Friday, March 23, 2012

Just what does "post-racial" mean, anyway?

Despite my agreeing with 90% of its actual, substantive content, I'm still finding this post on Slate's XX Factor unbearably smug. I think it's mostly the conclusion:
For anyone who has fooled themselves into believing we live in a “post-racial” country, this glimpse into the besieged lives of people of color should quickly correct that misapprehension.
Ah, the old "post-racial" gambit. You see, kids, way back in 2008, when everyone was excited about the prospect of a black man becoming president, someone raised the question of whether America was becoming "post-racial." And ever since then, smarmy liberals have jumped on the term whenever possible, taking every opportunity to laugh at the poor saps who dared suggest that racial enmity and inequality have vanished.

The problem is that no one ever said that. As far as I know, not a single person who seriously talked about "post-racial America" construed the term to mean a present-day America without any sort of racial problems. The phrase always had a hopeful, aspirational element: think "America is becoming post-racial," not that America is post-racial. And more than that, it described less the conclusion of the problem of race than its transformation.

People today like to pretend that the country's current racial problems--the sort of low-level, relatively anonymous discrimination and inequality that hounds minorities--are the same problems we've always had. These people have totally forgotten (or, in some cases, strategically ignored) the Bad Old Days, when race was a very different type of problem altogether. I mean, there was a time, not very long ago, when plenty of people didn't see racial discrimination as a problem at all! They defended it! And I'm not talking about Jim Crow. I'm talking about people in my own lifetime, who didn't believe different races should marry, or live in close proximity. But today, there's a fairly strong consensus about how much race should matter in society, which is to say, not at all. Open racists have been essentially driven out of the public sphere.

To me, that's what "post-racial" means. A society in which the question of race has been settled, even if the problem has not been resolved. We're not colorblind, but color is no longer a basic organizing principle of the nation. On the whole, we're pretty canny about stereotypes, and we basically all agree that judging on the color of their skin is a scummy thing to do. (It still happens, but we're working on that, okay?)

Now, as we're periodically reminded--currently by the horrifying Trayvon Martin case--the progress we've made is insufficient to prevent awful, awful things from going down occasionally. And it's probably unfair to expect measured responses in the face of hate crimes. But I also sort of think that many liberals' refusal to acknowledge progress on race is actually harmful to their own cause. Attitudes about race have changed since the 50s, and the 70s, and even the 90s. That's not just laudable trend--it's also proof that things really can improve. That racial discrimination isn't a social ill inbuilt into our psyches or societies, but a pervasive historical trend that can be slowly pushed back. And look: it's really good to remind people of that. The best way to see that there's room for advancement is to look back and see how far America's come already. Is racial discrimination widespread? Yep. Is it deplorable? Of course. But is it eternal, like I've heard so many liberals claim? History says no.

And that's why I'd much prefer that race-conscious liberals reserve their criticism for actual discrimination. Turning sour and derisive whenever someone takes note of progress isn't going to motivate anyone to go make a difference. History says a post-racial country is possible, and if there are optimists out there who want to believe we're getting closer to it... well, maybe we should just let them.

I haven't abandoned this blog, it was just spring break

...and then the really busy week after spring break, where you have to do all the work that you were supposed to do while school was out, but didn't, because you were too busy basking in unnaturally warm weather and drinking beer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

HBO's adaptation of Mark Halperin's Game Change is the dumbest depiction of politics since Mark Halperin's Game Change

John McCain and Steve Schmidt talking VP options in July 2008:

JM: Lieberman is perfect. We're both mavericks who are hated by own parties. It would have a tremendous healing effect on the country.

SS: We can't win without our base. Lieberman is the right thing to do, but the wrong
way to win.

JM: Who can we win with?

SS: None of them.

JM: None of them?

SS: John, Obama just changed the entire dynamic. It is a change year, sir. We desperately need a game-changing pick. And none of these middle-aged white guys are game-changers.

Repeat ad nauseam for two hours.


Check out Rick Davis's sustained, bug-eyed stare while witnessing Sarah Palin on Youtube for the first time. The actual scene is even weirder than this conveys.


Now 13 minutes into the movie, and witnessing what I think is the third debate among McCain's staff on how (and this is a direct quote) "mavericky" McCain is.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What's Romney's worst-case scenario?

Let's get the most important thing out of the way first: Romney is still going to win the nomination. Super Tuesday might not have created the sort of unambiguously positive buzz he was looking for, but he escaped the day with something far more important: a commanding delegate lead. Momentum and buzz are ephemeral; delegates are forever.

But is there a scenario in which Romney doesn't win? Or, barring that, which scenario brings him the closest to losing?

It's an interesting question because the two possibilities are diametrically opposed. And it all depends on Newt Gingrich.

Scenario A: Newt Gingrich, finally exhausted of running a pointless candidacy, drops out.

Why it might hurt Romney: It lets the voters who oppose Romney finally coalesce around one candidate. For the first time in the entire campaign, Romney would have a single challenger. However small a plurality Romney commands, he still looms over his squabbling opponents. Santorum, as the last Real Republican standing, might attain a prominence that finally lets him compete with Romney on a relatively even field.

Why it might not: At the end of the day, Gingrich dropping out still brings Romney one step closer to surviving the primary. Romney would probably extend his delegate lead (see below), and he might get some good press out of the deal, too. Generally speaking, when the only thing standing between you and the presidential nomination is Rick Santorum, you're in good shape.

Scenario B: Gingrich, driven by a manic kamikaze zeal that will not fade until he has been rejected by every last Republican in North America, remains indefatigable, and pours millions of dollars more into the burning wreckage of his campaign.

Why it might hurt Romney: Because of the voters Gingrich is continuing to capture, a certain percentage would probably switch to Romney after Gingrich dropped out. Gingrich is therefore likely skimming some small number of delegates away from Romney, and keeping Romney's final total lower than it would otherwise be. In the most extreme case--which is, frankly, not going to happen--Romney is somehow prevented from winning an outright delegate majority. More likely, it prevents Romney from winning his majority until the far end of the race, shortening the general election and subjecting him to intra-party attacks for months to come.

Why it might not: However long he prolongs the election, Gingrich has performed a valuable service for Romney: he divided the Tea Party and kept the conservative wing of the GOP from winning a number of races it might have otherwise. Absent Gingrich, I find it doubtful Romney would have eked out victory in Ohio, Iowa, and maybe Michigan. Whatever delegates Romney has lost to Gingrich, Newt has also helped keep anti-Romney sentiment from snowballing. And to whatever extent anti-Romney sentiment might still snowball, Mitt should be glad Newt's still in the race.

Which scenario is more likely to hurt Romney? And which one is more likely, period? I'm leaning slightly towards Scenario B for both questions. Newt Gingrich is a megalomaniac and I just can't imagine him throwing in the towel. But if history is any guide, Mitt should want him to. I remember 2008. In particular, I remember the way that, as the Democratic primary drug on, the media campaign began mattering less and less, and the delegate math began mattering more and more. The larger Romney's delegate lead, the more he can ignore the daily campaign drama and plan for November. Too bad, because Newt's not going to give up his delegates without a fight.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Arming for the... well, something

So apparently, gun sales have shot through the roof in the last ten years, while per capita gun ownership has dropped significantly.

Kevin Drum mostly seems concerned with political and social explanations for this trend. I, by contrast, am mostly concerned with its obvious and necessary result: some people out there have armed themselves in a serious way. Might I suggest that we figure out who?

The Fourth Amendment outrage that wasn't

Liberals on Twitter are in a bit of a tizzy today about the latest Fourth Amendment rule from the Seventh Circuit:
US federal appeals court has ruled that mobile phones can be searched to some extent without a warrant. Abel Flores-Lopez, who was recently sentenced to prison in a drug case, had appealed his conviction, saying that police had acted illegally when they searched his cellphone for its number. However, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the case, saying that even if searching a phone required a warrant — a question that is far from settled in most places — searching simply for its number is so "minimally invasive" that police don't need to obtain one. Since the phone was readily available when the police stopped the suspect, "if police are entitled to open a pocket diary to copy the owner's address, they should be entitled to turn on a cellphone to learn its number."
I was prepared to get all worked up about this. Really, I was. I was going to write a whole bloggy diatribe about it. But then I realized... I just don't care that much. Try as I might, I just can't get very worked up about the court's decision. Frankly, it just doesn't seem like a very big deal to me. And that's telling.

Before I go any further, I want to be as clear as possible about my position on the Fourth Amendment. I'm not the world's biggest fan of consumer privacy rules, but privacy from government searches is another matter entirely. I'm a major advocate of a beefed-up, supercharged Fourth Amendment. Unlike private actions, the government's actions find their root in a collective ideal, and are undertaken for the collective good. And unlike most privacy rules, government privacy protections don't interfere in any way with the individual's prerogative to, well, be an individual.

What's more, government intrusions have a tendency to create more of the same. For complex reasons relating to the structure and application of popular Fourth Amendment legal tests--reasons I won't enumerate here (because I want you to read my law review note if it ever gets published (and also because it would take me about fifteen pages of text to explain them))--I believe very strongly that in the context of the search and seizure rules, the slippery slope fallacy is anything but. There are flaws built into the machinery of Fourth Amendment law that enable the degradation of privacy protections but inhibit their restoration. It's a belief that makes me extra-extra-paranoid about any Fourth Amendment decision favoring the government.

Still, take a step back and look at what the court's saying here. It's saying that once a cell phone is in police custody, cops are allowed to scroll through the phone and find its number without a warrant. All legal argumentation aside, it's a holding that seems eminently reasonable. Out in the real world, nobody thinks that checking a phone for its number is the same as trawling through its memory for buried secrets. Cops aren't fishing around for information--they're determining the most basic properties of the object in their position. I'm sure, to them, it seemed perfectly perfunctory, just like it would to us, if we found the phone at a restaurant. It's like checking the license plate on a car, or the return address on a letter.

Now, there's no doubt that this sort of reasoning could lead to genuinely disturbing rulings down the line, as it gets expanded and applied to all sorts of vaguely analogous fact patterns. But the court wasn't facing those fact patterns. While I think judges have some obligation to consider the precedential value of their holdings, they also have to address the case at hand. And it's hard to ask any judge to interrupt completely mundane police work with high-minded constitutional theories, particularly when those theories would seem totally alien to the vast, vast majority of the population. Sometimes even nerds like me have to admit that the strongest rejoinder to their arguments is, "Yeah, but who cares?"

Breitbart's legacy

Breitbart wouldn't have wanted someone like me to mourn him, and I'm not going to. The world loses good people every day and I'll waste no tears on an unapologetic smear artist who made his name playing to the cheap seats with the likes of Matt Drudge and James O' Keefe. Sorry.

But it will be interesting to see what happens to his various media properties over the coming months and years. Like the sites of his contemporaries Arianna Huffington or Nick Denton, Breitbart's internet outlets have always straddled an uncomfortable line, mixing some degree of boots-on-the-ground reportage with the unshakable sense that the headlines remain the personal dominion of an autocratic media superstar. It's a system that evokes early 20th century newspaper empires as much as 21st century media conglomerates.

And now the king is dead. What happens to the sites without their center of gravity? I think it's undeniable that a lot of what brought people to Big Government and the like was Breitbart's demagoguery. There was genuine iconoclasm in many of Breitbart's creations, and from a distance, it seemed to originate from Breitbart's vitriolic character more from than anything in the structure or hiring practices of his assorted outlets. Can the sites replicate it in his absence? Can the sites retain their audience without it? Do they sink into internet obscurity, go "legitimate" as everyday conservative-leaning news organizations, or find a new figurehead?

I don't actually have any answers to these questions, but they're important, because the current generation of celebrity internet media proprietors isn't going to be around forever. In a few decades, after their ranks are thinned by death and retirement, we'll be reading their successors instead. But it's far too soon to know whether it will be their successors in spirit, driven into the spotlight by new cults of personality, or their corporate successors, the literal heirs to whatever empires get built in the internet's early, heady days.