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Literally anyone should be eligible to run for US President

Mitt Romney is touting an idea, proposed by a citizen he talked to, that the Constitution should be amended to require three years of business experience to be eligible for the presidency. The idea is silly enough on its own terms -- as the above-linked article notes, a variety of past presidents as well as the GOP's last nominee, John McCain, would have been ineligible under that rule.

More broadly, there is no need to write requirements like this into the Constitution. If the US people want a president with business experience, they can simply vote for the candidate with business experience. The same goes, I think, for the other two notable requirements for the presidency -- age and birthplace. If being old is such a fundamental qualification, then the voters should recognize that and refuse to vote for a young candidate. And if they genuinely think a 29-year-old is the best person for the job, why should the Constitution stop them?

The only legal barriers to candidacy for any elected office should be ones that are necessary to balance out unfair advantages that would allow a candidate to do an end run around the will of the people. For example, a hard rule against people convicted of serious crimes makes sense -- not because the voters can't be trusted to vote out a felon, but because such people have demonstrated the will and means to cheat the system. I think the requirements for legislators to reside in their districts is justifiable on these grounds as well. Residency rules help keep parties from bringing in ringers and deluging the district with resources to get the candidate that's useful to the national party. Nevertheless, the rules should be loose enough that communities aren't prevented from electing an outsider if that's who they genuinely think will represent their interests best.

Hard rules make more sense for controlling conduct once in office and kicking violators out. Elections are rare enough that they can't be fully relied on to discipline officials, and so it makes sense for general qualifications to be written into law rather than left to the voters to weigh in their decisions of who to elect.


Racism as tribal warfare vs. racism as structural oppression

Consider two recent incidents that have generated discussion about racism.

1. Florida neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman chases down Trayvon Martin, a local black teenager. There is a confrontation of some sort (the details are disputed) that ends with Zimmerman shooting Martin dead. Zimmerman is widely accused of racism, but some of his defenders insist that this isn't about racism because Zimmerman is Hispanic*.

2. To raise awareness about female circumcision, Swedish performance artist Makode Aj Linde bakes a cake in the shape of a caricatured African woman's body, with his own head as the cake's head. The cake is served at a Swedish museum event, and Linde screams every time attendees cut pieces from the cake's genitals. Linde is widely accused of racism, but some of his defenders insist that he's not being racist because Linde himself is black.

The question of whether Zimmerman and Linde's races matter -- or to be more precise, whether they make the men's actions less racist -- seems to me to reveal the difference between two conceptions of what racism is. Zimmerman and Linde's defenders see racism in terms of tribal warfare, whereas their critics see racism in terms of structural oppression.

The conception of racism as tribal warfare says that racism is about one group of people attacking another group, and in particular white people attacking black people. Under this conception, something can only be racist if it is done by a member of the dominant race against another. Thus Zimmerman and Linde are off the hook in terms of racism, because since they're not white they can't be part of a white attack on black people. Their actions are at best a sort of "own goal" in the game of life, not a case of cheating by the other team.

The conception of racism as structural oppression says that racism is really about social systems that unfairly harm and limit people of some races relative to others. This system consists of behavior patterns and narratives that target certain races, but which in principle can generally be operated by people of any race. Certainly people of color have greater self-interested reasons to recognize the existence of these structures and to avoid participating in them than do whites, but the structure exists and creates racial inequality regardless of who is operating it.

In Zimmerman's case, the structure consists of the practice of directing violence toward young black men wearing hoodies on the assumption that they're up to no good. This is a racist structure because it harms black men, regardless of the race of the operator. Zimmerman took up this structure and participated in it by making racially biased assumptions about Martin that led him into a violent confrontation. And in doing so, he both perpetuated the structure's negative impacts by killing Martin, and reinforced the existence of the structure itself by providing an opportunity for spokespeople of the wider culture, such as Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera (who is also Hispanic!) to reaffirm the reasonableness of the black-men-in-hoodies-are-dangerous principle.

Likewise, Linde's art drew on a set of racist narratives that harm African women, such as the caricature on which the cake was based and the treatment of female circumcision as simple barbarism from which Westerners must rescue African women. These narratives were repeated and reinforced by Linde's art, continuing their negative impact on African women regardless of the fact that they were being repeated by a black man.

*There's some dispute about whether Zimmerman being Hispanic necessarily makes him not white -- for the sake of argument, I'm approaching this post under the scenario of "what if we take Zimmerman to be non-white" in order to illustrate my point about how we think about race.


The conflicting spirits of Obama's marriage statement

There are a lot of things to be said about President Obama's announcement yesterday that he favors marriage equality (warning, autoplay video). What interests me is the contrast in spirit -- a term I'll define in just a bit -- between two rationales he gave for his position. Early in the interview, he gave a secular argument for marriage:

But I have to tell you that over the course of-- several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about-- members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about-- those soldiers or airmen or marines or-- sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf-- and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because-- they're not able to-- commit themselves in a marriage.

At the very end, he returned to the topic and explained how his new position comports with his religious beliefs:

And-- and obviously-- this position may be considered to put as at odds with-- the views of-- of others. But-- you know, when we think about our faith, the-- the thing-- you know, at-- at root that we think about is not only-- Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf-- but it's also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you'd want to be treated. And-- and I think that's what we try to impart to our kids. And-- that's what motivates me as president. And-- I figure the more consistent I can be-- in being true-- to-- to those precepts-- the better I'll be as a dad and a husband, and-- hopefully the better I'll be as a president.

I'm a dedicated atheist, but I actually like the second, religious argument better. Not, of course, because it's religious -- the golden rule can be easily secularized even if the reason Obama follows it is because of Jesus. Rather, I think the second passage has a better spirit.

I've always thought of myself not only as someone who is not spiritual, but as someone who doesn't even really understand what spirituality is all about. I don't feel a hole in my life that could be labelled "spiritual," that I needed to fill with meditation or communing with nature or something when I left behind my religious faith. But I got a definition that works for me from a former doctor. In between telling me his thoughts on the Rambo movies and insisting that my physical disorders had a psychosomatic cause, he told me that in his view, "spirituality" refers to the deep values that motivate you.

A broad definition like that is something I can work with, because it applies to just about everyone. If you do things deliberately -- if you're not completely apathetic and guided purely by habit -- you have a spirituality. Spirituality here has no necessary connection to religion. A highly rationalist atheist can be as spiritual, in this sense, as the most committed yogi. Moreover, knowing someone's sect or doctrine does not necessarily tell you anything about their spirituality -- you can have massive spiritual diversity within a single congregation.

I would further posit that there are two major spirits, two major value orientations that lie at the root of people's lives. Obviously people can exhibit mixes of these spirits and shift over time, and the behavior they produce depends on a variety of other factors -- but I find it useful to distinguish the ideal types. These two spirits are the spirit of love and hope, and the spirit of fear and hate.

The spirit of love and hope is an expansive spirit. It reaches out for connection and relationship and healing. Love -- genuine care for others on their own terms, "my neighbor as myself" -- brings hope because it holds out a promise of reconciliation. This is the spirit Obama is pointing to in the second passage. Treating others well and wanting to see things from their position is the essence of the spirit of love and hope. And while Obama couches it in Christian terms -- and there's plenty of Bible passages reflecting this spirit -- it is no unique possession of religion.

The spirit of fear and hate is a defensive spirit. It says the world is limited and we must defend our own righteousness against those who fall short. This spirit has its place -- undiscriminating openness is perilous. But it must always serve the larger goals of love. Obama's first statement comes to the same conclusion as the second -- endorsement of marriage equality -- but it has a fair bit of the spirit of fear and hate in it. The logic of Obama's argument there is that same-sex couples are in so many other respects not just normal, but exemplary of the ideal that defines "our" righteous way of life and separates us from the sinners. They're monogamous, they're raising children, they're serving in highly respected professions like the military. They therefore do not deserve fear, and the hate that it breeds, because they're actually among the good ones (unlike, say, some hypothetical polyamorous childless exotic dancers).

Marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBT rights, nor is same-sex marriage the end of the road for reforming how law and society recognize relationships. As we travel down those roads, we'll be better off guided by the spirit of love and hope than the spirit of fear and hate.


Get your Whigs out of my Anthropocene

The above video (via) presents a strikingly apolitical and technocentric view of the Anthropocene epoch. The Anthropocene refers to the period of history in which human activity has become a dominant force shaping our world's ecology. While we certainly live in the Anthropocene, and the list of environmental challenges presented in the video is important*, the video overlooks the critical role of political-economic inequality in generating these problems. Despite the superficially negative tone of the video's end, it presents a troublingly Whiggish view of history. The video begins with the industrial revolution in England. The implication, made verbally and even more powerfully visually, is that this was an endogenous development, a technological leap that began in the Midlands and spread to take over the globe. But the industrial revolution was actually built on the back of a thorough reorganization of the world's political, economic, and ecological systems in the preceding centuries. European colonialism began in the mid-1400s, reproducing on a yet greater scale the imperial organization of many other civilizations -- a core subduing and extracting resources from a periphery. Europe was geographically lucky to stumble upon a conveniently located periphery in the Americas, fueling Europe's rise and development of industrial technology. There would be no industrial revolution in England were it not for the extraction of silver, sugar, tobacco, and other products from its colonies around the world. Nor would there be an industrial revolution in England were it not for the massive (and environment-altering) proto-industrial markets of China and India, toward which so much European trade was directed. The video goes on to portray industrialization spreading around the globe in a classic diffusionist model. This too is misleading. Industrialization did not simply spread from one place to the next. Various places around the world were increasingly incorporated into exchange relationships that welded them to the European industrial core. These newly incorporated areas filled very different roles in the new international division of labor. It was far from a situation of simply replicating European industrialism elsewhere -- rather, the success of European industrialization depended on incorporating other regions as unequal partners. While these divisions of labor have continued to shift geographically (consider the re-rise of China), globalization is fundamentally about changing relationships between places, not about the spread of a new characteristic to new places. The video then tells us that industrialization has brought massive benefits in quality of life and lifted millions out of poverty. This is only a partial story. The advances of industrialization brought huge benefits to some -- but they were made possible by the impoverishment, at least for a time, of many others. India was once among the richest parts of the world, but its economy was destroyed by British colonialism and the Indian people reached independence wracked by famine and poverty unknown two hundred years earlier. The slave trade -- which fueled early industrialization through plantation products -- set back African development to a degree only just now being overcome. This is all important because of the very problems the video lists at the end -- pollution, climate change, etc. If we do not understand the political and economic forces that have generated these problems, we have no hope to fix them. No new technology or breakthrough idea is going to make the Anthropocene benign or industrial civilization sustainable if it is still built on a base of economic exploitation. *Though the hole in the ozone layer is actually on its way to being fixed -- it peaked in size in 2006 and is expected to be entirely healed by 2050, due to the restrictions on ozone-depleting gases in the Montreal Protocol.