Confirming our location

Welcome to CivCon!  But, know that City Beat / The Reader events section sometimes gets our location wrong.  Our permanent mtg spot is the Panera Café at 5620 Balboa Ave., at the Genesee intersection in Claremont.  Also, see the next post down for some optional background readings for this Monday’s mtg.

Monday’s Mtg: Does Our Juvenile Criminal Justice System Work?

Two of our next three topics relate to the American criminal justice system, and both are Linda’s ideas. On June 6, we’ll do policing reform. Monday we will cover a very, very important topic that gets much less attention: Our juvenile justice system.

We jail/detain a lot of juveniles in this country. On any given day in America, there are more than 80,000 youths in detention and correctional facilities, including 20,000 in juvenile detention centers, 54,000 in youth prisons, and almost 6,000 in adult prisons and jails.   These system’s problems are legion and discussions of them rife with sad phrases like “juvenile solitary confinement” which 24 states permit, and “school-to-prison pipelines.” Individual outcomes can be heart-breaking, including here in Southern California. You also could throw in other systems that treat children and their problems, like foster care and the mental health system, if you want to look at the problem in all its facets.

Yet, quietly over the last 15 years, reformers all over the country have recognized the gross inadequacies of juvenile criminal justice systems and have worked hard to improve them. I know very little about this, but the articles below will give you a sense of what has been accomplished and how much farther we have to go to make youthful offences an embarrassing adult memory rather than the first step towards a ruined life that ruins others’ lives, too.

I will red these articles and a few more and on Monday I will start us off by describing some of the juvenile system’s worst problems and biggest obstacles to reform. Then we can talk about solutions, etc. I will highlight developments in California.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  What is a “just war?”

Topic Ideas Needed

This weekend we are picking topics for June – Sept of 2016.  So, if anybody has any ideas, put them in comments to this post or to the “Suggest a Topic” page.  Suggesting one does not put you on the hook to do any prep for the mtg on it.

  • Politics, public affairs, international relations, religion, philosophy, history, culture, others.

After 10 years, I tend to run low on original ideas.  Help.

Monday’s Mtg: Are There Any Universal Religious Principles?

Let’s call this one another “David bites off more than he can chew” topic. I got the idea from reading a wonderful little book – Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. The American Buddhist author gently defends religion from both fundamentalists and atheists by arguing that the world’s major religions are compatible with modernity. She says that, stripped of their archaic baggage and recent fundamentalism, the major global religions have plenty of room for tolerance, human rights, social justice, and democracy. Great book.

Still, upon further reflection, I think we have to be a little careful here, for two reasons. First, “Are there any universal religious principles,” begs a lot of questions. When is a principle a religious one? When people or doctrines say it is? How do we know a value or principle isn’t a product of something else, say, evolutionary biology or psychology or socialization? Similarly, how much universality is enough? When a principle is common to all/most/many/certain faiths? What about modern or still-contested ideas, like church/state separation or human and LGBT rights? Can they be both recent and controversial and justifiable by ancient religions?

Finally, the idea I originally had in mind would ask: Universal principles about what? About God’s existence and nature? About whether some truths are revealed rather than empirically-verifiable? About how to lead a moral life, or treat other people (ethics)? About sex and family, murder and war?  Do any of us know enough about world religions to compare them so?  Not eye.

A second reason to be cautious in the way we generalize about universal religious values is that a lot of people are not very cautious when they do this. We are all aware of the “Islam is inherently evil” tidal wave being surfed by Donald Trump and religious Right’s insistence that upholding LGBT civil rights violates their religious freedom. But, progressives can be lazy, too, like when they say all religions are deep down the same. I agree with the scholar I linked to below tat says this trivializes religion. Also and as Jim Z. can attest, whether human rights principles are universal values or a Western invention being imposed on developing countries is a big issue these days in its own right.

Anyway, below are a few articles that make claims about the universality of religious values, plus some simple statements of faith from a few well-known religions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Universal Moral Values?

Universal Religious Principles?

Some specific (but simple) faith statements –

Next Week: Fixing our juvenile criminal justice system.

Monday’s Mtg: Why Have U.S. Race Relations Deterioriated Lately?

The mind just reels. Donald Trump will be the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. . One analyst I read said this is the saddest moment in American politics since Nixon’s resignation. I think it’s surely the most shocking political development since JFK was killed. May you live in interesting times, I guess.

But it’s great timing for us! Certainly, it is too simplistic to chalk Trumpism up to GOP voter racism and nothing else, even though progressives will do it anyway. Yet, as calls proliferate to hold accountable the people, institutions, and processes that led us here, the role played by escalating White conservative racial identity and anxiety must feature prominently, IMO. And they must have been caused by something, too. Are deteriorating race relations the answer we’re looking for? If so, how did it happen and why?

I used the old term “race relations” because it conveys more than just the political expression of racial tensions. Race relations refers to the whole spectrum of ways that people of different races in a society resolve (or not) the tensions and conflicting interests that arise between them. Yes, the term often was used euphemistically, to avoid talking about plain old racism and to shovel responsibility for bad relations onto both “sides.” Still, I think it’s a useful bucket term for us in trying to figure out what fissures and fault lines brought us to this extraordinary moment.

Anyway, on Monday I imagine people will be anxious to talk about Trump. Love to oblige (see all the links). But, I also hope we can focus a bit on the broader topic of why racial tensions seem to be so high right now. Is it just a confluence of events, like police shootings and the Trump rhetoric, or is it a confluence of trends, too, like demographic changes and hard economic times?

To take it easy on everybody, I’ll limit my introduction on Monday to a brief description of the (1) possible reasons why U.S. race relations seem to have worsened lately, and (2) some major theories (some subtle, some not) of the role that racial anxiety has played in putting Donald Trump one-person away from the nuclear launch codes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What do we mean by “race relations?” What fields are race relations played out on: Political, cultural, economic, etc.?  Are any of them level; i.e., can we separate “race relations” from differences in “objective lived racial realities?”
  2. Perceptions:  Regardless of reality, how do Americans view race relations?  Agreements/Differences?
  3. Events: What big events may be straining race relations, like police killings and the Great Recession?
  4. Trends: Same for demographic/immigration and economic and cultural developments.
  5. Culprits: Who has been particularly unhelpful, besides Donald Trump?
  6. Now what?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Are there any universal religious principles?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.

April 13 was Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday. I sent a card and signed all your names.  On Monday, Jim Zimmerman, our historian, will be our guide as we discuss Jefferson’s life and legacy. In the past few years, Jefferson’s complex legacy has become fodder for a new generation of historians that hate the guy, love the guy, or condemn/claim various pieces of him.

Outside of the academy, both Right and Left have wrestled with Jefferson in recent years. Conservatives sometimes claim him as the founding father most opposed to centralized big government and as much more traditionally Christian than historians generally allow. Liberals struggle with the paradox of the towering polymath that authored the Declaration of Independence and founded the Democratic Party while keeping a plantation full of slaves, some of whom he raped (Sally Hemings) and few of which he even bothered to free in his will.

So, lots to chew on.  I’ll be there on Monday. But, I will leave it to Jim to run the meeting and you all to discuss history through any lenses you wish to peer through. I think our discussion should be wide-ranging, like Jefferson’s intellect, his accomplishments, and his dark side.

Here are a few basic readings on Thomas Jefferson and commentaries on aspects of his legacy that have been in the news lately.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Causes of deteriorating U.S. race relations/politics

Monday’s Mtg: From Bundy to Black Lives – When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?

Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:

  • Black Lives Matter;
  • Occupy Wall Street;
  • Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
  • Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
  • Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
  • Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.

Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).

The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc.   As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.

Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually.  But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media.  Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.

My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
    a.  Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
    b.  When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
  2. CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
    a.  How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
    b.  Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
  3. PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
    a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
    b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
  4. RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
  5. LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
    a.  What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
    b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:

Justifications:

  • MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
  • Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
  • Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:

Building grass roots political movements

Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy.  Jim Z. will guide us!

Monday’s Mtg: The Supreme Court and the 2016 Election.

The Supreme Court was always going to be the big prize of the 2016 election. Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on February 13, 2016, just raised the already high stakes to an unequaled plateau because we now know the Court’s 20+ year-long conservative ideological majority hangs in the balance.

I originally scheduled this topic to discuss the string of 5-4 conservative decisions on major cases that everybody expected to come down the pike in April to June. These cases included ones on Obama’s climate regulations, the 1-person-1-vote redistricting standard, union rights, abortion and contraception access, affirmative action, and the death penalty. Oops. Now, those cases either will be reargued next term, remanded to lower courts, or let stand because SCOTUS is tied.

So, I think it might be fun to re-purpose this meeting to look more broadly at the relationship between the Supreme Court and elections – and public opinion. We kind of did this 2012 (Whose side is SCOTUS on?). But, that was more about how public opinion influences SCOTUS and how often the Court has defied majority public opinion to make unpopular rulings.

On Monday, I’d like us to begin by asking about the reverse relationship: How much does the public care about SCOTUS and how do high-profile Supreme Court issues influence voting? As the first link or two below explain, typically SCOTUS is not a very visible issue in our elections except for political activists, the most well-informed voters, and the economic interests intimately affected by Court decisions. But, given the historic moment, it might be different this time. Especially with presidential candidates running on issues that are before the Court but in limbo because of Scalia’s death, like Ted Cruz running on abortion and immigration and Bernie Sanders demanding that the next SCOTUS justice commit to overturn Citizens United.

I will give a short introduction to our meeting that focuses on the public’s view of the Supreme Court and whether/why that matters. Then, we can discuss if that is changing.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Stakes: How high are the stakes in this election for the future of SCOTUS and American law and policy? Re:
    1. High-profile cases next term?
    2. Big areas of constitutional law, like civil rights, civil liberties, presidential power, natl security, voting rights and campaign finance, reproductive rights, labor unions, federalism, etc.?
    3. Obama’s achievements (many are reversible by SCOTUS)?
    4. Lower federal courts?
    5. Is a “constitutional revolution,” either progressive or conservative, at stake?
  2. History: Traditionally, how big an issue is SCOTUS in voters’ minds? Which voters care the most and why?
  3. 2016 Rhetoric: What are the candidates saying about SCOTUS stakes and who is the rhetoric aimed at (voters, activists, Media, donors)?
  4. 2016 Receptivity: Will it have any effect – how will we know? Will it raise expectations that have to be met?
  5. 2017 and beyond:
    1. What kinds of justices would Hillary/Bernie or Cruz/Trump/other nominate? Any chance of picking a moderate?
    2. Will GOP refuse any nominee, keeping a 4-4 Court?
    3. How would your answers to Q1/ a-e be different with a GOP or a Democratic Supreme Court?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: When is civil disobedience justified?

Monday’s Mtg: The Sources of Islamist Radicalism.

In a new century of dizzying changes, the Middle East remains the world’s most unstable and destabilizing region. More than a dozen large and strategically important countries were frozen in time for half a century by their cruel, post-colonial autocrats and the corrupt, hypertrophic states they created to cling to power. A great thaw is inevitable and can only be welcomed. Despite the violence and disappointments of the aborted Arab Spring five years ago, the Ancien Régimes’ days are all numbered. The urgent question we will consider on Monday is what will replace them?

The consensus I read is that, at least for a while, the heirs to power in many of these nations will be “Islamist” political parties.  Islamism, or political Islam, refers to the philosophy that the legal and political systems in a Muslim country must be based on Islamic principles. Obviously, since no society ever agrees on exact religious principles, there is no single Islamist set of beliefs or unified movement (despite the dreams of Al Qaeda and ISIS). Each country has multiple, competing Islamist parties and/or social movements that represent different philosophies, sects, ethnic groups, and societal interests.

Are any of them compatible with democracy and a peaceful foreign policy? Well, so far the most radical and even revolutionary and terroristic Islamist movements have gained the strongest positions. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and – most hideously – ISIS and other Al Qaeda offshoots in Syria and parts of Sunni Iraq. And let’s not forget the crusty old radical Shiite regime in Iran and the new one we created in Iraq, or the radicalized messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, there is hope. More moderate Islamist political parties are sprinkled throughout the Middle East. Most notably, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has won elections in Turkey for a decade, mostly in a democratic manner. Still, I’m not sure any one is confident that Islamist political parties can become or remain democratic – especially in the traumatized, divided, and chaotic nations they will inherit all over the Middle East.

So, I thought we could start with the most basic and probably most important question: What are the sources – the causes – of radical Islamism?  I’ll open with some brief remarks on (1) the main strains of radical Islam, and (2) conventional wisdom on the main drivers of that radicalism. I hope we can discuss the role religion plays in spurring Muslim radicalism without getting stuck in the stupid gear that our political system is stuck in, “Is the Islam religion itself the sole cause of radicalism and terrorism, Y/N?” Islam plays a big role, sure. But, what role, why, and what else contributes?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:   The Supreme Court and the 2016 election. 

Monday’s Mtg: Is Our Legal System Being Privatized?

I’ve mentioned many times that in my view the modern conservative political program can be (simplistically, of course) described as in three words: Cut, deregulate, and privatize. Cut taxes, especially on investment. Deregulate industry, especially President Obamas new ones on Big Finance and the health care industries. Privatize public services at all levels of government. This week John S. wants us to talk about a little-understood but very important part of the last part of this three-pronged agenda: The growing privatization of our legal system, especially of the right to sue.

We’re all familiar with the growing private control over the making of our laws, due to lobbying and loosened campaign finance rules. John’s idea should spur us to talk about the increasing private control over the enforcement of our laws. This is true of both civil and criminal law.

In civil law, tort reform (a major conservative political priority) and the now-ubiquitous use by big corporations of binding arbitration clauses in consumer agreements and even employment contracts has severely limited your ability to sue for damages when you are wronged by a big company. Use of class action lawsuits, another check on corporate power, also have been curtailed. I suppose you also could add the rise of secretive investor dispute settlement panels in international trade agreements to this list, since they basically privatize a part of what used to be strictly government-to-government trade law enforcement.

In criminal law, we have privately-owned and operated prisons housing almost 10 percent of all prisoners, and outsourced probation enforcement. The incentives built into this privatizing of legal punishments can lead to sometimes disastrous results (see links). I’m sure I’m missing some of the ways our penal system has been turned over to private contractors.

Finally, and analogous to what is happening with corporations, we have seen our right to sue government when it harms us restricted. Government officials have always had qualified immunity from lawsuits when they are performing their statutorily-mandated duties. But, recent court decision have expanded this type of immunity, as well.

I don’t want to exaggerate these trends. Our entire legal system has not been handed over to corporations and private interests. Yet. Nor, of course, should they all be automatically condemned nor laid at the feet of political conservatives.  The public good may benefit from some of these developments.  But, I think you will learn some unsettling things about the bowels of our legal system on Monday.

Since I’m low on time this weekend, my research (and the readings, below) will focus on the binding arbitration and class action issues. My intro on Monday night will emphasize them. In addition, you may want to read one of the articles on the consequences of state/local governments privatizing the enforcement of probation.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: What Are the Sources of Islamist Radicalism?

Monday’s (3/27/16) Mtg: Is Political Correctness a Real Problem?

Debating the meaning and importance of “political correctness” (PC) is James’ idea. It’s well-timed. Conservatives are practically obsessed with it these days. When they’re not beating up on each other, all the remaining GOP presidential candidates routinely accuse Democrats of failing to honestly face the true causes and culprits of our national problems out of fear of offending someone. Usually that someone is either minorities, foreigners, or the Democrats’ own PC posse.

This is the accusation even on terrorism. Donald Trump: “We’re losing the war on terror because of political correctness.” Ted Cruz, as part of his post-Belgium call to have U.S. law enforcement patrol “Muslim neighborhoods,” said “We need a president who sets aside political correctness [and] tries to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end.” I could scare up dozens of similar quotes on most major political topics. I really believe Republicans will try to make political correctness and its allegedly grip on Democrats the main theme of the entire 2016 election. Not kidding.

Still, I think (some) accusations of being politically correct deserve more of a response than sarcasm. Just because the GOP is abusing the term does not mean there is no such thing as PC or that it isn’t a problem – at least in some contexts. A number of progressive commentators have expressed concern about the chilling effects of political correctness on intra-Party debates. President Obama has called out political correctness on college campuses as an impediment to honest, inclusive debate. Regular people complain about PC, too, not just bigots and professional political rabble rousers.

To be sure, other progressives have pushed back hard on the notion that leftists have hijacked honest political dialogue for any reason, much less petty ones. I will take a little time to explain their arguments in my opening remarks Monday night. They are important because there are much larger issues here than just peer pressure over nouns and adjectives. Language is a tool of power, often invisibly so. The terminology we use and feel constrained not to use when we talk about politics or culture (or rights of justice) tends to reflect who has power and who doesn’t. To me, the issue of power is just one of many subterranean aspects of our escalating political correctness war – and nt all of them favor the progressive POV. If we are to take both sides of this conflict seriously (they sure take themselves seriously), then we need to explore these larger issues percolating below the surface.

In my opening, I’ll try to

  1. Explain the traditional meaning(s) of political correctness and, to the extent I grok it, the conservative arguments as to why it’s such a big problem; and
  2. Briefly lay out the arguments people on the Left use to argue that PC is just a slur and an excuse to be rude or biased.

I’m really looking forward to hearing what you all think of this issue.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What has being “political correctness” traditionally meant? Who/what was the label directed at and what actual problems were attributed to it?
  2. CONS:
    1. How do conservatives use the term today? What specifically do they say the term means and what problems do they say it causes?
    2. Do they have a point? Are progressives too quick to argue by accusing others of bad faith or bigotry?
    3. Why is fighting PC so urgent to the Right? Which individuals, institutions, and events are driving this obsession?  Root causes?
  3. LIBS WHO AGREE:
    1. Why do some progressives agree that PC is out of hand?
    2. Who do they say is being harmed by it and how much?
  4. IN DEFENSE OF PC:
    1. Politeness: Is being PC benign, mostly an insistence on respecting people?
    2. Power: Is PC really about trying to broaden our dialogue by dropping labels that bias discussion and perpetuate some peoples’ power and privilege? Are growing diversity and minority power in U.S. society the real story here?
    3. Past: Is PC really worse today and on the Left? Don’t both sides police rhetoric and accuse each other of bad faith?
    4. Offense/defense: Is crying “PC” itself PC, an effort to silence/delegitimize critics? Is it a sword instead of a shield?
  5. ISSUES: Is there anything to the PC accusation conserving terrorism, illegela immigration, etc.?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is our legal system being privatized?

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