Tag Archives: politics

Welcome to the American spring?

Published by:

January 21, 2017. Was this the beginning of the American spring?  Was it a resurgence of democracy in which American people from across the country insisted that they will not allow Donald Trump to take away their rights, and set the country’s progress back a generation?   Was it the beginning of a left-leaning tea party?

Whether it was the beginning of an American awakening, or not, the numbers are astounding.  While it is impossible to get an exact count, there are good estimates that between 3.5 and 4.3 million people marched world-wide.  Washington, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago alone accounted for close to 2 million people.  There were 600 marches across the country, and across the world, with large crowds in places like London and Paris.  The Women’s March was about more than women’s rights though, and there were plenty of men who turned out.  The march was not only a protest against Trump’s election, it was a call to arms.  The march sent a powerful political message to make it crystal clear that people were not going to allow Trump to trample over their rights.   It also reinforced the fact that while Trump narrowly won the electoral college, he lost the popular election by almost 3 million votes.

The march was all the more meaningful given the nationalistic, isolationist, jingoist “America first” inauguration address and all its “carnage” from the day before.  Trump claims to speak for the people.  He argues that his election returns power to the people.  The Women’s March – and the millions of people who turned out, make it clear that NOT all the people are happy with the direction he proposes taking.

But a march is a one-day event.  The real work lies ahead, and the question is will this mark the beginning of a movement?  Will the energy and power of the day of protest be transformed into a political movement, into a political party?  Will the Women’s March on Washington transform into a progressive tea party?  If it is the beginning of a new movement, will that movement learn from the lessons of this election?  Will the left remain in its identity politics bubble in which there is a one-size-fits-all progressivism, that sets to the side any alternative viewpoints?  Will progressives be so fixated that they remain indifferent to conditions outside their self-defined group?  Will the working class be left-behind?  Will all individuals who share different views be shunned and made-fun of? If nothing is learned from November 8th, then it will be for naught.

There is much talk about whether the march will spark a new tea party or will it be like Occupy Wall Street, stridently against something, but never clear exactly what it was for.  I think there is certainly a lot of energy that can come from resisting Trump’s agenda; resisting his embracing of “alternative facts” (lies) and the populist alt-right (a.k.a. white supremacists), but the movement has to be be about more than stopping Trump.  Oh, it is ok, and it is essential to stop him. His authoritarian tendencies, and efforts to delegitimize the media, and to treat facts as fungible represent a fundamental threat to our democratic tradition.  His lack of a popular mandate, losing the nation-wide vote by a margin of almost three million, and the evidence of foreign interference in the election, make the claims of his illegitimacy all the more stronger.  Indeed, reform of the electoral college can and should be a core issue of any new political movement.

But if there will be a successful progressive movement, it has to go beyond just Trump.  I am uncertain whether this weekend will mark the beginning of an American spring.  I’m hesitant to even use the words American spring, given that the Arab spring, the awakening in the Arab world, has not had a lot of positive results.  An American spring, and a progressive political movement must be able to be more than what has defined progressive politics in the past decade.  Diversity and women’s rights are very important, but a progressive coalition must be exactly that, a coalition of multiple-viewpoints.  Will the left be able to see beyond it’s identify politics fixation?  Will the focus on women’s rights and diversity also encompass the concerns of the working class?   It is possible that Trump’s antics, extremism, and efforts to delegitimize the press will be enough to propel a movement, but if it ends up being a bunch of aging hippies and millennials setting up tents on city streets or on campuses, protesting the machine, it won’t end well.

I’m hopeful that leadership will emerge, and from that a  true broad-based democratic movement.

The American experiment at risk

Published by:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men [and women] are created equal, that they endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
Those immortal words, penned by Thomas Jefferson in the summer of 1776 provide the foundation of the American experiment. Jefferson continued, writing “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. “
Today is a turning point in American history. It is once again a day where there is a peaceful transition of power, yet in many ways it is unlike any other. Today we witness the first time in our history where the transition of power shifts to an individual who lost the popular vote by almost three million votes in an election in which it is almost certainly a fact that foreign interference by Russia and ethical wrong-doing by the Director of the American FBI impacted the results. Today we see the rise of a man who is an acknowledged sexual predator, with authoritarian tendencies, and who displays evidence of narcissistic personality disorder. 

This is not a day to celebrate. It is not like any other inauguration. Sure, I’ve been disappointed before, but never once before in my life have I had feared for the future of the American republic. Our democracy is at stake. Our liberties are at stake.  This is not being over-dramatic and partisan.  It is not sour grapes that Hilary lost.  There are simply too many examples of reckless behavior, too many indicators of an individual whose personal business interests are clearly more important to him than the public good.  He has threatened the civil rights and liberties of entire classes of people, he has such a thin skin that any public criticism results in a temper-tantrum on twitter.  These are not jokes. And his behavior has given the signal to others that such behavior is acceptable.  In the last two weeks alone, there have been bomb threats at more than 60 Jewish Community Centers across the country.  There were hundreds of hate incidents reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the two weeks after the election.   This is no joking matter.

I will not celebrate.

I will not normalize this troglodyte.  

I will not stand quietly while our rights and liberties are trampled.

Know your rights.  Carry a copy of the Constitution.

Resistance is not futile.  It is democratic.  I pray that the second paragraph of Jefferson’s Declaration do not come to bear.  Eleven years later, the American democratic experiment evolved into a new constitution in which “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish domestic tranquility provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”   That Constitution is worth fighting for.

Intelligence briefings? I don’t need no stinking intelligence briefings

Published by:

Who really needs daily intelligence briefings?  Apparently not the next (gulp) president of the United States.  I’ll admit, when I first saw this reported, I assumed that it was fake news.  But nope, it was word for word from his own mouth, from this morning’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News, as reported in the NY Daily News:

“I don’t have to be told — you know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that,” he continued.

“But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know,'” he said.  Trump went on to suggest that it’s not necessary for him to receive the briefings with the daily frequency that past President-elects have had because other key advisers are getting the info.

“In the meantime, my generals are great — are being briefed. And Mike Pence is being briefed, who is, by the way, one of my very good decisions,” Trump said. “And they’re being briefed. And I’m being briefed also. But if they’re going to come in and tell me the exact same thing that they tell me — you know, it doesn’t change, necessarily.”

Wow.   There is so much here, it isn’t even funny.  “My generals are great, and being briefed.”  Is this the workings of a president, or a demagogue, surrounded by “generals,” who are “great”?   Forget the fact that we are supposed to have civilian control of the military, this guy is doing the exact opposite.  He has named  a general as secretary of defense who is colloquially known as “Mad Dog.”  His national security advisor is another retired general, Michael Flynn.  And now General John Kelly is going to be the Director of Homeland Security.  Look, it is not as if former generals haven’t served in cabinet level positions before (witness Gen. Colin Powell), but Trump is surrounding himself with generals, and is satisfied that if they are briefed on issues, he is good.

What is missing here is that there is an incredible value in a president being surrounded by a variety of different people, with different agendas and perspectives.  Trump isn’t doing that.  Not at all.  And by not receiving daily intelligence briefings, by not taking time to personally absorb the myriad of issues that a president faces, he will be unable to critically evaluate the issues, ad the advice he is being given from “his generals.” But don’t worry, “they are great.”

God save us when the first real international crisis occurs after January 20th.

Rabbinical Watch Dogs – Rabbis for Human Rights

Published by:

Today didn’t quite go as I hoped it would.  I had a 9am meeting with Rabbi Arik Aschermann, senior rabbi for Rabbis for Human Rights, a watch dog organization that serves to tie together all the various Jewish denominations, with a focus on curbing human rights violations by the Israeli government, and by Israeli security forces.   The meeting was at their offices in the Ha-Bankin area, several blocks west of Hebron Road.  I opted to take public transit, and took my first bus ride.  Not bad.  5.9 shekels each way, took about 20 minutes.  Would have cost me 30 or 40 shekels for a cab, given traffic maybe more.

I got there, and the rabbi was a bit late, but that was ok, it gave me time to arrange my thoughts.  It was an intriguing hour.   Rabbi Aschermann looks very much like a human rights activist.  A bit disheveled, a long beard, but incredibly passionate about the work he does.   RHR does a wide range of work, from using talmudic commentary to provide education about what judaism has to say about human rights, calling for economic justice, human rights, economic poverty, public housing, etc.   Its most famous work its work on behalf of Palestinians, to ensure they can safely access their lands.

RHR does its work through multiple tracks — grassroots activism (with members and volunteers( who will serve as human shields to stop the seizure of land by the IDF) to work in the cooridors of power, through the courts, media campaigns, and lobbying.    Their mandate is human rights, and they don’t take political positions on how to end the conflict, “whether it is one state, two state, or ten state.”   They don’t seek to stop the expansion of new settlement homes on the West Bank, but they  focus instead on preventing the expansion of settler appropriation of farm lands.  To them that is the big picture.  They believe that by definition, every settlement is illegal, but they maintain their focus, to prevent their work from being muddled.  As an Israeli organization- with ties to all Jewish religious entities, it does not focus much on Palestinian Authority Human Rights violations.  “As Israelis our mandate is to deal with the things that we – Israelis – are doing, and less what others are doing.”  But they condemn all terror attacks.

We talked about a lot more, and even about the “toxic” approach of the Presbyterian Church USA (his words, not as RHR but as an individual), and I’ll expound on that later.  But for now, he asked a question.  At the 221st General Assembly, the divestment resolution included language added to the floor for the church to call for positive investment, but he asks, has that happened?  It is the most important thing, in his mind, for improving the lot of Palestinians.  This does not surprise me.   And it fits with what I have heard from others, including Bassem Eid — who discussed  how the failure of the Palestinians to do anything to stop the stabbings and murders since last October, has resulted in a huge loss in economic terms.  Bethlehem was practically empty over the Christmas holidays.

But getting back to Rabbi Aschermann, I was impressed by his ability to bring the economic questions back to the talmud.   He referred me to a blog he wrote in the Times of Israel during the 2014 Gaza War.  “When Justice Blinds” provides an excellent overview of issues. He wrote, “As I said at the outset, Israel is absolutely justified in defending herself against rockets and tunnels, even though Pirke Avot 5:11 teaches that, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied,” and even though a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to protecting ourselves in the long run.”    But justice blinds in that while the Israelis were correct in that they had total justice in their claim to fight back against rockets being fired into Israel, they forgot that there are human beings on the other side.  And from the Palestinian side, they are absolutely correct that they have lived under occupation for 50 years, and the justification of their cause blinds them to the fact that there are human beings on the other side as well.

The meeting was very much enlightening, and there is much more to sort through.  When it ended, I had 3 hours before my next meeting, with the Citizens Accord Forum Between Jews and Arabs, which happened to be 2 blocks away.   I decided to walk through some Jerusalem neighborhoods and find a cafe to have a snack and try to catch up on my work.  Well, that’s when things went south.   I walked about 1/2 mile north into a beautiful neighborhood filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and even found a bakery shop called Marzipan, which was recommended by one of my students.  Alas, my stomach was acting up, and sweet treats were not in the cards.   I spent an hour, maybe 90 minutes, and started to walk back.  Dang, that’s when it all went south.  Lets just say, I had a full blown stomach bug.   I thought after an unfortunate incident (in which a very kind Israeli woman immediately came to my aid) I was ok, and I found a pharmacy in a mall to find some pepto.  I decided I thought I’d be ok for the second meeting. I was wrong.  I got about 10 minutes in, and had to excuse myself.  I returned, and managed to continue the meeting, but to be honest, I need to listen to the tape, as I am unclear exactly he said, but it was quite valuable, in terms of challenging some of the methods used for co-existence projects, but not rejecting the idea of co-existence or shared societies.   More on that later.

I managed to get back to the bus, and made it to the hotel, where I rested for about 4 hours, and then felt good enough to go out to dinner with my friend Rabbi Rebecca’s daughter Rachel, who is studying at Hebrew Union College, in a graduate program on jewish education.  We had a lovely conversation and a nice evening.  I had some soup.   Yeah, taking it slowly. But so far, I am feeling better, and I will do everything to go on the trip to Ramallah tomorrow.  That will be a highlight.     I can hardly believe I only have 2 more days in Jerusalem.    Ok,that’s it for today.

Tracking the GOP Debate

Published by:

My friend Bill Wilkerson is an expert on tracking google trends and wikipedia data to gain knowledge about salience of issues and events via social media.

His blog provides an interesting perspective on last week’s GOP debate.



Public interest in the 8/6 Republican debate on Wikipedia & Google Trends 

The Thursday, 8/6 prime time Republican debate was the most watched non-sports cable program ever. How did the public respond while watching?

After the debate , Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com posted Google Trends datafor the 10 candidates in the prime time debate. I have been researching Wikipedia as a way to measure public interest and was curious how the page views compared. The table below shows the Google Trends for the 4 hours during and after the debate along with the Wikipedia page views for 8/7 both in raw numbers and in an index based on the most searched candidate, Donald Trump.

Candidate Google Trends Index Total Wikipedia Searches Wikipedia Index
Trump 100 104,303 100
Carson 59 75,495 72
Rubio 38 40,854 39
Cruz 37 37,718 34
Bush 34 34,670 33
Kasich 29 54,306 52
Paul 26 27,267 26
Christie 20 17,957 17
Walker 17 12,881 12
Huckabee 14 11,542 11

What Chumps? The only chump I see sits in the center chair.

Published by:

I think the chief justice has lost control of his ship or at least has been poisoned by the bitter pen of Justice Scalia. His writings in dissent serve to diminish the legitimacy of the Court, and use language that – with the exception of Scalia – I rarely see in Supreme Court opinions.

Here is the start of his dissent in the Arizona redistricting case:

“Just over a century ago, Arizona became the second State in the Union to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment. That Amendment transferred power to choose United States Senators from “the Legislature” of each State, Art. I, §3, to “the people thereof.”…

What chumps! Didn’t they realize that all they had to do was interpret the constitutional term “the Legislature” to mean “the people”? The Court today performs just such a magic trick with the Elections Clause.”

WHAT CHUMPS? The only chump I see sits in the center chair. He can make his argument without having a temper tantrum.

Ironically, the dissent in this case by Scalia is measured and focused, without the rancor that we often see. Of course, his one friend, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is writing the opinion of the Court, and while he criticizes it, he does so without the fury he reserves for others.

Further thoughts on Hobby Lobby and the farce of corporate personhood

Published by:

I explored yesterday’s decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby in a guest post.
Here I expand on a few of the issues from that post.

The Court’s unwillingness to even address the constitutional issues at stake from Employment Division v. Smith suggest that the Court is not really interested in religious liberty.  The five justices in the majority see their interpretation of RFRA as a way to limit part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  The same five justices have extended First Amendment speech rights to private corporations in campaign finance matters,  the decision today broadly expands the power of corporations, in what truly is a legal fiction.  Corporations do not profess religious beliefs. It is a farce to claim they do.  This case is about advancing corporate power, not religious freedom.  

It is also unclear whether today’s conservative bloc has the same understanding of religious liberty as the six justices who decided Smith in the Rehnquist Court.  I remember at the time thinking that Smith was a terrible decision that severely limited individual liberty.  Yet, in comparison with the smoke and mirrors of Hobby Lobby, perhaps Smith is ok. Ultimately the problem rests with the way that RFRA is used – and abused – by the Court in today’s decision.  And in the end, that all boils down to the idea of Hobby Lobby as even having a religious interest.  It is an arts and crafts store, not a church.  It is a corporation, not a person. 

The Court went to great pains to make it clear that this was a narrow decision, that only dealt with the contraception mandate.  It did not provide corporations with an exemption from other laws. The decision was also careful to use the words “closely-held” corporations, referring to privately-owned, and not publicly-traded corporations.  Thus, if you work for General Motors, the corporation would not be free to claim a religious objection to the contraception mandate.  Yet, it is a short leap from the logic that the Court uses to rule that corporations are people, to expand the decision to other corporations. That would be decided in future litigation, but Supreme Court decisions are interpreted by lower court judges, who will make the initial decisions as cases come to them.  

Is today’s decision a serious setback to women’s rights?  Yes, and no.  On the one way, it is baffling to even be debating contraception in 2014.  I thought that ship had, with the exception of some Roman Catholic Bishops, sailed long ago.  Justice Ginsburg’s concerns are valid.  But the decision is narrow;  most Americans are not impacted by it. Of course if I were one of the 22,000 women employees of the two companies immediately at risk of losing coverage, it would not matter that most American’s coverage is not limited.  I hope the Obama Administration take Justice Kennedy’s cue, and extends the same coverage that is being done for employees of non-profit religious organizations that have sought the exemption.  Of course, this infuriates me that it is even necessary, but if it ensures full access to all women for basic reproductive health care, then I can live with it. This case proves the point that health care should not be tied in any way to employment.  

Were I someone who actually steps foot in an “arts and crafts” store, I would be looking for a new place to shop.  But that is a personal choice of an individual – an actual person who has full rights to speech, press, and free exercise of religion.

GUEST POST — Making Sense of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: Free Exercise of Religion or Advancing Corporate Power? | Bruce Reyes-Chow

Published by:

Link: GUEST POST — Making Sense of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: Free Exercise of Religion or Advancing Corporate Power? | Bruce Reyes-Chow

Yes, I am blogging a link to my own writing, hosted on my friend Bruce Reyes Chow’s site.  

But here is a snippet:

What do we make of this decision?

I would argue that the Court’s unwillingness to even address the constitutional issues at stake from Employment Division v. Smith suggest that the Court is not really interested in religious liberty. The five justices in the majority see their interpretation of RFRA as a way to limit part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The same give justices have extended First Amendment speech rights to private corporations in campaign finance matters, the decision today broadly expands the power of corporations, in what truly is a legal fiction. Corporations do not profess religious beliefs. It is a farce to claim they do.  This case is about advancing corporate power, not religious freedom.

It is also unclear whether today’s conservative bloc has the same understanding of religious liberty as the six justices who decided Smith in the Rehnquist Court. I remember at the time thinking that Smith was a terrible decision that severely limited individual liberty. Yet, in comparison with the smoke and mirrors of Hobby Lobby, perhaps Smith is ok. Ultimately the problem rests with the way that RFRA is used – and abused – by the Court in today’s decision. And in the end, that all boils down to the idea of Hobby Lobby as even having a religious interest. It is an arts and crafts store, not a church. It is a corporation, not a person.”

A sweeping endorsement for digital privacy: Riley v. California

Published by:

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Riley v. California can be thought of as “a sweeping endorsement of digital privacy” —  words used on the SCOTUSblog live stream when news of the decision first came out.  The statement is certainly accurate.  In a unanimous decision (with just one concurrence by Justice Alito), Chief Justice Roberts ruled that before police can search a cell phone after an arrest, they must first secure a warrant.  Roberts left open the possibility for exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search, but described them as “extreme hypotheticals.” 

I have paid very close attention to this case, not just because I am writing a book on the Roberts Court and the Fourth Amendment, but because the case has forced the Court to address how the Fourth Amendment will be viewed in a digital world, after a forty-five year period of limiting individual rights in the name of crime control.  The Fourth Amendment, beginning with the Burger Court in the 1970s and 1980s, has been recast from one where the warrant requirement was the measuring stick, to one where the “touchstone” of Fourth Amendment analysis has become not a warrant but instead “reasonableness,” — a term that provides much wiggle room for providing discretion to police in the name of crime control. 

The cell phone case is not the first one to address questions of technology, although it is the logical sequel to the GPS surveillance decision, United States v. Jones, that the Court decided in 2012.   In Jones, the Court ruled that government could not use GPS to conduct surveillance of a vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. In that case, however, Justice Scalia relied on an old – previously discarded – theory of the Fourth Amendment claiming that an unreasonable search occurred when there was a physical trespass on a constitutionally protected area, one’s “person, home, papers, or effects.”    In the cell phone case, the Court never once mentions trespass.  Indeed, Scalia did not even mention it during oral argument.  Instead, the focus is on the doctrine of search incident to arrest.  Like Jones, all nine justices agree with the outcome – but in Jones, there was a 4-1-4 breakdown (Scalia writing for 4 justices, Sotomayor concurring; Alito writing for another 4, all agreeing with outcome, but not reasoning).  Here it is 8-1, with Alito concurring in part, and concurring with the judgment.  

One of the major “warrant exceptions” that Court has relied on, and on which police have used extensively in the war on drugs, is the doctrine of search incident to legal arrest.  What this means is that after an arrest an officer can search the person of the arrestee, and the area within his “immediate” control.  This is done for the two reasons of officer safety, and to prevent the destruction of evidence.  The Court’s 1969 ruling in Chimel v California set the original precedent; it was reinforced in the 1973 decision in United States v. Robinson, in which the arrest occurred in a vehicle.  While the Court departed from it in the 1980s, with its ruling from New York v Belton which permitted vehicle passenger compartment searches regardless of those two rationales, in 2009, the Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant restored the Chimel and Robinson justifications, limiting vehicle searches, for the most part,to those instances when it was reasonable to believe further evidence of the crime of arrest would be found. 

In oral argument in Riley, the government encouraged the Court to extend the Gant rationale to cell phone searches, but the justices would have nothing to do with it.  Chief Justice Roberts, in an opinion which seemed to try to make his knowledge of contemporary technology clear (he even referred to the iOS 7.01 user manual — who knew there even was a user manual?), Roberts argued that cell phones are fundamentally different than searching a wallet or pocket.    He used powerful language that privacy advocates will quote for years to come. His words are worth quoting in full.   Roberts describes cell phones as 

“such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.” 

Moreover, the Court made it clear that

“Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” 

There are clear implications for privacy.    Roberts’ opinion focused on the storage capacity of phones. 

“The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video—that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.” 

The use of cell phones — smartphones really – is pervasive. 

Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception. According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower. ”

In his opinion, the Chief Justice rejected the government’s arguments that there were officer safety concerns, and largely swept aside concerns about the ability for a third party to remotely “wipe” a phone, by suggesting that police could seize the phone, and put it in a “Farady” bag (an aluminun baggie designed to prevent the transmission of digital signals, turn off the phone, or remove the battery.    He suggested that the concerns raised were mostly anecdotal.  

The Court does not over-rule the “third party doctrine” of Smith v. Maryland, the 1979 case which permitted searches of a “pen register” – a list of phone calls made, but distinguished it, by suggesting that call logs provide more information than just phone numbers.   There is certainly room for this to be further visited.  

The Court also never once acknowledges the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard that has been the primary focus of Court decisions involving privacy issues since Katz v. U.S. was decided in 1967.    It is clearly implied that there is an expectation of privacy in the contents of one’s cell phone that society is willing to recognize as legitimate,” but the fact that the Court NEVER mentions the standard is telling.  It suggests efforts to distance itself from Katz, something Scalia has been pushing for for years.    Of course, the Court also ignores Justice Scalia’s misguided “trespass” doctrine.  Whether that will be just a blip on the jurisprudential landscape remains to be seen. 

Justice Alito’s brief concurrence questions why it should be the Court’s job to regulate these issues, and suggests Congress should be the entity to regulate police and cell phones, just as it passed legislation dealing with wiretapping after the Katz decision.  He also challenges the majority’s reliance on search incident to arrest being based on only officer safety and the preservation of evidence.

The Court’s decision today truly is a sweeping victory for digital privacy.  It raises a large red flag for other issues such as the pervasive government sweeping of our digital lives by the National Security Agency, but those issues will wait for another day — and will be further complicated by the “national security” interests that would be put forth, and could shift the balance.  But today, advocates of the Fourth Amendment serving to protect individual privacy have much to be happy about. 

Steve Jobs would be proud.  

Symbolism Counts. Perception Matters: Different lenses underlying divestment and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Published by:

In the days following the 221st General Assembly’s vote to divest from three corporations – Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP, over the Israeli government’s use of their products to violent ends in the Palestinian conflict,  I still am trying to make sense of this. I have never seen an issue that divides people who are usually on the same side of every political issue, but instead polarizes and separates allies.  It does not break down in predictable ways. I am on the anti-divestment side.  I simply do not believe that divesting of 17 million dollars of PCUSA pension funds will have any meaningful impact to help Palestinians, and I do not think that it will do anything to promote a two state solution. I view the issue as one which has much risk and potential to damage our role as legitimate peacemakers.  Many of my friends are on the other side. I view the issue through this lens.  It shapes how I perceive the issue.  Others see it in a different way.  Perception matters. 
Not only does perception matter, frames the entire discussion.   Some of the proponents of divestment see the issue as entirely being driven by keeping our investments compatible with the Church’s ethics policies.  We cannot profit from violence.   Through that lens, Caterpillar appears culpable.  Its bulldozers are used by Israeli’s to destroy Palestinian homes in the West Bank.  It does not matter that the “weaponizing” of these bulldozers is done by an Israeli company; nor does it matter that CAT has a dealership on the West Bank.  Through the lens of Palestinian suffering, CAT is culpable.   They believe this wholeheartedly, and truly care about improving the fate of Palestinians. 

But there are other perspectives that are blurred through that lens.  One of which is the damage and pain that ten years of seeking divestment from Caterpillar has caused to the Presbytery of Great Rivers in Central Illinois, and the churches in the communities where thousands of people are gainfully employed by CAT, and view it as a company that does much good.  When a F-4 Tornado struck Washington, IL on November 17, 2013,  Caterpillar came through providing support, funds, and even gave the mayor of Washington, a CAT employee, a paid leave of absence to take care of his town.  This is the same company that sells bulldozers to Israel, and all over the world.  Bulldozers and cranes — not mortar rounds, not heavy armament, but bulldozers. Perception matters.   
The feelings of those who are faithful members of Presbyterian churches in Peoria, Washington, Morton, and other communities throughout Central Illinois are also lost by the divestment lens.  “Our church is saying that we work for a company that is morally wrong?”  Over the years, at least one congregation has left over the continued threat of divestment.   With the actual vote, it is possible that others might leave.  I pray that does not happen.  But the local perspective is not seen through the divestment lens.  This became crystal clear to me when I was sitting in the Detroit airport waiting for a flight to Peoria on Saturday, and I saw a family coming back from a vacation, and the man was wearing a CAT hat.   We talked.  He asked what happened. I told him.  He shrugged saying “I respect what your church feels compelled to do, but we really don’t have a horse in that race.”   Later, the first thing I saw when arriving in Peoria, was a display with an old CAT bulldozer.   Peoria is proud to call Caterpillar home.  Perception matters.  

There is another lens – that of interfaith relations – that also loses focus when viewed through that of divestment.  To the vast majority of American Jews, the call for divestment from these companies is viewed as alignment with the global BDS – Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement — which challenges a Two State solution, and questions Israel’s very right to exist.  Proponents of divestment amended the resolution to include a statement that the church was not divesting from Israel, and was not joining BDS, but within minutes of the vote, the New York Times reported that “Presbyterians, Debating Israeli Occupation, Vote to Divest Holdings,” and in the second paragraph of the story, tied it to the BDS movement.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

To the vast majority of American Jewish organizations, this action was seen as an attack on them.   While many American Jews are unhappy with the actions of Israel in the conflict (as are many Christians, myself included), they see a vote to divest as the same thing as siding with the BDS, and as challenging Israel’s very right to exist.  As reported in the Presbyterian Outlook, “A statement from the American Jewish Committee quotes Rabbi Noam Marans, director of inter-religious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, as saying the PC(USA) “is facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”  It was later reported on CNN.com that AJC fully viewed the action as tying PCUSA to BDS.  “It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the U.S. align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

It does not matter that the vote was not to divest from Israel, but to divest from 3 companies that do business with Israel.  It does not matter that the resolution explicitly says “we are not joining BDS.”  Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

This was exacerbated by the publication of a “study guide” in January, by the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” – an advocacy group aimed at promoting justice for Palestinians.  Zionism Unsettled presented a one-sided view of the conflict, demonized Israel, and referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.  The book was part of a larger book forthcoming by BDS advocates.   The 78 page document and accompanying DVD received a lot of criticism, and I am proud that I was able to successfully bring a commissioner’s resolution to the General Assembly that declared that “Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the PC(USA).”  Zionism Unsettled revealed the underlying motives of some but certainly not all proponents of divestment.  Many supporters simply saw the issue through the lens of Palestinian suffering.  Some saw it through the lens of ethics.   BUT the American Jewish community views it through a different lens as being deeply hurtful.   I experienced that firsthand, when I encountered a Jewish Friend  who was at GA, trying to provide support in the fight against divestment.  I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the pro-divestment proponents.   He saw it through a different lens. Symbolism counts.  Perception matters. 

 The perception of many commissioners may have been impacted by the presence of a group of Jewish people representing a group outside of the Jewish Mainstream, who wore shirts saying “Another Jew for Divestment.”  All week long, Commissioners saw these shirts.   To many of them, this said “Oh, American Jews support divestment? This can’t be too bad.”  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream Jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

For me, this issue is far from over.  We need to start examining the other lenses.  We need to put major effort into repairing relationships with our Jewish neighbors.  We need to extend an olive branch.   We need to figure out how to have leverage on peacemaking issues, since we will lose the ability to influence CAT, HP, and Motorola.  We need provide the same amount of care and concern for our own members in many parts of the country, hurt by their perception of what we have done. We need to examine the internal processes by which we discern these matters.     Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

Michael Gizzi
Ruling Elder Commissioner
Presbytery of Great Rivers

%d bloggers like this: