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Purity Politics Makes Nothing Happen – The Atlantic

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U.S. Representative Charlie Rangel and William F. Buckley Jr. famously debated about the War on Drugs in 1991.Ray Howard / AP

Nearly 30 years ago, the PBS program Firing Line convened a debate about the War on Drugs, which has contributed more than any other criminal-justice policy to deadly street violence in Black neighborhoods and the police harassment, arrest, and mass incarceration of Black Americans. Revisiting the debate helps clarify what it will take to end that ongoing policy mistake.

Congressman Charlie Rangel led one side in the 1991 clash. Born in 1930, Rangel served in the Korean War, provided legal assistance to 1960s civil-rights activists, participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, and represented Harlem for 46 years as a Democrat in the House. He was once arrested while participating in an anti-apartheid rally. Opposing him was William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative intellectual who founded National Review in 1955 and took the wrong side in some of the most significant racial-justice controversies of his day. In an infamous 1957 editorial, Buckley justified the imposition of white-supremacist racial segregation in the American South. He opposed federal civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. And he was an apologist for South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Rangel was Black. Buckley was white. Rangel had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the full equality of Black people. Buckley had repeatedly stood athwart civil-rights advances, yelling “Stop!” Yet on debate night in 1991, the Democratic representative was the one arguing that the arrest and mass incarceration of Americans caught possessing or selling drugs should continue. And the Reaganite conservative was the one insisting that the human costs of a “law and order” approach were too steep to bear, citing roughly 800,000 Americans arrested that year.

“Let’s do what we can for those who are afflicted short of sending them to jail,” Buckley said. “I want to hear from you whether you want a society based on, say, the Malaysian or the Singapore model in which––and I’m not exaggerating––people get publicly flogged and they get hanged and they get their fingers chopped off. Is this what you want to do in order to accomplish your aims?” he asked Rangel. “If not, what is it that you want to do that we’re not doing already?”

Rangel acknowledged that the criminal-justice system “has not worked and has not been a deterrent to drug abuse in this country.” He added, “I still believe that it should be there, because in order to fight this war, you need all of these factors working together. We should not allow people to be able to distribute this poison without fear that maybe they might be arrested and put in jail.” In fact, Rangel clarified, if somebody wants to sell drugs to a child, they should fear “that they will be arrested and go to jail for the rest of their natural life. That’s what I’m talking about when I say fear.” Then he suggested that America should tap the generals who won the Gulf War to intensify the War on Drugs. “What we’re missing: to find a take-charge general like Norman Schwarzkopf, like Colin Powell, to coordinate some type of strategy so that America, who has never run away from a battle, will not be running away from this battle,” he said. “Let’s win this war against drugs the same way we won it in the Middle East.”

What insights can today’s War on Drugs abolitionists take from this story?

First, that in politics and policy making, neither all good nor all bad things go together. A person might care deeply about racial equality, as Rangel did, yet support a policy that fuels racial disparities. A rival might reject anti-racist politics, even siding with white supremacists on some issues, as Buckley did, while fighting to abandon a ruinous policy that has disproportionately harmed generations of Black people. “It is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana,” Buckley wrote to the New York Bar Association in 1995 as part of his ongoing advocacy. “I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.” In 1996, National Review joined him, editorializing “that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states.”

Had the drug war ended back in the early 1990s, younger Millennials would have been spared a policy that empowered gangs, fueled bloody wars for drug territory in American cities, ravaged Latin America, enriched narco cartels, propelled the AIDS epidemic, triggered police militarization, and contributed more than any other policy to racial disparities in national and local incarceration.

Instead, the War on Drugs continues as a bipartisan enterprise even today. And that brings us to a second insight: As in 1991, when Buckley argued on the same side as the ACLU, unexpected alliances are possible. Some proponents of decriminalizing drugs and cutting the DEA budget, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are in broad alignment with the left-identitarian approach to anti-racism. Other War on Drugs opponents, on the left and the right, reject that approach. For example, my colleague John McWhorter, who has argued that the drug war is “destroying black America,” believes that what he calls “third-wave anti-racism” is a quasi-religious dead end too prone to Manichaean perspectives.

What if all drug-war opponents joined forces, much as Christian conservatives, progressives, and libertarians have united in efforts to reform sentencing rules and reduce mass incarceration?

A majority may want to end the drug war. According to a 2019 Cato Institute poll, 69 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents, and 40 percent of Republicans support decriminalizing drugs. But it may take an alliance among people with different motivations, including anti-racism; a mistrust of the state; a principled love of liberty; a desire to do cocaine at parties; a quasi-religious interest in the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelics; the experience of losing a loved one to impure drugs; and many others. Forging a right-left coalition may be the only way to finally succeed in ending the decades-long debacle.

Finally, that decades-old debate shows that cooperation among different kinds of drug-war opponents should be easier now than it was in 1991. Conservatives and libertarians today reject white supremacy and racism in ways Buckley and his fellow War on Drugs abolitionist Ron Paul did not. In practice, however, interacting with people on the other side of the culture wars may be more difficult today. Public support for politicians who compromise has fallen as negative polarization has increased. And social media makes it easier to rally people who seek to punish sin and enforce purity. If Buckley were still alive today, could a university get away with platforming him in a debate? The populist-right website The Daily Caller has advocated against the War on Drugs. Would its Trump-loving readers tolerate an alliance with Ocasio-Cortez?

But impure alliances are the path to success. Coalitions drawing from the whole political spectrum can’t coalesce and succeed if, say, drug-war critics on the left won’t work with anyone who flies a Gadsden flag, or drug-war abolitionists on the right won’t work with a member of Congress who says “Black Lives Matter” but won’t say “Blue Lives Matter.” Without progress, innocents such as Breonna Taylor, who was killed in a botched no-knock drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky, will keep dying.

Roughly 450,000 people in the United States are currently incarcerated for drug offenses. “Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates,” the Center for American Progress found in 2018. “Almost 80 percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense are black or Latino. In state prisons, people of color make up 60 percent of those serving time for drug charges.” If the War on Drugs ended today, racial disparities in raids, arrests, sentencing, and incarceration would likely shrink, as would adversarial interactions between the police and civilians, and much violence that U.S. drug policy fuels in Mexico, Colombia, and beyond. Cooperating to end the drug war is a moral imperative for the left and the right.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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U.S., UK, Germany clash with China at U.N. over Xinjiang

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The United States, Germany and Britain clashed with China at the United Nations on Wednesday over the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, angering Beijing by hosting a virtual event that China had lobbied U.N. member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organizers said was attended by about 50 countries.

Western states and rights groups accuse Xinjiang authorities of detaining and torturing Uyghurs and other minorities in camps. Beijing denies the accusations and describes the camps as vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilized,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International secretary general Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities arbitrarily detained.

In a note to U.N. member states last week, China’s U.N. mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organizers of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China.”

While China urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” a Chinese diplomat addressed the event.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang. Xinjiang is always open,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organized by Germany, the United States and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said countries who sponsored the event faced “massive Chinese threats,” but did not elaborate.

British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time,” adding: “The evidence … points to a program of repression of specific ethnic groups.”

She called for China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth called out Bachelet for not joining the event.

“I’m sure she’s busy. You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today,” Roth told the event.

Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and is seeking access – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyze relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Ex-finance minister breached ethics rules in charity dealings

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Former Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau breached conflict-of-interest rules by not recusing himself when the government awarded a contract to a charity he had close ties to, independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said on Thursday.

In a parallel probe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was cleared of having broken any ethics rules when WE Charity was tapped to run a C$900 million ($740.9 million) program to help students find work during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The charity later walked away from the contract.

Trudeau and Morneau both apologized last year for not recusing themselves during Cabinet discussions involving WE.

Trudeau’s wife, brother and mother had been paid to speak at WE Charity events in previous years, but Dion said this appearance of a conflict of interest was not “real”.

Morneau, on the other hand, was a friend of Craig Kielburger, one of the charity’s founders, Dion said. The charity had “unfettered access” to the minister’s office that “amounted to preferential treatment”, a statement said.

No fines or penalties were levied.

Morneau said on Twitter he should have recused himself. Trudeau said in a statement issued by his office that the decision “confirms what I have been saying from the beginning” that there was no conflict of interest.

Ahead of a possible federal election later this year, the opposition could use the ruling to underscore the government’s uneven track record on ethics. Trudeau has been twice been found in breach of ethics rules in the past.

In August 2019, he was found to have broken rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case, and in December 2017, the previous ethics commissioner said Trudeau had acted wrongly by accepting a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island.

In a statement, opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said: “To clean up Ottawa, Conservatives will impose higher penalties for individuals who break the Conflict of Interest Act and shine a light on Liberal cover-ups and scandals, ending them once and for all.”

The controversy over Morneau’s ties to the charity was a factor in his resignation in August last year, when he also left his parliamentary seat, saying he would not run again. Chrystia Freeland was named to take over for him a day later.

($1 = 1.2147 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey)

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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