The Bloom Briefing 4: Muslim Ban, Trump's Tech, Segregated Schools, Repressive Kleptocracy
Happy Super Bowl Sunday. The resistance has done good work this week, motivating two GOP senators to stop backing Betsy DeVos, and showing solidarity with judges who were willing to block Trump's blatantly unconstitutional Muslim ban. Here's my take on some of the most interesting articles on these topics this week.
Why We Should Be Against the Muslim Ban
It is an insufficiently accepted rule of moral reasoning that we judge first and reason second. Most moral reasoning is ex post facto rationalization for what we felt or believed first. With that in mind, I’ve read a lot of arguments this week for why people are opposed to Trump’s executive order banning entry into the United States of Muslims from 7 majority-Muslim country, and I'll hope to disentangle and evaluate them here.
There are a host of almost offensively stereotypical bleeding heart liberal arguments (this piece is actually more compelling than a lot of the others in this genre). Think, “My nephew’s sister-in-law’s mother’s aunt’s housekeeper was stuck at Dulles at customs and immigration for 14 hours.” That’s obviously unpleasant, and you wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s a pretty ineffective argument if there are actually national security concerns at stake.
What about the argument that there aren’t national security concerns at stake? Well, that’s a good argument, and true, and it may convince some people not to support the ban, which would be a good thing. For further reading, the Atlantic and Time covered this debate in detail in 2015 as the Obama administration eased the door open on Syrian refugees.
There are also some good arguments out there about how the ban will be bad for the economy (here, here, here – though none of these is comprehensive). This is important, and it may convince people not to support the Muslim ban, so have them in your locker, but don’t oppose the ban because of them.
Oppose the Muslim ban because it erases one of the foundational protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights: freedom of religion. With the Executive Order, the Trump Administration has effectively equated the religion of Islam with violence and terrorism, creating two classes of people: Muslims, who pose a national security risk to the country, and everybody else.
We can’t call this unprecedented, because in the darkest days of our history, we locked Japanese-Americans in internment camps because of concerns about national security. Thankfully, today there is broad consensus that Japanese internment was historically villainous. Unfortunately, the line of thinking that brought us the Muslim ban leads inevitably to the same place. If Muslims are a threat to national security, then it’s not just the ones who aren’t here about whom we need to be concerned.
If you don’t oppose the ban now, what moral ground do you have to stand on when it’s deemed that the Muslims need to be rounded up and put into camps? That the agitators leading the protests against that perspective need to go with them? And that the Jews might as well go too because they’re always going on and on about the Holocaust? And so on and so on and so on? This is a brazen attempt to tie an entire class of people to imaginary crimes with the implicit purpose of branding the entire class of people as our enemy. It cannot be allowed to stand.
Even if Trump is Crazy, He Has a Sophisticated Marketing Strategy
At Motherboard, a tech and science website that’s part of the Vice family, Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus have written a lengthy piece about how some entrepreneurs adopted a technology developed by a psychologist at Stanford and turned it into the most powerful micro-targeting political campaign tool in history.
I’d encourage you to read the article so that you are familiar with an essential tool in the far-right (both American and European) toolbox. But I’d also caution you about being too terrified by this. Technological advantages are often short-lived. Rest assured that the left recognizes the need to invest in similarly powerful technology and will be doing so. Remember that even with this tool described as having near oracular powers, Trump barely managed to win the Electoral College and still didn’t win the popular vote. The sophistication, implementation, and network that made it possible are absolutely terrifying, but technology is rarely an insurmountable advantage in the long-run.
Public Education and the Perseverance of Segregation
Most progressives value both freedom and equality. They want people to be able to have an approximately equal start in life and then, given that relatively equal start, to allow people to distinguish themselves in whatever way they may. But this “equality of opportunity” argument is built on a foundation of public education. Public education is supposed to be the thing which ensures all people the approximately equal start in life. Yet the history of public education in the United States is a history of the preservation of white wealth at the expense of black opportunity.
At Citylab, Emily Lieb has written a thoroughly-sourced history of how public schools, school districts, and school zones have been a tool of segregation. Many people point to racially segregated schools today as being the result of where people live. White folks live in these places and folks of color live in those places so it only makes sense that schools would reflect that, right? Wrong.
What such a perspective fails to take into account is “that these school district lines are never “innocently drawn.” We know that for almost two centuries, in almost every city in the United States, school communities didn’t just reflect patterns of residential segregation that already existed—instead, they helped create them.”
Parents understandably want the best education possible for their children. But this particular problem is one where the principle of freedom (freedom to choose where to live, where to send your kids to school, etc.) is directly in opposition to the principle of equality. There are three ways in which the actions of white families have a direct negative consequence on schools of color.
First, there are racist parents who say, “I don’t want my kids going to school with black kids.” There aren’t a lot of these folks, but there are some. Second, there are parents who say, “I want my kids to go to a good school,” but “good school” really means, well-funded suburban white school (most of the time). And finally, because school resources come from property taxes, schools of color are consistently underfunded. There’s great work showing how similarly constructed and sized homes have lower property values in black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods, a gap that has only increased in the last decade.
When education becomes tied to a free market (in this case the market of home ownership), it becomes imbued with the racism of the market. It should surprise no one after the election that there are enough racists to drive down property values in neighborhoods with black families. White progressives often feel like this isn’t their personal problem. Often they look towards improving underserved schools (which most of the “apartheid” schools referenced in the article are) as the solution rather than promoting integrationist policies, or *gasp* moving into a mixed or majority-minority neighborhood.
“The schools there aren’t good,” only works as an argument for not moving to a place if you accept the racist history that made them and perpetuates them this way and are content to not do anything about it. We know that contact and communication with people who are different from us is the key to reducing prejudice. Making the schools better (and thus taking away a reason for white folks not to live in mixed neighborhoods) will only happen if we untether school funding from property taxes.
As Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented in Milliken v. Bradley, “School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races when…white parents withdraw their children from the Detroit city schools and move to the suburbs in order to continue them in all-white schools. The message of this action will not escape the Negro children in the city of Detroit.” Let’s be sure to keep these not so innocently-drawn lines in mind as we continue the good work of tearing down structures of racism in our society.
The Slow Regress toward “Repressive Kleptocracy”
I’d encourage you to give this article from Die Zeit on German perspectives on Hitler in the early 1930s a thorough read. The parallels are so obvious to the current American regime that they don’t even need to be made. If you care to read the American parallels, however, I direct you to conservative pundit David Frum’s cover story this month in the Atlantic: American Autocracy. Frum puts the current American descent towards illiberal kleptocracy in a broader view.
“The 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.”
Unlike the totalitarian governments of the 20th century that that were brought about most commonly by revolution, “repressive kleptocracy” comes from a slow regression, as norms and values that are part and parcel of democracy are gradually eroded. This descent, Frum believes, will play out with the following characteristics over the next four years:
Republican opposition to Trump will be limited
Democracy is grounded not only in laws but in a series of norms that Trump has totally destroyed
The civil service will not be able to present much of a resistance for long (though this article makes a good counterargument).
Corruption and graft will become commonplace and people will not care
Civil unrest will be an asset to Trump, particularly if provoked into more radical stances by police crackdowns, which are likely
Accountability journalism will be delegitimized by making it out to be partisan (as discussed last week in The Bloom Briefing)
Though the article is bleak, Frum equivocates when it comes to the value of resistance. Despite arguing that Trump will turn resistance to his advantage, Frum holds out hope that the American people themselves may represent a valuable check on the descent:
“What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.”
In a similar vein, Ross Douthat argues that “nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind its opposition down.” One can only hope, but it will take an active resistance to ensure the worst does not come to pass.
Viva la Resistance!