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One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.

Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.

First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.

Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.

Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of “scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store  –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.

In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)

These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.

And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.

Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.

So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.

(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)

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The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we had in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently opposed health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

Economically, Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But in the past couple of years, it has not been just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle in recent years has been characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Be voices of reason and goodwill, voices that do not simply return anger with anger, nor return anger with despair, but rather return anger and irrationality with implacable reason and goodwill. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should have remained warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindedness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

There is a path forward, one that is not simply the continuing volleys of mutually belligerent blind ideology, nor one that is focused only on the upcoming election cycle: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified. Join me in turning this simple, clear message into a reality. Let’s create the future we are wise enough to hope for, rather than the one we are foolish enough to forge in the pettiness of our fears.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

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A major social, moral, and political issue dividing us is the issue of how inclusive and how exclusive we should be as a national society. But beyond and beneath the question of membership in our national society is the question of whose rights (and which rights) we aknowledge and respect under what circumstances.

There is clearly a balance to be struck: Few would recommend such inclusivity that we extend the same respect to the bacterial infection threatening a person’s health as we extend to the person. Most (not all) are comfortable with the notion of extending our inclusivity no further than the bounds of our own species (respecting human life above other forms of life), even if modified to prohibit outright cruelty to those of other species that we recognize as cognitively capable of suffering from such cruelty (i.e., other large mammals). Though I’ll come back to the broader issue of universal empathy and systemic sensitivity at the end of this little essay, the main thrust will be on humanity’s divisions and their historical and contemporary role in justifying self-serving exclusivities.

Another word describing “exclusivity” is “discrimination,” referring to members of some in-group discriminating against members of some out-group regarding the privileges of membership. I use the word “discriminate” more or less interchangeably with the word “exclude” in this essay.

The most obvious dimension to this issue is the moral and social one: Those who are excluded are defined to be of lesser value or lesser concern. Sometimes they are defined as such (i.e., are excluded) in reference to intrinsic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; sometimes due to choices or cultural inheritences, such as religion of political ideology; sometimes due to some social status such as geographic location, socioeconomic class, or subcultural identification; and sometimes due to talents or abilities.

The last is perhaps the most morally justifiable form of exclusion: If a hospital is hiring surgeons, those with no training or skill in surgery can be legitimately excluded. Issues sometimes arise over whether the criteria for discriminating between those with the necessary skills and those without are not proxies for other less justifiable grounds for discrimination, but, as a general rule, this is not a difficult problem to solve.

Another justifiable form of exclusion involves freedom of association and the logistics of allowing people to gather to accomplish a specific task or for a specific purpose. Obviously, people holding a dinner party in their home can invite who they like and refuse entry to all others. This freedom extends outward, but ends when the private property is open to the public (generally, a business) and the discrimination is of a now forbidden nature (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender). Similarly, if an organization meets to discuss or address a specific topic, they certainly are justified in excluding those who want to come to discuss or address a completely different topic. If not for this form of exclusion, no one would ever be able to get anything done.

At the other end of the spectrum, exclusion due to irrelevant inherent characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, is not yet a folly completely relegated to a shameful past, but the moral argument is clearly over, and the result is a general awareness that such discrimination is unjustifiable and indefensible. Clearly, those who still suffer from this form of discrimination justifiably feel no patience regarding any delay in ending it completely, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their efforts to end it now and forever. But, in the developed world at least, the writing is on the wall.

Another related but slightly different area of discrimination involves those with physical and mental disabilities. Unlike issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, inclusion of those with disabilities often requires an affirmative effort and investment by us as a society to create accessibility and accommodate special needs. Most people recognize that that is the decent and just thing to do, and many realize that it allows us to best utilize our pool of human capital rather than to create greater swathes of nonproductivity and dependence.

In between these extremes of the obviously justifiable and the obviously unjustifiable lies a broad swathe of contested terrain. I argue that we should only discriminate in the public sphere on the bases of merit or competence (or organizational relevance), and on no other basis whatsoever. Beyond that, we should be all-inclusive. Though that may seem at a glance to be a mainstream position, it is actually a radical fringe position, though recognizing it as such is the first step toward increasing its acceptance.

As the various debates revolving around immigration policy demonstrate, many Americans believe in excluding people on the basis of their legal residency status. That has nothing to do with merit: It is a status determined only by the way in which people migrated to their current location, what legal formalities they did or did not observe.

It also has nothing to do with orgnizational relevance, since studies generally demonstrate economic and fiscal gains to the organization (i.e., the nation), and, in any case, we do not only consider “organizational relevance” in national membership to depend on productivity (though illegal immigrants would generally benefit from such a criterion). In fact, those who are more inclined to exclude on the basis of “productivity” (i.e., who blame the poor for their poverty, and consider society as a whole to have no responsibility to them) are most similar to the historical archetypes we hold in least esteem (e.g., the Nazis).

The tautology that because it is illegal, exclusion is indisputably appropriate, ignores the historical frequency in which legal exclusion has been both morally and pragmatically wrong, and the reality of human migration and de facto (if not always de jure) membership in our society as a result of it.

Lest anyone exaggerate the “criminality” of not observing the formalities of legal immigration, I would recommend a review of both world and U.S. history, in both of which those formalities have rarely been observed or enforced to any great extent, anywhere, at any time. People migrate away from oppression or destitution and toward freedom or opportunity; they always have, they always will, and they don’t always do so by observing the bureaucratic niceties that would prevent them from doing so. That is the reality of the world we live in.

In America today, many right-wing ideologues who prefer more rather than less exlusion (excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, excluding Muslims from freedom of religion and property, excluding undocumented immigrants from most any rights whatsoever, and often, explicitly or explicitly, excluding those historically disadvantaged by race or ethnicity from redressment of those historically imposed inequities in order to create true equality of opportunity today), use rhetoric eerily similar to that employed by others who engaged in now discredited and reviled forms of exclusion in the past, including the rhetoric of German Nazis in the prelude to the Holocaust. We live in a country which continually flirts with the ugly inhumanities that history has reproduced so frequently in so many times and places, and does so with complete disregard for what it is doing.

(I use the somewhat “forbidden” historical reference point of Nazi Germany because it is important to heed the lesson it yields, embodied in the cry “Never again!” The error we must avoid is not limited to the sin of genocide, but also the sin of dehumanization that precedes and justifies all such crimes against humanity, on scales and in degrees large and small.)

If we, as a country, feel a pragmatic necessity to exclude some from entry to our country, let us do so reluctantly rather than overzealously, and let us recognize the de facto as well as de jure members of our society who have become integrated into it, into our economy and our communities and our families. Two recent studies, by The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, and The Bell, have demonstrated that illegal immigrants in Colorado yield a net benefit to both our state economy and our state coffers. The Economist magazine has frequently noted that our massive immigration of working age people serves to redress our increasingly critical demographic imbalance between a collapsing number of workers supporting an exploding number of retirees.

Research shows that several economic sectors suffer enormously from crack-downs on illegal immigration, that competition tends to be at the bottom of the economic ladder (mostly isolated to those who have just immigrated, and those who have recently done so) and that the new waves of immigration provide the foundations upon which established citizens and residents can climb the economic ladder. By most accounts, not only is it more humane to allow people to come here seeking opportunity, but it also benefits those of us who were already born into it.

Many Americans continue to see nationalism as an unassailably legitimate basis for exclusion, the nation as private property, and those who come into it uninvited as trespassers. First, as already noted above, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we do not accord even private businesses such unfettered right to exclude, and the nation is more not less “open to the public.” Granted, the nation-state is a concept premised on some degree of exclusivity, of being a bounded entity defined as separated in some ways from the rest of the world. But nations have always been highly permeable entities, with people and goods flowing in and out in significant volume. There is little to indicate that stifling that flow has ever been particularly good for any nation (though much to show that encouraging it has been extremely good for those nations that have done so), and even less to indicate that it has ever been particularly good for humanity.

Even so, there certainly are some similarities between private property and national boundaries: Both are the institutionalization of historically violently acquired inequities, which, while eroded by subsequent enterprise, remain very evident in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The main difference is that, while private property, despite its unsavory aspects in the establishment and perpetuation of inequity, is a highly functional system, facilitating the robust production of wealth through market mechanisms, nations, conversely, are for the most part mere barriers to such wealth production. Nations, in other words, enjoy the social defects of private property, while laying claim to none of the social benefits.

(That’s not to say that there are no social benefits whatsoever to the existence of nation-states. As with all forms of sub-global social organizational consolidation, there is, generally speaking, an immediate short-and-medium term benefit in terms of the utility produced within and for the bounded population, and a cost in terms of the barriers to larger scale social organizational consolidation which, in the long run, is a cost for the bounded population as well. Any level of social consolidation has variable value in terms of how well it articulates with both larger and smaller levels of organization. But focusing narrowly on wealth production, nation-states form barriers to the movement of the factors of production, and as such generally serve to impede global wealth production. There are some qualifications and exceptions to this general rule, but to go into them would be too great a digression.)

More easily grasped than the dissimilarities from private property is the historical infamy of ultranationalism, being the ideology which informed and justified the Holocaust, the attitude underlying which is uncomfortably similar to the attitude underlying our own current anti-immigrant hysteria.

Whether these analyses and this perspective prevail, the rhetoric that vilifies these humble people who migrate here to provide their children with better futures is absolutely and incontravertably indefensible. Several posters on The Denver Post message boards discussing the issue expressed the blatantly racist (and historically familiar) belief that our current wave of illegal immigrants is to be reviled for their supposed criminality (not immigration related), a belief based on the relative poverty of many in each new wave of immigration (and ironically emphasized the crime most commonly committed as a direct result of their illegal status: stealing social security numbers in order to obtain work, and argument in favor of precisely what they most vehemently argue against: “amnesty”). One sincerely opined that we should exterminate all undocumented immigrants in this country, all 12 million of them, thus doubling the record set by Nazi Germany in their own extermiantion of their own reviled “foreign” population living among them. That post received one parenthetical rebuke from one poster only, in contrast to the swarm of rebukes I received for my highly qualified comparison of their attitude to that of Nazi Germany, and for calling for a more humane and compassionate attitude.

One of the defining disctinction between the American Right and Left today revolves around our respective attitudes toward inclusivity and exclusivity. The left believes in social justice, in investing as a people in the increase of opportunity for those who currently enjoy the least opportunities, for more inclusion and less exclusion. The right remains the ideology that is the hier of racism, as well as to too great an extent its most fortified remaining haven, for not only do too many from that ideology defend the remnants of explicit and implicit racism, but, more universally and less ambiguously, they defend forms of exclusion that are logically and functionally similar.

It’s time to leave that kind of elitism on the dust heap of history, and recognize the humanity of all people, everywhere. It’s time to live up to our values and not just our greed, to be what we claim to be and not what others perceive us as. It’s time to give our children cause for pride, and the world cause for hope.

Beyond the specific moral, economic, and political dimensions of how inclusive we are, and how exclusive we are, is the systemic understanding. Human beings are woven of and into complex systems, ranging from the postulated basic building blocks of the universie (the “strings” of string theory, from which all other subatomic particles emanate), to the infinite and eternal. No systems are truly closed; all are open in various ways and to various degrees. The boundaries we perceive  between them are more for our conceptual convenience than relfections of fundamental reality. From this perspective, “exclusion” is inherently unnatural, an arrogant insensitivity to the reality of our existence.

We are not first and foremost individuals, but rather first and foremost moments of a larger consciousness. Our happiness, our welfare, our liberty, and our humanity depend on recognizing our interdependence, not just with one another but with all of nature as well, more than on denying it. It is the smallest of demands upon this awareness to recognize that two people of the same sex who want to marry should be embraced without prejudice, and that all people who endure the difficulties of relocating in a foreign land in search of hope for themselves and their children should not be condemned nor robbed of dignity for doing what humans have done throughout history.

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