New Topics Are Ready

Thanks to Aaron D. and Rich, we have three months worth of new topics.  See here or the various sidebars:  Civcon-schedule-2017-#1-feb-June

Hard copies available on Monday.

Monday”s Mtg: How Important Is White Male Privilege?

Calling out people for being clueless about privilege – usually their White, male privilege – is common these days. Doing so often provokes puzzlement and/or an angry if not furious response, which leads to a frustrated counter-response. Dialogue, much less actually learning something about oneself or society, becomes impossible.

But, understanding what is and is not meant by “check your privilege” is important, whether or not you think there is much to it.  Arguably, disagreement about who is privileged today and who has a right to feel aggrieved was one of the biggest factors in Donald Trump’s shocking from reality TV star to the President-elect. Based on my reading and personal experience, I think that Trump’s election was, well, personal to White American men in a way no other election result in my lifetime has been. A lot of people are saying that this man became president out of nowhere represents either a –

  • Restoration of a White, male-dominated social order, or an
  • Angry reaction to the false accusations of racism and of White, male privilege.

Tough stuff. Aaron L. suggested that Civilized Conversation might be one of the few venues in which people could discuss this awkward topic in a reasonably productive way. Certainly, we can try.

I think the key to civility on this topic is understanding what the assertion of White privilege (and gender privilege) means and what it does not mean. The articles below, especially the first two, explain the term. Spoiler and key point: Crying “privilege” is not an accusation of racist intent or of a personal failing of character. It’s an observation about one’s relative place in a social order, and the advantages (big and small, lifelong and day-to-day) that some people have because of it and others don’t have.

My idea for our meeting is ambitious. I hope we can explore what White, male, privilege means to people that use the term, and what it means to people that feel so offended by its use. We also can get into the actual evidence that White male privilege still is a potent force in our society and the implications for public policy and personal behavior.

We should have a new topic list of Feb – May to hand out on Monday, thanks to Rich and Aaron (The Elder, not Aaron L., Son of Bruce) . It will be Trumptastic.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What is “White male privilege?”

Evidence and Rebuttals –

Trump and White male privilege –

NEXT WEEK:   President Trump’s Priorities.

Monday’s Mtg: The Elderly Prisoner Problem

Linda, who’s a criminal defense attorney in private practice, suggested this topic. Since 1995, the number of U.S. prison inmates over age 55 has roughly quadrupled. They now comprise one-sixth of the entire U.S. prison population.

Why so many aging prisoners?  One cause is the sheer size of violent crime wave that roiled the United States from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another is that the country is aging in general, including those that commit serious crimes. But most notoriously to blame are all of those harsh sentencing laws passed by state legislatures and Congress in response to the crime wave and the War on Some People That Use Certain Drugs. Civilized Conversation has discussed both mandatory minimum sentences and racism in sentencing on separate occasions.

Having so many aging prisoners is a problem for a lot of reasons. As one of the links below says, older prisoners “require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age related disabilities. They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.” Just providing their health care costs a fortune.  Many prisons have expensive geriatric wards. Nearly 80% of all deaths in prison are older (55+) prisoners.

Recently, the Obama Administration and some state governments – including California’s – have tried to devise programs to speed compassionate release for the least dangerous elderly prisoners whose further imprisonment makes little sense. This has proven harder than you might think, both administratively and politically. I imagine that the Trump Administration will end all federal efforts and that bipartisan criminal justice reform of any kind is dead. But, who knows?

Below are some rather duh-level discussion questions and a few straightforward readings on the elderly prisoner problem and on mass incarceration. On Monday I will skip my usual opening presentation, except to briefly summarize the issue for any new members that might not have read the background materials.

Linda, with her many years of experience as a defense attorney, will then have the floor.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
  2. What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
  3. Solutions:  What’s being tried, including by the USG and in California?
    How are those going? If not well, why, and what else should be done?
  4. Mass incarceration: Is the elderly prisoner problem another one of the consequences of America’s disastrous mass incarceration experiment? Or, is it a sad but inevitable consequence of our vast but in-the-past crime wave?
  5. CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  White male privilege – How real? How important?

Monday’s Mtg: Are We Paying Too High a Price to Combat Terrorism?

What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.

The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.

There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership.  There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.

Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.

What’s the bottom line?  Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points  I will come back to during our discussion:

  1. There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
  2. The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful.  Politicians panic.  Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem?  In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
  3. The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war.  How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
  4. President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.

I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.)  Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!

(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. TBD

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.

Monday’s Mtg: What Is Progressive Religion?

Instead of a new introduction to this topic, I refer you to my framing from our meeting of several years ago on “does religion have to be conservative?”

We have had several other excellent discussions of the nature of religion and there were some good links.  Here’s a list of those meetings, plus a few more optional readings.  For many more fine articles that provide insights into the inherently conservative or liberal nature of specific religions, I refer you to the entire Internet.

Have a great Christmas, everyone and perhaps I’ll see you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACGROUND READINGS –

Next Week:  Are we paying too high a price to combat terrorism?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Worldwide Democracy Inevitable?

It’s kind of a holiday weekend. But, I really like this topic idea of Aaron’s asking whether universal democracy should still be considered a kind of “Manifest Destiny” for the 21st century.  Yes, it has been conventional wisdom for more than a decade that democracy around the world is in retreat. Authoritarianism has descended on country after country. The Arab Spring was stillborn and Iraq and Syria flew apart. Eastern Europe’s promising “color revolutions” petered out with help from a newly-aggressive Russia. Chinese democracy is still a no-show and the country has entered a new period of repression. In the West, right-wing political parties are surging all over the EU and we elected Donald Trump.  So much for the end of history and all of that post-Cold War democratic triumphalism, maybe.

Or, maybe not.  History is rarely a painless and quickly-triumphant march of progress, is it?  There was bound to be a backlash to the post-Cold War spasm of democratic reforms in fragile countries, wasn’t there?  And the 2008 financial collapse and growing economic inequality had to at least postpone the party, didn’t it?

FWIW, I think the relationship between economic and social change and democracy is really complicated. For example, globalization can either spur democratic and liberal reforms or a backlash against them. Religion often gets in the way of democratization, but it also binds societies together.  I also try to take a long view. I think developing countries are going through the same highly-disruptive, painful struggle the West endured in its century of rapid industrialization and cultural change during 1848-1945. Like we did, the non-West will evolve its own forms of popular governance and institutions to empower and contain government. Results are going to vary a lot country to country and region to region.

Anyway, here are a small number of readings on the topic of the “democratic recession” we are currently experiencing and some speculation as to why and what might happen next. They are all general (not country-specific), but a few are long and/or a bit complicated.  We don’t need lectures on basic stuff in this group.  So, I will give open us up by highlighting a few of the tensions inherent between rapid econ/social/cultural change and emergence of/persistence of democracy.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. West: What is the Western model of democracy and how does it vary?
  2. Rest:  Have other democratic models emerged outside of the West?  Why?
  3. Retreat: Why has democracy been in retreat lately? Which causes are specific to countries/regions and which any common causes?
  4. Complexity: What tensions exist between: Democracy and liberalism? Democratic rule and individual rights? Globalization and democracy? Transnational governance and national/local control? Religion and democracy?
  5. Future:  How will we all deal with all these tensions in the future?  What’s the future of democracy worldwide?
  6. Our Role: Is USA leadership necessary, or is our absence? Doing what, exactly?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What is progressive religion?

Monday’s Mtg: The Future of the News Media

In CivCon we deal with a lot of fast-moving topics and issues. But, I can’t think of any more in flux than the future of the news media. Nor as vital. A healthy press is one of the linchpins of our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and countless others since have said. Yet, even before the rise of Donald Trump and the unprecedented challenges he presents to the institutions and underlying conventions of journalism, the mainstream media (MSM) was in crisis.

As is common knowledge, the century-old basic business model of journalism (especially print but also other formats) has collapsed. The Internet drained away news companies’ advertising revenue and new competitors emerged to razzle-dazzle away the public’s attention and dim its desire (and willingness to pay) for hard news. The big MSM companies reacted by massively consolidating and moving into cyberspace as best they could. But, it hasn’t been enough to halt the downward slide of the industry. Pre-Trump and depending on who you asked, the big issues that threatened the news media’s future included:

  • The basic 20 year-old failed business model problem.
  • Concentration of Media ownership (now AT&T wants to merge with Time Warner).
  • Print journalism’s dim future, especially newspapers.
  • Fragmentation of the news audience.
  • Rise of social media and personalized news feeds, which have turned passive news consumers into active distributors and producers of news.
  • Shift to and concentration of power away from traditional content providers (like TV networks & newspapers) to new “platform oligopolies” (like Facebook, Google, and Twitter).
  • Next generation issues, like those associated with the “Internet of Things,” wearable devices, and other future transformative technological change.

Now, of course, we can add at least two more problems arising from our last (so to speak) election:  President Trump and fake news. In the campaign, Trump played the MSM like a fiddle, garnering virtually 24-hour a day coverage. Nobody had ever hacked the Media like this.  And, he routinely threatened reporters and media companies.  Trump is all but sure to use govt power to bend the news media to his will. There is even talk that “Trump TV” will be created despite his victory, so we may soon have a news network that’s literally loyal only to the President! More broadly, Trump’s presidency poses unprecedented challenges to long-established MSM conventions of neutral reporting of a shared objective reality.

Second, we have the emerging problem of fake news.  Fake news is outright false propaganda disseminated by groups hiding their true identities and allegiances.  Its purpose is to undermine public confidence in any and all other news. From Breitbart and Info Wars to Russian government news trolls, this poison has always been around, but its impact might be very large in a socially networked world.

Gee, where to start? Fortunately for our discussion, I think many of these problems are related. The MSM is consolidating because even the biggest players need to control content, distribution, and users’ personal information to survive. They’re easy to manipulate because they are financially unstable. Fake news works so well because social media let anybody be their own producer and distributor of news. Etc.

Here are some readings on some of these big, crosscutting problems in journalism these days and some musings on what the future holds.  On Monday I will take the first five minutes or so to connect a few of these dots so that maybe we can focus right off on the fundamental problems. We have several journalists in the group, so I will then ask them for their thoughts to start the general discussion. I’ll see you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The crisis today –

The rise of fake news –

Journalism in the Age of Trump –

The Future of news –

NEXT WEEK:  Is worldwide democracy inevitable?

Monday’s Mtg: Is This the “Asian Century?”

People all over the world have long anticipated that the 21st century will be “Asia’s century.” According to this point of view, long-term demographic and economic trends already have begun to shift the dynamic center of the global economy from the West to the East. China will keep rising and become Asia’s main hegemon, perhaps challenged by India and other emerging Asian powers. The West will slowly (or maybe rapidly) decline, at least in relative terms, and a new global order will emerge that is anchored in the East, not in Europe or in North America.

CivCon member Aaron (The Younger) asks an important question: Is it all true, or is it just the latest wave of Western declinism? China’s government and people sure believe it, spurred along by the global but U.S.-based 2008-09 financial crisis, from which China was basically immune. President Obama believes it, or at least he has attempted to “re-pivot” American foreign policy towards East Asia and away from our endless preoccupation with the Middle East and a declining Russia.

I have a few questions of my own, as shown below. Here are some of them, and some links on the basic idea of an Asian-centered 21st Century, obstacles to it, and different ways the United States might respond.

With Donald Trump still forming his administration – and his recent bizarre, disturbing phone calls to world leaders, some in direct contravention of longstanding U.S. policy – it’s hard to guess what U.S. policy might be the next four years. Still, global politics tends to follow its own internal logic, plus (the main point of this topic, IMO) is that many things lie beyond U.S. control. So, all of these questions will stay relevant pretty much no matter how badly our foreign relations are screwed up in the near future.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Which major trends presage an emerging Asian century?
  2. What evidence of a shift to the East have we seen so far: Economic/financial activity? Political and diplomatic? “Hard power” military and alliance shifts?
  3. What could Asian powers do to screw it up for themselves?
  4. Specific Countries:
    1. New/old leaders: China? India/South Asia? Japan? SE Asia?
    2. Bad actors: Russia? North Korea?  Iran?
  5. How would a huge shift to Asia harm the USA? Could it benefit us?
  6. How should we and the West react: Bilaterally? Alliances? Militarily? Reforming global institutions?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Have we jumped the gun?

China and India –

Trump and Asia –

Asian-Americans and our future –

Next Week (Nov 28):  What future does the news media have?

Monday’s Mtg: A Progressive Constitution?

This one was Bruce idea, as a kind of follow-up to our 2015 meeting on the Founders’ view of government powers and in expectation that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Now, of course, President Trump will fill the Supreme Court seat that congressional Republicans stole by refusing to fill Justice Scalia’s vacant seat for a year. Funny, but I can’t find the passage in the Constitution that allows the Party of strict constructionists and originalism to do this.

At any rate, no shift away from the long, conservative arc of constitutional law is going to happen in the next decade. Quite the opposite. That list of possible SCOTUS appointees that Trump issued during the campaign came straight from the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. An ultra-conservative constitutional restoration is on the launching pad, in the lower courts as well as SCOTUS.

Nevertheless, understanding progressive views (there are more than one) of constitutional interpretation is still relevant, for several reasons. First, presidents usually find a way to appoint federal judges that share their highest constitutional priorities. For example, the liberal Obama appointed judges that agreed with his expansive view of executive power in anti-terrorism matters. Donald Trump is an authoritarian figure unmatched in American history and he might try to stack the judiciary with cronies that place loyalty to him above ell else. If Trump does this and the GOP refuses to stand up to him, progressives and their living Constitutionalism will have to bear the full weight of opposition.

Second, being in the wilderness sharpens the mind. Over the next four years the Democrats must decide whether and how to revamp their message. A lot of people feel that the New Coke must include a version of constitutional interpretation that can compete with the simplistic but effective “original intent” and “obey the written Constitution” marketing slogan of the Right. Lastly, esoteric matters of law aside, the public is on progressives’ side on most major constitutional issues. They do not believe that Medicare, federal aid to education, and Social Security are unconstitutional. They don’t want Roe overturned or the last limits on corporate campaign contributions to be swept away.

Unfortunately, the progressive POV on constitutional law does not easily fit on a bumper sticker. The Left views the Constitution as a “living document,” one that laid down timeless principles but that still must be interpreted non-mechanically in order to apply it to the today’s real world. But, beyond that commonality, progressive experts differ on specific methods and priorities. There are competing camps with catchy names like “ordered liberty,” “progressive originalism,” “democratic constitutionalism,” and others.

I’m not qualified nor interested enough to explain these nuances. But, I do know a bit. I will open our meeting on Monday with the basic ideas behind progressive constitutional interpretation as I understand them. Then, we can talk.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Originalism: Why do progressives consider it unworkable and even kind of fraudulent?
  2. Basic liberal stance: Why do progressives say the Founders intended the Constitution to be a “living document” that must be interpreted for modern times?
  3. Rules for deciding: Okay, but how? What rules/priorities do progressives think we should use for interpretation? Original meaning, precedent, societal consensus, modern values, outcomes? Can these add up to a coherent philosophy?
  4. Differences/Labels: What are the biggest disagreements among progressives on this stuff and how do they end up as “democratic constitutionalism, “ordered liberty,” “New Textualism,” etc.
  5. Future: How will progressive react to the coming conservative constitutional revolution?  Will they find any common ground with (some) Republicans?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Who cares?

What might have been and what will be –

Critique of Conservative Methods –

Progressive constitutional interpretation –

NEXT WEEK: Are we living in the “Asian Century?”

Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy.  Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.

Oopsie.

It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.

We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history.  I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.

Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).

Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?