The #MuslimBan, broken promises, and the Great Default

Tonight, a lawsuit by the ACLU stayed the executive order that aims to ban immigrants and refugees from an arbitrary collection of nations for varying amounts of time, from a few months to indefinitely.

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From Bloomberg here

The ban was expected. That it was extended to green card holders (permanent residents) was surprising. Thus in addition to new refugees and family members on travel visas, you have this case at LAX:

One detained traveler was an Iranian woman who’d held a green card in the U.S. for five years and whose citizenship swearing-in ceremony is in two weeks, Cunnings said.

The woman has an 11-month old child with her who is an American citizen.

A CNN feature on the chaos surrounding the creation and implementation of the order includes this passage:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people who with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
Fundamentally, this order is a series of increasingly large promises being broken. People who followed the rules, did everything conservatives have asked immigrants to do, get nothing for their sacrifice. Translators for the US military who risked their lives in exchange for residency, nothing. Religious and ethnic minorities fleeing the Syrian civil war and ISIS, nothing. And people who were promised permanent residency, nothing. America has always been a land of broken promises, but for 2017 this is particularly sharp sting.
This is the beginning of what I’m calling The Great Default, where any prior promises and commitments made before Jan 20, 2017 should be considered conditional and uncertain. Climate agreements, trade agreements, foreign alliances, ethics rules, civil liberties, religious freedom. It’s a fire sale. The immigration ban is telling every other country that the US is willing to do things without consulting its own government, let alone yours. For those that say the system will ameliorate Trump and make a trade war with China impossible, well, what about now? Bannon and Miller overruled the part of the government that actually has to implement policy. They don’t want to learn, they want to extend their will. Bannon has been given a major national security position, letting those who said “it’s just an advisory position!” know that yes, that too is conditional.
There is no honeymoon period. Get the sandbags, close the storm windows. Nothing is sacred.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

The virtues of blunt social commentary

Sunday I watched Elysium, a movie I had wanted to watch when it came out but never got around to. While it’s not as clever and engaging as Neill Blomkamp’s first feature District 9, it had its moments. Even if the pacing and structure of the story had issues, the pathos was spot on. Just like District 9, you felt genuine empathy for the oppressed side of the conflict, beyond what the film compels you to.

Elysium, the ark of the wealthy and powerful

One thing Blomkamp is becoming known for is a special type of blunt social commentary. Generally we applaud works of fiction that put social commentary around the edges, and weave it in under the surface of the narrative. Subtlety is the hallmark of both satire and earnest appeals to action.

Yet it seems that more in-your-face types of commentary have an important place to. Elysium is principally an allegory for immigration. Wealthy citizens live in a protected space station- a walled community on a massive scale. Running the blockade, coming from a crapsack Earth, is an ‘illegal entry’. There is an obvious racial split between the rich and poor.

One shouldn’t be surprised. District 9 was Blomkamp’s take on apartheid, a work more personal to his origins. It was similarly blunt, to the point where the black Africans were replaced with repulsive aliens to drive home the point.

Quite simply, big issues deserve bold commentary from time to time. If inequality and racial discrimination are huge, endemic problems, perhaps it’s refreshing to read a book or watch a movie that shoves it before you. As anyone who gets Amnesty International mail may recall  they often put the phrase “Massive injustice demands a massive response” on the envelope’s outside.

Of course, there are few things more disliked than a preachy work of fiction, one that principally is there to entertain. Aggressive messaging still has a vital place. It can catalyze our minds into new thoughts in a way a slow burn of satire cannot. It creates variety in our cultural intake.

From Conservative to UKIP, from Lib Dem to Labour.

 

English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23
English council election results as of 430 GMT, May 23

So there is a massive election going on throughout Europe for the European Parliament, with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom voting Thursday, and the bulk of the continent following on Saturday. The election dynamic is an interesting one – historically the Parliament has been without much authority and thus most elections have had very low turnout. Two dynamics are at play that makes this one a bit different. The first is that since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU bodies have been gaining more authority. Thus these elections are gaining some importance, at least in terms of party prestige.

The second is that in the past few years there has been a sharp increase in eurosceptic parties – a generic term for any party that opposes their country’s inclusion in the European Union. These parties are on balance, though not exclusively, conservative to far-right.

Projections indicate a rise for a coalition headed by the UK Independence Party (‘UKIP’, which is said as a word) and increasing seats for parties to the right of UKIP, like the National Front in France. The influence of these parties is also creeping into other groups. The UK Conservatives are being hounded towards a referendum on Britain in the EU, and the Greens support a referendum out of the necessity of getting it over with and focusing on other policy issues.

What I’ve posted up are the current local election results for councils in England, which were held the same day. EU results will not be posted until Sunday (after all the other countries have voted), so this is the data we have to look at now. It is interesting because British political news has been dominated by three questions:

1) Is UKIP racist? The answer to this, at least from my perspective, is “at the very least, unintentionally.”
2) How big will UKIP’s win be, and will they win the European Parliament elections in the UK?
3) Where is UKIP getting all this support from?

The second question is outstanding, though polling indicates it’s likely. The third we can start looking at thanks to this local election data.

I’m going to make a theory based on the simplest look at this current data, which has been developing since returns started coming in. An issue with this is that positive results are necessarily good results. One can still underperform. However, it seems UKIP is getting their increased support from Conservatives that are either upset with the current Cameron administration, angry at the European Union, or both. It seems to me that the switch between the Liberal Democrats and Labour may also be a simple swing – people that aren’t Conservatives (which to some is a lifestyle, or a cultural taboo) but are tired of the coalition government are switching to Labour. The big loser is the UK government, the big winner are parties in the opposition. It’s something that looks familiar to any American who’s seen enough midterm elections, though this has the dynamic of a new political force entering and taking support, rather than it falling back to the traditional opposition.

The EU vote will be interesting for me, since the Greens enjoyed a late poll surge and may hit 10%. Local elections are a bit more difficult (the EU is very environmentally-focused, so a Green vote makes sense), but I hope they pick up a bit of support. As an outsider it’s difficult to grasp all the subtleties – much of the UK election has been about immigration, and I’m not part of the American contingent that thinks immigration is bad or dangerous.

At some level elections are always interesting. No matter what political body they are for, they can tell people, locals or foreigners, something about the country in question. Here we see two shifts, one against the incumbent regime, and another against the larger union that the United Kingdom is a key part of. Combined they benefit two different forces, namely the establishment opposition and the anti-EU front.

The exonerated, the innocent, the executed.

An updated report (PDF) by The National Registry of Exonerations indicates that a record number of people in 2013 were freed after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit. 87 people were exonerated, 40 of which were serving time for murder- including 1 who had been sentenced to die. The project, a joint effort of the Michigan and Northwestern law schools, has identified 1,304 total that have occurred since 1989. Almost half were black men.

The exoneration is the pin that pops the balloon of tough-on-crime policy, and fatally undermines the idea of a just death penalty. The report notes:

Death penalty exonerations continue at a high rate. Eight percent of known exonerations occurred in cases in which the defendants were sentenced to death (105/1281). However, since death sentences are a tiny sliver of felony convictions –less than 1/100 of 1% – this reflects a uniquely high rate of exoneration. (page 8)

When a debate about capital punishment happens, the idea that innocent people are sentenced to die- and may have already been killed- is treated too much like a hypothetical. The data is on the table, and it is chilling. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011- since reinstatement in 1974 the state had executed 12 people and exonerated 20. There are also ten executed Americans who have strong evidence supporting their innocence. The story of Carlos DeLuna is so compelling that the Columbia Human Rights Law Review devoted an entire issue to telling the story of his conviction for murder and execution- despite a different Carlos with a violent history being a much more likely suspect. DeLuna died screaming in 1989.

Few issues give me a deep chill that percolates, and washes over most of my body and moves me near tears. Capital punishment is one of them. It offends me as a human being, a Unitarian Universalist, an American citizen. When I attended a remembrance for Troy Davis, I saw a crowd of mostly black and brown, their eyes filled with sorrow, anger, and determination.

21st century America is in some ways defined by putting the innocent in prison. A misidentified black man given a rigged trial so a prosecutor could keep his conviction rate up. An Arab man held in Guantanamo despite being declared innocent years ago. A brown woman in a detention facility because despite America being her home she is an ‘illegal’ immigrant.

Every day I have to hold that knowledge in the core of my being, and recognize that there if there is no justice for the wrongly convicted, there is no justice for anyone else. As Eugene V. Debs stated to the court before his term in prison for opposing intervention in World War I:

I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

I am not free. The racism, inequity, callous disregard for people and the truth is not someone else’s issue, someone else’s problem.

It’s my problem. It’s our problem.

Kshama Sawant’s socialist response to Obama’s record and promises

Kshama Sawant, the socialist Seattle city councilwoman elected last November, produced a response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address (text here). As her campaign, along with Ty Moore’s in Minneapolis have done, it is a reality check on how progressive Obama’s plans are.

If he says that no full-time employee should live in poverty, why is he only suggesting $10.10 as a minimum wage- an amount that is not a living wage anywhere near where I live.

If he wants to fix the immigration system, why has he deported close to double the number of people in his one term than Bush did in two?

If he promotes his achievements in ending foreign wars, why was the timetable in Iraq not his idea, but his predecessor? And why did he attempt to keep troops there past the January 1st, 2012 deadline?

If he wants reconciliation with the Islamic world, why does he support drone strikes against Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia?

Even if you’re not totally on board with a socialist program, it opens up the spectrum of debate. Democrats are not left-wing, they never have and they likely never will be. If libertarians and uncompromising conservatives have a large presence in the American political discourse, then socialists and other leftists should be heard as well.

And that is an uphill climb, but as the victory of Sawant in a major city can prove, there are ways to become impossible to ignore.

Justice without borders

Protesting high schoolers in France
Credit: Thomas Samson AFP/Getty

French high schoolers marched in solidarity with Leonarda Dibrani, a Roma girl who was detained by police during a school trip and deported with her family to Kosovo. Dibrani is one of many young individuals sent to her “home” country- despite not speaking any of the local languages, and not having any friends or contacts there.

Along with the Dream 8 (or 9), activists born in Mexico but raised in the United States who were arrested trying to cross the border north, these are clear examples of how immigration and citizenship are getting the way of the lives of people who don’t fit the mould. The huge quantity of deportations (which remains high, the majority of which are non-criminals) under the Obama administration includes many people who have no strong ties to their home country. Taking functional members of society, who are important members in their families and communities, and throwing them into another country with no support is barbaric.

The Dream 9. Credit: NPR
The Dream 9. Credit: NPR