself for foolish mistakes and poor choices, and “to remember that we are all just human beings stumbling through this life, trying to figure it out, falling down and getting back up along the way.”

He also recognizes the need to adjust our goals and expectations. In his case, he says “When I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile.” (That seems do-able. In my case, I’ve gone from early dreams of writing the great American novel to wanting to die with my own teeth…a more achievable goal that I regularly share with my dentist.)

I think this particular column touched me because my husband and I are in the midst of one of those inflection points we all face. We’re downsizing–we’ve sold our home, and are packing and discarding, preparing to leave flights of stairs that have become harder to climb, and tasks of home ownership that have become more onerous as we age, and we are moving into an apartment that’s all on one floor, where management will be responsible for maintenance.

Transitions of this sort–common to all of us as we age–tend to prompt introspection. Where has life taken us? How do we want to spend the years remaining? What hard-won insights, wisdom or support do we have to offer our friends and families as they confront those same questions?

Those very universal questions seem more poignant, somehow, in our very polarized country–perhaps because there seem to be so many of our countrymen who refuse to ask them, so many unhappy people unwilling to see the shared humanity of neighbors who look or worship or vote differently, so many unwilling to consider the possibility that their way might not be the only way.

Learned Hand famously said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” If there is one “marker” of maturity, one insight that comes with second–or third– phase adulthood, I think that recognition might be it.

I think Charles Blow would agree. Happy Sunday….

The Policing Conundrum

In the late 1970’s, I served three years as Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel–the city’s chief lawyer. Defending police against charges of wrongdoing was one of the tasks of the legal department, and one of the lasting lessons I took away was the need to hire officers carefully.

As a police chief I worked with at the time was fond of saying, “We give these guys guns to carry and authority to use them–we have an obligation to select and train them so they won’t abuse that authority.” During my tenure, the City instituted psychological tests in an effort to weed out applicants who were attracted to policing for authoritarian or other dubious reasons, and made several efforts to improve training.

During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, I often thought back to those City experiences. I knew many truly admirable officers–but City Legal also had to defend some indefensible ones. And the police union didn’t help–for them, it was all “us versus them,” and “our guys right or wrong.”

Because I knew there was truth to both “the policeman is your friend” and accusations of brutality and worse, I may have been less shocked by a headline in the Guardian after January 6th: “US Capitol riot: police have long history of aiding neo-Nazis and extremists.”

For years, domestic terrorism researchers have warned that there are police departments in every region of America counting white supremacist extremists and neo-Nazi sympathizers among their ranks.

To these experts, and the activists who have been targeted by law enforcement officers in past years, it came as no surprise that police officers were part of the mob that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. In fact, the acceptance of far-right beliefs among law enforcement, they say, helped lay the groundwork for the extraordinary attacks in the American capital.

Criminal justice news sites have identified at least 30 sworn members of police agencies from some 12 different states who participated in the insurrection, and several on-duty Capitol police officers have been suspended for allegedly supporting, rather than resisting, the rioters. Scholars who study extremist movements and survivors of far-right violence have warned for years that there are close ties between some police and white supremacist groups. 

As news of the participation of police in the insurrection has emerged, some officers have abandoned the traditional “wall of silence..”According to the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the behavior of those participants was so egregious, it prompted fellow officers to alert police chiefs and others to their colleagues’ participation in the mob attack on the Capitol.

Actively helping an effort to overthrow the government might have been a step too far, but the linked article recounts several exceedingly troubling events in which police actively protected Neo-Nazis rather than those they were attacking. One example:

In June 2016 in Sacramento at least ten people were stabbed and injured at a rally of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), a group that extremism experts have classified as neo-Nazis.

The subsequent investigation, led by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), focused on the anti-fascist counter-protesters injured in the stabbings, with records showing that police worked with white supremacists to identify leftist activists and pursue criminal charges against the stabbing victims.

The lead CHP investigator, Donovan Ayres, repeatedly stated in police records that he viewed the neo-Nazis as victims and the anti-fascists as suspects.

Research continues to confirm that protestors on the Left  are far more likely to be arrested than those on the Right.

York University sociologist Lesley Wood analyzed 64 U.S. protests from 2017 and 2018 where counter-protesters were present and arrests were made. She found that right-leaning protesters accounted for 8% of total arrests, while left-leaning protesters accounted for 81%. (The ideology of the remaining arrestees — 38 of them at 14 events — couldn’t be identified from news reports.) Although Wood cautioned against drawing conclusions solely from the raw numbers–more people have attended protests by the Left than the Right–there is nevertheless consistent evidence that police will move far more aggressively against those on the Left.

And it will surprise absolutely no one that–as authors of a 2012 analysis found, “events initiated by African Americans remain a positive and robust predictor of the use of force…”

Part of the problem is that we currently  call on the police to address problems that should be shifted to other forms of public safety, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare and other community resources. “Defund the police” was one of the stupidest and most counter-productive slogans produced by Democrats (and that is saying something!), but the actual shifts of responsibility being proposed under that banner were mostly sensible.

It is long past time to improve the way we recruit, train and discipline officers, and modify what we ask them to do. 

 

Federalism On Steroids?

There are many observations we might make about the newest Supreme Court Justice and the travesty of her elevation. Assuming Democratic reluctance to enlarge the Court in a tit-for-tat response to the last 12 years of GOP court packing, one of those observations concerns prospects for federalism and states’ rights.

As Elizabeth Warren noted in a speech opposing Barrett, the nominee carefully refused to answer numerous important questions. She wouldn’t say whether the Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to contraception was correct, or whether the government is entitled to criminalize a same-sex relationship. Despite the applause from Republicans about the size of her family (seven children!), she refused to opine that it’s wrong to separate children from their parents at the border. She called climate change “controversial.” She evaded  many other inquiries, including what should have been considered “softball” questions: whether it’s OK to intimidate voters at the polls, and whether a president has the right to postpone an election.

When she held up that blank notepad she’d brought to the hearing, it was evident that the pristine paper was her reminder to abstain from sharing anything resembling content.

it is likely that Barrett will join Trump’s other regressive Court picks, and rubber-stamp state laws that violate rights we have come to view as American, endorsing a radical federalism allowing the rights of individuals to be defined by the states in which they live.

I’ve previously posted about the demographic shifts we’ve seen and the effects those shifts have had on equal treatment and “one person, one vote.” I’ve previously recommended Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, and its analysis of what he called “voting with our feet.” The likelihood of a radical return to “states’ rights” is likely to super-charge that residential apartheid.

States like Indiana already struggle to retain young people–especially educated young people. Red states like ours will rush to take advantage of their new imperviousness to federal constitutional constraints. They won’t just outlaw abortion (and in some states, access to birth control), they’ll expand gun rights, restrict access to health care and eviscerate their already paltry social safety nets. The Court has already declined to interfere with a variety of vote suppression tactics that favor the GOP–everything from gerrymandering, to ballot counting, to poll hours and locations.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until now–they have been forbidden to retract them.

The new approach to federalism–what one might call “federalism on steroids”–will upend that understanding of American citizenship. The extent of your rights will depend upon your state of residence. If the young people with whom I interact are any indication, that’s a situation that threatens to leave a number of red states with a dwindling and aging population.

America has already seen its population shift to urban areas. As the “creative class” (and those who want to employ them) described by Richard Florida increasingly cluster in vibrant municipalities, those urban locations become even more attractive.

Gay families aren’t going to locate in states that refuse to recognize their marriages or parental rights. Women aren’t going to choose locations that allow the government to dictate their most intimate decisions. Few families will want to live in states where gun owners are encouraged to bring firearms everywhere, including schools. (And don’t think this is hyperbole–here in Indiana, we have state representatives who work constantly to legislate that “freedom.’)

States offering universal healthcare (a la Massachusetts) will look awfully good to a lot of Americans.

I wonder: At what point do “states’ rights” and a commitment to expanded “local control” end up creating separate and not-so-equal  parts of what has been one country? At what point will fiscally healthy blue states decide to stop supporting “taker” red states?

When does federalism on steroids translate into secession?

 

Blog Now Accessible

To all those who contacted me–the problem with access this morning was a technical glitch, and has been fixed by my genius webmaster (aka son).

It has been gratifying to see how many of you cared enough to let me know!!

Social Capital And Covid-19

Until I entered academic life, I was unfamiliar with the concept of social capital. Human capital is more easily understood; it refers to the skills and knowledge of a given individual. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the positive and negative qualities of networks, of our human connections to others.

There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital occurs within families, clans and associations such as churches and fraternal organizations, where members–those considered “one of us”–are nurtured and supported. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, fosters relationships between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals who benefit from the networks’ trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation.

The relationships that characterize  bonding social capital are sometimes referred to as thick, even tribal. The connections formed by bridging social capital are considered thinner, but given the increasing diversity of the American population, bridging social capital is critically important.

Scholarly and media attention to these connections within human societies has grown since the theories were first advanced in the mid-twentieth century, and I was intrigued by an August article in The New Yorker that investigated the connection between COVID-19 transmission and  bridging social capital. 

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

Evidently, the research showed that people in places who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague–but places with significant amounts of social trust– had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end.

Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

 As the author points out, social trust is “earned and banked” over many years of trustworthy governance.

In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded…. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction. Instead of converging on obvious truths—the limited but real values of mask-wearing, the confidence that quack cures won’t solve the problem, the necessity of vigilant watchfulness—we are told every day that all empirical arguments are merely, well, masks for clan rivalry.

The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.

Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust. The constant lies of the Trump Administration, the escalating propaganda of right-wing media sources and the dramatic upsurge in conspiracy theories have combined to dangerously erode our levels of public trust–and that trust is absolutely essential, not just to the effective control of a pandemic, but to all social functioning.

The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.

But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.