July 28, 2006

Race and Politics in Dixie

A few blocks from the heart of downtown Memphis sits the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the city's treasures. Situated at the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, the Museum offers visitors the opportunity to relive civil rights history, including the chance to watch Dr. King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech in its entirety.

Exiting the Museum this election season, Memphians are being reminded both of the progress that has been made and of how far remains to go to fulfill Dr. King's dream, as two candidates from Memphis – one black and one white – seek to prove that race is no longer a bar to winning elections, even in the South.

Tennessee's ninth congressional district, of which Memphis is the majority, has been represented in Congress by an African American since 1975. This fall, the incumbent, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., is pursuing a seat in the U.S. Senate, leaving a slew of candidates – 20 in all – vying to replace him. Among them is state senator Steve Cohen, who stands out from the pack based simply on the fact that of the presumed frontrunners in next week's Democratic primary (from which the likely general election winner will come) Cohen is the only one who is white.

During the campaign, few rivals have questioned Cohen's qualifications or commitment to the constituents of the district. Instead, as recounted in this newspaper, several have explicitly or implicitly suggested that Cohen is unfit for the seat simply on the basis of his race. Often, such quips are prefaced with qualified praise like "Steve's a good guy, but…" The unspoken yet well understood "but" is that the ninth district, which is 60% African American, should not send a white representative to Congress, no matter how qualified. One candidate even sent an email to supporters laying out what he sees as the dire stakes, threatening that "For the first time in 30 years Memphis could be without African American representation."

Such efforts to make race a qualification (or disqualification) for office appeal to the basest instinct of American politics – the instinct to make important decisions based solely on race. Playing the race card in this way, these candidates seek to simplify an important and complex congressional race into, literally, a black and white choice.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ford, the man vacating the ninth district seat, is attempting to break a color line of his own as he seeks to become Tennessee's first African American Senator. In a state that is 80% white, there has been remarkably little talk about Ford's skin color as a potential disadvantage for him. There have certainly been no ominous "Tennessee might be without a white Senator" emails from Ford's opponents. Such tactics would be roundly – and rightfully – denounced, with the loudest denunciations coming from some of the same people pleading against electing Mr. Cohen on the basis of his skin color. And while it would be naïve to believe that the color of Ford's skin does not affect the way some individual voters think of him, it has been refreshing to see a campaign by an African American for statewide office in the ex-Confederacy that is not focused on race. Regardless of whether Ford wins in November, that is progress.

The candidacies of Rep. Ford and Mr. Cohen offer 21st-century illustrations of the centuries-old intersection of race and politics in America, an intersection whose continued relevance was affirmed by this month's reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The opposition to Cohen based on skin color rests on the assumption, despite Cohen's two-decade long record to the contrary, that a white person cannot effectively represent African American interests, and it comes even as Ford simultaneously seems to be disproving the converse assumption: that an African American cannot represent a majority white state.

Both Ford and Cohen – as well as several of Cohen's opponents – are distinguished and qualified candidates. Both have sought to rise above divisive racial politics by asking voters to judge them by their record rather than their race, or, stated more eloquently, by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. This is what they and the citizens they seek to represent deserve and exactly what Dr. King dreamt of more than forty years ago.

July 21, 2006

A Genocide By Any Other Name

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, officials in the Clinton administration went to great lengths to avoid calling the unfolding tragedy “genocide.” Rather, they chose the term “acts of genocide” apparently in order to avoid any legal obligation under the 1948 Genocide Convention to take action to stop any activity deemed “genocide.” When asked how many acts of genocide it takes to make genocide, a State Department spokeswoman answered meekly, “I’m just not in a position to answer that question.” The semantic effort was largely successful as the Clinton administration did virtually nothing to stop the murder of 800,000 Rwandans.

Human rights scholars took from this experience the lesson that language mattered – because the Clinton administration was so intent on not saying “genocide,” the scholars concluded that had the word been uttered, action would have followed.

The wisdom of that lesson has been put to the test as another tragedy unfolds in Africa, this time in Sudan. Applying the Rwanda lesson, activists pushed strenuously for the Bush administration to classify as genocide the killing and looting of African tribes in Darfur by government-backed militias. On July 22, 2004, the U.S. Congress declared that genocide was occurring in Darfur. Two months later, the Bush administration agreed, as Secretary of State Colin Powell declared “genocide has been committed….and genocide may still be occurring.” The human rights community celebrated these declarations with the hopes that significant action would follow.

Two years have now passed since the congressional declaration and although the Bush administration has taken action, far more action than did Clinton in Rwanda, dreadful and dangerous conditions persist in Darfur.

The top United Nations enjoy to Darfur, Jan Pronck, recently observed that two months after a May 5 peace agreement among many of the parties involved, the situation is bad as it had been two months before the agreement. The UN has had to halt humanitarian assistance in some parts of Darfur because aid workers have been killed, and the violence is spilling into neighboring Chad. The implementation of the peace agreement has been generally nonexistent and the African Union force deployed in the region is set to run out of funding this fall, leaving a several month gap before UN forces take over no earlier than January 2007.

In short, the experience of Darfur has proven the limitations of the lesson of Rwanda that language matters. (Apparently, the UN did not get this memo as they have resisted declaring Darfur a “genocide,” instead asserting in Clinton-esque fashion “in some instances individuals may commit acts with genocidal intent.” This statement, of course, begs the question – how many acts with genocidal intent make genocide?) Further, the failure of states to take action to stop what has been labeled “genocide” reinforces the fundamental weakness of all voluntary international agreements, such as the Genocide Convention – enforcement. Unless there are consequences for failing to abide by a legal obligation to act under the Genocide Convention, tempered action like that taken in Darfur is the likely outcome.

Not that the Bush administration’s declaration of “genocide” didn’t matter. To be sure, it represented a turning point in American engagement on the issue and put the U.S. at the forefront of the effort to rein in the killing. However, it was far from the trigger to prompt action sufficient to stop the genocide, as the Clinton administration feared.

It seems that each time a new genocide unfolds, the lessons of genocides past are rendered obsolete. The world apparently has no shortage of ways to avoid effective intervention. What then are the lessons of Darfur?

The most important lesson is that publicity and an active mobilization of a constituency against genocide can happen and can move lawmakers to act. Heroic work by human rights activist turned Darfur into a somewhat mainstream topic and paved the way for the action that has been taken. Second, Darfur has shown an enormous variety of ways that non-government actors can act. The lesson that governments cannot be relied upon to act in genocidal situations has been internalized as a large group of aid organizations and volunteers have pushed the Darfur agenda further than any government would be willing to. Finally, the world has learned that semantics that arguably create legal obligations do not stop genocides. It is action that stops “genocide,” “acts of genocide,” “acts with genocidal intent,” and all things in between.

July 14, 2006

Lessons Unlearned

As the Supreme Court concluded its term, it issued a sweeping rebuke of the Bush administration's approach to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, invalidated the military tribunals the Administration had employed to try Guantanamo detainees -- tribunals that had severely limited the legal rights of detainees, including the right to be charged in a timely manner, the right to a lawyer, and the right to see the evidence against them prior to trial.

In response to the decision, the Bush Administration seemed to reverse several years of policy and accept that the protections of the Geneva Conventions must apply to detainees held in the war on terror. This apparent reversal was celebrated as a long-awaited awakening to reality for the Bush administration, who has sought extensive executive authority in prosecuting the war on terror, including the use of controversial interrogation techniques, wiretapping and surveillance plans, and detainee procedures.

The long-awaited awakening, however, was short-lived.

This week, the White House put increasing pressure on members of Congress to recreate the lawlessness at Guantanamo by passing legislation that would limit the rights granted to detainees. Administration lawyers told Congress that the most desirable solution would be for Congress to pass a law approving the very tribunals that the Supreme Court had said the President could not establish on his own.

Now that's the Administration we know and love.

Meanwhile, continuing its attempts to fill the courts with those who agree with its broad interpretation of executive power, the Administration is still backing the stalled nomination of William Haynes, to fill a vacancy on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. As general counsel for the Defense Department, Mr. Haynes oversaw a policy memo that secretly authorized harsh treatment, even torture, for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The Administration has since disavowed the memo and Mr. Haynes himself says he's "glad it's no longer on the books," but his participation in drafting and implementing such a controversial policy was enough for 20 retired military officers to send a letter to the Judiciary Committee expressing deep concerns over his nomination.

The letter speaks for itself: "What compels us to take this unusual step is our profound concern about the role Mr. Haynes played in establishing over the objections of uniformed military lawyers detention and interrogation policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo which led not only to the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody but to a dangerous abrogation of the militarys long-standing commitment to the rule of law."

Rather than recognizing the danger of a policy Mr. Haynes helped establish policies the Administration has since disavowed the Administration continues to press for Mr. Haynes to be given a lifetime judicial appointment on a very important court where he can presumably sign off on all executive attempts to operate without regard to the law.

This is, of course, perfectly consistent with the Administration's stubborn refusal to admit mistakes or compromise on matters of executive authority and detainee treatment. Only with incredible reluctance has the Administration taken even the smallest steps back from its assertion that in the war on terror, the President can do as he pleases without concern for the rule of law.

However, as Justice Stevens wrote in the recent Guantanamo case, "The executive is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction." We're still waiting on the current executive's acceptance of this reality.

July 07, 2006

World Cup Fever

For the past month, my wife, my daughter, and my VCR (remember those?) have endured my quadrennial sports infatuation, the World Cup. I have put housework and work-work to the side in order to watch as many games as possible. I have taken early lunches and late lunches that would coincide with game-watching. I have checked the Italian and English papers online to see what real soccer journalists have to say about the games. I have read two soccer books and multiple soccer-related magazine articles, enjoying the growing selection of soccer sociology titles out there. And I have been rewarded with some fantastic games, some captivating finishes, and a final involving my two favorite non-US teams, Italy and France. (Here would be a good place to write something about the disappointing American team, but I will resist the temptation to comment on a team that could not find its pulse in Germany despite probably being the best team the US has ever had – OK, I couldn’t resist. On to 2010, I suppose)

There is much cliché that accompanies the World Cup. Every four years, we are told how the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world or how the games are so important in every other country that employers give employees days off to watch their teams play. This year, we learned that the civil war in the Ivory Coast ceased while the Ivorians were in the tournament – sadly, they went out after the first round. And anyone who has paid attention to the World Cup has heard ad nauseum about the importance of the Cup as a national source of pride for the host country, Germany, still not quite unified nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even the American apathy toward the Cup, and to soccer in general, is cliché – it is to the point that there are more stories about Americans not watching the World Cup than about the World Cup itself, perhaps the most attention ever given to not paying attention.

But since there is so much cliché already out there, it will not do too much harm for me to add my own: watching soccer, especially during the World Cup, is good for the soul.

The character traits required to live through the World Cup are good preparation for life. There is patience and focus – goals and game-changing plays don’t happen every minute, so the soccer watcher must be willing to focus for 45 minutes at a time and wait for the moments, if any, to justify his time. There is persistence as there are no commercials to disrupt the soccer watcher’s engagement. Even a trip to the bathroom risks missing a big moment and making watching all the previous and unimportant moments in vain.

The American soccer watcher must further possess a willingness and strength to stand alone, the confidence to do the unpopular thing. Perhaps even more important, the American soccer watcher must be creative and adaptable, figuring out different ways to keep up with a sport ESPN hardly cares about.

Writing from Paris after the 1998 World Cup was won by the French, Adam Gopnick wrote: “Soccer was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be experienced. The World Cup is a festival of fate: man accepting his hard circumstances, the near certainty of failure.”

I could not agree more with the first point – watching soccer is an experience. For the past month, my emotions have been tied to various ninety minute matches happening halfway around the world, usually between countries I am not a citizen of. But I think Gopnick sells soccer short by describing it as “man accepting his hard circumstances.” Neither on the pitch nor in the stands nor in front of the television is anything accepted. For ninety minutes at a time, players struggle with all their skill to avoid the fate of failure or the dreaded zero on the scoreboard. For ninety minutes at a time, soccer watchers must put their soul into the match, taking a leap of faith that it will be worth it in the end. (This time around, no game was more worth it than the Germany-Italy semi-final match decided in the final minutes of overtime after nearly two hours of scorelessness – what an unbelievable rush!).

And more often than not, it is worth it in the end. The World Cup is, as Gopnick wrote, a festival of fate. However, it is not about accepting the near certainty of failure, but about engaging with the world and enjoying the ride in spite of the near certainty of failure. And that is precisely the type of thing that is good for the soul.