Thursday, January 15, 2009

The (George) Will of the People

In today's Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will wrote about California Attorney-General Jerry Brown's appeal to the California judiciary that the results of Proposition 8 were unconstitutional. Will is derisive of the obvious paradox that a constitutional amendment being declared unconstitutional, and any principled person dedicated to the government being decided by the people would find Jerry Brown's argument ludicrous.

And here lies the problem for progressives. If a socially unjust law is overturned by the people, then the circumstances demonstrate democracy at its finest; however, if the majority of voters enact a provision that would deny people equality, progressives look to the courts to legislate in their favor. Conservatives cry double-standard, and are left angered that their will and their vote have not counted for anything. Frustration and resentment builds amongst all in both sides.

In our American government, we learn that only the legislative branch makes law. If the executive passes an act that supercedes deliberative legislation, or if the judiciary overturns a piece of legislation, the executive and judicial branches are seen as overstepping their bounds. Yet throughout American history, there have been numerous instances of both the executive and judicial branches doing exactly that, for better or worse. Perhaps the most notorious case of judicial bigotry was the Dred Scott case.

But keep in mind that the use of the words "notorious" and "bigotry" are only used through the lens of present-day social mores. So now, let us ask ourselves these questions:

What does it mean to be American? Is it to be a supporter of representative government and democracy? A supporter of capitalism? Does it mean wanting to be the biggest and the strongest and the best? To whom or what do we look to determine what is truly American? George Washington? George Will? George Bush? George Stephanopolous? The Declaration of Independence? The Constitution of the United States?

Throughout the world, there is one word that is at the heart of what it means to be American: freedom. America may have been late to abolish slavery, but the Emancipation Proclamation was seen to be the embodiment of the American ideal. When blacks could not go to schools of their choice, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the legal segregation policies of Plessy v. Ferguson. FDR integrated the Defense Department. Harry Truman integrated the United States Armed Forces. When that was not enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination. And none of these events happened with the consent of the legislation. They were all executive or judicial decisions.

Before the Civil War, popular sovereignty was used to determine whether a territory would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. One man argued against that. It is ironic that a man who would later on declare that government of the people, by the people, for the people would argue against popular sovereignty, something supposedly by the people. But Abraham Lincoln understood the fundamentals of what was expressed in both the Declaration and the Constitution: that it is a self-evident truth that government is necessary to secure the blessings of life and freedom, not prohibit it. When citizens are deprived freedom and equality, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that those rights are upheld.

It would behoove George Will to pay attention to the history that he claims to admire.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Islamophobia 2009

And so the New Year begins with an all-too-familiar case of Islamophobia as nine Muslims are removed from an AirTran flight for making innocuous comments about the safest place on an aircraft.

The outrage at this eviction is tempered by the equivocation of the victims themselves. One of them, Atif Ifran, told CNN that he was “impressed with the professionalism” of the FBI agents who questioned him, a tribute to whatever sensitivity program of interrogation that the CIA waterboarders never received. From the airline that kicked them off? No apology, and no help with getting them to their destination besides refunding their tickets.

When I was a child, my family and I would travel often. I must have been 10 years old when my family became a victim of profiling. My father was forced to open our luggage at the ticket counter so they could rifle through our clothes and our underwear that we had spent so much time packing the night before. I watched helplessly as my father protested this treatment, and I felt embarrassed; I was not embarrassed at having our bags searched, but at the way my father was upset at the authority of the baggage-checkers. I knew that Arabs had been hijacking aircraft, and I felt that they were only doing the right thing.

Year after year, whenever my father and I traveled, I would witness his ordeal as he would be singled out of the scanning line and have to take off his shoes. And I came to accept that this would eventually be my fate as well. I learned to keep my mouth shut at customs lest I say the wrong thing, and let my father do the talking. As I grew older, I came to accept myself as a sort of second-class citizen in the airport. I became accustomed to getting “randomly screened.” It was a matter of procedure that my bags would be the ones searched through, delaying my return home from the airport. I knew well enough to wear shoes that could be put on and taken off with ease.

So after 9/11, traveling didn’t change as much for me as it did for everyone else. I would shake my head sadly as I watched person after person go through the same embarrassing rituals that my father and I went through. I saw women wearing shoes that had too many straps break down and cry when they weren’t moving fast enough. I saw airport security men and women adopt the “I-have-the-worst-job-in-the-world-and-I-get-to-do-it-all-over-again-tomorrow” stare. And I saw businessmen in suits with looks of outrage on their face as they opened up their briefcases. I even had strangers (not realizing my Arab heritage) vent to me while waiting to board the flight about their difficult times with security. And I thought, why are you all so pissy? I go through this all the time! It never occurred to me that no one deserved to be treated this way until after I joined the military.

So, can you equivocate racial profiling? Rather than unequivocally say no, I would like to offer these tips to paranoid travelers:

1) If you’re at the airport, and you see a Middle-Eastern man with a beard wearing Muslim clothing, don’t worry. Chances are he’s not going to do anything else to draw more attention to himself.
2) There have been more disruptions on aircraft caused by intoxicated people. Since most Muslims don’t drink, you’re more likely to have a smoother flight with Muslims onboard than not.
3) If you are selectively screened by airport security, remember that unless you’re a minority, be thankful that you probably won’t have to go through things like this every day. Minorities, unfortunately, do.