The Problem with Defending Western Civilization

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Defending Western Civilisation has become all the rage among various groups of Conservatives recently. Two high-profile examples from the past few weeks include Gavin MacInnis and his gang of matching polo shirt bros, who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists”, and various right-wing bloggers and social media users praising Donald Trump’s speech in Poland and his “defence of Western Civilization and its fundamental roots in Christianity and the culture and traditions it created.” While it isn’t exactly clear what constitutes these western values, many conservatives seem ready to embrace this vague concept as an antidote to the Muslims, Feminists, Queers and Beta-Males who, in their mind, threaten the future of “The West.” The reason, of course, why the idea of “Western Values” or “Western Civilisation” is never clearly articulated is that it doesn’t exist. Even if such a geographic entity as “the West” exists, it doesn’t share any identifiable values which any scholar could definitively hold up as an example. Rather, people like Donald Trump and MacInnis pick and choose ideas they like from various intellectual traditions while discarding anything they disagree with then justify this lazy, buffet approach, to ideas by labelling them “Western Values.”

For many American Conservatives, Christianity has become synonymous with western values and stands in opposition to Islam on one hand, and the left’s advocacy of moral relativism/postmodernism/Social Marxism on the other hand. However, this equation of Christianity and the West is problematic for numerous reasons. The most obvious being that it overlooks substantial schisms within Christianity. Not only is there a five hundred year history of divergence between various Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, there is the near 1000 year split between the Eastern and Western Roman Catholic Church. If you reduce Christianity to only what Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and most major Protestant denominations agree on, you have a pretty bland statement of principles, principles that are espoused by almost every organised religion in the world, including Islam. So what makes these ideas uniquely Western again?

Furthermore, this equation of Christianity with the West overlooks the substantial role that other religions have played in the development of Europe and North America. It is beyond argument that Ancient Greek and Roman religious practices and mythology has had an enduring influence on European culture, while the multitude of ways that various Pagan beliefs from Northern Europe were overtly incorporated into Christianity is also well documented.  But beyond these obvious examples, treating Islam as somehow outside of or opposed to “Western Civilization” is ahistorical. Since the 8th Century Islam has been an integral part of European history. From the Umayyad rule over Al-Andalus and Sicily to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans to Böszörmény Muslims in Hungry, one cannot separate the history of Islam from the history of Europe. To suggest that modern day Muslim communities in European cities represent a new alien or foreign threat is simply wrong. Even if we overlook Turkey, a key NATO Ally and World War One belligerent, Bosnia and HerzegovinaAlbaniaKosovo, parts of BulgariaMacedonia and Montenegro, as well as some Russian regions in Northern Caucasus and the Volga region all have indigenous Muslim majority populations.

Beyond the influence of Christianity, references to “Western Values” always includes some amalgam of liberal-democratic principles that vary between individuals. The first problem with this approach is that many of these values have historically been in direct conflict with Christianity.  Much of the political and cultural history of the Ancient Mediterranean that the Church deemed as contrary to Christian doctrine was purposely destroyed. Ironicly, it was only because of the work of Islamic scholars that we in “The West” have access to the ideas of people like Aristotle. Furthermore, Enlightenment values of rational inquiry were actively suppressed by the Church, as Galileo among others found out the hard way. Traditionally the Church, be it Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Lutheran has served as the defender of entrenched interests and stood in opposition to democratic or liberal reforms. Remember, the violence and terror of the French Revolution was equally directed towards the Catholic Church as it was the French Royal Family. To then turn around and suggest that somehow these ideas, Christian and secular, are part of one grand intellectual tradition that needs defending is absurd. One suspects that Pope Pious IX, Robespierre and J.S. Mill would each object at being lumped together as all part of one big school of thought.

Finally, while not even touching on the hypocrisy of Trump’s speech in Poland, many of the ideas which these people claim are destroying “The West” are actually as much a part of any Western intellectual tradition as the ones Conservatives are trying to defend. While many Cold Warriors were keen to depict the struggle as one betwee the East and the West, Marxism, as well as modern day boogeymen postmodernism and multiculturalism, are all products of the economic, social and intellectual influences present in Europe and North America during the 19th and 20th century as capitalism, liberalism and democracy are. Poland was once at the heart of the Eastern Block, with their military alliance even being named after the capital of Poland, yet only 25 years later Trump is telling us that Poland is a bastion of western ideas. But again, proponents of “Western Values” take a buffet approach, belligerently advocating for certain ideas while excluding anything they don’t agree with as dangerous or foreign.

To suggest that the idea of “Western Values” is fictitious does not mean that that one cannot or should not defend liberal-democratic values. Rather, it is important to recognise that these values are not limited by geographic, ethnic, or religious factors. One can easily defend the rule of law, pluralistic societies, women’s right and numerous other positive values without simultaneously demonising Islam or people who don’t share your ethnic or racial background. Functioning and stable democratic states exist on every continent as do autocratic and corrupt ones. To suggest that only European states and their majority white successor states are the only ones capable of defending any set of political principles is not only demonstrably wrong it also reveals the racism that lurks at the root of any defence of “Western Values”.

 

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What Everyone Has Wrong About Freedom of Speech

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The National Gallery of Canada is but the latest institution to land in the centre of a debate over free speech. This incident involves University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson whom the gallery invited to speak on the psychology of creativity, a subject which he has extensively published on. However, in recent months, Peterson has become a cause celebre amongst a certain set of conservative Canadians for his opposition to Bill C-16, which expands hate crime laws in Canada to include gender expression, and more generally to what Peterson says is a stifling climate of political correctness.  Specifically, Peterson posted a series of Youtube videos last year claiming that he would refuse to use people’s preferred gender-neutral pronoun of choice, such as they or ze) and that he considered legislation like Bill C-16 as a restriction on free speech because he would be forced to use certain words under threat of criminal charges and face possible prison time. Even if Bill C-16 did do all that Peterson claims, which it doesn’t, there is no legal mechanism that would allow anyone to send him to Prison for misgendering someone.

Regardless, Peterson’s public statements have rightfully raised concerns among many in the LGBTQ+  community and last week members of said community in Ottawa called on the Gallery to cancel his scheduled talk at the gallery. While supporters of Peterson have argued that canceling the talk is an infringement of his right to free speech,  opponents have replied that there is a limit to free speech and that no-one would consider inviting a noted antisemite to speak at the gallery, even if they also were an expert in their field. For these people, the gallery is supposed to be a safe and inclusive space and inviting Peterson to speak creates an environment that is anything but.

For people who follow the news, such debates probably sound familiar, if milder, than ones happening across North America and Western Europe. Be it the controversy surrounding Milo Yianopolis speaking on college campuses or at CPAC, or the recent violence at Middlebury College over a debate between Dr. Charles Murray and Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger (I’ve written about Murray and his racist views before). Free speech has become a lightening rod for conflict between conservatives and progressives, with the right claiming to champion such values while accusing liberals of shutting down debate. Alternatively, those of the left have argued that no one is entitled to speak from a certain platform and that when speech crosses the line to hate speech it must be silenced, either by the authorities or, failing that, by the people themselves. However, in the course of these debates, both sides massively (and often purposely) misconstrue what free speech is, what reasonable limits are, and why it is so important to modern liberal-democracies. My goal is to demonstrate how I think the principle of free speech should be interpreted and to provide a defence of its value.

The most prominent political theorist who wrote in support of free speech was British thinker and failed politician John Stuart Mill. In his seminal work On Liberty Mill makes a full-throated defence of individual liberty. Drawing on his utilitarian ethical philosophy, Mill argued that individual freedom was a principle, which, when applied to a modern society, would produce the greatest net benefit or utility, Of particular importance was free speech, as Mill argued that without the ability to express one’s beliefs, true freedom of thought/belief was impossible.  Furthermore, he argued that the greatest benefit of freedom of speech was that it allowed the largest possible exchange of ideas and broadened the range of concepts that every individual in society encountered. Only when each person was exposed to the broadest possible set ideas could they successfully choose which ones they wanted to adopt and which ones to reject. Ultimately, the first plank of Mill’s defence of free expression is that society can’t know what will make everyone happy and fulfilled so we should strive to create a society where people have the greatest possible ability to figure it out themselves. An unfettered exchange of ideas helped to fulfill this goal.

More broadly, Mill’s position on the role of the state has massively influenced modern liberalism. Fundamentally, Mill rejects the idea that any institution, be it the state, the church or the academy, has a monopoly on truth. Since no one can know what is the best way for each individual to live, in order to promote the greatest utility, people should have the greatest possible freedom to discern the truth themselves. This position is the basis of modern liberals’ defence of freedom and helps to explain why philosophical liberals have supported LGBTQ+ rights in recent years. Much as with religion, speech and substance use, institutions such as the state cannot and should not enforce gender or sexual norms, but instead individuals should be allowed to live in whatever manner they see fit.

In Mill’s ideal world, the only limits on freedom should be if  an action is the direct cause of harm to someone else. While apocryphal, the quote “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my face begins” best sums up this idea. In relation to speech, Mill argues that only speech which directly harms others should be banned, in his words, “you don’t have the freedom to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Similarly, while one should be at liberty to tell a crowd that bankers are the reason why they can’t feed their children, the same person should not be permitted to make such statements in front of an angry mob outside a banker’s home. By creating a high barrier for justifying restrictions on speech, Mill’s philosophy leaves substantial room for people to express all sorts of odious opinions on matters of race, sexuality, religion and gender.

Despite Mill’s expansive vision of individual freedom of speech, liberal-democratic governments have traditionally had more specific protections relating to speech. While both the American and Canadian Constitutions contain clauses protecting free expression (In the Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms respectively), these protections only ensure that the state will not restrict one’s right to speech, it does not govern interactions between private citizens, businesses, and other non-governmental entities. Hence when supporters of Milo raged against Twitter for deleting his account and cried that it was a violation of his freedom of speech, legally they were totally wrong. Twitter can ban whoever they want, just as Facebook or Snapchat can. While the government can’t stop you from expressing repugnant opinions, no company is required to give you a platform to spread your bile. Just as a newspaper does not have to publish your opinion piece, a social media site does not have to allow you access. XKCD best summarized this idea a few years ago:

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Similarly, in December of 2016 when the Mayfair Theater in Ottawa canceled the showing of the documentary The Red Pill, they were totally within their rights. As a private business, they can choose to show whatever movie they want. Freedom of speech also means that the state cannot compel any person or group to express or support certain ideas. Thus when we look at the dispute over whether Shopify should continue to provide e-commerce services to Breitbart News and their CEO’s defence that providing these services is protecting freedom of speech through this lense. When we do it is clear that he is completely off-base. Freedom of speech has nothing to do with Shopify’s business decisions. They can choose to have Breitbart as a customer or not, just as other people can choose whether or not to patronize Shopify for whatever reason they so choose, be it aesthetics, politics or morality.

So far so clear. Many of the complaints from those on the far right that they have had their freedom unjustly restricted is simply a case of their views being unpopular and other people or businesses freely choosing not to associate themselves with them. Instead of a restriction on expression, we should view these events as exercises of freedom. Similarly, a popular tactic used mostly, but not exclusively, by the hard right has been to complain that their ideological opponents silence dissent by labeling them as racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/bigotted. This tactic was most recently demonstrated by Alberta politician and Deputy Leader of the Wildrose Party Derek Fildebrandt who defined racist as:

When criticized, Fildebrandt doubled down on his position, stating that he “refused to play by the rules of those who seek to shut down debate by dropping isms.” Of course, the flaw in this line of argumentation is obvious.  Freedom of speech works both ways, while Fildebrandt and others are free to say whatever they want, their critics are also free to respond however they like.Having something said about you that you don’t like is not a restriction on your freedom, as you are at complete liberty to respond and prove your opponent’s claim wrong. Similarly, others can observe these exchanges and draw their own conclusions. Ultimately, if more people agree with your critics than you, that isn’t a restriction on his freedom, that is actually losing an argument. Thus, when many opponents of political correctness argue that it restricts their freedom, what they really mean is that they want complete freedom to say whatever they want without anyone responding. What they are in fact calling for is a restriction on the speech of their ideological opponents.

Furthermore, conservatives are often selective in their outrage regarding limits on free expression. As the world saw last month with Milo Yianopolis being invited then uninvited to speak at CPAC, there is a limit to what ideas many on the right are willing to accept. While Milo’s statements on pedophilia and pederasty are truly revolting, he did not break any laws saying what he did. He simply advanced opinions which are terrible and unpopular but importantly, not illegal. In theory, this type of expression should be the sort of speech that free speech advocates rally to defend. However, the same people who were willing to defend Milo when he said atrocious things about the LGBTQ+ community, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and women immediately condemned him when he made statements they found offensive or disturbing. Such a rapid reversal suggests that many conservatives commitment to free speech was only a superficial gloss designed to defend propagating offensive opinions they agreed with but did not want to state publically.

Similarly, in Canada, the majority of Conservative Party MPs have refused to support motion M-103 which condemns Islamophobia and calls on the House of Common’s Heritage Committee to investigate and issue a report suggesting ways the government can reduce it. Party Leadership candidates such as Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier and Kelly Leitch have all argued that this motion is a restriction on free speech and could be the first step towards introducing blasphemy laws in Canada. However, only last year these same MPs were willing to vote in favour of a motion condemning the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel Movement.  One suspects that the reasoning behind such a choice is simple, these politicians are supporters of Israel but are willing to cater to and encourage the Islamophobic opinions of their constituents in order to garner support in a tightly fought leadership race. Free speech is yet again used as a veil to hide behind while passively supporting xenophobia.

Thus when many opponents of political correctness argue that it restricts their freedom, what they really mean is that they want complete freedom to express their ideas without anyone challenging their position. What they are in fact calling for is a restriction on speech for, in a truly neutral marketplace of ideas, their’s are rejected by the majority. However, while many on the right frequently cry wolf when it comes to university campuses, conservatives are increasingly right that the principle of freedom of expression is under threat, both in Canada and the United States. The legal status of universities serves to complicate matters for in Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply to universities but does apply to colleges which are directly managed by provincial governments. However, in the United States, the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution does apply to public universities, i.e. UC Berkley or The University of Maine, but not private schools such as Yale and Harvard, even though they receive public money. Regardless of the specific legal status of universities, one of the expressed purposes of higher education, especially in the liberal arts, is to foster the free exchange of ideas and to expose students to as wide a variety of opinions as possible. In many ways, the philosophical ideal of the university is reflective of Mill’s ideal free society.  Hence it is worthwhile to use this standard to judge the state of free expression on North American campuses.

I’ve previously written about the limitations to speech on campuses across North America and highlighted the threat that money and entrenched interests of alumni donors poses to a free exchange of ideas. These threats are still very real but increasingly, conservative arguments that left-wing activists on campus are stifling open dialogue ring true. One of the means of doing so is denying accreditation to student organizations that hold unpopular positions, namely anti-abortion clubs. The Carleton University Student’s Association (CUSA) was one of the first Canadian student associations to do so when they passed a motion in December of 2007.  I was involved in fighting this motion (and got myself quoted on CBC) because I saw it as a restriction on freedom of speech. While the motion was contentious in 2007, it has since become almost de facto policy at universities across Canada. Furthermore, groups that do organize events promoting their views are often forced to pay large security fees and jump through bureaucratic hoops that other student groups don’t have to.  While these obstacles are often not very effective at silencing anti-abortion voices, as student unions have limited power and anti-abortion groups often have substantial support from outside the academy, the intent is clearly to silence opinions the student union disagrees with. That was the main point I made ten years ago at the CUSA Council meeting and it still rings true today.

Alternatively, when student groups are unable to use procedural methods to limit dissenting opinions, they increasingly turn to public protest and violence. Recent examples include riots at Berkley in response to a proposed speech by Milo, possible use of pepper spray against Vice co-founder Gavin McInnis when he spoke at NYU and the incident at Middlebury which I linked to earlier.  While the speaking events at NYU and Middlebury went ahead, the riots at Berkely were enough to force the cancellation of the event. Now while all three men express opinions which are deeply distasteful and offensive to any reasonable human, they do represent the views of some students on campus, students who form an intellectual minority. To suggest that a minority on campus cannot present their views because the majority disagrees with them is clearly a violation of the basic precepts of freedom of speech.

The point of protecting free expression is to protect unpopular opinions held by minorities, no matter how obnoxious they are. Furthermore, when the majority gets to decide what ideas are acceptable based on mass acceptance, that sets a dangerous precedent. While all reasonable people can agree that appearing in blackface is terrible (I see you Gavin McInnis) policing of speech can easily extend to more mainstream ideas which while unpopular on campus, are legitimate political opinions. Sound like a ridiculous slippery slope argument? Just look at the previous example about anti-abortion student organizations. While I certainly think that opposing abortion is sexist, supporting restricting abortion access is a legitimate political opinion that many reasonable people hold.

Often people who want to prevent certain speakers from appearing on campus indirectly invoke Mill’s standard for when speech should be banned. As we have seen, Mill argues that speech which leads to physical arm should be limited. Thus many activists, while not citing Mill, state that the ideas of certain speakers are so dangerous that they constitute outright hate speech or an incitement to violence against certain vulnerable groups. The problem with this line of argumentation is twofold. First is that while repugnant, many of these speakers are not propagating hate speech. In the US this objection holds no legal force as hate speech is protected under the 1st Amendment. Even in Canada, hate speech laws are remarkably specific, outlawing “any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide…” Admittedly, advocating or promoting genocide is a remarkably high standard to prove. Furthermore, even if charged under Section 318 of the Canadian Criminal Code:

An accused is not guilty: (a) if he establishes that the statements communicated were true; (b) if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text; (c) if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit, and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true; or (d) if, in good faith, he intended to point out, for the purpose of removal, matters producing or tending to produce feelings of hatred toward an identifiable group in Canada.

Thus, while much of what many campus speakers may say is certainly hateful, it isn’t Hate Speech.

The second problem is that Mill has a very high standard for when speech can be banned. Particularly, there needs to be a clear and identifiable link between a certain speech act and a specific harm. The problem is that such direct links are extremely difficult to establish. So instead people will argue that certain statements create a culture that enables or emboldens others to act, but such a link is indirect at best.

The result is that some left-wing activists will draw on the idea of rhetorical violence or bdelygmia to argue that even without a clear link between specific speech acts and physical violence, the speech act itself is inherently violent. Such an argument has been used as justification for everything from canceling Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show at Goldsmith College in the UK  to the riots at Berkely. The problem is that speech isn’t actually violence. Certain ideas can most assuredly make people feel uncomfortable or worse, but words do not do physical harm. If a clear link can be established between words and violence then there is legal grounds to act. Activists attempt to blur the lines between the verbal and the physical because such a link can’t be clearly established. To suggest rhetoric can be literally violent is simply false and does a disservice to people who were actual victims of violence.

While it is understandably tempting to exploit progressive dominance of the academy to silence offensive ideas, much as many progressive positions were repressed for decades. However, this is a dangerous temptation to indulge in. The real litmus test for one’s support for freedom of expression is whether you are willing to allow ideas that you not only disagree with but find deeply offensive and flawed. Increasingly it seems that many on the left are failing this test, in the same manner, that the right failed it for decades. What many progressives need to remember is that only a few short decades ago, it was illegal to speak or write publically about something as basic as birth control. During the 1960s The Canadian government, for example, used obscenity laws to charge the editors of student newspapers like The McGill Daily for telling female students how they could access and use basic birth control.  There is no guarantee that the status quo regarding the acceptability of certain types of public expression remains as it is in 2017. Hence it is so incredibly important to defend the free expression of all ideas at all times, to hopefully ensure that when your ideas are unpopular you can still freely advocate for them.

 

 

 

It Isn’t Always a Mistake to Talk About Nazis

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet is familiar with at least one aspect of Godwin’s Law about internet arguments and Nazis, namely whoever mentioned Hitler has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress. More broadly speaking, the point Mike Godwin makes is a solid one. Nothing is, or will be like, the Nazis, the Holocaust or Hitler and to compare say, a forum moderator’s decision to delete your post to the Nazis, is so hyperbolic and ridiculous as to make any subsequent argument you make irrelevant. However, in our post-2016 Trumpian universe, it seems that many prominent journalists and political commentators have decided that Godwin is no longer applicable. The most recent example comes from Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith who made reference to Martin Niemöller’s famous poem in his tweet on  rumours that the Trump Administration was considering deploying 100 000 National Guard troops to arrest undocumented immigrants.

Such statements have usually elicited the expected condemnation from the right-wing press, in the case of Smith, within a few hours from The Federalist writer David Harsanyi. Since the inauguration, this cycle has repeated itself ad nauseum: someone compares Trump, his staff, cabinet choices or policies to the Nazis, the right responds and claims that these people are disrespecting the millions whom Hitler killed and then the original commentator (or their supporters) use such denunciations to prove how out of touch the right is regarding the imminent threat Trump poses to American democracy.  You can find another example of this trend here. So who is right? Are Nazi comparisons so hyperbolic and disrespectful as to be useless? Or are Trump’s defenders in denial about the historical parallels between the two regimes?

My answer, from the perspective of someone who has spent the last four years of their life studying the 1920s and 30s, is that Nazi comparisons can sometimes be appropriate, but are often egregiously misused. Much like most historical analogies, especially ones made on Twitter in 140 characters, they are the product of lazy thinking and implied, rather than explained connections, that are often tenuous at best. That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons we as democratic societies can draw from the rise of Hitler and Fascism more general in the 20s and 30s.

First, the rise of any of the fascist dictators was a process, not an immediate event. Even the most dramatic seizures of power, Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922 or General Francisco Franco’s military coup in 1936, were the result of decades-long historical processes. In states with strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society, totalitarian governments cannot gain power and if they do, they rarely last long. Rather, it is only when key democratic institutions such as elected legislatures, a free press, and an independent judiciary are undermined that people like Mussolini can seize power or a plurality (not a majority) of voters turn to demagogues like Hitler.  For this reason, Trump and the Republicans’ systematic undermining of the mainstream news media, combined with the rise of ultra-partisan outlets like Fox News and Brietbart is so concerning. In many ways, the right-wing’s efforts to delegitimize the media and so remove a check on power echoes the strategy of the Nazi party who deployed the term Lügenpresse (literally lying press) to discredit any newspapers that challenged the Nazi version of events. At first, it was simply Socialist and Jewish publications but eventually came to include all papers that were not run or sanctioned by the Nazi Party as well as the entire foreign press. Now we get the “alt-right” using the term.

Throw in President Trump using “enemy of the people” and all that remark entails to describe the press and maybe Nazi comparisons aren’t that far off?

Yet it isn’t attacks on the free press that most people associated with the Third Reich. Rather, the most enduring and horrific image of the Nazi regime is that of the Holocaust. Be it the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the emaciated men and women freed by Allied forces from the Nazi Death Camps in 1945, these images are indelibly associated (as they should be) with Hitler and his regime. As I emphasize to the high school aged students at Compass who attend my 20th Century history class on the Holocaust, we need to understand it as a process, not a single event. The gas chambers and death camps were “The Final Solution” not the first step. The Nazi’s did not envision Auschwitz when they came to power in 1933. Rather, their murderous policies evolved over time and it was only in 1942 that the Nazi Government (or possibly just Hitler himself depending on whether you buy Ian Kershaw’s argument) decided to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. The first steps were much smaller acts like the  “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933 which removed Jews and other “politically unreliable” people from the German Civil Service and the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which prohibited Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or German-related blood.” It wasn’t until 1938, five years after gaining power, that Jews became the target of large-scale state-sanctioned violence on the night of Kristallnacht (commonly known as “Night of Broken Glass”). Since we now have the benefit of hindsight we can trace a direct line from 1933 through to the “Final Solution.” Yet many observers in the 1930s and 40s were either unwilling to believe the true depravity of the Nazi’s crimes or simply rejected the idea that they could progress to the level of industrialized killing until the evidence of the Death Camps was shown on film and in photographs the world over.  Germany was a civilized, western nation, it simply couldn’t happen there until it did.

The broader point here is not that Donald Trump or Steven Bannon is going to order the deaths of millions of minorities. Rather, comparing certain administration actions with Hitler can be an instructive warning. Thanks to extensive historical evidence (collected by places like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem) we know that when governments deploy certain strategies and ideas that denigrate democratic institutions and demonize minorities, it can end in mass murder. It doesn’t mean that every wanna-be authoritarian demagogue necessarily leads his or her country to that destination, but history tells us that it is a possibility and can point to the specific steps on the road to that particular hell. Choosing to ignore all warnings no matter how well argued is not respecting the memories of those who the Nazi’s killed, rather it is disrespecting them by blindly allowing a leader or a government to take us one step further down a road nobody should want to be on in the first place.

Fidel Castro Was a Brutal Dictator But His Critics are Hypocrits

Fidel Castro died on Friday November 25th, 2016 at 90 years old. His death marks the passing of a brutal dictator who violated the basic rights of his citizens throughout his 49 years as self-proclaimed President of Cuba. Castro, the son of Spanish immigrants to Cuba led a five-year revolt against the dictatorial government of President Fulgencio Batista before finally ousting Batista on January 1st, 1959. At first, Castro promised liberal-democratic reforms in line with his 1956 “Five Laws” statements. His appointment of Manuel Urrutia Lleó, a liberal seemed to reflect a desire for open markets and democratic reforms. However, by July 17th the promise of a free and open Cuba evaporated. Castro pushed Urratia out of power and installed authoritarian Marxists in key government positions. From July 17th onwards Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union while executing and imprisoning thousands without trial. The pattern of repressive and authoritarian governance  modeled on Stalin-era Soviet policies continued up until Castro stepped aside as president in 2008 in favour of his brother Raul. Raul has ruled Cuba since then and, while introducing some liberalizing measures, has largely maintained the Castro’s repressive regime.

Upon news of his death statements from global leaders poured in, with many on the left offering tributes to Castro. One of the most infamous was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s, where he describes Castro as ” …a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” The only nod to Castro’s brutality was Trudeau’s description of Castro as a “controversial figure.”  Alternatively, those on the right, such as Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio and President-Elect Donald Trump, condemned Castro in terms reserved for the most tyrannical of world leaders. Similarly, many conservative pundits both denounced Castro and used his death as an example of the left’s supposed love of dictatorships.  Former Brietbart writer Ben Shapiro best demonstrates this trend when he concludes his article on Castro and the left by writing, “This is why the left must be fought at every turn… the left has always supported the worst people on the planet, so long as they’re pledged to destroying individual liberty in the name of collective fairness. ”  While an inflammatory rhetorical device to contrast the “liberty loving right” and the “barely veiled communist left”, such a position is the product of historical ignorance and pure hypocrisy. Rather, people’s public positions on abusive leaders such as Castro is largely the product of their stance regarding American/Western strategic interests and the fervency of one’s anti-communist ideology.

While Castro inflicted much suffering on the Cuban people, he was far from the only authoritarian leader of the 20th century. Yet, political expediency, economic factors and/or blind anti-communism has led many on the right to support reprehensible dictators. For a recent example from Canadian history, one only needs to look at the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the Harper government’s reaction. Rather than highlighting the Saudi’s record of violence, sexism, and political repression, the Canadian Prime Minister instead called the deceased monarch “a strong proponent of peace.” Canada also spent over $175 000 to send Governor General David Johnson to Saudi Arabia for the funeral. Similarly, many on the American right, such as Senator John McCain, also praised the Saudi leader. Why? Because Saudi Arabia was – and still is – a critical American ally and trade partner in the oil-rich Middle East. Now, many on the left also praised King Abdullah, but the idea that conservatives make principled stands while the left embraces totalitarianism is a little hard to justify if we expand the scope of our discussion even just to 2015.

Looking back to Cold War history, the trend of the right embracing authoritarian regimes becomes even more pronounced. The Ronald Reagan administration, in particular, lent US support to a variety of unsavory characters around the globe in a bid to fight anything that even resembled communism. The Reagan White House provided arms and support – and Reagan even personally met with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the Angolan guerrilla movement with close ties to the Apartheid Regime of South Africa. At the same time, the Reagan administration also sold weapons to South Africa to secure their support in the Angolan conflict. Similarly, as was revealed through the Iran-Contra scandal, the CIA sold weapons to authoritarian Iran in order to fund right-wing death squads called Contras in Nicaragua, precisely because said squads targetted leftists. Anti-communism trumped even the most basic human rights in Reagan’s world view.

These are simply the most prominent examples as the US also supported the totalitarian military leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak who came to power in 1981 and of course, sold weapons to Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein. US support of Iraq during the brutal Iran-Iraq war was motivated by a combined fear of the Iranian theocracy and the powerful military the Iranian government inherited from the previous regime of the Shah of Iran. Ironically, it was due to the Americans that the Shah, another brutal dictator, had access to the latest US military hardware, as the US supported the Shah’s regime throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s when it jailed, tortured and killed its political opponents. Iran was a strategic ally and a key source of oil imports, if they bathed political dissidents in acid well, that was the price of regional security right?

As the Iran case suggests, US support of authoritarian regimes began well before Ronald Reagan became president. Particularly, but not exclusively, in Africa and Asia, the US government was willing to support kleptocratic strongmen so long as they refused to cooperate with the Soviet Union. While there is a litany of examples I could site, particularly during the Vietnam war, the case of Mobuto Sese Seko and Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – is possibly the most egregious. After assuming absolute power in 1965, Mobutu, backed by the US, stole from his already impoverished people and saw his country become one of the least-developed in the world while US presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, sat back and propped up his regime. However, it was with Republican Presidents that Mobutu had the best relations, personally befriending Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. During the Reagan administration, Mobuto visited the White House three times and Reagan significantly downplayed the massive human rights abuse in Zaire. Mobutu also had high-profile conservative supporters in the USA, with Pat Robertson openly campaigning in favour of Mobutu. It was only in 1997, after almost 40 years of repressive rule, that Mobuto was finally ousted by the equally authoritarian Laurent Kabila. He had simply outlived his usefulness to the US due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Finally, those on the right could be remarkably conciliatory of left-wing dictators if it served their economic and strategic interests. While Richard Nixon’s support of right-wing strong man in well known, most famously the CIA’s 1972 supported coup in Chile that removed a democratic-socialist government in favour of the authoritarian Augusto Pinochet, Nixon was also willing to overlook the heinous crimes of communist strongmen if it suited him. The best example is Nixon’s statement upon the death of Chairman Mao of the Chinese People’s Republic; nary a mention of mass starvation, summary executions, political and religious repression and re-education camps.

Rather, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party in the 1970s represented a new frontier for American trade and a possible ally against the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s. So, to advance American economic and military interests, Nixon and the White House spoke glowingly of one of, if not the most, murderous dictators in history.

A similar story could be told about the British Conservative Party’s willingness to embrace authoritarian regimes of the right, from Margaret Thatcher’s support of Pinochet and her unwillingness to enforce sanctions on Apartheid Era South Africa through to many British Conservatives’ support of Fransico Franco during the Spanish Civil War. There are also many examples of Conservative Canadian Prime Ministers embracing right-wing authoritarians and while Pierre Trudeau is often vilified on the right for his supposed embrace of Communist China and Fidel Castro, it was Conservative John Diefenbaker who began massive grain sales to both the PRC and the USSR in the early 1960s while Trudeau Sr. cut off development aid to Cuba in response to Castro’s deployment of soldiers to Angola.

The overall point is that sympathy, or outright support of, abusive and anti-democratic regimes is not a characteristic of the right or the left. While conservatives have delighted in highlighting all the embarrassing ways prominent members of the left have supported communist regimes, they overlook the multitude of ways that conservative political leaders have also embraced totalitarian leaders. The examples I’ve provided is merely the tip of the iceberg and only touches on post World War Two history. I haven’t even begun to explore the America First Movement and its indifference (or outright support) of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. While I am glad that many people have criticized Justin Trudeau’s statement about Castro and have rightly highlighted Castro’s destructive legacy, using these statements as evidence to make some broadly ahistorical point about the left and authoritarianism is blatant hypocrisy that should rightly embarrass the authors of these polemics.

 

 

 

The Myth of Real America

One of the most prominent and problematic narratives to come out of the 2016 election has been that of “Real America” vs “Costal Elites” and how East and West Coast liberals simply don’t understand what it is like to live and work in the real US of A. Some of this perception has been driven by Donald Trump’s surprise victory with Democrats professing that they no longer know their own country, while another driving factor has been conservatives lauding how grounded they are compared to their “out of touch” liberal brethren. For examples of both of these themes and hyperlinks, you can consult my other two blog posts on voters turnout in Elections 2016 and Racism and the Democratic Party. Particularly for people on the right, one online quiz by libertarian political scientist Charles Murray has been widely cited as proof of the “liberal elite” bubble. Even before the election, many right-wing pundits and academics drew on Murray’s work to prove their point about disconnected elites. I’ve posted one example of many from twitter below:

The quiz, which first appeared in 2012 in Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 but was recently updated and republished by PBS Newshour in March of 2016. Subsequently, the national media latched onto this idea, with outlets like NPR and The Washington Post highlighting it on their websites. However, once you start digging into Murray’s intellectual history, the data he uses to shape his 25 questions and the assumptions underlying the very purpose of the quiz, it is very obvious that this project is not about identifying who lives in a bubble but rather is about normalizing and celebrating a certain rural white American experience to the exclusion of everyone else.

First, it is important to highlight who Murray is and what his background is. Murray, a self-described libertarian political scientist who has spent his entire career working for a variety of conservative organizations such as the American Institute for Research and the American Enterprise Institute, isH described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a white supremacist who through the use of racist pseudoscience has argued throughout his career that other races are inferior to whites but particularly white men.  He most infamously makes this argument in his 1994 book The Bell Curve, but has also defended this position in multiple interviews, articles and editorials in the years following the book’s publication. When the survey is put into the context of Murray’s entire career it becomes clear that the purpose of his work is to elevate the culture and conservative politics of white America and equate it with real America, thereby delegitimizing the actual cosmopolitan nature of present-day United States.

Murray’s choice of questions further demonstrates his agenda. His one question about sports culture references NASCAR  and while he recognizes the dominance the NFL has over American sporting culture, he implies that NASCAR is the hidden giant that real American supports but elites know nothing about. However, if you look at actual numbers about sports Americans watch or play, NASCAR is not part of the mainstream but rather a regional sport embraced by only a section of the population. For example, the most played sport in America is basketball with over 24 million registered participants while soccer has more registered players than American Football and hockey combined. Furthermore, of the top 26 most watched sporting events in the USA during 2015, only two, the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final and the NCAA Basketball final, were not American football, Yet, while it is important for Murray that people can identify Jimm(e)y Johnson  (be it the NASCAR star or the Dallas Cowboys coach), he doesn’t ask about Lebron James or Abby Wombach, despite the fact that many more Americans watched these two athletes in the past year.

Other questions on the survey continue this trend. While Murray argues that pickup trucks represent real America, the fact is that in 2015 Japanese sedans outsold pickup trucks in the US and have done so for most of the decade. Furthermore, in regards to popular culture there are no questions about music, possibly because that would have meant asking whether people had heard of hip-hop artists Drake or The Weeknd.  This trend continues throughout the 25 questions of his quiz, equating normal with white, working-class American culture and ignoring anything else, even when evidence demonstrates that many of Murray’s cultural touchstones are actually unique to one particular part of America and don’t represent “mainstream” American culture.

The broader problem, however, is the idea that one particular set of experiences makes up “real” America and everything else is foreign or less important. Certainly, African-American and Hispanic-American artists, thinkers and writers made and continue to make vital contributions to American culture, yet they are totally ignored by Murray. I would suggest that if someone doesn’t know what Univision is or who Kanye West is then they are certainly living in a bubble. Yet, the idea that white working-class America could be insular is never even discussed.  Certainly, limiting oneself to only a certain set of cultural experiences to the exclusion of all else is a problem, however, when one suggests that such a process of isolation only goes one way, that is disingenuous at best.

The truth is that real America doesn’t exist. Ever since the colonial period, America has been a collection of cultures and people who share some common touchstones but also differ widely in all aspects of their life. Yet since that time there has always been people who argue that certain values, practices, ideas or beliefs are more American than others. The attempt to equate one’s own culture with “real” America is fundamentally a political project, one that seeks to delegitimize alternative ideas or experiences. For Murray, if white working-class culture is the mainstream, then those who are immersed in that culture are true Americans whose opinions and politics should be values above others. Conveniently for Murray, the politics of the group he elevates above all else are conservative and reflective of many of his own positions. This test is not a neutral arbiter of how much of a bubble one lives in rather it is a tool of a political partisan designed to encourage flawed ideas about the USA.

 

Racism Doesn’t Need Mens Rea

The vast majority of white Americans (like most people) do not consider themselves racist, nor do they want to to be identified as such. Certainly, people like David Duke and Don Black openly embrace the label, yet polls suggest that only 10 to 15 percent of white Americans are willing to describe themselves as racially biased or racist. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the Presidential Election on November 8th, 2016, many pundits and politicians – particularly, but not exclusively on the right –  have argued that part of the reason why white working class voters turned towards Trump was that they were tired of being called racist by white liberals/Democrats and so abandoned the party en masse. The most recent example comes from conservative columnist David Marcus in a piece he wrote for The Federalist. Marcus states that:

The unfortunate place where we now find ourselves is one in which blatant attacks on white people, often from white people, are driving them further into a tribal cocoon. Samantha Bee’s awful and irresponsible berating of white women as the evil force behind Trump’s victory, while condescendingly describing magical people of color as the only ones who can save us, is a clear example of where white defensiveness and victimization are coming from.

In order to solve this problem of “white defensiveness,” many, Marcus included, have called for the Democrats to abandon discussions about race and instead try to focus on understanding the viewpoint of the white working class.

Overlooking the fact that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up tremendously well, as Trump did not meaningfully increase, except in very specific circumstances, his share of the white vote over previous GOP candidates, let us assume that there was a large movement of white voters to Trump and the Republicans and that to win future elections the Democrats need to win this population over. If so, is it necessary to adopt a version of the pundits’ strategy and cease to identify and rectify either overt or subtle racism in American society and politics?

I argue no, in fact, the Democrats have both a moral and political imperative to continue to highlight racism, particularly in the Trump administration, and to admonish those who tacitly or openly supported discriminatory and bigoted policies/politicians. With Donald Trump in the White House, it is now more than ever, critical for Democrats/liberals/progressives to call a racist a racist.

The first and most obvious point to make is that as the party of opposition, the Democrats have a moral and political obligation to stand up for both their supporters, many of whom will be targeted by a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, as well as to oppose the government and act as a check on their power. If they refuse to denounce policies such as mass deportations and voter ID laws as racist, the Democrats tacitly accept these policies and their inevitable consequences. Regardless of your belief about the moral arc of history or whether history has right or wrong sides, I would suggest that current liberals would want to be remembered more as Thaddeus Stevens rather than Alexander Long; rather be the principled as opposed to the compromising legislators. When tomorrow’s Dorris Kearns Goodwin or Steven Spielberg recount the Trump years, today’s progressives should want to be the heroes, even if it results in short-term electoral pain.

Yet, does a principled and vocal anti-racist approach to politics mean alienating white working-class voters and consigning oneself to short-term, self-imposed political exile as Macleans suggests it does? I would argue absolutely not. Here we return to the idea I brought up in the opening paragraph; most Americans do not want to be racist. Yes, calling people racist/discriminatory/bigots will temporarily make them mad and prompt swift and repeated denials. But it is these denials that are particularly interesting. Even the most committed Trump supporters deny accusations of racism with particular vigour:

Even if we accept that individual Trump partisans and campaign staff are disingenuous, that they really are racist and are lying to themselves and others, it is the political power of the accusation that is important. Trump supporters understand that if American voters believe Trump is racist they will not support him. Hence, it was important, at the very least, to convince voters who supported their candidate that it was okay, it was just Democrats crying wolf racist again and that you and Trump weren’t racist and you could vote for him while still feeling good about yourself. Even the post-election narrative continued in this vein, with Trump supporters emphasizing how many African and Hispanic Americans voted for him, so he couldn’t actually be a racist.

The problem for progressives is not in identifying racism in American society, but rather in explaining complex ideas such as systemic racism and inter-generational trauma in a simple to understand manner. One of the main problems is peoples’ popular conception of racism. For most people, the picture of racism is Sheriff Bull Connor setting the dogs on civil rights marchers or Alabama Governor George Wallace standing on the school steps railing against Washington, desegregation and “that communist Martin Luther King.” Hollywood movies such as In the Heat of the Night or Remember the Titans only serve to reinforce this image. However, these images are of an America that is in the past, today’s racist live in cabins in the mountains in Montana or attend Klan rallies in the Deep South. Racists don’t work shift work and live in Cleveland suburbs, have car payments and watch sports on Sunday. (Hat tip to fellow historian Sandy Barron for inspiring this entire paragraph)

There are many problems with this image but I want to highlight one, namely that racism does not require Mens Rea (the legal concept of intent). One can support and perpetuate racist structures/ideas/institutions without intending to. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie explains, one can vote for Obama and still be racist. Support, however, is not a mortal sin if done out of ignorance. The hope is that if people can clearly understand how their actions or political views are causing other humans pain, they will desist. If presented with a clearly understood choice between their chosen candidate and being a racist, I suspect that enough (not all, or maybe even a majority but enough) voters will reconsider who they support. Enough voters at least will reconsider their vote to return the Democrats to power in 2020. Now we come to the real problem and that is that the left, drawing on discourses emanating from academia and inspired by post-modernism, has done a terrible job of explaining racism in an understandable and accessible manner.

By relying on ideas like micro-aggressions and trigger warnings, the right has been able to caricature the left as saying that, “all white people are racist all the time.” Hence the idea that progressives cry racism incessantly as a slur to legitimize political opposition has taken hold among, I would argue, not only conservatives but a wide swath of white voters. It is this perception that Democrats need to counter. The first step in doing is to articulate in a jargon-free manner exactly why certain policies and ideas are harmful and to highlight the real and human cost of say, forced deportations or police violence. Yes, it often can be exceptionally difficult to encapsulate centuries of oppression into an easy to understand package, but that is the challenge of politics.

It isn’t necessary to talk down to people however, but it is necessary to make sure that your message has as wide an audience as possible.  In order to be successful the left doesn’t need to shut up about racism. In fact, given the very real threats to racial equality that the Trump presidency represents, it needs to be even more vocal than ever. However, that also means being clear and concise in a way that the average American can understand. Part of the reason for the success (incomplete and partial as it may be) of the Civil Rights Movement was that Dr. King was able to articulate the harm and destruction Jim Crowe Laws caused every day for people who, just like you, were Americans too. It is that message of universality I would argue that Progressive America has lost and desperately needs to recapture.

 

Most Political Pundits Are Wrong About the Election

The historic and unexpected nature of the election results on November 8th obviously begs for an explanation. However, the dominant narrative advanced by many political pundits, both in America and abroad, is completely wrong. The simple fact is that Donald Trump didn’t win the election, Hilary Clinton lost it. Yet what should be an obvious point has been lost in media hand-wringing about being “out of touch” and “not understanding their country.” One can find examples of this sentiment in The Washington Post, The New York Times and even on Fox News (although with a strong touch of exceptionalism). This narrative is not limited to the media though as many Trump partisans also believe that the “out of touch” media don’t understand “real” America. Take but a few examples from Twitter the day following the election:

But if we look at the results we can see that such a narrative doesn’t hold up. There simply wasn’t a surge of white “Trump Democrats” abandoning a Democratic Party that supposedly held them in contempt for a GOP candidate who understood the plight of white America.  Rather, Democrats stayed home while the GOP vote remained relatively consistent. Simply put, Hilary Clinton didn’t  – or couldn’t, more on that later – get her supporters to the polls, so they stayed home. The didn’t vote for Trump, they just didn’t vote.

The most important point to make is that Trump and the GOP did not mobolize large sections of the American electorate to win. Rather, in terms of sheer number of votes (not percentage) Trump’s 59.2 million votes is the lowest GOP vote total since Geroge W. Bush in 2000.

Furthermore, of the roughly 231 million eligilbe voters over 108 million didn’t vote. Despite a similar size pool of eligable voters as 2012 and 2008, 2016 voter turnout of 50% is the lowest since 2000 and the absolute number of votes cast is less than for both those elections. We can draw a few basic conclusions from these numbers. First is that Trump didn’t capitalize on his promise to bring new voters out to the polls and second, his overall appeal to the American electorate was even more limited than a candidate like Mitt Romney.

A more detailed look at the numbers further undermines the idea of a white backlash against the elitist Democrats. A good place to start to start digging deeper into election analysis is the New York Times 2016 Election edit poll data. The first and most obvious point from these polls is that Trump won 58% of the white vote, a mere 1% increase from what Romney won in 2012. The biggest changes were actually in the African-American and Hispanic vote, where Trump increased the GOP’s share by 7% and 8% respectivly. However, these numbers are percentages of the total vote, not absolute numbers. Thus, the seeming surge in Trump support among minority communities can be easily explained by the GOP successfully mobilizing their limited number of supporters among African Americans and Hispanics while the Democrats failed to do so.

It is often suprising to first time election workers/volunteers how little election campaigns revolve around ideas. The number of undecided voters in elections very low, in the case of 2016 roughly 5% of the electorate. So the goal isn’t to change anyone’s minds but rather it is to identify your supporters and ensure that, come hell or high water, they vote. This is where the fabled “ground game” comes into play. Since 2012 the RNC commited themselves to ensuring that they had the capacity to wage a successful ground game regardless of who won the nomination. After Romney’s defeat the party recognized that their message had limited appeal and demographics were working against them. So, in order to compete they needed to have an exceptionally efficient vote. Thus, once the RNC reluctantly lined up behind Trump, their machine went into operation. While pundits were right to point out that Trump had no political machine so to speak of, it didn’t matter. He was able to piggy back on a pre-existing infrastructure designed to win elections. In this respect the 2014 mid-term elections should have served as a warning to Democrats as to what happens when their vote doesn’t materialize. But instead of taking it as a warning sign, the DNC simply assumed that the allure of a presidential election would bring out supporters.

Even watching CNN’s coverage of the election reinforced this idea that it was voter turnout that decided the election. Given the nature of how returns are reported, most Republican freindly counties in states like Michegan and Wisconsin reported first. However, the Democrats were not overtly concerned as they repeatedly stated – correctly – that the returns from Milwaukee and Madison in WI plus Detroit, MI had not come in yet. Similar to the process in Virginia, where rural counties reported first and gave Trump a lead that was subsequently wiped out whent the votes from Washington, DC suburbs were reported, the DNC and CNN anchors expected a surge of votes from these urban areas would swing the two states blue. Yet when the results finally did come in at around 12:45am the surge was more like a ripple. The expected Democratic vote failed to materialize.

So lets dispense with the “out of touch” narrative. It is very easy to understand why Trump won. It wasn’t that a large number of white people were secret Trump supporters who flipped their vote in the secrecy of the voting booth. It wasn’t even that the polls were wrong, if everyone voted the polls would have been right. Instead, we (society, media, academics) need to understand why the DNC vote collapsed. However, such a discussion would lead the media to having to seriously consider the effect of voter suppression laws on minority turnout and that inevitably leads to a discussion about institutional racism that America is not comfortable having. So instead of having the hard conversation that is necccessary, most pundits seem happy to opine about how they “just don’t understand working class America.”   Such a narrative is not only misleading, it is harmful and it allows anti-democratic practices to flourish while discouraging the DNC from attacking the racism of the GOP.