Thoughts and questions about reparations

You have to admire Ta-Nehisi Coates for his persistence is getting the discussion started.  In 2014, Coates wrote a long piece in the Atlantic Magazine titled “The Case for Reparations”.  He generated a lot of buzz back then and we are still talking about it almost two years later.  If you haven’t read it, you probably should if you have any interest in race in America.

My parents were incarcerated into “relocation” camps during World War II because of their race.

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.

Reparations were easily determined in this instance.  There was a list of everyone who was in a camp regardless of age.  Those who had died in the meanwhile got nothing and their estates and heirs got nothing.  My parents, uncles, and aunts got checks.  But the money was not enough to cover what had been lost, but was more of a token giving the apology some weight.

Coates has recently taken Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to task for not supporting reparations.

What candidates name themselves is generally believed to be important. Many Sanders supporters, for instance, correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state. I agree with them and have said so at length. Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral “anti-crime” bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her  invocation of the super-predator myth. A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory. (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.) That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name.

One does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform, but the dissonance between name and action is the same. Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation. Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s. I have repeatedly stated my problem with the “rising tide” philosophy when embraced by Obama and liberals in general. (See hereherehere, and here.) Again, briefly, treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.

To a certain extent Coates is correct.  Whether one uses the rising tide image or sticks with trickle down, programs begun in the 1960s like affirmative action and various anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing have helped but have not come close to solving the problem that black Americans are more likely to be poor than white Americans.  No one can deny that slaves, former slaves, and their present day descendents have not suffered every form of economic discriminations one can think of because they have.  The question is are reparations a good solution.

Bernie

Conor Friedersdorf provided some speculative reasons why Bernie Sanders is right in not embracing reparations in his recent piece in the Atlantic.

Perhaps Sanders just thinks reparations are bad policy on the merits. There are many plausible reasons that a principled radical might come to that conclusion (though it isn’t entirely clear to me that Sanders is that radical even on matters of class).

Perhaps he is convinced that the highest incarnation of justice is a government that redistributes resources toward its citizens based wholly on their need, and doesn’t want to shift the Overton Window toward any model that is predicated on dessert beyond need, or that would redistribute wealth from poor to rich in some instances.

That seems consistent with principled socialism.

Perhaps when Sanders says that reparations would be divisive, he doesn’t mean that they would damage his campaign or the Democratic coalition by dividing its supporters––the plausible interpretation that Ta-Nehisi argued against in his critiques––but that it would divide Americans of different races against one another in a manner likely to cause more harm to vulnerable minority groups than good, or necessitate a divisive process of bureaucrats defining who qualifies as black.

The Overton Window referred to above is a media pundit term meaning the range of discourse the public is willing to accept.

When I commented on a friends Facebook page during a discussion of reparations that I thought it would be difficult if not impossible to figure out who was owed, another friend commented that maybe that was what Coates was trying to do – get us to talk about the issue.  If that was his aim, to move or enlarge the Overton Window, then he has succeeded.

I have a question for Sanders.  Why not take up Coates’ call to support a study?

…For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”

A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.

Perhaps rather than demand reparations now we, Coates included, should push Congress – and all of the Democratic Presidential candidates to support HR 40.   Let’s keep talking about this.

Photograph:  huffingtonpost.com

 

 

Guns and public health

There are too many guns in the United States.

Last October Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog

It’s tough to know exactly how many guns we have in the United States. Most estimates of the number of guns in the U.S. use federal tallies of the firearms manufactured, imported and exported by U.S. gunmakers. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report published exactly one month before the Sandy Hook school shooting put the number of civilian firearms at 242 million in 1996, 259 million in 2000, and 310 million as of 2009.

If that 310 million number is correct, it means that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency was an inflection point: It marked the first time that the number of firearms in circulation surpassed the total U.S. population.

It is clear that the Obama years have been a boon to gun manufacturers regardless of whether the number of guns is 245 million, 270 million, or 300 million.

guns

Do they keep us safe?  Some gun owners point to falling homicide rates, but there are studies showing that places with few guns have lower rates.  Ingraham writes

It’s important to note that even as the number of guns has increased since the early-to-mid-90s, the per-capita gun homicide rate has fallen by nearly half over the same time period. On the other hand, it’s also true that when you make comparisons between states and countries, you see that places with more guns have more gun homicides, as research from the Harvard School of Public Health shows.

These two seemingly unreconcilable facts form the factual basis for much of the contemporary gun policy debate. Defenders of gun rights can point to falling homicide rates and rising gun numbers and argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, can point out the correlations between gun ownership and gun crime and push for tighter restrictions on gun ownership.

Ingraham concludes

Is there a way to reconcile these divisions? It’s hard to tell. I keep coming back to this quote, from the Economist earlier this year in response to the Charleston massacre.

Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.

Which brings me to Margaret Talbot’s comment in the January 18 issues of The New Yorker.  Talbot writes about President Obama’s Executive Order on background checks.

Last week at the White House, as President Obama announced a set of executive actions aimed at blunting gun violence, he seemed anything but numb. He wept as he invoked the first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut—a response for which some gun advocates mocked him. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s words about the “fierce urgency of now.” But he also acknowledged the numbness that can overcome people in the face of one mass shooting after another. That numbness puts proponents of unfettered gun rights at an advantage. People can easily start thinking of gun violence as something native to America’s angry, intractable soul—the armed, anti-federalist takeover of wildlife-refuge buildings in Oregon this month seemed like proof. And when, time and again, Congress thwarts gun reforms that are supported by majorities of Americans it can be hard to imagine that the status quo will ever change.

If numbness benefits gun-rights absolutists, uninformed numbness might serve them even better. In 1993, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide” in that home. The researchers had been funded by the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention, and the N.R.A. responded by trying to get the prevention center defunded. It didn’t succeed, but, in 1996, Congress amended an appropriations bill to the effect that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” It was a little like saying that no research on the health effects of smoking should be interpretable as anti-smoking. Congress also removed $2.6 million from the C.D.C.’s budget—the precise amount that had gone to the prevention center’s research—and then restored it, earmarked for an entirely different purpose. As a result, one of the study’s authors said in a public-radio interview last spring, “many, many people stopped doing gun research.”

With gun research, maybe we could have safer weapons as we have safer cars.  Maybe we would better understand the dangers of gun ownership.  Maybe we wouldn’t have to read about the six year old who finds Daddy’s gun and kills his two year old sister.

Jay Dickey, the Republican representative and N.R.A. member from Arkansas who sponsored the amendment, came to regret it. Dismayed by the continuing toll of gun violence, he was eventually persuaded that firearm deaths could be reduced without violating the Second Amendment. He now believes that research on gun violence can help prevent it, much as similar work on highway safety resulted in innovations like seat belts, air bags, highway dividers, and minimum drinking ages, and prevented hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths. In December, in a letter to Mike Thompson, the chairman of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Dickey wrote, “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile.” He added, “We should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”

Talbot cites a recent study (not government funded) comparing the repeal of a permit and background check law in Missouri and the initiation of more stringent laws in Connecticut:  Gun homicides dropped around 40% in Connecticut and rose by a similar percentage in Missouri.

Those opposed to background checks, bans on weapons with large capacity magazine, or even trigger locks often say that the issue is one of mental health not guns.  I think our national obsession with guns IS the mental health issue.  They are a public health issue.  Talbot concludes

In part, Obama is trying to reframe the gun discussion not as a Second Amendment issue but as one of public health. This approach acknowledges that, while we can’t eliminate gun crime, we can reduce it, and that doing something is better than fatalistically doing nothing.

Photograph:  M&R Glasgow/Flickr

 

G. K Chesterton, Jane Austen and Mr. Wickham

In his collection of essays, “Come to Think of It” published in 1930 we find this little gem On Jane Austen in the General Election.  I’m not interested in what Chesterton writes about how political commentators are using – or misusing – Austen to argue about the New Woman as much as I am in his observations about George Wickham.  When my husband handed be a print-out of the short essay, I was just finished with my annual re-reading of Pride and Prejudice.  This includes re-reading the novel, watching the Colin Frith/Masterpiece Theater adaptation, and more recently, re-reading the P.D. James sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, so everything was fresh in my mind.

For anyone who has not read Pride and Prejudice or seen one of the many adaptations, there is a kind of love triangle between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett; the handsome, wealthy, brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the charming, handsome, impoverished George Wickham.  Darcy is private and quiet; Wickham, open and talkative.  When we, and Elizabeth, first meet the men, Wickham is the more attractive.  Made more so, perhaps, by the fact that Mr. Darcy, proud and aloof, publicly refuses to acknowledge Mr. Wickham.

Wickham

It is Wickham’s explanation that Chesterton writes about.

….A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.

Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen.  The crowd, (I fear the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar imposter like Mr. Mantalini. [Mantalini, a character in Dicken’s Nicholas Nickerby, is a handsome man who lives off his wife and eventually ruins her.  Also described as a gigolo.]  But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that.  She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter.  Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.

Wickham tells Elizabeth the part of the story that puts Darcy in the wrong.  She has no reason not to believe him and neither do we until we learn the rest of the story from Mr. Darcy himself.  As the story unfolds we learn that while Wickham may not be vulgar, he has a lot in common with the gigolo, Mantalini.  But I digress.

Chesterton, thinking of the General Election, views Wickham as the perfect politician.

….For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections….And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures.  First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth.  And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret.

George Wickham as the perfect member of Parliament and perfect politician.  I love it!  Maybe the problem with politics today is there are not enough George Wickhams.

Photograph is a still of Adrian Lukis as George Wickham in the 1995 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Pride and Prejudice.

 

 

 

 

Scandal in the Vermont legislature, Part 2

Senator Norman McAllister has been suspended from the Vermont Senate.  The vote, which was not on party lines, was 20 to 10. My Senators split, one for and one against.

Vermont Public Radio reported

For the first time in its history, the Vermont Senate has suspended one of its own members.

Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth introduced the resolution.

“The situation we face today is an ugly one. No other word for it,” Baruth said. “It’s hard to imagine a more uncomfortable discussion and yet today’s debate is crucial to our future as a Senate,” adding that the “number and nature of felony charges against [McAllister] require us to suspend him.”

Baruth said that suspension was a step short of outright expulsion, and that it preserves the presumption of innocence McAllister should be afforded.

But Baruth said the Senate can’t allow McAllister to retain legislative powers he’s alleged to have abused so grossly. McAllister’s alleged victims include a 21-year-old Statehouse intern he paid to assist him in Montpelier.

At any place of business in Vermont, Baruth said, “no one would dream of allowing a manager who has been criminally accused of assaulting his assistant to remain in place.”

Those opposed to suspension argued that there were no rules in the Senate to cover the situation and that the Senate should let the criminal justice system work.

Rutland Sen. Peg Flory, however, said the Senate was overstepping its authority by preventing an elected official from carrying out his official duties. So long as McAllister is suspended, Flory said, Franklin County voters will lack representation in the Senate.

“We make the law. We don’t interpret it; we don’t enforce it,” Flory said.

Flory opposed the resolution because she said it violated the legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

“To step on that and say because somebody has been charged we are going to remove them just goes against every grain in my body,” Flory said.

Flory, a Republican, wasn’t alone in her opposition to the resolution. Windsor County Democrat Richard McCormack said the Senate ought not involve itself in matters of criminal law.

In the end, the arguments for suspension won out.

Back in December, after the rules committee had voted to recommend suspension, one of McAllister’s constituents, Sue Prent, wrote:

Mr. McAllister says he thinks his constituents will sue the Senate on his behalf, for being deprived of representation.

Is he kidding us? Any and all of his constituents with whom I am familiar (of every political stripe) wanted him gone as soon as the content of his confessional conversations with the victims became known.

A more likely scenario is that some of those same constituents, fed up with Mr. McAllister’s refusal to accept responsibility for his appetites and voluntarily step down from the Senate, will be motivated to sue Mr. McAllister for depriving them of legitimate representation in the face of conclusive evidence that he, at the very least, has grossly violated community standards.

After putting his colleagues and voters though the ordeal of deciding to suspend him (even the other Senator from Franklin County voted yes), McAllister has said he is thinking of resigning so a replacement can be appointed.

Unfortunately, the sad story of Vermont State Senator Norman McAllister is far from over.

 

 

 

Scandal in the Vermont legislature

The Vermont legislature opened yesterday.  There are many pressing issues:  school reform, how to pay for expanded Medicaid, the drug epidemic, and legalizing marijuana.  But overriding everything is what to do about Senator Norman McAllister.

McAllister is accused of raping an intern last session and of a long duration “rent for sex” scheme.  It is alleged that he let women maintain housing and jobs on his farm in Franklin County in exchange for sex.  All of this came to light as the session was ending last year.  The Burlington Free Press reported the story last May.

Prosecutors allege Sen. Norman H. McAllister, R-Franklin, over a period of several years sexually assaulted two women who were his tenants and employees, and that he attempted to solicit a third woman. That woman called police this week, launching a fast-moving investigation that by Friday was reverberating throughout the state capital of Montpelier.

The allegations, explained in sometimes graphic detail in court papers, shocked the governor and McAllister’s Statehouse colleagues, several of whom witnessed his arrest outside the Capitol on Thursday evening.

At that point, I think everyone was prepared for him to resign.  The Governor, a Democrat, would appoint his replacement.  I should say here that relations between the Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives here are not as divided and acrimonious as they are nationally probably because we are a small state and civility is important if any governing is to happen.  The Governor might even have appointed a Republican.

Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, returns to his seat in the Senate on the opening day of the Legislature.

Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, returns to his seat in the Senate on the opening day of the Legislature.

But Senator McAllister has not resigned.  The Legislative rules have nothing to cover this kind of situation.  Over the summer, there was some talk of expulsion, but the rules committee recommended suspension instead.  McAllister, denying the allegations, is fighting the suspension.  He says he is innocent and the criminal trial will prove it.  The trial is scheduled to begin in February.  That means he is going to miss part of the session in any case.

This is where I am of two minds.  He has been duly elected and I’ve read and heard nothing about any move from his constituents to recall him.  A suspension would leave them short one Senator to represent Franklin County.  (There are only 30 senators, statewide.)  On the other hand, if any other public employee were accused of these crimes, they would have been suspended back last May.  No police officer, firefighter, social worker, or RMV worker would be on the job today.  I think a lot of his fellow legislators are facing the same quandary.  The eight of the nine Senate Republicans caucused yesterday.  McAllister defended himself and they came to no conclusion except to urge him to resign.

Is an elected legislator a public employee?  In some sense, yes.  They are paid with taxpayer money.  On the other hand, they are “hired” by election.  Neither of my state senators have commented on the situation nor has my representative.  If I had to vote this afternoon, I’m not sure what I would do so I haven’t talked to any of them.  All three are women and I wonder if they, like me, have difficulty separating the alleged crime from what action to take.  Would it be easier if McAllister had embezzled money or falsified his tax returns?

Part 2 of this story, after the vote.

Photograph:  Roger Crowley/VTDigger

 

“The Tattoo Murder Case”

It is 1947 in post-war Tokyo and the police are confronted by a locked room murder in Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tatoo Murder Case.  The book was one of several Japanese mysteries I got for Christmas from my husband.  If the others are as interesting, he and David, the owner of Mystery on Main in Brattleboro, choose well.

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi was born in 1920.  According to both Wikipedia and eNotes, he studied metallurgy, but became a mystery writer when a fortune teller told him that was where his future lay.  He was a prolific writer up to the 1990’s; he died in 1995.  Only three of his books, including Tattoo, have been translated into English.

As with all good books, one learns a great deal.  Post-war Japan and the destruction in Tokyo are prominent.  At one point, we visit a house untouched by the war while the house next door is destroyed.  And I learned a lot about the art of tattooing.  Did you know that people with full-body tattoos have a shorter life span because the tattoo interferes with circulation?   Picking up facts like that is one reason I love good mysteries.

In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment.  These mysterious magicians were known as Tsunedahime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.

I’m not certain if that preface was written by Takagi or not, but assume that it was.  The folklore behind the tattoos plays as big a part in the story as the art of tattooing itself.  At the time of the mystery, tattooing is illegal in Japan, but there is a flourishing underground.  Tattooing is an art to the Japanese who are contemptuous of the random tattoos sported by the occupying Americans.  Their tattoos are referred to as sushi after a kind of rice featuring vegetables and other things scattered at random in flavored rice.  (Sushi refers to the rice and comes in many forms, not just rolled in seaweed or topped with fish.)  A good tattoo should be an entire picture and tell a story, not just be random names of girlfriends, flags, and anchors!

cover

The Tattoo Murder Case provides a glimpse into a different culture and time as well as a fascinating mystery.

Photograph of Takagi from Wikipedia.

Photograph of book cover from Amazon.

The book was translated by Deborah Boehm.