Trump and the Luxury of Failure

As expected, even a small sliver of Donald Trump’s tax returns proved to be interesting and infuriating. The rise and fall and rise (and fall, and rise) of Trump serves as a primer on success and failure in America.

The business fortunes of Trump have oscillated from runaway success to total disaster multiple times. However, the situation gravitates towards money- his fortunes are rooted in the money and connections he inherited. Thus, even when his net worth was well below zero, he could act in a way that most broke Americans could never. Failure as a celebrity real estate mogul seems to resemble deferred success. And as his tax returns show, massive loss can be turned into gain. Never mind that most American carry around debt for years, if not their whole lives.

But the ability to fail is in itself a privilege. Many Americans fail once financially, and never return to a place where it could happen again. Hardship is not a short, confined phase in a larger journey, but rather becomes built into the structure of life.

Yet seeing the continuous wave of protests against police violence in cities, it becomes clear that whole population can never fail, for the system has not and will not let them succeed. There is no money for food, childcare, the same benefits that well-off children and their families have. The school system is dysfunctional and higher education is both remote and expensive. Deindustrialization, trade pacts, and outsourcing have stripped communities of decent work with benefits. Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted a few weeks back, his case studies lacked the money to both pay rent and do anything else. Kids attended a dozen different schools, grew up more often in the streets than in the home. Hardship was passed down generation to generation.

In America, only the wealthy can succeed and fail like Donald Trump has.

 

The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.

 

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Mental illness as disability in college

So I was reading a 2012 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently. Over 750 college students were surveyed, with NAMI attempting to determine views of mental illness among young adults, and the quality of campus services. The report is located here (PDF).

Most interesting to me is the data on disability accommodations (pages 12-13). While there is a lot of current data on students and mental health, they usually focus on counseling services. In that area, the rate of students getting help has sharply increased, though college-age adults remain the group least likely to seek help. This isn’t a terribly good survey in terms of research design, but any information is good.

A couple key insights emerge, which I’m fairly confident would hold in a more rigorous study.

  1. There is a substantial difference between how many people with mental health conditions who know about accommodations, and those that actually use them. About 20 points separate the two.
  2. Disability resource centers are orientated to physical disabilities, and aren’t designed with psychological conditions in mind.
  3. Among those that dropped out of college due to mental health issues, getting accomodations may have kept them in school.

The conceptualization of disability in the United States has created these conditions. This gap between physical and mental doesn’t emerge from modern disability law necessarily, where the definitions are broad and inclusive. Rather, society has yet to shift its perspective on mental illness. Some tendencies:

  1. People discount any claimed disability that is not clearly visible to outsiders. When I served on a county disability commission a couple years ago, a long impromptu discussion broke out during a meeting about people being harassed for parking in the special spaces because they didn’t “look like they needed it.”
  2. The stigma against mental illness and disability are different, and a sizable group of people accept their belonging in the former group but not the latter.
  3. The type of assistance given to people with psychological conditions, including more time on exams, exams in a quiet room, and longer deadlines, may seem unearned by those who qualify. Accomodations otherize. If you take your exams in a different room, or have different deadlines than your classmates, there may be resentment.
  4. Faculty treat psychological accomodations as less important than physical accomodations.

The disability office as an institution is caught in the crossfire. It can be a key part of students succeeding in college, but many people have no concept of mental illness as being connected.

 

 

The pre-democratic American Constitution

american-constitution

 

Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

Free tuition, free minds

Over the past few weeks, myself and collaborators have been working on Students for Free Tuition, a UC San Diego organization. It was an idea born in a parking lot on a Sunday night- in the midst of looming tuition hikes, why doesn’t anyone point out the elephant in the room? Tuition is already far too high, and it’s outpacing wages and family income. American exceptionalism exists, in that for a developed country it has a remarkably unaffordable higher education system. So many countries all over the world agree that free tuition is a necessary expense for providing a public good for society at large.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.

What we have been getting is less funding from the state, run by a Democratic Party that pays lip service to funding education but lacks the teeth to pay for it. At the same time of the rising tuition, larger classes, and more crowded student housing, pricey senior administration is rising faster than the student body. The UCSD Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, makes about $450,000 plus rent subsidy and expenses. And corners are cut at every turn- UCSD has replaced most tenured faculty hiring with adjuncts, who work a similar amount but can’t participate in research and get paid half as much.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.

Higher education is a right. Free tuition is a path to a better, smarter, healthier society.