Breathing the same air

Last July, Eric Garner was killed by police who choked him as he repeated “I can’t breathe.” He cried out 11 times, but eventually succumbed.

We didn’t need yet another example of police killing a young, unarmed black man. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and way too many more reveal a pervasive inability of some individuals, and more importantly, of our entire legal system to recognize that we all breathe the same air.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program at first seems worlds away from the racism and social injustice of America’s cities. But it too reveals racism and social injustice. It too shows how those in power use that power to oppress even admittedly innocent people. Often, the “crime” was to have a different religion, to wear different clothes, to speak a language other than English, or to be poor. The parallels are disturbing, even without considering how a favored torture technique of the CIA was waterboarding–to deprive people of air.

In the commentary regarding both of these cases I’ve been struck with how little there is about the victims as living, breathing individuals. Those who rightly argue for legal due process for the police or agents involved, talk about mistakes the victims had made, but not about them as people. Some mainstream news coverage does point out a little, that Garner was considered to be an even-tempered, good-natured presence in his community. He was the neighborhood peacemaker. He had asthma and sore feet. And yes, he had run-ins with the police before. But as one neighbor said, “His last penny was your last penny.”  (see “Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case ‘gentle giant’“). Rapidly, however, the real “Eric Garner” vanishes from the discourse as a person and becomes just a term to signal a point of disagreement between factions that seem to have little ability to understand one another.

In the last chapter of her 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams writes about racism and corruption of a century ago, and the consequent need for political reform. Her examples draw on the glaring disparities in wealth of the Gilded Age, which are unfortunately being reproduced today.

Addams talks about the “honest absence of class consciousness” among the immigrants she worked with. That absence supported their faith in American democracy. They were taught ideals for “honorable dealing and careful living. They were told that the career of the self-made man was open to every American boy, if he worked hard and saved his money, improved his mind, and followed a steady ambition. [sic]”

Addams then recalls an anecdote from her childhood: “the village schoolmaster told his little flock, without any mitigating clauses, that Jay Gould had laid the foundation of his colossal fortune by always saving bits of string . . . as a result, every child in the village assiduously collected party-colored balls of twine.” In this way, children failed to learn that “the path which leads to riches and success, to civic prominence and honor, is the path of political corruption.” The end result was that every citizen participated in that corruption, even those who suffered from it. Her statement of this shared responsibility still holds today:

This is the penalty of a democracy,–that we are bound to move forward or retrograde together. None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.

The penalty that Addams describes is also the basis for making a democracy possible. Ethics cannot be limited to the individual virtues, such as honesty, courage, or duty, but must encompass social relations as well, the social ethics of her book’s title. That idea is expressed well in an essay she had written a few years earlier, called “A Modern Lear.” It’s about the railroad czar George Pullman:

Our thoughts . . .cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between. . .To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.

Addams knew that democracy was a hollow ideal without social ethics. So, it’s depressing to realize that the inequities of wealth, the racism, and the corruption of her day are still with us, and in some ways have become worse. Our social ethics appears piecemeal and ephemeral. At times the “mere impulse” seems nonexistent.

Can those who defend the CIA or the all-too-common official homicides imagine how they would feel if their own child, lover, or best friend were subjected to the same treatment? Could we instead see every person as a citizen who shares in a community of interests, regardless of race, religion, or official papers? What would it take to recognize the humanity in every one of us?

I’m reminded of the ending of “Salute to Life” by Pablo Casals:

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body–what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work–we all must work–to make this world worthy of its children.

The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

Parallel universes

The Sunday Doonesbury strip nailed the problem:

The 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the country combined!

So, in the midst of an economic crisis, how do our leaders (nearly every Republican and most of the Democrats, including the President) make use of this information?

They celebrate two things:

  1. Cut that “waste” in government, especially the bit going to spending on job training, education, food, housing, and healthcare for that no-good 150 million, and
  2. Absolutely, under no circumstances, allow any new taxes, especially on those 400 families, who provide so much for the rest of us.

There is an parallel universe, one with people just like us, an economic downturn, and people out of work. But there are two differences: People there believe that increased spending now is actually vital to get the economy going, put people to work, and in the long run actually reduce the deficit. (This by the way is the view of most economists, liberal or conservative in both of these universes.) So, point #1, austerity now, is considered an extremely dumb and ill-timed idea.

Second, those people think that the short-term deficit and the long-term debts are very real problems that need to be addressed intelligently and comprehensively. That means management of spending, but also fair contributions from all, including what middle class we have left and even those 400 families. They don’t believe that all of the economic sacrifice ought to fall on the bottom 50%. So, point #2, no new taxes ever, is also viewed as a wacky idea.

In that parallel universe, people would like to

  1. Get the economy going.
  2. Develop a thoughtful plan for revenues and spending, one that involves shared commitment from all.

Is that parallel universe possible?

Between the rich and the rest

Robert Reich has a good op-ed piece in The New York Times today, How to End the Great Recession. It’s a clear and convincing account of a major reason this recession resists all the usual remedies.

Reich asks how American families could manage to keep spending as if they were keeping pace with overall economic growth, and in turn fuel that  growth. There were three reasons: (1) more women joined the paid work force, (2) everyone put in more hours, and (3) families went deep into debt. The last was OK as long as home prices kept rising. But eventually the bubble burst, and there’s no reserve left to rebuild.

Now we’re left to deal with the underlying problem that we’ve avoided for decades. Even if nearly everyone was employed, the vast middle class still wouldn’t have enough money to buy what the economy is capable of producing.

But if the economy was growing, where did the money go?

Mostly to the top. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income.

Note that the 23.5% figure is the highest since just before the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

Some right-wing commentators have tried to equate social justice with communism. It is ironic that many in their audience see social justice as the final blow to their own economic survival, when in fact it is the lack of social justice that has put them in difficult straits.

In fact, social justice is the only thing that may save capitalism. Without it, even the top 1% will suffer, because their wealth can only be drawn from a healthy economy, and a healthy economy requires a more equitable distribution of wealth, through fair taxes (the US system enormously favors the wealthy), fair wages (real wages have been falling, except at the top), and improved social services, such as health care.

Stating it more broadly: How long can any political/economic system survive if it remains socially unjust?


On network neutrality

Today’s News From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Editor’s note: The proposed deal between Google and Verizon to create two tiers of service for Internet traffic has made waves throughout the technology and telecommunications industry. It also managed to rile network neutrality and privacy advocates, who see the proposed partnership in much starker terms, with some even going as far as calling the deal the end of the Internet as we know it.

Chip Bruce, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, was interviewed by News Bureau reporter Phil Ciciora about the Google-Verizon partnership and its impact on network neutrality.

What makes the proposed partnership between Google and Verizon so scary for consumers? Why should this give the average person pause?

Today, you can go online to see content offered by Google or Verizon, but also that of other large computer and communications companies, small businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations, and potentially any of the world’s 2 billion Internet users as well as content produced originally offline. Google says that this partnership won’t endanger that, but the loss of net neutrality is a first step away from open access to information and toward pre-packaged service.

Verizon wants to be able to serve its content faster or even in lieu of any of its competitors’ content. You’d be able to get news, music, videos and sports as always, but Google-Verizon could say which version you’d see. This immediately endangers free speech and the free flow of information, because private companies would essentially have the final say on what gets out. It also has implications for privacy of Internet use, since the providers will need to examine Internet content in order to control it.

There are also major risks for innovation on the Internet. Suppose that someone in a dorm or a garage devises a better way to deliver television and movies. If major providers control which information flows in what way, those young entrepreneurs may never get the chance to enter their idea into the marketplace.

Net neutrality advocates would argue that the increasing corporate control over the Internet essentially has privatized a service that was developed at public expense to serve public needs. Does that line of reasoning also hold for wireless networks?

Much of the basic technology for both wired and wireless systems has been developed at public expense to serve public needs. The communications corporations would argue that they’ve invested a huge amount on top of that, and in absolute dollar terms, they have.

But beyond any argument about who paid for what, we should remember why public funds have been used to support basic communications. The primary reason is the understanding that a viable democracy requires free and open communication among an educated public. In addition, an open system fosters economic development, cultural exchange, education and many other public goods.

Corporate control over the Internet offers no assurance that these public values will be served. In fact, by law, corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to serve their stockholders, not the public.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently has argued against the “sheer impracticality” of net neutrality on wireless networks. Is he correct?

There has never been nor will there ever be full and absolute net neutrality. Money and power speak in many ways to ensure, for example, that an ordinary person does not have the same access as a major multinational corporation does. With demand exceeding capacity, it may be difficult in the short run to maintain net neutrality on wireless networks. However, the bigger question is what policies we should strive to maintain. Do we want communications systems that afford the greatest possible freedom of access and use for all, or do we want a small set of closed systems, offering controlled and pre-packaged content?

It seems like corporations are increasingly setting the terms for the net neutrality debate. What should the FCC do to re-assert its jurisdiction and authority?

A key issue is whether we want to allow the major means for Internet access to become a set of packages of controlled information, like an individual book or magazine in print form. That’s what the loss of net neutrality could mean.

But I see the Internet as a communications system, and major communications companies as common carriers of those communications. As such, it’s crucial that they be required to deliver communications without tiers for special services, favoritism or control of content. In that sense, the Internet is more akin to the print publishing world, not to a single book.

This means that the FCC needs to “reclassify” broadband from being an information service to a telecommunications service, which would then require communications companies to ensure open use.

What would an Internet without net neutrality look like?

We don’t know for sure, and there are many reasons why – corporations may react in different ways, the public may acquiesce or rebel, and the technologies may change in radical ways we can’t foresee today.

It’s increasingly likely, however, that the Internet experience will become one defined by the specific service one purchases, whether that’s through Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, or some other company. Each corporation will seek to meet consumer needs, but in a way that maximizes its profit. For example, every service will offer movies, but the cost, terms of service, and so on, will be those of that provider. There will be a financial incentive to deprecate services that don’t generate revenue. What’s being sold is then a package of services, not general communication access.

The ordinary user will see some enticing new services, as each corporation tries to lure customers. But she or he will not find some content they find now, because it won’t support the business model. A recent example is Comcast’s undermining of net neutrality by shutting down peer-to-peer networking – in particular, BitTorrent. A U.S. Appeals Court ruling in April allowed that under the assumption of the Internet as information service.

And it’s not just cheap entertainment that will be lost. About the same time as the U.S. Appeals Court ruling, WikiLeaks released a classified U.S. military video showing the killing of more than a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news staffers. What guarantee do we have a profit-seeking corporation will provide open access to independent media?

Suppose you think BitTorrent and WikiLeaks are wrong. Do you want your Internet provider to decide what you can and cannot see? Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech and innovation, the big question is, “Who should decide Internet policy?”

Visit the News Bureau for more U. of I. news.

See also:

Network neutrality notes

Network neutrality means no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, or modes of communication. This includes neither blocking sites nor offering tiered service models. It can be viewed from the perspective of users wanted to access particular content, such as peer-to-peer sites for video or music, or from the perspective of producers seeking to deliver their content more effectively to users.

History. Concerns with telegraph: “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception. (Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860)

In 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the purpose “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States… A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”

The Internet developed out of public funded services, such as Arpanet, NSFnet, TCI/IP. Eventually centralized routing aspects were removed, allowing the free-wheeling Internet we use today. But in recent years, corporate control over key aspects of the Internet has grown, essentially privatizing a service developed at public expense to serve public needs.

Tiered service. Opponents of net neutrality see it as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Yet, Comcast, for example, “intentionally and secretly blocked access to lawful content on the Internet,” e.g.,  peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, such as BitTorrent. The FCC attempted to block that, but lost that authority after a US Court of Appeals decision on April 6, 2010.

Google may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.


  • Innovation: The Internet has been a striking incubator of new ideas, enterprises, products, services, and jobs. This is to a large extent based on its open practices.
  • Privacy: An Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require an additional level of monitoring, i.e., surveillance, so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged. (Cohen, 2010).
  • Free speech: The more service is based on the ability to pay, the less access will ordinary people have to the public forum. ISPs, with a legal responsibility to their shareholders alone, have no incentive to guarantee high quality access to all, and in fact, are legally bound not to do so. They could degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or did not support their political views.
  • Secrecy: In a Kafkaesque mode, there is no provision for corporations to reveal their selective control of content, including whom they target for preferential or degraded service, why they do so, or even whether or how much they have done. Nearly all major phone and cable companies have promised their shareholders that they plan to block or degrade the content and services of their competitors.
  • Access to information: The other side of free speech. Access suffers when what’s available is based on how much someone paid to put it there.

Who decides. Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech, innovation, etc., the big question is “Who should decide internet policy?”


Cohen, Noam (2010, August 15). Internet proposal from Google and Verizon raises fears for privacy. The New York Times.

Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.

US Court of Appeals (2010, April 6). Comcast Corp. v. Federal Communication Commission..

Priorities and values

Money reflects priorities, and priorities reflect values. Consider US Government expenditures to

Put another way:

The US government has in effect offered $3.80 for each of the 20 million people who’ve lost family members, food, clean water, homes, and livelihoods because of the floods. It’s spent 158 times that for military aid, much of which has not gone to fight terrorism, but to bolster a military dictatorship, to provide heavy weaponry that threatens India, and to benefit the US defense industry. It’s spent 4,276 times as much to fight a war that shows little prospect of winning hearts and minds, nor for ending terrorism.

(Of course, we may later spend more on flood relief; we could consider annual, rather than total costs; all of the numbers are contested estimates. But regardless of how you cut it, the differences are striking.)

Then we ask: Why don’t “they” love us and embrace our values?