Saturday, June 18, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit

However the vote goes next Friday, it will be historic.  The vote is likely to be narrow and currently too close to predict.  I hope the initiative passes but perhaps not for the most common reasons.  It is true that what is at stake is the future of Europe.  I think the UK has a better role to play negotiating the next phase from outside than it does from inside.

The EU is facing a number of heavy crises, from the Euro public debt crisis to the closely tied immigration crisis.  These crises pit member state obligations to the central EU authorities against the obligations to their own citizens in terms of tax money allocation and much more.

To be sure, the immigrants aren't the problem.  Most are fleeing American-sponsored civil wars and have gone from good lives to squalor in search of some minimal security.  I see families fleeing Syria and my heart goes out to them.  I believe my country, the US, has utterly failed to do what it needs to in order to pay the tab on the human cost of American foreign policy.  US foreign policy is thus grossly irresponsible and one reason I cannot vote for Clinton is that she helped this mess forward.

But what is a problem is that Greece is expected to pay a disproportionate portion of the costs for housing refugees and handling immigration issues (as well as border enforcement) while also living under Troika-imposed austerity.  In other words, the problem is an intra-EU power problem over money.

Faced with these crises, the current EC President (Juncker) has stated (and I believe he is correct here) that the EU, if it survives ten more years, will be very different than it is today.  The question is different in what way.  There are calls to federalize immigration rules in the EU and for the EU central government to then pay for border enforcement.  That would be an unprecedented expansion of EU institutions and nobody but Merkel seems to like that idea.  But the Schengen and Dublin agreements are perhaps mortally weakened and something has to replace them.

But there are other serious problems.  The European continent spans three major legal systems and traditions.  You have continental civil law, organized around a civil code interpreted by judges.  You have English Common Law, organized around a civil code mixed with judge-made precedent.  And you have Scandinavian law, where judge-made law is built around skeletal parliamentary acts (Scandinavian law is even more different from Continental civil law than English common law is).   Trying to harmonize commercial law where you have three different structural systems of law (and maybe more!) means basically that the most powerful nations (France and Germany) force everyone else to use their system (Continental civil law) as the basic conceptual system.  In other words, the social and legal diversity of Europe works heavily against the EU.

We shouldn't forget that the EU in its current form is a product of the age of neoliberalism that is now coming to a close.  People who are afraid of base nationalism should take heart that the EU has been valuable enough that it will not go away, nor will the UK retreat into isolation.  Rather people will find ways to keep the relationship alive in the ways that are beneficial.

But which ever way the UK votes, I think it is almost certain that they will be a part of whatever pan-European international treaty organizations exist in a decade.  The question is, to my mind, would leaving help steer that transformation in the right way?

My hope is that a leave vote (or even a close victory for remain) would mean basically that the UK and other peripheral members (like Sweden, Denmark, and Greece) would get more leverage in negotiating what the next generation of the European Community would look like.  If it tips the balance of power in the negotiations towards national governments, then it is a good thing.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts on the mass murder in Orlando

My reaction to the Orlando shooting is hard to describe.  Many of us understand that American society is deeply ill (the shooter spoke in an earlier interview about problems with people profiting off crises for example) but most of us don't go out and start shooting people.  What can convince a husband and father to go and do such great harm not only to other families but to his own as well?  For a religion?  Out of general frustration with the state of the US?  Something else?

But I have decided I have to write what I can.   Since there is some thought that this was an act of international terrorism, it is worth looking at the larger pictures of the intersection of American culture wars and international media, and how this is perceived throughout the world as well.  But it is hard.  As a husband and father, I cannot imagine what would cause someone to rob his own family not only of his presence but of his memory as well.  There is pity, outrage, and much more within myself directed at the shooter and deep sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, have to carry on without family members.

But there are aspects to this case which need to be discussed and I suppose if I can do so, I have a responsibility to bring them up.  I am not advocating changes to policy.  I am trying to articulate larger political patterns going on.  If this is political violence, then an understanding of other sides is important to preventing further acts in the future.

But I will say one thing clearly so there is no misunderstanding.  Violence like this is one of the worst things a person can do.  It is not only a crime against the general public, but even more importantly the shooter deeply betrayed his wife and child in a way that should never be forgotten.  What is his child going to think, growing up aware that his father was a mass murderer?  In some ways, of those who lost someone important, his young son was the most harmed.

At the same time, I think it is only through the search for common humanity with the worst of us that we can come to understand how to build a more flourishing society.  For in such a search is where we find the worst of the problems.

The largest problem I see is the faith in individualism and the system in the US, which effectively makes people who don't or cannot fit severely disadvantaged and leaves them no way to carve out a place for themselves.  For groups we decide to protect, we push an ideal of equality which somehow is never really equal because of hidden assumptions.  For other groups (in particular immigrants and cultural minorities who do not fit the liberal progressive narrative), there is not even that.

There is a reason why so many heinous crimes in the US are committed by immigrants and children of immigrants, and it is not a condemnation of immigrants as individuals.  When we tell people their cultural framework is inferior and bad, when we deny them a real voice in the culture, and deny them any reflection of themselves in the culture around them, we cannot blame them when they become monsters.  Here you have the child of an immigrant who was probably bullied, and at the same time his whole family was almost certainly existing outside the major central cultural communities.

What of international aspects to this?  Is it possible that international radicals pushed someone who was vulnerable and unstable to commit this horrible crime?

There is a fear in much of the world that the US will use global media to proselytize gay rights to the world, and I think this fear underlies much of the recent changes in Indonesian censorship.  That fear is reasonable and arguably even correct.  But with many of the most populous countries in the world (China, India, Indonesia) lining up to try to put an end to this, it effectively forces film makers to choose between commercial success abroad or currying favor at home.  If Disney wants to be able to show Frozen 2 in some of the most important markets internationally, they cannot give Elsa a girlfriend.  I expect this to become a very large issue in coming years.   But was it an issue here?

What is at stake is the question of whether a rights-based narrative or whether a community-based narrative is the right one for addressing people who do not (whether by choice or circumstance) follow the accepted normative narratives of the community.  The narrative may be that everyone gets married to someone in the community, has kids, and takes over the family business, but for one reason or another not everyone will do all these things.  The American approach is to decide that some things are worthy of rhetorical (but probably not substantive) equality, and therefore to say "well, they aren't like us and cannot help it so they need equal rights." But this never covers everyone.

While "marriage equality" means same-sex couples in the US should have the same legal protections as straight couples, it does not mean, for example, that those who marry non-citizens should be entitled to the same family protection as those who marry citizens.  No concern is given to the fact that families with non-citizen spouses (thanks to Clinton-era and Obama-era legislation, and a few more minor contributions by Bush) have more responsibilities and fewer protections than families where both spouses are citizens.  So it isn't clear to me that "equality" rhetoric and "rights" are a perfect solution.  Surely if there is a right to equality in marriage, then it is a Constitutional violation for the Affordable Care Act to ban my wife from the expanded medicaid for the first 5 years following a possible return to the US and still attach liability for failing to insure.

A very different approach is the devolutionary approach.  In this approach, power and responsibility are highly decentralized and communities are responsible for taking care of their own.  This never worked in the Jim Crow South because it requires a degree of economic equality that we have never had in the US as a whole, but it means that if someone is gay in Indonesia (one reason the narrative might not be met, but surely not the only one), it is possible for him or her to navigate society and carve out a place.  Indonesia is in fact so decentralized that a lot of things we think of as done by lawyers in the West (drawing up contracts, for example) are done by notaries public instead.

A community-based approach (rather than a rights/equality rhetoric approach) means that as uncompromising as a society may appear to be, there is always room for human judgement to make things humane, for people to treat eachother with humanity, and so forth.  A rights-based narrative is a threat to all that.  And so I think it is entirely appropriate that countries protect themselves from what really amounts to foreign propaganda by restricting messages from foreign films and television programs.

But did that have anything to do with this horrific act? If there is an international dimension then there must be.  It may also be that ISIL understands how shocking this would be to Americans and pushed the target for that reason.  Or maybe the instructions were more vague and Mr Mateen selected the target himself?  I doubt we will ever know.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Bullying in Schools

Those who know me particularly well know that for several years in school I was bullied.  For three years, I was beat up after school almost every day.  For another year it was a periodic occurrence.  I don't normally talk about this because we have this narrative in the US that we start out healthy and are damaged by trauma.  Instead, I think we learn from our experiences and the end-state of healing is when we are aware of what we have learned and then the trauma becomes a gift rather than a burden.  We all go through bad experiences in life.  The question is, do we eventually value what they bring us (insight, strength, etc)?

In discussing the current restroom controversies regarding public schools, showers, and transgender students, someone said something to me that lead me to understand something that had genuinely puzzled me before.  This is not about that controversy but the larger issue of bullying.  I now have a much greater understanding of why students who are bullied may either commit acts of mass violence (like Columbine) or commit suicide.  Before, I never understood that but a missing piece was given to me and I think it is worth sharing.

My Story

I was lucky to come from a strong family and attend a school where the administration were more concerned about addressing the issues well than preventing lawsuits.  So what I have to say here needs to be taken in a certain spirit.

Anyway....  Usually I was beat up by one person or another.   There were a few bullies and usually they took me on, one on one.  There were never any demands.  Just beatings.   I never hated the bullies.  There was always something about it that I could never put my finger on that made me pity them.  But that was the usual pattern.  I got very used to physical pain to the point where physical pain has never really bothered me since.

Once in a while groups of kids would join in.  Once or twice even those I had considered friends did.  That hurt in a way that the beatings never did (apologies were given and as far as I am concerned that is water under the bridge, but I mention it for comparison purposes).  The sense of betrayal from that sort of event, however, was still minor compared to the sense of betrayal that came from the school's involvement.  The school administration, as I mentioned above, tried to address the issues but the problem with bullies is they tend to be very good at manipulating image and more times than not the school would unintentionally take the wrong side.

Even well-intentioned administrators are particularly bad at connecting the dots here because they are often used by bullies and cannot, by nature, see the whole picture.  This, I have come to understand is a fundamental problem of authority and information, and school administrators are simply unable to prevent bullying because of these problems.

The teachers who could see what was going on also tried, but they had no power and consequently resorted to methods that (when I saw them) greatly offended my sense of justice -- at least one of the bullies (who did back off) was bribed to do so.

How things have changed since I was in school

In the discussion over current bathroom/locker room controversies someone pointed out to me something that struck me as extremely important in understanding the current problems.  It was pointed out to me that under zero-tolerance policies, the normal approach is to suspend or expel both the accuser and the accused depending on the severity of the accusations unless one side is independently confirmed.  But that is no measure of who is right, and so this confirms to my mind the fact that schools, when they try to address the issue will more often than not unintentionally take the side of bullies.  With zero tolerance, this increases the stakes and ensures that when schools are in the wrong, the victims of bullying are even more victimized.  I am genuinely thankful that I went through what I did before zero tolerance became a "best" practice.

Give a bullied kid social support and he or she can live and even thrive despite the bullying.  Turn the organs of authority against him or her and that is a recipe for very bad things.  Look at how many heinous crimes are committed by people who come from broken homes, who then are bullied in school, and are effectively denied all sorts of support.  Such people are pushed outside the system and relentlessly attacked by it without any real support from anyone.  Columbine can be understood as an act of rage against a school which not only failed to protect but probably also contributed to the bullying.  The suicides that sometimes make headlines are also from people who have insufficient support.

What We Need to do Differently

I am writing this because I think we need a fundamental shift in how we address school bullying in the US today.  Currently we expect the schools to shield students, but that puts the school in an impossible situation and ensures that the school's main interest is in avoiding lawsuits rather than helping students thrive.  That concern means that schools will err, and when they do, bullied kids will pay a very heavy price.  The first priority I think needs to be a commitment to stop the worst of the harm -- the harm done by school authorities when they re wrong, and that means a commitment to erring on the side of doing nothing.

A second thing is that we need to shift from seeing bullying primarily as a disciplinary issue to one which is primarily a support issue.  Bullies themselves may come from bad home environments, and victimizing them again in school doesn't make a lot of sense either.  What the school can do is offer counselling and moral support early and often, and then move to disciplinary action only when more serious problems emerge.

A third thing that schools can do is they can bring the parents and the administration together and insist on joint solutions involving both sides of a conflict.

But suspending or expelling kids for seeking help regarding bullying?  Absolutely not.  I don't even think we should expel bullies.