Italy and new models of authoritarianism – posted 5/18/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/2/2019

May 18, 2019 2 comments

I just spent the last two weeks in Italy and while there are many, many things to love about that country, politics is not one of them. Italy is now under the control of two far right political parties.

As is true of the far right here in the U.S., the Italian parties have risen to power by demagoguing about immigration. Their answer to many complex social problems is simple: increase the number of immigrants to be deported.

Sound familiar?

These quasi-fascist groupings, the League and the Five Star Movement, are often dismissed as bullying clowns but they should be seen as deadly serious. Given Italy’s tragic history with fascism in the 20th century, they must not be taken lightly.

The Italian economy is weak. It is highly focused on tourism but very large numbers of young Italians are going abroad because of the lack of job opportunities. Unemployment is extremely high and career prospects for too many are poor.

Since 2013, it is estimated that almost 700,000 immigrants have arrived in Italy by boat, most from sub-Saharan Africa. Some have papers but others are in the country illegally. With the economy precarious, Italian politics have become very combustible.

Italians, like many Americans, seem to need something to define themselves against. Illegal immigrants, less than 1% of the population in Italy, are the current scapegoat. The Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who is head of the League party, has said, “Italy cannot be Europe’s refugee camp”.

There is a current dispute about whether Italy will take in immigrants found in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters. Sea-Watch, a relief and rescue agency, reported on May 15 that 70 people drowned in the last week and 240 were forcibly returned to Libya. Salvini has proposed that the Italian government fine shipmasters 5500 Euros for every person they rescue and take to Italy. Italy has already cut back on search and rescue operations, delayed or refused to take people rescued at sea to Italy and has supported efforts of the Libyan Coast Guard to interdict asylum seekers and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Italian proposal drew fire from Human Rights Watch as it conflicts with international law. The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to safe places.

I am reminded of a quote I saw from the Italian writer and survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi.

“Every age has its own fascism and we see the warning signals wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system and by spreading in myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”

This quote captures the important insight that we must not expect 21st century fascism to be a reincarnation of what happened in the past. We are seeing new versions of authoritarianism in many countries, including Italy and the U.S.

Here is how I see the new internationally-operative authoritarian model: start with a charismatic leader who fills the popular need for a strong man. The strong man needs a winning brand that can be the basis for a cult of personality. He constantly self-advertises his wealth and power. He seems most offended by accusations that he is not filthy rich.

Loyalty of followers is forged through an emotional tie to a glorified leader, not a set of principles.

The leader creates an us versus them narrative to justify his actions. He poses as a victim of a witch hunt. He expresses utter contempt for the law and the press. He succeeds in weakening democracy through aggressive expansion of executive power. He weakens and bypasses Congress and parliamentary bodies so they can only impotently respond to his actions which become fait accomplis.

Unlike fascism in the past, he feels no need to create a one-party state or a dictatorship. He can accomplish his goals through a combination of executive orders, stacking the courts, and voter suppression. He marginalizes his opposition.

As a master marketer, he uses the principles of propaganda, especially repetition and saturation. The Big Lie becomes the truth when it is repeated enough.

Optics matter and twitter is a high intensity means to manipulate how we view reality. It is a way to de-legitimize evidence-based inquiries with accusations of fake news. The leader is anti-intellectual and anti-science, denying climate change and indulging in conspiracy theories.

Everything that the leader says is a trial balloon, testing to see the popular response. As the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written, even the leader’s jokes are trial balloons. He is testing to see what he can get away with and what rights he may be able to infringe. Such fascist tactics normalize things previously considered rogue.

He makes dominant groups feel like victims. The leader promotes anger and resentment to get people to buy into the fantasy version of reality he is selling.

The leader uses racism to designate people of color as his adversary and as an other. He plays on demographic changes and the increase in immigration to heighten fears. When convenient, he will traffick in antisemitism. He plays on the perception that he is protecting the white Christian heritage of the nation.

He embodies a toxic form of masculinity where he postures as a macho male who acts outside normal boundaries. The fact that multiple women may have sued for sexual harassment is of zero consequence because he sees himself as beyond law. Consent is for the weak. Remember: “When you are a star, they let you do it.”.

When accused of corruption, the leader always remains unrepentant and boastful. He counterattacks and accuses his opponent of the accusation of which he stands accused. He acts like integrity is for sissies and lying is kosher. In the face of detailed and factual exposes of his own corruption, he responds by lambasting opposition.

Too much of conventional political discussion misses the reality that we are in a new paradigm internationally and at home and we need a new openness to talking about and describing the new models of authoritarianism. Trump, Putin, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Italy’s new leaders are playing by an authoritarian playbook that has no respect for democracy or civil liberties.

We can expect the authoritarians to introduce and float more reprehensible ideas to see if they can expand their power and marginalize dissent. The authoritarian goal is to normalize what was previously unthinkable.

The struggle in the world is now between those who support some form of political/economic democracy and those who favor extreme right wing authoritarianism. With our deep-seated commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality, Americans will not be easy prey for the authoritarians. In the words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize.”.

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The pervasiveness of ageism – posted 4/28/19

April 28, 2019 2 comments

Not too long ago, I was hanging out with a group of guy friends and we were talking about the presidential race. When the subject of Bernie Sanders came up, my friend Tom responded that old white men like Bernie should get out of the way.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed entitled “Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too old to be President”. In her piece on Bernie in the Concord Monitor, Katy Burns also accused Bernie of being old. She mentioned how exhaustingly stressful the modern presidency is.

Not long after, Burns attacked Joe Biden, for among other reasons, being old. When accused of ageism, she still stood by her argument that Biden was too old to be president. She cited declining physical stamina and the statistical possibility of dementia.

Bernie is now 77 and Biden is 76. There is no evidence that either is, in any respect, impaired.

President Trump is now 72. No one can accuse him of being a spring chicken. While there is a cottage industry written about the state of his mental health, there is no smoking gun evidence that Trump is impaired either.

I think candidates should be judged on the merits of their positions and ideas – not their age. Speculation about what might happen, that hasn’t happened, is worthless.

Generalizations about the declining capacities of older people are no more defensible than racial or gender stereotypes. Here I am not arguing for any particular candidate. I think that the age problem is ageism. By ageism, I mean stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.

Ageism is rampant in America. It is no exaggeration to say we are youth-obsessed and caught up in age-denial.There is a massive fear of aging. Just consider the wide range of anti-aging products and treatments. Off the top, I could think of skin care, hair care, cosmetic surgery, supplements, anti-stretch mark products, and anti-wrinkle products. Sixty is the new forty or eighty is the new sixty.

To grasp the roots of ageism, it first needs to be seen as an institutionalized form of discrimination. Capitalism scrap-piles older workers at younger and younger ages. Try getting a job if you are in your 50’s, let alone your 60’s. It happens, but I have seen a pattern of well-qualified people in their 50’s consistently get turned down for jobs. They are seen as more expensive because often in their recent histories they had commanded higher pay and benefits.

Older workers have to fight stereotypes that they cannot master new skills and technology, that they will slow things down, that they cannot perform physically demanding work and that they burn out. In hiring, younger managers typically prefer younger workers who they will say are more exciting than the older worker. That may not be discrimination but it is a bias.

There are so many other negative stereotypes around being older. Among the stereotypes, old people are sad, incompetent, ugly, sexless, mindless, forgetful, conservative and irrelevant. It would take a book-length response to combat all the stereotypes.

You have to ask: why the veneration of youth? Whatever happened to older people as the repositories of wisdom and life experience? Once elders of the tribe were held in high regard. That is certainly not the case now where older people have to fight off stereotypes that they are doddering geezers.

Sometimes older people themselves can be the worst at reinforcing the aging stereotypes. Look at President Trump’s ridiculous assertion that he is young, not old, like his contemporaries. All the tanning, scalp surgery, and hair coloring in the world do not change the reality that he is 72. Maybe he would be better off accepting, rather than denying, his age. It is okay to be 72, no need to be embarrassed.

Maggie Kuhn, who organized the Gray Panthers back in 1970 was the first person to put her finger on the issue of ageism. She felt older people were an untapped energy source and she also felt old age could be a time of great fulfillment. I always liked this quote of hers:

“Old age is not a disease, it’s not a social disaster, it’s a gift of the Almighty. It is a result of struggle and victory over many vicissitudes, it could indeed be the flowering of life, a time of enormous freedom – freedom to transcend our own narrow self-interests that we had to preserve when we were middle-aged. But old age is freedom to look beyond our skin and clothes to those who come after us, and to a new way of life that is truly human and shared. To achieve this, old age must be lived, poured out for others. And so lived, it could be one of God’s great surprises – that those nearest death should be chosen by Her to point to where new life may be found.”

Whether we like it or not, if we are lucky enough, we will become old. Whether it is choosing a President or competition for a job, candidates deserve consideration on the basis of their merits – not on outdated stereotypes.

Along with the fight against racism, sexism, class prejudice and homophobia, ageism also must be combatted. A good society would not be putting old people out to pasture prematurely when they have so much potential to contribute. We need to stop the de-valuation of older people, recognize their reservoir of life experience and find new ways to tap their creativity.

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The Racist Roots of the Second Amendment – posted 4/13/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/21/2019

April 13, 2019 3 comments

Mass shootings have become institutionalized as an almost normal part of American life, as have the responses to such shootings. After each massacre, victims, their families and gun control advocates bemoan the latest atrocity and call for background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Gun rights advocates oppose such reforms and stand behind the Second Amendment.

The same scenario plays out, over and over, with the Second Amendment a powerful impediment, blocking any gun control measures.

The Second Amendment states: “ A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Adopted in 1791, the author, James Madison, wanted to empower state militias, which today are considered the National Guard.

Much of public discussion about the Second Amendment has focused on the militia clause and whether that was intended to limit the scope of the amendment. Whatever one thinks about it, the U.S. Supreme Court settled that question in its 2008 Heller decision, holding that the Second Amendment guarantees the right for every individual, with some limited exceptions, to bear arms.

However, what is not discussed is why the Second Amendment was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. For all that has been written about it, there has been relatively little discussion about the reasons for the inclusion of that amendment. The conventional view has been that the Second Amendment was there so that people have a right to defend themselves against tyranny. Many colonists had come to America to escape oppressive regimes and absolute monarchies in mainland Europe.

The Native American historian and writer, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has articulated a provocative and different perspective on why there was a Second Amendment placed so prominently in the Bill of Rights. In her book, Loaded, she argues that the Second Amendment enshrined an individual gun right to allow settlers to form volunteer militias to attack Indians and take their land.

The settlers needed guns for the western expansion of the United States, a massively popular enterprise. The land west of the original thirteen colonies was not an empty wilderness, devoid of population. Many tribes had developed their own nations where they had lived for generations.

The colonial settlers formed militias for the purpose of raiding and razing indigenous communities and seizing their land and resources. The colonists needed the Second Amendment to carry out and legitimate their mission.

This was a project against which Native Americans fought back. Dunbar-Ortiz cites the resistance of such leaders as Buckongehelas of the Delaware, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket of the Miami Shawnee alliance, Joseph Brant of the Mohawk, Complanter of the Seneca as well as the great Tecumseh and the Shawnee-led Confederation of the Ohio Valley.

The Eastern half of the continent was ethnically cleansed of Native Americans by 1850, which forced their relocation to “Indian Country” west of the Mississippi River. Looking at the genocide committed against Native Americans, the Second Amendment can be placed in historical perspective. It needs to be seen in the context of westward expansion and the Indian wars.

Those who like to put a halo on the Constitution and the Second Amendment are not looking at it historically. Whatever its merits and wisdom, there is a very dark side.

Both our revolutionary army and the squatter-settlers used extreme violence against Native Americans, both combatants and non-combatants, with the goal of total domination. Ironically, the settlers justified their violence on the racist basis that they were fighting “savages”.

We have a blind spot in looking at American history. People feel badly about the outcome of what happened to Native Americans but we expunge the vigilante violence that was a big part of the genocide. It is a form of historical amnesia where dark truths are disappeared. Gun rights were inextricably entwined with stealing Indian land and forcibly removing and relocating tribes.

Dunbar-Ortiz also argues that the Second Amendment provided slavers with the means to enforce slavery. She cites slave patrols which were part of the policing of African Americans. In the slave colonies, if slaves attempted to escape, until the end of the Civil War, individuals could claim a reward for capture of the escapee. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan replaced the slave patrols. Gun rights were central to the Klan mission.

Many gun rights supporters will strongly reassert that we need the Second Amendment to protect against tyrannical government now. They will also justify their personal arsenals on the basis of that right. However, that argument makes no sense when you consider the Second Amendment’s origins.

In America’s early years, once independence was assured, the colonists faced no domestic threat of an out-of-control central government. The colonists were far more focused on westward expansion and confronting the Indians. The British Monarch, King George III, had earlier unsuccessfully tried to stop the American expansion.

Manifest Destiny was the agenda of the colonists. The armed American militias of the 19th century were about conquest of Native land and about the subjugation of African Americans. Our gun culture is steeped in this history of racism.

I think reverence for the Second Amendment is part of our problem around guns. When reasonable gun control reforms are suggested, there is an unjustified reaction, asserting the Second Amendment as some type of almost religious icon. History shows it is anything but that. Laws, even constitutional amendments, need to be seen and understood within the context of when they were created.

A historical appreciation of the Second Amendment should lead to an end to its deification and more support for gun control reforms. If we saw the racist and militarist reasons for the Second Amendment, there would be much less sanctimony around its discussion. That alone would move the debate forward and would make gun control reform a more viable option.

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My remarks about my friend, Alan West – posted 4/6/2019

April 6, 2019 1 comment

Alan was my gym friend. We met years ago, working out at the Hogan Center of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH. While Alan often went off on long periods on the stairmaster. we typically each did the elliptical next to each other and we talked.

In our conversations, we learned some incredibly surprising things. It turned out that our lives had overlapped in the past. We both broke the sex line. I am not saying we became transexual. In our junior year in college, Alan at Dartmouth and me at Trinity, we both transferred to Wellesley College.

We were both among the first 18 men who ever went to Wellesley College. There were 1800 women.

Alan and I compared notes and even though we could not remember each other, we lived in the same dorm and knew quite a few of the same people.

I think the odds for that happening were infinitesimally small. But that connection led to years of joking and goofing around about it. Wellesley has not been in touch with us though.

Alan was a great friend – funny, caring and thoughtful. We had great fun joking with our other gym friend, Ron Clark. Al and I were on the progressive side and Ron is a Trump supporter and we had hilarious conversations as Ron is the most entertaining Trump supporter I know. In fact, he may be the only Trump supporter I know.

Al liked to tease and he had the best laugh. We discussed important topics like the invisibility of men over age 55 to women.

He was a puzzle guy. There were always puzzles at Hogan and Alan spent much time putting them together.

I have to say that when Priscilla sent me Alan’s obituary, I was pretty shocked. I really had no idea about many of Alan’s accomplishments. He was genuinely one of the most modest people ever. Totally down to earth and friendly to all.

As we were both federal employees, I also have to say that I am grateful to Alan for his good judgment and his helpful suggestions. I write, and Alan, knowing the federal landscape, had good sense about how to avoid getting into trouble with our employers. He knew the federal government scene well.

I work with disabled people and Alan was a clinical psychologist and had much experience dealing with mental illness. It was always insightful to talk to him if there was a sticky case because he had seen a lot and had wisdom to share.

I respected the way Alan dealt with his illness which could not have been easy for him. He was a self-disciplined man. He always showed up at the gym. I never saw any self-pity. He could be depressed but his family and especially Priscilla helped him enormously. He was very proud of his kids too. That helped him cope.

It is very hard to not have him there. There is a void.

I wanted to end with this quote from Henry David Thoreau:

“My friend is not of some other race or family of men, but flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. He is my real brother. I see his nature groping yonder so like mine. We do not live far apart. Have not the fates associated us in many ways? Is it of no significance that we have so long partaken of the same loaf, drank at the same fountain, breathed the same air, summer and winter, felt the same heat and cold; that the same fruits have been pleased to refresh us both, and we have never had a thought of different fibre the one from the other?…
As surely as the sunset in my latest November shall translate me to the ethereal world, and remind me of the ruddy morning of youth; as surely as the last strain of music which falls on my decaying ear shall make age to be forgotten, or, in short, the manifold influences of nature survive during the term of our natural life, so surely my Friend shall forever be my Friend, and reflect a ray of God to me, and time shall foster and adore and consecrate our Friendship, no less than the rules of temples. As I love nature, as I love singing birds and gleaming stubble, and flowing rivers and morning and evening, and winter and summer, I love thee, my Friend.”

Alan, I will miss you.

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Depressing the Count: The Census Citizenship Question – posted 3/31/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/7/2019

March 31, 2019 3 comments

One of the most consequential cases coming before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring term is the Commerce Department’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

When you clear away the fog, the case is really about the Trump Administration’s effort to depress response levels by immigrant communities, particularly Latinos, to the census. They will, of course, say the citizenship question was not politically motivated.

In the trial on the case held in federal court in New York, the Census Bureau’s own experts estimated that 6.5 million people were unlikely to respond to the census citizenship question.

Dale Ho, the ACLU lawyer who litigated this case, has said that 6.5 million would be equal to our 18th largest state. If these people lived in one state,  they would be represented by nine seats in Congress and eleven electoral votes.

Immigrant communities rightly fear that the Trump Administration will use census data to track people down. While it is illegal for the Census Bureau to release data on specific households, the unprecedented hostility to immigrants demonstrated by the Trump Administration has led many immigrant households to worry that their disclosures could be handed over to ICE.

Unfortunately there is precedent: during the Japanese-American internment, the government used census data to identify people. That is why, among others, some Japanese-Americans have been speaking out against the inclusion of a citizenship question in the census. In 1943, the Census Bureau gave the Secret Service a list of name, addresses, citizenship status and other personal information of people of Japanese ancestry in the Washington DC area. Japanese-American citizens were then rounded up.

If there were a significant undercount of U.S. residents, the census would have an enormous effect. The census is used to determine congressional apportionment for the next decade. California, New York, Arizona, and Texas could lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as lose federal dollars.

Census data could influence the allocation of more than $800 billion in federal government resources to states, localities and families every year. Census data helps state and local officials identify both current and future needs for the communities they serve.

It is not hyperbole to recognize that the stakes are immense.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every ten years of all persons living in the country for the purpose of apportioning states in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Constitution explicitly requires an “actual enumeration” of “all persons”. That means the actual number of persons who reside in each state.

In adopting the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress rejected proposals to allocate seats in the House based on voter-eligible population, rather than total population.

Congress has the authority to conduct the census and Congress has delegated the task to the Secretary of Commerce. That delegation is subject to further legal requirements, including compliance with the Census Act and the Administrative Procedures Act or APA. The APA does require that the Secretary be truthful about the reasons for his or her inclusions in the census.

In January of this year, after a two week trial, Federal Court Judge Jesse M. Furman blocked the Commerce Department’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. In a 277 page decision. Judge Furman found that the government and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had acted improperly. The Court found the inclusion of the citizenship question was arbitrary and made in spite of overwhelming evidence the question would depress census response.

Judge Furman noted that the Census Bureau itself had strenuously objected to Secretary Ross’s plan because they believed that adding the question would harm the quality of census data and would increase costs significantly.

In his decision, Judge Furman specifically ruled that Ross had violated the APA, which governs how agencies exercise their powers. The APA outlines the requirement to be truthful in the reasons behind a rule. Here is how Judge Furman summarized Ross’s role:

“[Ross] failed to consider several important aspects of the problem, alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices.”

The Court ruled that Ross’s purported reason for adding the citizenship question – to enforce the Voting Rights Act – was “pretextual”, a made-up excuse. In the record there was much evidence of bad faith by Ross. He had denied to Congress in testimony that he had had conversations with the White House about the citizenship census question. That was a lie.

The records show Ross had spoken to Steve Bannon, White House advisor at the time, and Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State. Kobach has been a player in schemes around voter suppression.

Emails showed Ross had been asking around for months about adding a citizenship question. He pushed for it and then added a rationale.

Unfortunately, the plaintiffs in the case never had the opportunity to depose Secretary Ross as the government successfully fought off the deposition.

The case is now heading to the Supreme Court where the Trump Administration hopes it has five friends. Because census forms need to be printed in summer or fall at the latest, the case is on a fast track, skipping the normal appellate procedure which would typically have required a circuit court decision after the trial court. Oral argument is scheduled for late April and a written opinion by June.

There is a risk of a failed census in 2020. Or if not a failed census, an inaccurate and unreliable one, with a variety of harmful consequences. Accuracy goes hand in hand with fairness.

Congress did not help things when it decreed in 2014 that the 2020 census should cost no more than the 2010 count, without adjusting for inflation. The General Accountability Office already designated the 2020 census as one of those few federal programs at high risk of failure.

An undercount in the census would likely harm immigrant (particularly Latino) populations as they would face reduced funding and less political representation. Already marginalized populations would become further under-represented and under-resourced.

Under the cloud surrounding the 2020 Census, it is easy to imagine people freaking out at the sight of census correspondence. The arrival of census takers at the front door would also not be a welcome sight for many.

There will be no way to fix a census undercount. Whatever the Supreme Court ultimately decides, the accuracy of the census remains a critical question that will determine its credibility and the degree to which there will be political and economic fairness over the next decade across the U.S..

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How the 1% Stay the 1% – posted 3/17/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/24/2019

March 17, 2019 1 comment

Sometimes a story comes along that exposes deep, dark realities that typically remain hidden. Such a story is the college admissions scandal the FBI code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

While popular mythology and conventional thinking tout America as a meritocracy where anyone can get ahead based on their hard work and talent, this scandal presents a very different picture. It reveals that admission to elite colleges in the U.S. is a stacked deck, rigged to benefit wealthy white students.

According to the New York Times, at 38 top-tier colleges including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, there are more students from the top 1% of families by income than there are from the bottom 60 percent. Both class and racial inequalities are reflected in which students are admitted to and graduate from our nation’s elite schools.

It is not a simple story; there are always exceptional students from low income families who get into elite colleges, but they are the exception to the rule. The larger pattern though is about class privilege and about how rich families are given preferential treatment or are able to game the system.

Rich people who are born into privilege already have a big edge in college admissions. Maybe it is stating the obvious but elite colleges have become extremely expensive. Even with some financial aid, just to be able to come up with a means to pay the cost at many colleges, let alone elite colleges, is daunting. The cost is too much for many prospective candidates. Having the means to pay full freight is no small thing since otherwise we are talking significant debt.

A close look at Operation Varsity Blues provides a window into the elite college admissions world. The FBI arrested 50 people, including some Hollywood stars and 13 college coaches. The gist of what was going on was very wealthy people paying a guy named Rick Singer, who billed himself as a college counseling consultant, big bucks to buy entrance into some of the most prestigious colleges.

Singer’s clients were paying him between $100,000 and $6.5 million based on a guarantee that he could get their child into an elite school. Most paid between $250,000 and $400,000. Singer had quite an array of schemes. While the allegations against Singer have yet to be proven, here are some of the alleged frauds.

Singer paid ringer stand-ins to take the ACT and SAT test. He bribed test proctors and arranged for them to correct wrong answers. He instructed parents to lie and say their children had learning disabilities. Then kids were given accommodations to take tests in individualized settings, sometimes over two days, with only a proctor present.

Singer also paid bribes to college sports coaches. He would get students designated as recruited athletes, even when they were not athletes. He and the parents would photoshop faces onto athletic bodies and would create fake athletic profiles. Singer made about $25 million from this business.

I thought the sharpest comment about the scandal that I have seen came from Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan.

“This scandal is just the extreme, the illegal extreme, but it’s a continuum with legacy admission, with Jared Kushner, with all these other thumbs on the scale that wealthy kids get that are legal.”

Dynarski described legacy admission as “affirmative action for people who’ve had a very privileged life”. She has written that legacies (children of graduates) at Harvard are accepted at five times the rate of non-legacies. That pattern likely holds true at other elite colleges.

A recent lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions revealed that the college maintained a secret list of applicants who are relatives of major donors. Students on the donor list have a 40% acceptance rate. Harvard accepts 4.6% of students who apply.

Legacy admission is really a form of bribery. Colleges see such students as revenue generators for their institution. If a student who is a legacy cannot be accepted, elite colleges may ask them to take a “gap year” and enter a year later. This is called “Z-listing”.

The fact of Z-listing came out in a recent affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard. For years Harvard denied the existence of Z-listing. Z-listing is, in fact, a preferential program for white, wealthy and well-connected students.

Even if you are not a legacy, if your parents can cough up a major donation, your chance of admission skyrockets; the larger the donation, the greater the certainty of admission. Consider Jared Kushner. Kushner’s father gave Harvard $2.5 million around the time of his admission to the college.

In his book, The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden quotes administrators at Kushner’s private high school, the Frisch School, in Paramus New Jersey.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen.Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted.”

The Kushner example represents a form of corruption that is deeply unfair to hard-working low and middle-income students with better grades and SAT scores. Money talks though and inferior students like Kushner bribe their way into Harvard. It is pay for play. Donations by wealthy parents, in effect, rob other students of their right to a fair shot at admission.

The corruption aside, the other advantages of wealth deserve mention. If you are rich enough, you will have coaches, tutors, test prep courses, opportunities to play more expensive and exclusive sports like water polo, squash, and golf and you will have social networking connections. Maybe you belong to the same country club and you get to socialize with alumni who can put in a good word for you. All those things are an edge in a competitive battle.

Private prep schools also have long-standing connections with the admissions offices of elite colleges that grease the path to admission. The great majority of public schools have none of that.

Another dimension of the separate college admission for the wealthy is how admission at a top-tier college catapults students into high-powered positions in the corporate world and finance. Part of the conceit is that they are the best and the brightest when the truth is they are instead the better connected and richest.

This scandal also points to how misplaced criticisms have been about affirmative action for minority students where there was an effort to remedy a historic injustice. The real and much more widespread affirmative action has been on behalf of wealthy white students. That has played out in front of our eyes for decades without drawing the scrutiny and criticism it deserved.

This story is about how the ruling class in America reproduces itself. Whether you call it the ruling class, the 1% or the power elite, this class of people has an enormous sense of entitlement. For some of them, it was too risky to chance admission to the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons. They had to buy it. Maintaining power and privilege is not only about the cash, it is also about opportunity-hoarding.

For the 99%, we need to recognize this aspect of an ongoing class struggle that we have been losing for decades. Understanding the continuing and accelerating inequality in our society today is just the first step to working for change so that fairness and equality for all will one day disrupt and destroy the prevalence of wealthy white privilege.

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Immigration Misconceptions – posted 3/9/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/17/2019

March 9, 2019 Leave a comment

The lawyer and activist, Bryan Stevenson, has written that there is a narrative war going on about American politics and history. He cites the example of slavery and the Civil War. Stevenson says that the North won the Civil War but the South won the narrative war. He says that the South was able to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that racial equality was not necessary.

The end result was another 100 years of white supremacy, mass lynchings and segregation. There was never any real accountability until the Civil Rights movement.

I think current debate about immigration reflects a new incarnation of the same narrative war Stevenson wrote about. To one side, the United States faces an invasion of illegal immigrants. This is certainly the view of President Trump and his Republican allies.

In this view, Latin America is sending its criminal element here. As Trump famously said, “They’re bringing drugs, crime and are rapists”. Trump has consistently talked about vicious crimes and murders committed by illegal immigrants. Trump has tried to ramp up fear that undocumented immigrants will murder Americans.

Last October, when the the migrant caravans headed north toward the United States, Trump described caravan members as “stone cold criminals” and “Middle Easterners”. It was a big part of his fear-based pitch to voters in the 2018 mid-term elections.

It needs to be said that everything about this view is wrong. It does not make sense of the most basic facts. The pattern of who is immigrating to the United States has changed dramatically. There are fewer male migrants in their 20’s and 30’s and many more families, women and children making the trek to our Southern border. A very large proportion are asylum seekers.

In the three Latin American countries – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – the so-called Northern Triangle, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the quality of life. The enormous growth of criminal gangs has made life there much less secure and more dangerous. Violence is widespread in the region. These countries are located between the main producers of cocaine – Columbia, Peru and Bolivia – and the main seller, Mexico. The United States remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

To understand why life in Central America has become so hellish, the geography matters. The Northern Triangle is right in the middle of the drug market, with drugs making their way north to the United States.

While the story is complicated, we in the United States bear responsibility for the dire economic conditions in the region. The wars in Central America that we funded left a devastated economic landscape. Sad to say but the gangs in Latin America may represent the best employment opportunity for young people since there are few options. The average citizen of the Northern Triangle countries gets no protection from the drug traffickers who have been running wild.

As the writer, Roberto Saviano has written, the Honduran migrant caravan from last October was the largest flight from drug trafficking in history.

Migrant caravan members were actually crime victims – not perpetrators. People joined together in a caravan for protection from the gangs and drug traffickers in their home countries. The five countries in Latin America – El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico and Guatemala have the biggest organized crime problem in the world.

When some Americans complain about why immigrants cannot come to the United States legally, they misunderstand the situation faced by the Latin American immigrants. Latin Americans are not joining caravans and coming here just for the better opportunities represented by life in the United States. People are facing dire existential threats from criminal gangs who have made life in their home countries intolerable and impossibly dangerous.

The view that immigrants trying to escape drug traffickers and gangs are criminals is a complete misreading of what is actually happening. Local police in Latin America are failing to offer protection for those threatened by violence. As many as 95% of crimes go unpunished.

In 2013, the Attorney General of Honduras, Luis Alberti Rubi, announced that law enforcement there had the manpower to investigate only about 20 percent of the nation’s murders. He was saying 80 percent of murders would go unpunished. Imagine if our attorney general made a similar announcement here. Such a declaration would be seen correctly as a confession of abject failure to protect the people.

Strong gang presence in Latin America has meant competition for territorial and economic control through extortion, kidnapping and the retail sale of drugs. Staying safe and avoiding being targeted in the midst of all these dangers is not easy. The criminal gangs have made violent threats and sexual assaults common.

When Latin Americans seek to come to the United. States, they are following in exactly the same tradition as earlier waves of immigrants to America. Our great grandfathers and grandmothers who came to America did not have visas and passports. They got the money together for boat fare and they came.

The concept of “legality” is relatively new. Between 1880 and World War I, almost 25 million Europeans immigrated to the United State. They were not standing in some mythological line of legality, waiting their turn. There were no illegal immigrants then because there was no law making immigration illegal for Europeans. That remained true until 1924.

The government excluded only 1% of the 25 million European immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island before World War I and that was mostly for health reasons.

Pinning the label “illegal” on immigrants trying to escape extreme violence themselves is a technique that criminalizes and allows Trump and his supporters to avoid any effort to understand actual circumstances. It also bypasses the legal issue of asylum and whether large numbers of the Latin American immigrants qualify under current law.

The zero tolerance policy toward asylum represented by the Trump Administration is inconsistent with our best traditions. During his tenure, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions dramatically narrowed the grounds allowed for asylum by opining that gang violence (and domestic violence) could no longer be a legitimate basis for a claim of persecution.

Sessions’ opinion could not come at a more harmful time for those trying to escape the gangs in their home countries. Sessions obscured the reality that denial of asylum may well mean return to places where the asylum seeker gets killed by the criminal gangs that they tried to escape.

Equally repellent is the view being promoted of immigrants who have made it into the United States. To quote President Trump in his January argument for the border wall:

“Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now.”

Contrary to the President’s assertions, the vast majority of research finds that immigrants are less likely to cause crime and they are also less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born peers. The desire to stay in the United States is a powerful incentive away from crime.

The negative fear-based view of immigrants often shows up in New Hampshire in any article that mentions Lawrence Ma. Usually, the only thing mentioned is drugs and drug deaths of hundreds of Granite Staters. As someone, who has worked in Lawrence daily for the last 8 years, I resent the unfair portrayal of the city. I wonder if those who trash the city have ever been there. Like other working class communities, Lawrence has many hard working people who are trying to get their piece of the American dream.

Focus on Lawrence as a drug den is extremely one-sided. New Hampshire is not the pure victim being harmed by immigrants from south of the border.

Immigration is a topic where partisans see what they want to see. Fear has been replacing understanding and the narrative war continues.

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