Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The Malkin Event – a Debate on Profiling

Part I: The Malkin Event as Theater

Two nights in a row, now, I’ve enjoyed the advantage of living a fifteen-minute walk from the UC Berkeley campus. Last night I went up to hear Michelle Malkin talk. In case you don’t know who she is, she’s that Fox Network News darlin’ of the Right currently making a big splash by trying to convince us we ought to regard any and all folk with suspicion if they “look like an Arab or Muslim.” Moreover, says Malkin, we should stop apologizing for having “relocated” all those Japanese-Americans in World War II and recognize it was “the right thing to do.”

The cynic in me can’t help noticing that every one of the speakers I’ve heard in the last year was pushing a book. And it’s no secret you sell books in direct proportion to the splash you make. But hey, if Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh get so much mileage out of splash, who can blame her for playing this game? Besides, being nose-to-nose with impending impecunitude—my university puts me out to pasture in only eighteen months—I have a new-found respect for making a buck.

Standing in the hallway for half an hour outside Dwinelle 145 seemed excessive. Watching the nervousness on the faces of the well-scrubbed youngsters wearing yellow-ribbons on their suits darting in an about the exits made it obvious the crowd was being very carefully managed. They might have been Mormons, for all their clean-cut whiteboy appearance. They were young Republicans. I managed to get in; half the waiting crowd didn’t.

It turns out the front so many rows were reserved for the young Republicans. And except for a lone straggler here and there in what struck you as the colored section in the back of the auditorium (Japanese-Americans overwhelmed the back of the room) a picture of the event would show America’s current political polarization in stunning relief – with a racial twist to top off the point.

At regular intervals, the claque hooted and hollared their support; the rest of us sat in silence. At the end, the front folk were on their feet; the back glued to their seats.

When was the last time you went to a lecture at a university where all the exits were manned with gun-toting police officers? The book signing had to be cancelled “for security reasons” and the talk was hard to follow because of the din in the hallway, people banging on doors, chants of “shame…shame…shame” and the occasional pro-Palestinian appeal and Spartacus League insistance we dismantle all capitalist structures forthwith. Berkeley does Berkeley so well.

“How many people in this room would make a clean jury on this issue?” I wondered aloud to the Caucasian fellow next to me. He put up three fingers. “My guess is you’re over by two,” I said, and he agreed. He immediately set about chatting up the Japanese-Americans around us for their stories. “I was four when we went to the camps…,” “I grew up in Chicago and missed the camps, but I would have been a Californian….” A solid bank of folk who had strong views on the injustice of the wartime internment. They squirmed, they made faces, they tsk’ed, but mostly they sat in polite silence as Malkin ticked off the “documentation” that allegedly provides justification for the assumption of criminal intent on the part of 112,000 Japanese-Americans, and made the case Reagan was wrong to apologize and provide symbolic restitution.

It was very very hard to sit through this. Hard to listen to a defence of profiling. I am committed to listening to talk that sounds reasonable, even when it may turn out not to be. But it takes a toll.

I have very vivid memories of listening to Harvey Milk and Sally Gerhardt debating California Senator Briggs on the Briggs Initiative back in the 70s. Briggs was trying to keep gay people from being allowed to teach in the public schools. “Why,” Gerhardt asked him, “when child molesters are overwhelmingly heterosexual – and MEN, I might add – would you target gay men and women?” “If you take out the homosexual population, you cut down the odds,” was his answer.

It was one of those moments when I felt my body levitate. I swear it lifted me off the ground. Here we were faced with a man of considerable political power, demonstrating the intelligence of a lump of coal, the reasoning of a village idiot, and folk were shaking their heads and saying, “Well, I guess he’s got a point!”

I tell you this aside to show you where my attitude toward profiling comes from. It’s not just from my head; it’s from deep in my gut that there is something profoundly wrong with stopping ordinary black people without a pretext to check for guns and marijuana, assuming priests are child-molesters, and claiming Muslims “really are the ones to worry about here!” Another word for profiling is targeting. Profiling sounds less aggressive, more scientific somehow. But I challenge you to make a distinction.

Malkin’s talk was put forward as the pro argument in the debate on profiling, the argument in favor. If judged on those grounds, it was a complete flop. The young Republicans came out of it with a stronger conviction they had to stick together as an abused minority; the Japanese-Americans as greater cynics; the demonstrators who were shut out of the event convinced America is going fascist maybe even faster than they expected. Nobody came away the wiser.

Part II: The Profiling Debate

I agree with Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat when he says (September 8, 2004) there are certain topics one no longer needs to debate. I don’t want to listen to arguments that slavery was good for America, that the Holocaust never happened, that gay people should be stoned to death. These three examples have come to be defined as barbarisms in this day and age, and a prior commitment to democracy and human rights precludes debate on some things that come with the evolution of civilization. Nothing good comes of the violence of genocide and demonization, and there can’t possibly be a positive side to the denial of history.

But policy decisions should remain open to scrutiny long after they have come and gone, I think. We can’t deny that we do profile; the only question is when the injustice of profiling outweighs any possible advantages. I disagree with Danny Westneat when he says Michelle Malkin’s argument should not be debated—her argument that the policy that uprooted 112,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II was justified.

Westneat does have a case. He thinks Malkin should be shut down because

"… 39 historians and researchers, including faculty from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington, said Malkin's work is "distorted," "historically inaccurate" and "presents a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research."

But it strikes me that this rationale Westneat gives for not debating Malkin’s issue would better serve as a counter to her argument, once engaged, than as justification for shutting her down. Besides, there are simply too many voices on the right wanting to give her a hearing. If we don’t, we become the opponents of free speech. Not taking Malkin on only keeps stinking feet in tight shoes. This is a time to take the shoes off and wash the damn feet clean.

If you agree with me on this, the next step is to see how the two sides line up. The heart of the pro-profiling argument is its appeal to practical reality. One school of ethical thinking says “live by principles” and “do the right thing” and damn the consequences. Another one says “it’s the bottom line, the outcome, that counts.” For our purposes here, let me oversimplify (both are in fact moral/ethical arguments) and call the first of these the moral argument, the second one the practical argument.

I. The moral argument

“Greater good” arguments are not part of our political culture. That’s the kind of thing they do in China with their one-child policy. Affirmative Action is an exception to that pattern, and look at the trouble it has being accepted. Besides, with affirmative action, the focus is on building a minority up, not setting one aside. Those of us raised Christian were taught to think it’s wonderful that a shepherd would abandon his flock for one lost sheep, that a father would ignore a loyal son to reward a prodigal one. And our secular culture is largely an Enlightenment one; we favor the Kantian argument of living by principles and not by expediency. And if Christianity and principles-based ethics don’t do it for you, there’s always the U.S. Constitution and the Founders’ conviction that we should base our rules on the rights of individuals. We risk allowing guilty people to go free rather than let innocent ones be punished for crimes they did not commit. We favor equality of opportunity over equality of result, insisting it’s up to us as individuals what we do with that opportunity.

The counter to this is Malkin’s point, that we are in a life-and-death situation, and that such moral reasoning works only when there is no risk of massive destruction. OK, fine. Let’s concede that one and move on. If you have the moral courage to fall on your sword for truth, do so, and we will treasure your memory. I’m willing to consider the practical argument. It will at least put me on the same page as Malkin.

II. The practical argument

There is a time for profiling, and that is when we’re looking for a definite person. If we are chasing a known rapist, for example, and we know for sure he is 6 foot 4 and black, there is no reason to screen travellers getting on airplanes who are 5 foot 2, white, and female. And there is a reason for checking all black males over 6 feet.

But this logic does not extend to saying since the last rapist was black the next one will be also. Profiling to chase down a real person is justifiable; profiling to catch an individual we have put into a feared category is tripping over a logic error, the assumption that what might be, is.

There are two things wrong with this kind of profiling: first, it doesn’t work; second, it makes things worse.

When AIDS first hit Japan, the Japanese knew that most of those passing it on were white Americans. The response was to close down the gay bars and bathhouses to white patrons, regardless of their origins. What they were missing was that the people with the greatest familiarity with the problem, and the safe sex information to fight it, were also white Americans. And while they were keeping those people out, they were letting in Japanese who had travelled to America, contracted the diseases and were now passing it on to their fellow Japanese. Profiling was not only missing the source of the problem; it was creating a false sense of security and weakening the forces battling the disease. It was an approach both clumsy and dumb.

Examples abound. Lest you think profiling is confined to the U.S.A., consider the Tokyo police’s policy recently for dealing with an influx of Chinese gangsters. “If you see someone you suspect of being Chinese,” the posters said, “please phone the police.”

The local Chinese population and other savvy folk started a laughing campaign and the posters came down. (This would not have happened without activist involvement, however.)

But what about the question of efficiency? If you are policing an area that is half black and half white, and you know that 25% of the people who sell drugs in the area are black and only 2% are white, it doesn’t make sense to shake down equal numbers of blacks and whites. That is self-defeating political correctness and an ineffective squandering of resources.

Yes, but only if you don’t do your homework. Suppose now that the black people who live on Avenues A through J have the same profile as the whites who live on Avenues A through J. Should they still be included in the dragnet justified by the 25% figure? Our problem is our reliance on grossly constructed categories which we make because we lack the knowledge to fine-tune them. Police know if they want to find someone, they are more successful if they have help from inside the neighborhood or community they are looking at, and are almost certain to fail if they set all the police on one side and the entire city on the other. How is this different from profiling Muslims and Arabs?

Even Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge admits, “We don't have the luxury of kidding ourselves that there is an ethnic or racial or country profile." If we believe we’re on the track of the bad men on the basis of their headdress, the size of their noses or the kink in their hair, we’re only inviting some blonde to stuff her bra with explosives and makes us all look like idiots. Not to mention dead.

What led to the internment of Japanese-Americans was the knowledge gap between them and the ruling classes calling the shots at the time. The overwhelming number of Japanese-Americans were not remotely interested in helping the Japanese militarists from the country they, their parents and grandparents left behind conquer the country they knew as home. But white folk didn’t know that. They lived in separate worlds. Or, more precisely, the many who did live disconnected didn’t want to listen to those with cross-cultural ties.

The tragic irony was that if you wanted to know who was most likely to support Japan, you had people all around who might have informed you. Instead of using this knowledge – seeking common cause – we pushed them all into the enemy column. The astonishing thing is that even then so many Nissei and Sansei continued to hold on to their love of country, many even volunteering to die for it.

Malkin’s line of reasoning exposes a stunning example of failure to learn from history. Rather than rushing to close the knowledge gap, she’s falling into the kind of self-destructive panic that caused people to stop the teaching of German in high schools just when we needed more German speakers during the World Wars. When we might be harnassing the skills of Arabic- Farsi- Urdu-speaking Americans to teach the rest of us—as many as are interested, at least—all we can learn about the languages and cultures of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia—we are back into advocating roundups of funny-looking people.

To be fair, Malkin insists she’s not advocating roundups, merely profiling. Not displacement; merely inconvenience. But then why is her book a defence of the roundup of Japanese-Americans in World War II? Adding insult to injury, Malkin’s revision of American history calls this a smart idea. She takes pains to demonstrate it effectively isolated enemy agents. Reagan was wrong, she says, to apologize to these 112,000 Americans. We were right then, and except for the fact that Arab-Americans are scattered all over the country, making rounding them up impractical, there’s nothing in her argument to gainsay we’d be right to repeat the exercise.

Most conservatives, even religious ones, set themselves apart from the likes of Malkin and her retrograde campaign. Right after 9/11 an imam and a rabbi were invited to participate in the memorial service in National Cathedral beside Christian clergy. Possibly Malkin’s approach is right and we should have hauled the imam down to the interrogation room and pumped him for contacts instead.

I guess there is no way to know other than to look carefully at her data, and let the debate begin. The real debate, that is, the one that can begin after the dust has settled.

Part III: Beyond Debate

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at the demonstrators protesting Michelle Malkin’s appearance on the UC Berkeley campus the other night for “shutting down debate” or to question Malkin’s motives in pushing her book justifying the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II and complaining political correctness is preventing us from seeing the wisdom of profiling in the case of Muslims and Arabs today. People of good will draw back and for a whole host of good reasons allow that all sides should be given the benefit of the doubt here. Cynicism gets you nowhere.

But that is an ancillary issue and it misses the more important fact that a defense of the Japanese Relocation policy at any university campus – not just UC Berkeley – is waving a red flag in front of a bull. There is no shortage of people for whom this event is the central injustice in their lives, and coming to their side in this debate will strike a small but determined number of people as a moral obligation. To this core will inevitably be added other people, young and old, who are looking for a chance to engage in something consequential. In short, a protest is virtually guaranteed.

At first, I found myself in full agreement with the protestors at Malkin’s talk. Then, after sitting down and sizing up the complexity in the event, I changed my mind. It was confrontational as hell, but sometimes I know there is a value in getting people riled up. But after describing the event in terms of its splash, and after getting into the debate itself just a bit, I find myself dealing with a nagging feeling we still haven’t gotten the big picture.

I don’t know how long this has been true, but have you noticed how our public forums are almost useless in cutting through hardline ideological polarization? Instead of good faith discussions, town meetings with folk empowered to speak openly and freely, we now seem to have given ourselves over entirely to performances with cheerleaders. We seem to be unaware that presentations only set up a debate; they do not carry it out. Morever, presentations conducted under confrontational circumstances don’t even do that. Instead, they offer the opportunity for cheap shots at the “enemy’s” expense, and the feeling of having won a fight. It’s a world of winners and losers.

Maybe it’s television and other aspects of the popular culture. I know blaming popular culture is a chicken-and-egg business, but I don’t know where else to start. Consider the popularity of courtroom drama in film and on television. Since Perry Mason, we have been conditioned to watching hotshot lawyers shine in the courtroom, blasting away at opposition. Tom Cruise is David to Jack Nickelson’s Goliath. More recently, The Practice has driven it home that the Anglo-American courtroom is not about justice but about process—simply getting things dealt with.

Justice is a hoped for by-product, and it comes only when there is a level playing ground. And in recent years, as rich Americans have gotten richer and poor Americans poorer, we have less and less level ground. The O.J. Simpson trial brought home that it takes money to win this kind of contest, or at least those with a lot of money are more likely to win.

We learn the place of debate in a democracy chiefly from two primary sources: the legislative branch of government and the courtroom. But look at how the courtroom has been represented of late. Daytime TV is chock full of smartass judges who are into giving the fool of the day his comeuppance. We get to project our fear of failure onto some jerk who wants his fifteen minutes of fame and lacks the inhibition to reveal his limitations on the screen. “You on your best day” I happened to hear Judge Judy say to a plaintiff the other day “are not as smart as I am on my worst.”

As with TV News (I’m thinking of the Laci Peterson story), the courtroom is entertainment these days, and we hear a whole lot less about the wheels of justice and how policy can be reasonably arrived at than we do about how there is another monster/fool at loose in the land and how we have heros (Rambos, judges, U.S. presidents) to take them down. What we label “reality” television is in fact “winner and loser” television. TV in the days of Ozzie and Harriet used to be criticized for being so didactic. Nowadays the lesson to be learned is to make sure you’re on the winning side.

In establishing how we function in the larger world, especially in life and death situations like the battle against fundamentalist terrorists, we ought to be about getting it right, not about getting stuff through the pipeline or outshining our opponents. We ought to be looking for problem-solvers to lead us, not for People Magazine style heros and cowboys. We’ve gotten lazy. We don’t want to wait for the time it takes to reach a consensus; we want a slash-and-burn hero who keeps it simple.

The Malkin event put things into a three-step perspective for me.
Step 1: Set up the issue;
Step 2: Debate the issue;
Step 3: Move beyond debate to conflict resolution through consensus.

Because we seem stuck in entertainment mode, we can’t get past Step 1. Proof of that is all the voices calling for more and better debate. We’re blind to the fact that if we got what we wanted, it still wouldn’t be enough. We’d still need to diffuse the conflict situations that now control our lives. Unless we can stop demanding nothing more than entertainment, that’s not in the cards, unfortunately.

Where we need to go, ultimately, is into a state of mind that will make us see the need for conflict resolution. How do we get there when we seem to be having so much trouble just getting from hollaring to reasoned debate? From even distinguishing between the two! I don’t have the answer to that except that when we see it happening we should do all we can to support its efforts, to raise kids with the skill, to spend less time ourselves on it than we do on other things.

The next question, of course, is if it is conflict resolution, and not debate, that we should be pursuing, how do we go about it? How does an out and out advocate of women’s rights, free speech, separation of church and state talk to people blindly committed to replacing modern democracy with a 14th Century style theocracy? The camps are too far apart. The only solution I see is to find go-betweens. People who inhabit the area between the two camps. The kind of people Malkin wants to profile.

A common tactic used by those who work in conflict resolution is to immediately seek out common ground, to find a place which both sides have a vested interest in protecting and maintaining. Richard Clarke’s complaint against Bush is that, while the current administration claims to be seeking common ground with the world’s Muslims, policies on the ground actually mirror his “us and them…for us or against us” rhetoric which punishes innocent Muslims and polarizes them on the other side. Black and white bully policies always lose the hearts and minds of potential friends.

The level of discourse has sunk badly in recent times. There are two common explanations for this. Those with a philosophical bent explain it in terms of a vulgarization of the postmodern zeitgeist which decrees there is no objective truth and reason is only one of many methodologies. If you buy that, you can plough ahead in good faith that the way you see things is as valid as the way anybody else sees things. In the American context, TV audiences get to watch an endless array of reality television in which experts claim to be dealing with problems, while the “reality” is the fool of the hour gets shot down and we get to celebrate the fact we are not the fool of the hour. That’s not blaming TV for our problems; it’s suggesting there is an aching for black and white clarity in the American psyche that ranges across a broad spectrum from reality TV to fundamentalist religion to the support of a president who can “kick butt” over a wuss who uses franco-feminine words like nuance.

Malkin’s claim to be furthering debate on profiling makes her sound virtuous. I’ve implied she may not really be interested in debate, but even if I’m wrong, even if she is, we may both be barking up the wrong tree. Truly hot issues sometimes only get hotter with debate.

Euthanasia, for example. When the Catholic Church and others take a stand against it on principle, we feel we have to line up for or against. People on the front line, however, quietly pull the plug with the family’s consent and dignity is maintained. An occasional “closer look” into the luggage of Arabs with beards and wearing thobes, if done without fanfare and with an attitude suggesting the person being searched is innocent and worthy of respect, will not fall under the rubric of injustice. Such respect need not be phoney; one only needs to be reminded that the Saudis involved in the 9/11 attacks were not wearing traditional Saudi dress and that most who do are not killers. In most cases, a bit more surveillance here and there will not alienate members of a group with whom the goal desperately needs to the quest for common cause.

To sum this up, I think the best approach is probably what I call following the path of perversity. Never be satisfied. When you don’t have civil discourse, demand civil discourse. When you have civil discourse that falls short of debate, demand debate. When you have debate, insist on going beyond debate to compromise, consensus making and the search for common ground.

Then, of course, you can always run around looking for trouble by fanning the flames of difference and stirring things up so you don’t get too complacent.

There’s always stuff to do.