Archive

November 17th, 2015

Race, College and Safe Space

    Before there were the Paris terror attacks that changed everything and the second Democratic presidential debate that changed nothing, much of America had been transfixed by the scene playing out on college campuses across the country: black students and their allies demanding an insulation from racial hostility, full inclusion and administrative responsiveness.

    There was a part of the debate around those protests that I have not been able to release other than by writing here, one step off the news, but hopefully in step with the history of this moment.

    Last week I heard artist Ebony G. Patterson talking about the black body as a “site of contention,” and that phrase stuck with me, because it seemed to be revelatory in its simplicity, and above all, true.

    Black bodies are a battlefield: black folks fight to defend them as external forces fight to destroy them; black folks dare to see the beauty in them as external forces condemn and curse them. 

    Or worse, most insidiously, black folk try to calibrate their bodies to avoid injury.

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Fearing Fear Itself

    Like millions of people, I’ve been obsessively following the news from Paris, putting aside other things to focus on the horror. It’s the natural human reaction. But let’s be clear: It’s also the reaction the terrorists want. And that’s something not everyone seems to understand.

    Take, for example, Jeb Bush’s declaration that “this is an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.” No, it isn’t. It’s an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing. And remarks like that, which blur that distinction and make terrorists seem more powerful than they are, just help the jihadis’ cause.

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Beat the Press

    Before it slips away, let’s try to pull some larger meaning from perhaps the most absurd moment of 2015: that professor at one of the nation’s top journalism colleges who threatened to use force against a student journalist for doing the things taught in that school.

    The viral video, of Melissa Click, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, shows her screaming “get this reporter out of here” — the “here” being a public space, at a public event, a protest circle during Mizzou’s days of rage. “I need some muscle over here,” she cries, in faculty-thug mode.

    One lesson — in dignity, in the raw rights of a free press, in how hard it is to do the work that an informed democracy needs done on a daily basis — was embodied by a student photographer, Tim Tai, harassed just moments earlier and captured in the video. He kept his poise while being mocked by the professor for asserting a First Amendment duty to his job.

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Ted Cruz’s Laughable Disguise

    The venerated political strategist David Axelrod once described a presidential campaign as “an MRI for the soul.” It winds up being precisely that.

    But in its earliest stages, a presidential campaign is more like a costume ball.

    And right now, perhaps no candidate wears a mask as thick as Ted Cruz’s.

    He had it on during last week’s debate, when he lashed out at any Republican who gave any ground on illegal immigration.

    “The politics of it would be very, very different if a bunch of lawyers or bankers were crossing the Rio Grande,” he thundered, and there was no mistaking the contempt he meant to communicate for those elite, out-of-touch professionals.

    But where does that contempt leave him?

    He’s a lawyer, with a degree from Harvard, which was his steppingstone to a conventionally ambitious Supreme Court clerkship.

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Gifts With Meaning

    It’s time for my annual holiday gift guide, the chance to recommend presents more meaningful than a tie or sweater.

    For $20, through Heifer International (heifer.org), you can buy a flock of ducks and help a family work its way to a better life. Or $74 through CARE (care.org) pays for a schoolgirl’s books and supplies so she can attend school for a year — and girls’ education may be the highest-return investment available in the world today.

    Here are some other ideas:

    — We’re seeing painful upheavals about race on university campuses these days, but the civil rights issue in America today is our pre-K through 12th grade education system, which routinely sends the neediest kids to the worst schools. To address these roots of inequality, a group called Communities in Schools (communitiesinschools.org) supports disadvantaged kids, mostly black and Latino, in elementary, middle and high schools around the country.

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Date Night With the Democrats

    This weekend’s Democratic debate is going to be a tough sell. Two hours on a Saturday night, and not a single candidate who appears to be certifiably deranged.

    There are only three Democrats left in the contest, and none of them has compared the competition to a child molester. None seems to have an unusually creative theory on why the pyramids were built. Yawn. CBS News, which is airing the debate, has promised to focus on the economy, so there probably won’t even be a pop quiz about which woman the candidates would like to see on the 10-dollar bill. Although I suspect they’d all have a better answer than Jeb Bush’s “Margaret Thatcher.”

    Maybe there will be music. Requests from the audience? Martin O’Malley plays in a band. And Bernie Sanders actually once made an album. In fact, if you’re going to watch this event, an excellent way to prepare would be by listening to Sanders talk his way through “This Land Is Your Land.”

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Republicans’ Lust for Gold

    It’s not too hard to understand why everyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination is proposing huge tax cuts for the rich. Just follow the money: Candidates in the GOP primary draw the bulk of their financial support from a few dozen extremely wealthy families. Furthermore, decades of indoctrination have made an essentially religious faith in the virtues of high-end tax cuts — a faith impervious to evidence — a central part of Republican identity.

    But what we saw in Tuesday’s presidential debate was something relatively new on the policy front: an increasingly unified Republican demand for hard-money policies, even in a depressed economy. Ted Cruz demands a return to the gold standard. Jeb Bush says he isn’t sure about that, but is open to the idea. Marco Rubio wants the Fed to focus solely on price stability, and stop worrying about unemployment. Donald Trump and Ben Carson see a pro-Obama conspiracy behind the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rate policy.

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Free speech vs. racial respect? Why not both?

    Two important principles are clashing on university campuses these days from Yale to Missouri and beyond. On one side we have the principle of free expression. On the other, the principle that minority students -- and their allies -- should have "safe spaces," protected from "micro-aggressions" and other tone-deaf insults.

    You can see the problem already, can't you?

    Freedom from being offended is a noble goal but it's not always possible, partly because we all have vastly different ideas about what offends us.

    Those issues came to a head on the University of Missouri campus when a media studies professor bullied a student photographer in videos that quickly went viral.

    In the video, Melissa Click -- an assistant professor in the university's Communication Department, of all places, -- tells reporters to leave the quad that black student protesters had occupied and she loudly calls for "muscle" to force the move.

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How to deflate the polls

    Now that one of the Republican presidential debates has focused on substantive examination of the candidates' policy views, it's not too late to address the glaring injustice of choosing the participants by their standing in the public-opinion polls.

    The travesty in the first four rounds of relegating some of them to the "undercard" never should have happened. It was as if the election process was like another night of boxing at Madison Square Garden and should not continue excluding from the main event some of party's most accomplished politicians.

    At the outset, the Republican National Committee and the sponsoring news outlets decided that in the television era, having the then-17 declared GOP presidential aspirants all on one stage would be unwieldy. So the top 10 finishers in an amalgam of the major polls got to appear in the first one, and the remainder were assigned to a sort of junior-varsity debate.

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The Islamic State's trap for Europe

    Last week, President Barack Obama said that the Islamic State is "contained" in Iraq and Syria, but the group's attacks in Paris soon afterward showed that it poses a greater threat to the West than ever. The Islamic State is executing a global strategy to defend its territory in Iraq and Syria, foster affiliates in other Muslim-majority areas, and encourage and direct terrorist attacks in the wider world. It has exported its brutality and military methods to groups in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now it is using tactical skills acquired on Middle Eastern battlefields to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that will generate even more recruits within Western societies. The United States and its allies must respond quickly to this threat.

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