Sunday, March 01, 2015

Monroe H. Freedman (April 10, 1928 – February 26, 2015)

I’m saddened by the death of Monroe Freedman.
“For 42 years as a professor and dean at Hofstra Law, Monroe instilled in thousands of students the responsibility of lawyers to zealously represent their clients and also to stand for social justice.
Nationally he was known as the father of modern legal ethics for his successful effort to introduce the field into the mainstream of the legal academy. For this, he received the American Bar Association’s highest award for professionalism, in recognition of ‘a lifetime of original and influential scholarship in the field of lawyers’ ethics,’ and his peers have called him ‘the conscience of our profession.’”
From today’s obituary notice in the The Washington Post:
[….] Mr. Freedman became a nationally renowned expert on civil liberties while serving as a law professor at George Washington University from 1958 to 1973 and later at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
He became even better known for his contributions to the emerging field of ethics, in which he addressed the sometimes conflicting responsibilities of a lawyer toward clients and toward the court.
‘He was a towering figure in the legal academy and especially in legal ethics,’ Georgetown University law professor Abbe Smith, who taught alongside Mr. Freedman and published books with him, said in an interview. ‘He was universally regarded as the founder of modern legal ethics as an academic field.’
Mr. Freedman wrote textbooks on the subject, and his landmark 1966 article, “The Three Hardest Questions,” remains a mainstay of the study of legal ethics to this day.
The article, which appeared in the Michigan Law Review, outlined three central obligations that every defense lawyer is bound to uphold: understanding all the facts of a case; preserving the confidentiality of a client; and being candid and forthcoming to the court.
There are times, however, when these legal principles can be in conflict, producing what Mr. Freedman called a ‘trilemma.’ The trust between a lawyer and client, he argued, is a fundamental cornerstone of the legal system and is essential to discovering the truth. But what is the lawyer’s responsibility if a client says he will not testify honestly on the witness stand?
Which legal obligation is more important — confidentiality or candor? Mr. Freedman suggested that a defense lawyer’s primary duty is to be his client’s best advocate. The judicial system, after all, rests on the presumption that defendants are innocent unless the prosecution can prove otherwise. A defense attorney’s first responsibility, in other words, is to maintain the confidence of his client’s private discussions, not to declare the client guilty.
Lawyers have wrestled with such thorny questions for centuries, Smith said, but until Mr. Freedman’s groundbreaking study, ‘no one sat down and thought about these things and wrote them out.’ [….]
While teaching at GWU’s law school in the early 1960s, Mr. Freedman chaired the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, advised civil rights groups and was an early champion of women’s rights. He was the volunteer counsel to the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay-rights organizations.
… Mr. Freedman sometimes adopted other unpopular stances. He participated in antiwar protests during the Vietnam War, raised questions about the fairness of federal juries and even challenged civil rights leaders to expand their views of liberty beyond the issue of race. ‘When a man fights for civil rights only when he is directly involved,’ he said in a speech at Howard University in 1963, ‘his real concern is himself, and not the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or his fellow man. Negro civil-rights leaders, like everyone else, should be civil libertarians, regardless of race or color.’
In 1973, Mr. Freedman became the law school dean at Hofstra, only to resign four years later in a dispute with the university’s leadership. He remained on the faculty, however, and lectured widely throughout the country. He was the first executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, from 1980 to 1982.
In 1973, Mr. Freedman became the law school dean at Hofstra, only to resign four years later in a dispute with the university’s leadership. He remained on the faculty, however, and lectured widely throughout the country. He was the first executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, from 1980 to 1982.” [….] For the entire article, see here.
I was fortunate to have occasionally corresponded with Monroe on a variety of topics. At the Legal Ethics Forum we had a few spirited debates related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that was perhaps the only issue on which we did not see eye-to-eye. When Monroe was once scheduled to give a lecture abroad he wrote to inquire what I knew about the differences between the adversary and inquisitorial legal systems (not very much), so I sent him some articles I thought he could tackle in a short span of time. But that was not representative of our cyberspace relationship, as it was more often yours truly on the learning end, especially with regard to our criminal justice system: the legal right to counsel, the abuse of prosecutorial discretion and the inordinate power of the American prosecutor generally, and, relatedly, the “elusive quest for poor people’s justice” (the subtitle of Karen Houppert’s 2013 book, Chasing Gideon). And I was honored to be among those who routinely received Monroe’s articles by post. Finally, I’m blessed to count among my law books a copy of his text on lawyers’ ethics (co-authored with Abbe Smith), as well as his co-edited work, How Can You Represent Those People? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Inside the latter, Monroe penned a very kind and supportive note that is a fitting memorial token of all the reasons I will sorely miss this remarkable human being.
We’re paying tribute to Monroe over at the Legal Ethics Forum, where he was a blogger. And at Dorf on Law, Professor James Sample shares a personal remembrance of his colleague.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Black History…and the history of the struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere: Paul Robeson—KPFA Interview, February 8, 1958

An inspirational interview with Paul Robeson on KPFA (many thanks to Michael Duff for the link). 

Recommended Reading: 
  • Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 
  • Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988 (first edition, 1958).

Monday, February 09, 2015

Miasmic Morality: Pusillanimous Pussyfootin’ on Desegregation

In honor of Black History Month:
“Faulkner and Desegregation” 
Partisan Review, Fall 1956 (Vol. 23, No. 4): 568-573
By James Baldwin

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges. All men have gone through this, go through it, each according to his degree, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life. And remembering this, especially since I am a Negro, affords me almost my only means of understanding what is happening in the minds and hearts of white Southerners today.

For the arguments with which the bulk of relatively articulate white Southerners of goodwill have met the necessity of desegregation have no value whatever as arguments, being almost entirely and helplessly dishonest, when not, indeed, insane. After more than two hundred years in slavery and ninety years of quasi-freedom, it is hard to think very highly of William Faulkner’s advice to “go slow.” “They don’t mean go slow,” Thurgood Marshall is reported to have said, “they mean don’t go.” Nor is the squire of Oxford very persuasive when he suggests that white Southerners, left to their own devices, will realize that their own social structure looks silly to the rest of the world and correct it of their own accord. It has looked silly, to use Faulkner’s rather strange adjective, for a long time; so far from trying to correct it, Southerners, who seem to be characterized by a species of defiance most perverse when it is most despairing, have clung to it, at incalculable cost to themselves, as the only conceivable and as an absolutely sacrosanct way of life. They have never seriously conceded that their social structure was mad. They have insisted, on the contrary, that everyone who criticized it was mad.

Faulkner goes further. He concedes the madness and moral wrongness of the South but at the same time he raises it to the level of a mystique which makes it somehow unjust to discuss Southern society in the same terms in which one would discuss any other society. “Our position is wrong and untenable,” says Faulkner, “but it is not wise to keep an emotional people off balance.” This, if it means anything, can only mean that this “emotional people” have been swept “off balance” by the pressure of recent events, that is, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation. When the pressure is taken off—and not an instant before—this “emotional people” will presumably find themselves once again on balance and will then be able to free themselves of an “obsolescence in [their] own land” in their own way and, of course, in their own time. The question left begging is what, in their history to date, affords any evidence that they have any desire, or capacity to do this. And it is, I suppose, impertinent to ask just what Negroes are supposed to do while the South works out what, in Faulkner’s rhetoric, becomes something very closely resembling a high and noble tragedy.

The sad truth is that whatever modifications have been effected in the social structure of the South since the Reconstruction, and any alleviations of the Negro’s lot within it, are due to great and incessant pressure, very little of it indeed from within the South. That the North has been guilty of Pharisaism in its dealing with the South does not negate the fact that much of this pressure has come from the North. That some—not nearly as many as Faulkner would like to believe—Southern Negroes prefer, or are afraid of changing the status quo does not negate the fact that it is the Southern Negro himself who, year upon year, and generation upon generation, has kept the Southern waters troubled. As far as the Negro’s life in the South is concerned, the NAACP is the only organization which has struggled, with admirable single–mindedness and skill, to raise him to the level of a citizen. For this reason alone, and quite apart from the individual heroism of many of its Southern members, it cannot be equated, as Faulkner equates it, with the pathological Citizen’s Council. One organization is working within the law and the other is working against, and outside it. Faulkner’s threat to leave the “middle of the road” where he has, presumably, all these years, been working for the benefit of Negroes, reduces itself to a more or less up-to-date version of the Southern threat to secede from the Union.

Faulkner—among so many others!—is so plaintive concerning this “middle of the road” from which “extremist” elements of both races are driving him that it does not seem unfair to ask just what he has been doing there until now. Where is the evidence of the struggle he has been carrying on there on behalf of the Negro? Why, if he and his enlightened confreres in the South have been boring from within to destroy segregation, do they react with such panic when the walls show any signs of falling? Why—and how—does one move from the middle of the road where one was aiding Negroes into the streets to shoot them?

Now it is easy enough to state flatly that Faulkner’s middle of the road does not—cannot—exist and that he is guilty of great emotional and intellectual dishonesty in pretending that it does. I think this is why he clings to his fantasy. It is easy enough to accuse him of hypocrisy when he speaks of man being “indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.” But he is not being hypocritical; he means it. It is only that Man is one thing—a rather unlucky abstraction in this case—and the Negroes he has always known, so fatally tied up in his mind with his grandfather’s slaves, are quite another. He is at his best, and is perfectly sincere when he declares, in Harpers: “To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow. We have already got snow. And as with the Alaskan, merely to live in armistice with it is not enough. Like the Alaskan, we had better use it.” And though this seems to be flatly opposed to his statement (in an interview printed in The Reporter) that, if it came to a contest between the Federal government and Mississippi, he would fight for Mississippi, “even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes,” he means that, too. Faulkner means everything he says, means them all at once, and with very nearly the same intensity. This is why his statements demand our attention. He has perhaps never before more concretely expressed what it means to be a Southerner.

What seems to define the Southerner, in his own mind at any rate, is his relationship to the North, that is, to the rest of the Republic, a relationship which can at the very best be described as uneasy. It is apparently very difficult to be at once a Southerner and an American; so difficult that many of the South’s most independent minds are forced into the American exile; which is not, of course, without its aggravating, circular effect on the interior and public life of the South. A Bostonian, say, who leaves Boston is not regarded by the citizenry he has abandoned with the same venomous distrust as is the Southerner who leaves the South. The citizenry of Boston do not consider that they have been abandoned, much less betrayed. It is only the American Southerner who seems to be fighting, in his own entrails, a peculiar, ghastly, and perpetual war with all the rest of the country. (‘Didn’t you say,’ demanded a Southern woman of Robert Penn Warren, ‘that you was born down here, used to live right near here?’ And when he agreed that this was so: ‘Yes . . . but you never said where you living now!’)

The difficulty, perhaps, is that the Southerner clings to two entirely antithetical doctrines, two legends, two histories. Like all other Americans, he must subscribe, and is to some extent controlled by the beliefs and the principles expressed in the Constitution; at the same time, these beliefs and principles seem determined to destroy the South. He is, on the one hand, the proud citizen of a free society and, on the other, is committed to a society which has not yet dared to free itself of the necessity of naked and brutal oppression. He is part of a country which boasts that it has never lost a war; but he is also the representative of a conquered nation. I have not seen a single statement of Faulkner’s concerning desegregation which does not inform us that his family has lived in the same part of Mississippi for generations, that his great-grandfather owned slaves, and that his ancestors fought and died in the Civil War. And so compelling is the image of ruin, gallantry and death thus evoked that it demands a positive effort of the imagination to remember that slaveholding Southerners were not the only people who perished in that war. Negroes and Northerners were also blown to bits. American history, as opposed to Southern history, proves that Southerners were not the only slaveholders, Negroes were not even the only slaves. And the segregation which Faulkner sanctifies by references to Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Gettysburg does not extend back that far, is, in fact, scarcely as old as the century. The “racial condition” which Faulkner will not have changed by “mere force of law or economic threat” was imposed by precisely these means. The Southern tradition, which is, after all, all that Faulkner is talking about, is not a tradition at all: when Faulkner evokes it, he is simply evoking a legend which contains an accusation. And that accusation, stated far more simply than it should be, is that the North, in winning the war, left the South only one means of asserting its identity and that means was the Negro.

“My people owned slaves,” says Faulkner, “and the very obligation we have to take care of these people is morally bad.” “This problem is ... far beyond the moral one it is and still was a hundred years ago, in 1860, when many Southerners, including Robert Lee, recognized it as a moral one at the very instant they in turn elected to champion the underdog because that underdog was blood and kin and home.” But the North escaped scot-free. For one thing, in freeing the slave, it established a moral superiority over the South which the South has not learned to live with until today; and this despite—or possibly because of—the fact that this moral superiority was bought, after all, rather cheaply. The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turned out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter. Men who knew that slavery was wrong were forced, nevertheless, to fight to perpetuate it because they were unable to turn against “blood and kin and home.” And when blood and kin and home were defeated, they found themselves, more than ever, committed: committed, in effect, to a way of life which was as unjust and crippling as it was inescapable. In sum, the North, by freeing the slaves of their masters, robbed the masters of any possibility of freeing themselves of the slaves.

When Faulkner speaks, then, of the “middle of the road,” he is simply speaking of the hope—which was always unrealistic and is now all but smashed—that the white Southerner, with no coercion from the rest of the nation, will lift himself above his ancient, crippling bitterness and refuse to add to his already intolerable burden of blood-guiltiness. But this hope would seem to be absolutely dependent on a social and psychological stasis which simply does not exist. “Things have been getting better,” Faulkner tells us, “for a long time. Only six Negroes were killed by whites in Mississippi last year, according to police figures.” Faulkner surely knows how little consolation this offers a Negro and he also knows something about “police figures” in the Deep South. And he knows, too, that murder is not the worst thing that can happen to a man, black or white. But murder may be the worst thing a man can do. Faulkner is not trying to save Negroes, who are, in his view, already saved; who, having refused to be destroyed by terror, are far stronger than the terrified white populace; and who have, moreover, fatally, from his point of view, the weight of the Federal government behind them. He is trying to save “whatever good remains in those white people.” The time he pleads for is the time in which the Southerner will come to terms with himself, will cease fleeing from his conscience, and achieve, in the words of Robert Penn Warren, “moral identity.” And he surely believes, with Warren, that “Then in a country where moral identity is hard to come by, the South, because it has had to deal concretely with a moral problem, may offer some leadership. And we need any we can get. If we are to break out of the national rhythm, the rhythm between complacency and panic.”  

But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist—and he is not the only Southerner who knows it. There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The humanist spirituality of Charles Wilbert White

The humanist spirituality*—or beauty, goodness, and dignity—in the work of the Black artist, Charles Wilbert White (April 2, 1918 – October 3, 1979):

“…The main point is that what really I’ve always tried to do,…which I think most artists have to do, is that I try to deal with truth as truth may be in my personal interpretation of truth and truth in a very spiritual sense—not ‘spiritual’ meaning religiously spiritual, but ‘spiritual’ in the sense of the inner-man, so to speak. I try to deal with beauty, and beauty again as I see it in my… interpretation of it, the beauty in man, the beauty in life, the beauty, the most precious possession that man has is life itself. And that essentially I feel that man is basically good. I have to start from this premise in all my work because I’m almost psychologically and emotionally incapable of doing any meaningful work which has to do with something I hate. I’ve tried it. There’s been a number of tragedies in my life, in my family’s life. My people on my mother’s side come from Mississippi and we’ve had five lynchings in my family, two uncles and three cousins over a long span of years. I’ve lived in the South, have had unpleasant personal experiences, been beaten up a couple of times, once in New Orleans and once in Virginia. My people all lived in rural sections mostly, were all farmers, so, and yet, at the same time I still maintain in spite of, again, my experiences, my family’s experience, tragedies, I still feel that man is basically good. 
The other thing I try to deal with, the third point, is dignity. And I think that once man is robbed of his dignity he is nothing. And I try to take the sense, well I deal with Negro people primarily in terms of image I try to give it the meaning of universality to it. I don’t address myself primarily to the Negro people. They certainly are key, you know, and a major part of the audience that I address myself to, but generally I use an image in a more formal, universal sense than is sometimes understood by critics or people who see it.” 
Excerpt from an oral interview with White conducted by Betty Hoag for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, March 9, 1965, in Los Angeles, California. 
* For an introductory outline of such a spirituality, please see here. 

Image: Charles White, Trenton Six (1949)

Friday, January 30, 2015

Condorcet’s “inner resolve”

“High priority for the regime was Condorcet’s liquidation. Sentenced to death as an outlaw on 2 October 1793, he asked his wife to divorce him to protect her and save his assets for their daughter. Despite repeated searchers, he eluded his foes and during many months successfully hid with Cabanis’s help, alternately at Mme. Helvétius’s residence and Garat’s. Later he transferred to another hiding place in Paris’s southern fringe, remaining concealed until March 1794. Fending off their depression, Sophie—who according to Hébert had had an affair with Ducos—labored at translating Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Condorcet at his Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. As the Terror engulfed them in his last months, he refused to give up the courageous optimism infusing his early efforts throughout the revolutionary years. If anyone persevered indomitably under Robespierre’s menace, it was Condorcet.
‘Shall we believe the opinion interpreting equality not as equal access to enlightenment, or equal development of moral sentiments purified and perfected by reason, but instead as equality of ignorance, corruption, and ferocity, can permanently degrade a nation? Shall we believe these men [Marat and Robespierre] fostering this stupid opinion, whose ambitious and jealous mediocrity renders enlightenment odious and virtue suspect, can maintain a durable illusion? No, they can make humanity weep over the loss of some rare and precious men that are entirely worthy of her, they can make their country sigh over the irreparable injustices they wreak, but they will not prevent the Enlightenment’s advance, even if it is checked temporarily; it will resume and accelerate. Certainly it is possible to deceive peoples and mislead them—but not permanently brutalize and corrupt them.’ 
Such a valiant profession of faith required great inner resolve at a time when elimination of the intellectual bloc who forged the Revolution was unrelenting, and paralleled by stringent measures emasculating all political debate, the city sections, clubs, and departmental administrations.—Jonathan Israel, from his chapter on “The Terror” in Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (2014): 534-535.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jacob Lawrence & the Book of Genesis

Some readers of Ratio Juris might enjoy this post by yours truly over at Religious Left Law: Jacob Lawrence: Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis (1989).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Proper Dining Etiquette

I’m reading Kimberley Brownlee’s Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford University Press, 2012) by way of taking a brief break from Jonathan Israel (!) and so as to say some halfway intelligent or at least provocative things in a forthcoming blog post about civil disobedience. I think the book is quite good (‘thank God’ for ceteris paribus clauses and universal pro tanto moral judgments). Here’s a taste: In her analysis of “sincere moral conviction” by way of the “communicative principle of conscientiousness,” Brownlee discovers four conditions for this principle, in short: consistency, universality, non-evasion, and dialogic. In a discussion of the “non-evasion” condition, she states that

“It requires that we bear the risk of honouring our convictions, which means that we do not seek to evade the consequences and, in some cases, take positive action to support our convictions. It is through our consistent non-evasion of the costs that we signal we are neither inconstant nor hypocritical. This condition is, of course, broadly context sensitive. It is often important to stand up for our beliefs in a public forum. But, for reasons of respect or sympathy [or, as we used to say, good manners!], it’s not usually important to stand up for our beliefs when we’re invited over to someone’s house for dinner.”  

Images: Wallace Shawn and André Previn in My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), with Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton, Beah Richards, and Roy E. Glenn.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Human Capacity for Repentance and Redemption

In support of assumptions regarding the “alterability (and redeemability) of people” in her philosophically important Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (2012), Kimberley Brownlee quotes a passage from Avishai Margalit (The Decent Society, 1996) in a footnote: ‘Even if there are noticeable differences among people to change, they are deserving of respect for the very possibility of changing. Even the worst criminals are worthy of basic human respect for the very possibility that they may radically evaluate their past lives and, if they are given the opportunity, may live the rest of their lives in a worthy manner….’ There is always a chance, writes Margalit, ‘no matter how small, that she will repent.’

I agree with Margalit—and Brownlee—on this score, and further believe that this possibility is an assumption or presupposition (perhaps ‘buried’ in the form of an unrecognized or under-appreciated premise) of some human rights norms and intrinsic to or an implication that follows from, some conceptions of human dignity, as a moral principle enshrined in various municipal and international legal instruments (e.g., human rights documents or constitutions). It may also be an assumption or premise of some fundamental propositions in criminal law. In any case, and however formally recognized in principle and occasionally evidenced in practice, I suspect most people do not actually subscribe to this belief. In other words, their thoughts on human nature, such as they are, lead them to deny the possibility, in principle, of repentance or redemption (for Christians, ‘conversion’ may be a condition for same) for those otherwise labeled “evil,” morally repugnant, chronically or heinously criminal, and so forth. I suspect this is one and perhaps the most significant reason that few people outside of some moral philosophers, cranks (in a non-pejorative sense), and legal practitioners, especially defense attorneys (in particular ‘cause lawyers’) express little (let alone an abiding) concern for clear violations of due process (a pillar of many domestic legal systems), which includes but need not be limited to, habeas corpus (and more widely if not deeply, procedural justice), be it, for example, in criminal procedures and proceedings involving terrorist suspects, or criminal suspects of a certain “race” or class accused of horrific crimes. A basic criminal law proposition, the presumption of innocence, already poorly understood and often ignored, has taken an Orwellian turn in the national security state’s war on terror: guilty until proven innocent. And to make matters worse, there are no standards or clear means whereby one might even do that (i.e., prove one’s innocence)!

Suggested Reading:
  • Bravin, Jess. The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay (Yale University Press, 2013). 
  • Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System (The New Press, 1999).  
  • Cole, David and James X. Dempsey. Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security (The New Press, 3rd ed., 2006). 
  • de Londras, Fiona. Detention in the ‘War on Terror’Can Human Rights Fight Back? (Cambridge University Press, 2011). 
  • Denbeaux, Mark P. and Jonathan Hafetz, eds. The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law (New York University Press, 2009).
  • Freedman, Eric M. Habeas Corpus: Rethinking the Great Writ of Liberty (New York University Press, 2001). 
  • Hafetz, Jonathan. Habeas Corpus after 9/11: Confronting America’s New Global Detention System (New York University Press, 2011).
  •  May, Larry. Global Justice and Due Process (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Smith, Abbe and Monroe H. Freedman, eds. How Can You Represent Those People? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 
  • Wagstaff, Robert H. Terror Detentions and the Rule of Law: US and UK Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2014). 
Images: Two panels (sans captions), nos. 14 and 22 respectively, from Jacob Lawrence’s series, The Migration of the Negro (1940-41).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: A Nonstandard Celebration

I think Dr. King would have understood if now and again, we celebrate his achievements, aims, and aspirationsincluding recognition of those who preceded him with the same ends, as well as those who worked alongside him or otherwise actively supported the civil rights movement or Kings wider moral values and political goals (e.g., an end to the Vietnam war, the fight against poverty, support of unions, and so forth)in a nonstandard way which is nonetheless in harmony with his legacy. At least one reason to do this is to avoid a mindless ritualistic invocation of his words or actions so as not to merely whitewash, absurdly reduce, or crudely canonize the life and work of the man. We might also do this in the spirit of Kings ability to challenge us: our ideologies and worldviews, our passions and prejudices, our self-deceptions and states of denial, much of which is deeply rooted in our individual and collective fears and insecurities.

So...with that in mind, I proffer the following for your consideration, in the hope that you, in turn, will likewise choose a unique way in which to celebrate this federal holiday: please see here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

From the Radical Enlightenment to the French Revolution’s “genuine republicans and democrats”

“If no political party in the modern sense, the Brissotins [also known as the ‘Girondists’] represented more than a mere faction pursuing power or personal goals. Montagnard rhetoric has often led modern historians to suppose they really adhered to a modérantisme or fédéralisme. They have been sometimes styled ‘the Revolution’s right wing,’ the ‘party of businessmen and merchants.’ But if more tolerant of different views than their Montagnard opponents, and defenders of economic and personal freedom, they were not liberals or moderates. Rather, they were the first to envisage tackling economic inequality and attempting to create a fairer society by constitutional, legal, and nonviolent means, especially tax and inheritance laws combined with financial assistance for society’s weakest. The Revolution’s first republicans, they were also far more genuine republicans and democrats than the Montagne, and the real framers of both versions of the Declaration of Rights of 1789 and 1793. They were, in fact, the founders of the modern human rights tradition, black emancipation, women’s rights, and modern representative democracy, though some Montagards, it must be remembered, like Desmoulins, Romme, and Cloots, were sincere democratic republicans too. Prime defenders of the Revolution’s core values, Brissotins and Dantonists formed the essential link connecting the Revolution to the Enlightenment in its radical, secular, democratic form and thus the first organized champions of democratic, rights-based, secular modernity.”—Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton University Press, 2014): 478 

Image: Statue of the Marquis de Condorcet, created by Jacques Perrin in 1894, destroyed in 1941, erected again in 1991.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

To explain, or the attempt to explain, is not the same as proffering a justification, rationalization, or an excuse

I thought it should go without saying, but the attempt at explanation of why someone behaves a certain way (at the individual level, what motivates action) is not equivalent in any way to a defense of the proposed reasons that motivate an actor and that are part of said explanation, nor does it amount to any sort of apology (or ‘excuse’) for the behavior under examination. Rather, it helps those on the outside looking in, as it were, to make sense—insofar as we can make sense—of such behavior (along the lines of ‘nothing human is foreign to me’). So, for example, when a FB friend linked to a speech by Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi calling for a “revolution” within Islam, I wrote the following: He’s a tyrant, in large measure responsible for crushing the Revolution (such as it was) in Egypt, evidencing no respect for legal due procedure or basic human rights. His indiscriminate crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or other—more avowedly—radical Islamists (in addition to members of the Left) only serves to plant the seeds for radicalization of young Muslims, alienating them from their own society. He’s speaking more for the benefit of a “Western” audience (especially the elite decision makers at the helm of its most powerful countries) so as to blunt criticisms of his regime (in particular, its growing catalogue of egregious human rights violations). I am not thereby endorsing the political program of the Muslim Brotherhood (in fact, there is no one such program insofar as there are well-known conflicting positions and tendencies within the group),  nor attempting to excuse the behavior of radical Islamists or self-identifying “jihadists” that Sisi is ruthlessly crushing in Egypt. I am interested in what makes these radical Islamists “tick” (no pun intended), what makes the actions they decide in favor of, in their minds, palatable or otherwise indispensable to achieving their aims (some of which may be irrational or repugnant) or living out their commitment to (their understanding of) an Islamic worldview. I am also interested in why discrimination against and the ruthless suppression of such groups only tends to backfire, in other words, prepares the political and social psychological soil propitious for sowing the seeds of further radicalization among a new generation of Muslims. 
It’s not so much a “revolution” in Islam that is needed (after all, the vast majority of Muslims around the world are perfectly reasonable and peaceful*), but an understanding of the social-psychological and political conditions that make radical Islamist ideology or “jihadist” Islamist ideology an attractive or compelling “option” for some Muslims. For an exemplary illustration of this, see Scott Atran’s book (as well as several of his articles), Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human (Allen Lane, 2010). As for the political variables that help account for abandoning the reliance on violent if not terrorist methods among these radical Islamists, see Omar Ashour’s The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (Routledge, 2009). Nothing said here amounts to a defense of or an apology for how these radical Islamists behave (they still need to be held legally and morally accountable for their actions), but is rather part of an endeavor to understand why they in fact find the choice of indiscriminate or terrorist violence a viable option (i.e., why does it appear ‘rational,’ in an instrumental sense, for them). Another work that exemplifies this “sense-making” endeavor is the aptly titled volume edited by Diego Gambetta, Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford University Press, 2006). Jon Elster reminds us, “It is usually easier to change people’s circumstances and opportunities than to change their minds.” In the first instance, this is no doubt true, and I would only add, for our purposes, that a change in circumstances and opportunities may indeed serve as a necessary condition for the sort of change in mind (with regard to interests, passions, beliefs, values) that prompts a favorable change in behavior. 
Another FB friend who happens to model the virtues of “cause lawyering,” expressed frustration if not incomprehension in a comment thread on the recent terrorist events in France when someone attempted to articulate (more or less) the conceptual and practical difference between social scientific explanation and moral-political and legal defense or justification (what was defensively termed ‘excuses’ by those who disagreed with him). So, for instance, if one knows something about the life of recent Muslim immigrants in France (or other European countries for that matter), about the history of colonialism and post-colonialism, and so forth and so on, facts and events that might serve as background variables (part of the set of real, felt or imagined constraints, i.e., the ‘opportunity set’) central to any such endeavor, one is heading down a slippery slope of rationalization or excuse-mongering. If one further attempts to combine an appreciation of this opportunity set with a peak (so to speak) into the mind of a person who is willing to or actually does commit terrorist acts, this is not tantamount to an endorsement of the putative or proposed individual motivational (hence causal) reasons (for the actor: desires and beliefs as interests, passions, commitments, etc.) that make for the proposed explanation and thus enhanced understanding (bearing in mind that a causal explanation of mechanisms has a finite number of links). Our lawyer appears to understand such causal explanations on the order of “necessitation,” in other words, in our endeavor to explain the causal mechanisms of behavior we are at the same time saying the actor in question had no choice in the matter, he or she was forced or compelled by circumstances or situation to act as described in our hypothetical or suggested explanation, and so we are, in effect, offering an apologia, an excuse, a (moral or political or legal) rationalization for the behavior in question. But that is a blatant non sequitur.
The endeavor to explain and understand in such cases is not unlike what Erich Fromm tried to do in his pioneering study of the Weimar working class, a project in which he and his colleagues tried to explain (in particular, as a species of a ‘social psychological’ explanation) why an ostensible identification with “the Left” was swiftly abandoned in favor of an ascendant populist fascist ideology. This, in turn, is related to the larger political concerns and psychoanalytic praxis of Freudian psychoanalysts in post-World War I Europe as told in Elizabeth Ann Danto’s important book, Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005). The Viennese psychoanalysts of the 1920s and early 1930s justifiably believed that “psychoanalysis had an implicit political mission.” In sum, an understanding of history, situations, circumstances, and psychology is essential to the long-term struggle to undercut the causal variables that create the social psychological conditions necessary for the cultivation of fanaticism and extremist ideologies, ideologies like those of jihadist Islamists who believe they possess sufficient justification for their resort to indiscriminate violence.
 * I take this piece on Muslims in Germany to be fairly representative of Muslims in Europe and North America: “Despite rising racism, European Muslims embrace democratic values.” As for Muslims around the rest of the world, they may not all be “democrats,” but the vast majority of them clearly do not subscribe to the sorts of radical Islamist ideologies that legitimate indiscriminate or terrorist violence.

     Further Reading:
    • Elster, Jon. Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 
    • Elster, Jon. Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

      Saturday, January 10, 2015

      Social Security & The Welfare State: Essential Reading

      Here is a comparatively short compilation (hence ‘essential reading’) on “Social Security and the Welfare State.”