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“Our Collective American Blind Spot”: To Teach Only ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is To Ignore Half The Country’s Story

In late July, the College Board, the administrators of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, issued new guidelines for teaching AP United States history. One change was to add a section on “American exceptionalism,” a concept as old as the country itself that the United States is qualitatively different – and, arguably, better – than other nations.

While “exceptionalism,” at its best, nurtures civic pride, at its worst, it blinds Americans to the country’s long history of remarkably unexceptional ideas and actions. What George Santayana so neatly encapsulated over a century ago remains painfully true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As a historian and tour guide, I often see this collective American blind spot on display as I lead walks of historic New York City. On Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, a quaint carving of a witch on a broomstick is a jumping off point for discussing the deep anti-Irish sentiment in the city following the influx of immigrants after the 1845 potato famine. Political cartoonists like Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes and Catholic bishops as monsters; “No Irish Need Apply” signs appeared in shop windows.

As I tell these stories, I can see the anger grow in some of my listeners. One woman flat-out told me to stop talking. “You can’t say that,” she admonished. “It’s not true.” I clarified that these were not my opinions, but those of many Protestant New Yorkers a century and a half ago. “No,” she repeated. She did not want to know about an America where such things were possible – which, of course, meant she didn’t want to confront the idea that she might still live in such a place.

Similarly, in Chinatown one day, my explanation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively banned Chinese immigration for six decades, led one visitor to launch into a tirade about America’s porous borders. I shook my head – not at his critique, which had some valid points – but at his inability to connect the country’s history with his own past. You see, he was Chinese American. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been an affront to his heritage; current immigrants were an affront to his political and economic ideals. He saw no link between the two.

In revising their standards, the College Board is hoping to bridge this gap between the nation’s history and students’ contemporary experiences by providing “sufficient time to immerse students in the major ideas, events, people and documents of US history,” where before “they were instead required to race through topics.” The revisions were also a reaction to conservative input on the AP curricula revision process – beginning in 2012, there had been a groundswell of conservative criticism against the proposed standards, which the Republican National Committee argued “emphasize[d] negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The College Board sought input from teachers, historians and parents to shape teaching guidelines that present a “clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history.”

Unfortunately, the new standards have also softened the language about the country’s most shameful episode: its 244-year history of slavery. As recent “heritage not hate” rallies centered on the Confederate battle flag illustrate, there is perhaps no greater myth in America today than the idea that the Civil War was predominantly about states’ rights. Well, it was about one right: the right to own Africans as chattel.

In Texas, new textbooks minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, despite the fact that the state’s own “Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union” explicitly stated that the Confederacy was “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity” and that “the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free….” Gone from the state’s new books are mentions of Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the “you can’t say that” woman in Central Park writ large. This is especially troubling since Texas’s large population means that its curricular standards influence textbook buying in other states.

America is, in fact, an exceptional place. Founded by groups as diverse as indigenous Native Americans, Dutch merchants, English separatists, Spanish missionaries, French frontiersman and Africans – both free and enslaved – the country’s diversity stretches back four centuries. Each of these groups, and the many immigrants who followed them, brought strengths, and weaknesses, with them. We are right to celebrate the strengths, but if we don’t shine a light on the weaknesses, we are ignoring at least half the story.

 

By: James Nevius, The Guardian, August 3, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, American History, The College Board | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Erick Erickson’s Abortion Barbie Game”: Coat Hangers, Pink Shoes, Blond Hair, And Skirt Suits

Who, or what, is Abortion Barbie? That is the name that Erick Erickson, of redstate.com, wants to attach to Wendy Davis, the Texas State Senator who filibustered a bill that restricted abortion rights in her state. The bill ultimately passed, and will have the effect of putting many women in Texas hundreds of miles away from safe, legal clinics where they can end a pregnancy. “It sums her up perfectly,” Erickson said:

All the nation knows about Wendy Davis is that she is ignorant of the horrors of Kermit Gosnell, wears pink shoes, and filibustered legislation to save the innocent in Texas.

And he tweeted:

It is a bit embarrassing that Abortion Barbie doesn’t even have her facts straight on Kermit Gosnell considering abortion is her issue.

Kermit Gosnell was the doctor convicted on murder charges after running an unsafe, illegal operation. Davis had answered a question about him and, after saying that she didn’t know much about the case, had gotten a fact about it wrong. (It had to do with whether Gosnell’s clinic was licensed as an ambulatory-surgical center.) Davis, who has a degree from Harvard Law School, rightly pointed out its disconnect from the Texas bill. She wears pink shoes, and has blond hair, and dresses in skirt suits; Erickson illustrates his blog post with a photo of Davis in a well-tailored pink one. If you are a woman who supports abortion rights and do not fit Erickson’s idea of what such a woman should look like—dreary, presumably—he will find a caricature for you: a silly girl who wore the wrong outfit, the one a man didn’t want to see her in. And then, when people get angry, you can say that your original stereotype was correct: feminists are humorless, girls don’t get jokes.

For Erickson, the subject of abortion rights, and the way that women act as if their life and health depend on it, is a rich mine for humor. The Barbie tweet was actually an encore. After the Texas bill passed, he tweeted, “Dear liberals, go bookmark this site now,” and linked to a store that sold coat hangers. Coat hangers were what some women used in the pre-Roe era, when they were desperate to end a pregnancy, risking their lives. For that reason, they have become a symbol; some of Davis’s supporters carried them. Erickson, in a non-apology “to the kid killing caucus” for the hanger tweet, wrote, “I was mocking you and your outrageous hyperbole and lies.” Women’s deaths are hyperbole only if you don’t value their lives. As for “lies,” even Erickson acknowledges that women died from illegal abortions back then; he says it was just a few dozen a year. And what’s that to him?

Erickson is a provocateur, but he is also a reasonably influential voice within the Republican Party. He makes connections and delivers rhetorical relief. (Confused by Wendy Davis? Here’s how to put her down.) His jokes are not funny both because they are not funny and because the Republican Party is, at the moment, very serious about dismantling abortion rights in state legislatures across the country. Some reduce the amount of time in which a woman is permitted to have an abortion (to twenty weeks after conception, in the case of the Texas bill) or find ways to make it hard for clinics to stay open. (Jeffrey Toobin wrote about this recently.)

Still, what Erickson appears to find most ridiculous is that women are so earnest and think that their stories and dilemmas are relevant to this debate. He ultimately deleted the hanger tweet, in deference, he said, to the hanger supplier. On Wednesday, after an angry response to his Barbie talk, he tweeted, “Think of the accessories Abortion Barbie has with her pink sneakers.”

Erickson’s other response is that if liberals get to call Sarah Palin Caribou Barbie (Maureen Dowd did), then they can’t complain. This assumes a parallel between “Caribou” and “Abortion,” which is hard to see. Abortion, despite what Erickson may think, is not a guise or a fashion, a destination like Malibu or an aspiration like astronaut. If it is a shorthand for anything, it is for what can be the hardest moment in an woman’s life. Perhaps he is used to treating all of this as a political game, making paper airplanes out of court decisions, but reproductive rights are not childish things.

“Barbie” is an insult when it is used as a stand-in for “stupid”—for an unserious mannequin, a professional impostor. Perhaps that’s what has to end, because all of this is very unfair to Barbie (whom I’ve defended before). Barbie was introduced in 1959, when women’s choices, and hers, were far more constrained. In 1961, she did get to be Registered Nurse Barbie. Surgeon Barbie was introduced in 1973—the same year the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. In Erickson’s original equation, ignorance plus pink shoes equalled Barbie. But she is only dumb if you think that in taking on profession after profession she was borrowing someone else’s clothes. And Barbie would never do that.

 

By: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, August 7, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | Abortion Barbie, Erick Erickson, Reproductive Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ultimately, Fox News Gotta Be Fox News”: Let’s Not Get Carried Away With The Megyn Kelly Lovefest

I agree that at least some of this praise was justified—it may not be hard to get Donald Trump to whine, but Kelly was really onto something. Early on in the debate, I was struck by questions that were indeed tougher and more substantive than one would be likely to see from less consciously ideological media outlets. And I agree that Kelly deserves credit for addressing Donald Trump’s history of egregiously sexist comments (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”)

Even better was the question Kelly asked Walker about his abortion policies. You might expect Fox News moderators to allow Republican candidates to sidestep their least popular views on the subject. To her credit, Kelly asked Walker to defend his position that bans on abortion should not even contain exemptions for the life of the mother—making the laws even more restrictive than they were in most states before Roe v. Wade—observing that Walker’s position was opposed by 83 percent of the public.

Given that the abortion debate is so often conducted on terrain Republicans would prefer, and not just on Fox News, this question was a welcome surprise and yielded important information about one of the Republican frontrunners, who confirmed his radical views.

But before we get carried away praising Kelly and the other moderators, we should keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, even if Kelly is a good journalist and asked some good questions last night, she has some views that are nutty enough that Trump would sign for them. In particular, she has expressed consistently bizarre and retrograde views on race: obsessing over the utterly irrelevant New Black Panthers as if Richard Nixon was still in the White House, defending the racist emails sent by police officers in Ferguson as normal, and insisting that the fictional Santa Claus “just is” white. Not to mention her willfully misleading attacks on Black Lives Matter.

Granted, the personal politics of the moderators don’t matter if the questions are fair. But even on this score Fox News has been overpraised. It’s certainly true that some of the candidates were asked tough questions—Trump, most notably, but also other candidates like Walker and Ben Carson. But consider the kind of questions that were given to Florida senator Marco Rubio:

WALLACE: All right, well, Senator Rubio, let me see if I can do better with you. Is it as simple as our leaders are stupid, their leaders are smart, and all of these illegals coming over are criminals?

WALLACE: Senator Rubio, when Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for presidency, he said this: “There’s no passing off responsibility when you’re a governor, no blending into the legislative crowd.”

Could you please address Governor Bush across the stage here, and explain to him why you, someone who has never held executive office, are better prepared to be president than he is, a man who you say did a great job running your state of Florida for eight years.

BAIER: Senator Rubio, why is Governor Bush wrong on Common Core?

WALLACE: Senator Rubio, more than 3,000 people sent us questions about the economy and jobs on Facebook. And here is a video question from Tania Cioloko from Philadelphia. Here she is. (begins video clip) “Please describe one action you would do to make the economic environment more favorable for small businesses and entrepreneurs and anyone dreaming of opening their own business.”

KELLY: Senator Rubio, I want to ask you the same question. But I do want to mention, a woman just came here to the stage and asked, what about the veterans? I want to hear more about what these candidates are going to do for our nation’s veterans. So I put the question to you about God and the veterans, which you may find to be related.

Rubio wasn’t so much thrown softballs as he was given softballs set up on a tee with 10 strikes and the defensive team told to leave the field. (When Kelly asked the last question, I expected her to ask Rubio his position on motherhood and apple pie too.)

The questioning, in other words, was much less fair than it might have seemed on the surface. Donald Trump, who isn’t going to win the nomination but has a toxic effect on the party as long as he’s in the race, was treated to a brutal inquisition. Rubio, who is arguably the most appealing general election candidate in the field but whose campaign is floundering, was thrown one life preserver after another. John Kasich and Jeb Bush were also treated more gently than the other candidates.

In other words, as Ed Kilgore noticed last night, the candidates who Republican elites would most like to see get traction were given much easier questions than the candidates Republican elites would prefer pack up and go away. Ultimately, Fox News gotta be Fox News.

 

By: Scott Lemieux, U. S. Contributing Opinion Writer, The Guardian; Talking Points Memo, August 7, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Fox News, GOP Primary Debates | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The First Republican Debate”: The Trump Show, The Kasich Dissent And Everybody Else

I saw three shows tonight during Fox News’ Republican debate: The Trump Show, The Kasich Dissent, and Everybody Else. Among those in that last category, Jeb Bush had a good night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his moments, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won more friends.

Although he occasionally disappeared from view, Donald Trump was the central figure, particularly during the first hour. I can’t do any better on Trump than MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt, who tweeted: “Everyone was asking, which Trump would show up? There is only one, and he showed up to play.”

Yes, he did. From the very first moment of the debate, when he refused to rule out a third party run, to his defense of what we’ll call boorish comments about women to his reprise of his position on immigration, it was the same Trump who has risen to the top of the GOP polls.

There are moments that could hurt him. Certainly some Republicans will resent his refusal to pledge his support for the party’s nominee (unless, of course, it is he). In answering Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on women’s issues and his past comments on women, Trump’s in-your-face reply — “I’ve been very nice to you although I could probably not be based on the way you have treated me” – no doubt went badly with some viewers, particularly women.

But Trump has been entirely immune from the usual laws of politics, so it’s possible that his supporters will just keep cheering his violation of all the political conventions and his insistence on being himself. Fox itself and conservative talk radio hosts, with their power to influence Republicans, could influence how the faithful view these and other choice Donald moments.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, playing on his home turf in Cleveland, stood out as decidedly different from all his foes. He was “compassionate conservatism” come back to life. A Republican who not only accepted the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but actually fought for it, Kasich didn’t back away. Instead, he offered a passionate and spirited defense of the program and a description of the good it does. Praising Medicaid is something that’s just not done at GOP events.

Medicaid money, he said, allowed the state to treat the mentally ill in prisons and those addicted to drugs. “The working poor, instead of having them come into the emergency rooms where it costs more where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet,” he said. “And you know what, everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”

Kasich also gave an empathetic answer when asked about gay marriage and proposed that Republicans reach out to racial minorities and others who have not felt much welcomed by the party lately.

This may not play with significant parts of the GOP primary electorate, but on Thursday night, Kasich established himself as a unique and important voice.

Among the rest, judgments are necessarily subjective, but I thought Jeb Bush, who was threatening to turn into a gaffe machine, was forceful and clear. He did what others on the stage shied away from doing, criticizing Trump’s divisiveness. Trump did not hit him back, a kind of victory for Bush. The former Florida governor showed real passion in sticking by his support for Common Core education standards.

Chris Christie has not loomed large in the post-debate analysis I have seen so far, but he made his presence felt which, given his low standing in the polls, was essential to his soldiering on. The toughest interchange of the night came not, as many expected, with Trump, but between Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over government meta-data collection.

Rubio was fluent and smooth. If there is a sub-contest going on among Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rubio was Thursday’s winner. Cruz’s unabashed right-wing oppositionism may yet work for him if Trump collapses. For now, Trump is taking up space Cruz needs to occupy.

The day’s other winner, in an earlier debate involving the candidates who didn’t make the main stage, was Carly Fiorina. Her over-the-top attacks on Hillary Clinton play very well among Republicans, and she seemed informed and in control.

The underlying premises of the debate were so deeply conservative that I doubt any Democrats who watched were tempted to jump ship, and I am not sure how many middle-of-the-road voters were drawn the Republicans’ way, except by Kasich and possibly by Rubio. The debate was held on the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This never came up. I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 7, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Primary Debates, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Not Just Bad Cops; Prosecutors Run Wild”: The Ones Who Lie And Cheat To Win At Any Cost

One year ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer. Since then, the nation has debated the justice system more feverishly than any other period in recent memory. Most of the scrutiny has rightly fallen upon the police, which is where the justice system meets the people viscerally and sometimes fatally. Cops only have the power to arrest, though; the power to prosecute and put millions of Americans in prison—and more than a few to death—rests with prosecutors.

And too many are abusing that power.

Suppressing evidence, coddling informants, even outright lying are some of the instances of prosecutorial misconduct that sent away nearly half the 1,621 people convicted for crimes they didn’t commit since 1989, according to the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations. These are only the cases we know about, and they are surely only a fraction of the wrongly convicted. Even so, the figure is stunning—especially when you consider that 115 of them were people condemned to die.

The punishment for bad prosecutorial misconduct is virtually nil. In a 2011 report on 707 such cases, only six prosecutors were disciplined. Almost all still have their licenses, and are still practicing law.

Almost nothing is being done to systematically fix prosecutorial misconduct despite multiple avenues available for reform and bipartisan agreement that there’s an epidemic on our hands. But, let’s face it, convicted criminals (even wrongfully convicted ones) don’t play well at the polls.

Over the next several weeks, The Daily Beast will dive into this blight on the judicial system. We’ll look at how money, race, and politics distort the judicial system, and incentivize even decent attorneys to misbehave. We’ll talk with some of the leading critics of the system, liberal and conservative. And we’ll hear some of the most appalling tales of prosecutors run amok—in many cases, involving attorneys still on the job, unsanctioned and undeterred.

The prosecutorial role is an unusual one in the American judicial system. Usually, attorneys have one client, and their responsibility is to advocate solely for that client’s interests. Prosecutors, however, have a dual responsibility. On the one hand, they are the government’s lawyers, charged with making the state’s best case against the accused. On the other hand, prosecutors are also part of the judicial system, and they are meant not simply to secure convictions, but to pursue justice.

At times, those two obligations conflict. When a prosecutor discovers potentially exculpatory evidence, he or she must disclose it—as confirmed by the Supreme Court in the 1963 Brady decision. No civil lawyer would do this; nor would any criminal defense lawyer. But prosecutors are uniquely cast in the dual roles of advocates and what some have called “ministers of justice.”

In theory, anyway. In practice, numerous factors cause many prosecutors to tilt toward convictions. Perhaps the best known recent example is the corruption trial of former Senator Ted Stevens, which resulted in his conviction, and in which the government was later found to have withheld exculpatory evidence. By that time it was too late for Stevens, who had already died.

America is the only country in the world in which many prosecutors are elected—and many of them run as being “tough on crime.” The disciplinary commission that sanctioned Durham County, North Carolina District Attorney Michael Nifong—prosecutor of the Duke lacross team on false rape charges—noted his upcoming primary election as a motivating factor for his misconduct. The pressure to produce wins has led to a “win-at-all-costs” mentality in some offices, especially when voters reward such behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, prosecutors are granted immunity for most kinds of misconduct. It’s easy to see the reasons for this policy: otherwise, every well-heeled convict would sue, clogging the system and making it impossible for prosecutors to do their jobs. At the same time, that immunity is so absolute that prosecutors simply get off scot-free, even when misconduct is established. Even worse, most states lack any meaningful oversight of prosecutors: no commissions, no review boards, nothing.

Then there’s race. Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors are white, and two-thirds of the states that elect prosecutors have no black ones. Yet 40 percent of the incarcerated population is black and one in three black men will have spent time in prison. How is the justice system supposed to be seen as fair when this crucial element of it is almost exclusively run by white people?

Despite the racial divide, the response to prosecutorial misconduct and overzealousness has been striking in its bipartisan nature.

In some ways, the issue of prosecutorial misconduct is an ideal opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together. Republicans wary of overzealous state action become concerned “when district attorneys attack,” to quote the National Review. Conservatives also place a high value on public trust in the justice system, and are thus keen to root out bad prosecutors who may undermine it.

Judge Alex Kozinski, no bleeding heart liberal, recently called the problem an “epidemic,” excoriated a California prosecutor for trying to maintain a conviction (in probably the only appellate court recording to qualify as “viral” on YouTube), and proposed a host of major reforms.

Liberals, meanwhile, may see overzealous prosecutors not as anomalies within an otherwise just system, but as examples of an inherently unjustice system doing little to protect the vulnerable, especially people of color. Liberals tend to value fairness and compassion over the strong administration of justice, even when some guilty people may go free as a result. Thus they, too, are wary of prosecutorial misconduct, albeit for very different reasons from conservatives.

It’s odd, then, that so little has been done. For example, efforts to create an oversight commission in New York have failed two years in a row, and there is nothing on the congressional agenda.

That’s not for lack of proposed reforms, which The Daily Beast will explore in detail in the coming weeks. These include proposals to:

– Create oversight boards, like those that already exist for judges, to monitor, censure, and report misconduct;

– Allow the wrongly convicted to sue for monetary relief—including from the prosecutor’s office, if misconduct is established;

– Reduce prosecutorial immunity to a qualified, rather than absolute, form. In particular, open prosecutors to be tried for perjury if they have lied under oath;

– Eliminate the election of prosecutors, which distorts the incentives they face;

– Expand Brady requirements with model rules which states could adopt as they see fit. These could include an “open file rule,” in which all information about a case must be shared with defense counsel; and

– Investigate the racial disparity among prosecutors and treat it as a civil rights issue.

Perhaps the time for such reform is, at last, at hand. The seemingly unlimited use of police violence against people of color, and the failure of prosecutors to take action against it, has led to a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system at large—one amplified by the racial disparities within that very system.

Is it possible that the left’s concern with racial justice, and the right’s concern with law and order, might converge in this area where reform is so desperately needed? Will there be progress at last?

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, August 8, 2015

August 9, 2015 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Police Abuse, Prosecutorial Misconduct | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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