See the New Mad Sociologist at


A New Blog Site!

Hello Everyone. As you could probably tell, I’ve had some issues with this website. They were issues of my own creation, but they are now repaired. I have, however, moved this site to a new URL linked below. I hope you enjoy it as much as you’ve enjoyed this site. I’m excited for the new focus, or rather I should say “renewed” focus on the Mad Sociologist mission of applying social historical analysis to contemporary events. Please come on over and visit, bookmark the new page and enjoy.

The Mad Sociologist Blog!

You can also find the Mad Sociologist on Twitter @MadSociologist.

And a brand new Facebook Page!


Republicans Undermining Peace is Old Hat

Why Revelations of Republican Treason Should Come as no Surprise

I have to admit, when I first learned of the Republican attempt to undermine the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran I was surprised. I rubbed my eyes and temples, quite possibly spewed some expletives, and pushed myself to read the open letter to Iran, what turned out to be a full page combination of condescension insult and ignorance. ‘Unbelievable,’ I thought. Directly undermining the President’s constitutional authority to negotiate with a foreign power is beneath even the shallow dignity of the Republican Party. Surely, they wouldn’t go that far.

This post has been moved to the updated Mad Sociologist Blog. If you would like to read further, please click here


Islam as Default Adjective

I read these headlines and their associated articles and felt inclined to respond. Look, it is not my intention to rehash the same old arguments. This project is not an echo chamber. The hypocrisy of requiring the “Islam” modifier in reference to specific acts of violence while ignoring this syntactical requirement for, say, The Lord`s Resistance Army as “Christian terrorist” organization is clear, and has already been elaborated.

What is interesting to me, sociologically, is the insistence among organizations and institutions involved in knowledge construction at the social level, policy institutions, their associated party apparatus and the responsive media, for this syntactical convention. Culturally, we profess values of individual merit and the inherent unfairness of ascribing the actions of a few unto a population as a whole, yet central institutions in our society insist, just insist, that any crime committed by a Moslem be attributed to Islam as a whole. This should not surprise us. It is a standard feature of groupthink to demand standards of the out-group that is not expected of the in-group. The individualist standard is the very value system embraced by conservatives when confronted by the actions of groups like the KKK, which validate their hatred using Christian doctrine. The standard rejoinder is that such groups do not represent “true Christianity.” Of course, this is more or less true even in the face of the immense complexity of what constitutes “true” Christianity. Collective responsibility, however, is required applies of Moslems who are expected to apologize for the crimes committed by extremist groups acting under an Islamic pretext. This is not a moral issue, it’s a group dynamic that says more about the in-group demanding the collective standard than it does the out-group.

The fact is that we all know, based on our own, professed American values, that ascribing extremism to 1.5 Billion Moslems based on the actions of a miniscule fraction of this population is wrong. That such an ascription is unreasonable is a mainstream truth, not a radical exercise in ethics.

To confirm this, we can do a simple experiment. The co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim. Find one reference to her actions being referred to as Islamic Peace making. In fact, an Islamic Peace Movement does exist. Where is any mention of this in the mainstream media? One would be hard pressed to find the word “Islamic” applied as a modifier to any terms other than “terrorist” or “extremist,” whereas similar adjective use of “Christian” or “American” is vehemently resisted.

…Is vehemently resisted because it is wrong. Such terminology is inherently derogatory, exclusionary and antithetical to the formation of any productive relationship based upon mutual respect. For this reason, the President is correct in refusing to apply this ignorant, all-encompassing term in his speeches or in his policies, and Vox, usually well thought out and informative (if not a little Vanilla), is wrong. Insisting that this particular group of extremists, ISIL, is tagged as “Islamic” will, in no way, serve any useful purpose. It will not force Moslems to confront the extremists in their own midst any more than Christians are inclined to confront the KKK for its use of Christian doctrine. Everyone, regardless of faith or politics, knows that ISIL is a violent extremist group. Adding “Islamic” does nothing to alter that designation.

Demanding that “Islamic” be the default adjective for “terrorist” will only encourage the very defensiveness that we see from any reference group when compared to its worst elements. At worst, and most likely, this syntactical convention will serve as just one more point of alienation for one of the world’s largest reference groups at a time when there is already too much dissonance. It makes no sense to alienate the very people with whom we must work if any reasonable solution to this problem is to found. I, as an Italian American, am not more inclined to condemn the actions of the Mafia if its actions are ascribed to me.

Secondly, the most dangerous consequence of using metaphors in any form of writing is that doing so tends to constrain our understanding of what might be complex issues. The actions of ISIL cannot be attributed to a simple interpretation of the Qu ‘ran. There are complex political and cultural issues involved. Interpersonal forces are in play to convince people to join and participate in acts of extreme violence. A couple of verses from an ancient book are not enough, in and of themselves, to accomplish what these extremist groups have accomplished. Extremism of any kind, political, religions, philosophical, or any combination thereof, cannot be divorced from the social context.

People with extreme and violent views can be found in any society, but under what conditions do such groups vie for power in any realistic or threatening way? Under normal, functional social conditions, there are society controls in place that keep such groups from expanding beyond the narrow, subcultural, systems that they occupy. No. extremist groups thrive in in social dysfunction and instability. The paradigms used to justify these movements are nothing more than pretext, discursive formations by which people can justify the otherwise irrational. ISIL and Boco Haram are no exceptions to this rule.

Yet the “Islamic” metaphor lends itself to simplistic interpretation of motive, organization, resolve and cause. In the United States, with contemporary political discourse, this adjective lends itself to an unrealistic, irrational, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ paradigm that does not offer a real solution. Indeed, this Clash of Civilizations paradigm may actually be a causal factor in creating this crisis.

ISIL is the birthchild of policies based on the premise of a Clash of Civilizations and the consequent swath of destruction left in its wake. Any further rhetoric that reinforces this Medieval Paradigm only fuels ISIL`s cause. So long as this, and any future such group, can plausibly make the claim that it is the only defense against a postmodern Crusade it will be empowered. So long as Moslems look out upon ruined villages, bomb craters and the graves of their loved ones, they can be tempted by extremist rhetoric. After all, the evidence is all around them that they are living in an extremist world.

The Clash of Civilizations rhetoric, however, also serves the purposes of certain western groups. So long as this is true, any attempt to understand this crisis will be retarded by a simplistic yet dramatic wrong explanation.

ISIL is the ultimate justification for our continued imperialist pursuits in the Middle East: brutal the point of psychopathy even and especially toward those recognized as ‘their own people’, extremist, and clearly easily identifiable as “the other.” It is impossible for even the most open minded peace advocates and anti-imperialists to try to advocate tolerance and understanding. Expending significant military energy to ISIL’s destruction is an easy sell so long as such policies are effected under a pretext of policing and international law. That’s not to say that it is an honest sell, but it is an easy one for the American people, fatigued from over a decade and a half of warfare in that region, to accept. Just another sacrifice on the part of us Americans, stoically accepting our burden as the world’s indispensable nation. What’s not to love?

Best of all, a Clash of Civilizations paradigm sells advertising space where complex sociological analysis inspires nap time and turning the channel to Big Bang Theory re-runs.

Linking ISIL to Islam as a whole, however, serves a broader purpose. After all, if Moslems are unable and unwilling to control their own extremists, then the United States simply must maintain its presence in the region in perpetuity. For the sake of the world; for the preservation of civilization, U.S. hegemony over the Middle East is the only solution. Of course, we didn’t ask for this responsibility. We don’t want to do it. For the good of all, however, the burden must be borne, and it must be borne by us.

What? There’s oil, too? You don’t say!

From this perspective, ISIL arrived onto the world stage just in time to save a failed imperial policy and to breathe new life into a foreign adventure that most Americans are ready to shed.

Look, the “Islamic” modifier and its Clash of Civilizations context, serves a host of purposes, all of them racist. Refusing to accept this context does not mean that we are denying the role of Islam as a motivator for this and similar groups as the Vox article infers. Certainly, groups like ISIL, Boco Haram, al Qaeda, are influenced by Islam. But so is Malala Yousafzai; so is Rep. Keith Ellison, for that matter. There are 1.8 billion Moslems in the world, and roughly 1.8 billion slightly different ways that Islam influences each. Islam, like all religions, is not a monolithic entity entire unto itself. The religion itself is complex, multifaceted, fragmented by sectarian, cultural and geopolitical differences.

We may not be able to disconnect Islam from the atrocities of these groups, but we also have to understand the larger political context. By destroying the social fabric in the Middle East, the United States and its allies did their share in fertilizing the field for this particularly poisonous crop. The hundreds of millions of Moslems living in peace throughout the world are not inclined to sympathize with terrorists. The political context of war, destruction and desperation is a more valid explanation for what we are seeing in Iraq than is the default “Islamic” adjective. Any solution to this crisis will have more to do with functionalist sociology than it will the Clash of Civilizations. Military power will only fuel the crisis. A functional society cannot be bombed into existence. True nation building means providing the resources as well as the autonomy necessary for a society to work through its own conflicts and settle upon its own values and institutional constructs.

Accepting this, however, plays against our understanding and embrace of our so-called civilizing mission in the region. Rather than a nuanced understanding of complex factors and acceptance of the role we played in creating such monsters, it is easier and more self-aggrandizing to write off extremism as a product of some innate quality of the other. In turn, we can also pat ourselves on the back for our own moral superiority while we engage in our own crimes against humanity. The United States government has never faced a crisis for which militarism was not the favored solution. Hence our current situation.

President Obama and any conscientious press outlet is right in not pandering to this base sophistry. Alienating a diverse community of almost two billion people is not only immoral, puerile and racist. It’s bad policy. If extremism can be defeated in any real sense it will not be through force of arms. The only path to defeating ignorance, even violent ignorance, is by marshaling the cooperation of the communities from which these groups recruit their support. After all, those who rush off to join extremist groups often do so because they are attracted by the promise of empowerment, pride and respect that their societies cannot or will not provide for them. We must be part of empowering communities in securing the futures of their citizens without being so much of a part of this process that our very existence discredits such efforts.

I don’t know if Obama’s refusal to use stigmatizing rhetoric will translates into better policy. I’m not holding my breath. The President, like his predecessors, has demonstrated that hegemony remains the United States’ foundational foreign policy. In this small matter of syntax, however, he is right.

Chris Kyle: A Useful Sociopath

And The Militarism That Gives Such Men a Platform
I’ve largely stayed out of the ludicrously empassioned debate raging through social media on the Michael Moore American Sniper debate. Frankly, I have no money on this horse race.  I am a fan of Michael Moore’s documentaries, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions. Likewise,  I appreciate  the depth and dramatic turns that are an integral part of Clint Eastwood’s movie making.  I’ve not seen American Sniper yet. Whereas I understand Moore’s possition with regard to his uncle and the source of his feelings on snipers in general, I’m not sure that referring to these soldiers as cowards is an effective way to extend the debate. 
That being said,  everything a person says does not have to be predicated on extending the debate.  If nothing else,  I can appreciate the universalism by which Michael Moore is basing his evaluation.  Imagine,  if you will,  our feelings about a foreign sniper in the United States who boasts about killing a confirmed 160 Americans. Let’s say this soldier claimed that every person he killed,  including men,  women and children,  were all armed and a threat to his fellow soldiers. Would that change our opinion of him?  Of course,  we would never identify such a person as a “soldier,” let alone “hero”. This person would,  without debate,  be referred to as a terrorist.  His boasting would be attributed to blood lust rather than patriotism. Certainly, Clint Eastwood would not make him the hero in one of his movies.
In this context,  it’s hard to understand the idol worship and mindless adulation of Chris Kyle. Once the narrative is turned around, it is hard to justify hero worship in the context of war and warriors.  After all,  one considered a war hero on one side is,  almost by default,  a war criminal on the other.  So it could be said of Chris Kyle,  the most successful sniper in American History. Consequently, debate on this matter, Kyle’s status as a hero, can only be circular, endless and fruitless.
I have, however, become interested in how the nature of the debate speaks on The United States’ self destructive love affair with militarism. So I’ve read a great deal, of late, on The American Sniper, both the man and the fictional depiction created by Eastwood (and it would be well if we remember that his movie is a fiction, not a biography).  From what I’ve read,  I can say that I don’t believe Chris Kyle was a coward.  In fact,  he was most likely sincere about his patriotism and dedication to his country.
He was,  however,  a sociopath.
I don’t say this lightly, and if I’m misreading something I will be happy to rescind everything that I’m saying here. What strikes me,  however,  is Kyle’s clear lack of affect over the fact that he killed over 160 people.  In one passage from his self promoting memoir he describes killing a teenage boy and watching as his mother rips her clothes and wails over her son’s corpse. He expresses nothing more than contempt for people whom he labels savages, by which he means all Iraqis, not just  the insurgents.
I’m not a veteran.  I’ve never been in combat. I have,  however,  spoken with many combat veterans over the years. All of them,  without exception, have been reticent about discussing the lives lost by their actions. Even when those actions are justified by the psychopathic norms of war,  and the soldier acted to save himself or others. Those who have killed often carry the grief with them for the rest of their lives. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man…” as one of Clint Eastward’s more thoughtful characters once said. 
Yet here is Chris Kyle, with pride, vanity, boasting of over 160 kills to his name.  He wrote a book about it,  and Clint Eastwood created a fictionalized and, from what I hear, glorified account of his exploits. This is,  to my experience,  outside of the normal response. On the part of Chris Kyle,  it is indicative of a disturbing disconnect between himself and the enormity of his actions,  even if each of those killings were justifiable according to the rules of war. The latter caveat is so far outside of the realm  of probability as to be laughable if the subject matter weren’t so macabre.  Name a single professional in any field who makes over 160 attempts at any task without error.  One hundred and sixty perfect kills would make Kyle not only the most successful sniper in history,  but quite possibly the most successful single person in history.  A successful harbinger of death, without a glint of remorse.  The perfect killing machine…By his own account. Yet based on Kyle’s not so honest accounts of later exploits,  like knocking out Jesse Ventura, or controlling looters in New Orleans, etc, is hard to thoroughly believe the complete validity of his memoir. This is yet another indicator of sociopathy.
The question then becomes,  was Kyle a sociopath before becoming a Navy Seal,  or after?
If before,  then he was a useful sociopath,  one with an authoritarian personality,  willing to kill “the savages” for his country without remorse. In this case we might be lucky that he found his outlet in the psychopathy of state militarism.  He most certainly should not have been entrusted with deadly skills. The argument could be made,  that this particular form of sociopathy was an invaluable tool in the cauldron of combat. After all,  how many lives did he save if one of the women he blew away really was holding a grenade intent on killing American soldiers? And I would posit that Chris Kyle did,  indeed, save American lives.
This level of debate,  however,  precludes the question, ‘why were American soldiers in a foreign nation, one that was no threat to the US, to begin with?  Instead,  we are stuck debating a grotesque and racist calculus of American blood weighed against Iraqi lives.  An assessment of Kyle’s heroism should not be divorced from the criminal context of the Iraq War, or from war itself.
From what I’ve read,  Eastwood does just that in this film. If true,  then American Sniper is a profound under achievement for a master story teller.
The second option for the above question is that Kyle became a sociopath as a result of his combat training and/or experience. Regardless of the dominant paradigm about man’s inherently warlike nature,  human beings,  under normal circumstances,  are not prone to violence,  let alone the mass slaughter of war. If humans were warlike,  those in power would not have to lie and create outrageous myths and incentives to convince us to fight.  A normal human being will become violent under certain desperate circumstances, usually premised in fear. This desperation may take the form of an abstract existentialist threat such as “terrorism” or the mushroom cloud. That’s why every war conjured by the powerful involves the invention of some threat arising from the flames–an uncompromising evil that can only be met with force.  Kyle’s stories suggest that such a frame was how he saw Iraqis and Moslems in general.
Human beings are also more prone to violence when such acts are condoned by some transcendent value,  a cause higher than oneself.  Again,  this is characteristic of all wars going back to ancient times.  Kyle understood his mission in terms of patriotism, God and family. It’s delusional. But how else can one justify looking through a scope and gunning someone down in her own back yard  if not in terms of some higher calling of which we are only servants.
Finally,  people are more prone to violence if they believe that the object of their anger is not human. Wartime propaganda always presents the enemy as some form of subhuman, a beast.  Kyle demonstrates this mindset by referencing Iraqis as savages. These were not human beings falling by his hand, but blood thisty animals living only to kill Americans. And, let’s face it, when confronting an ever present fear of attack, IED, women and chilgren with grenades, there’s plenty of real life experience confirming this bias. That one is a soldier in someone else’s land is nothing more than academic when real people are trying to kill you and your friends.  ultimately, whether my cause is just or not, my goal is to get home to my loved ones. Regardless of context,  from my point of view those who might kill me–those savages–really are monsters.
All of the characteristics noted above are integral to war as a human activity.  They are also characteristic of sociopathy. War is a sociopathic endeavor from the start, requiring a sociopathic response to survive let alone adequately interpret and adjust to life in a war zone.  Now imagine a man like Chris Kyle, who at least 160 times was a witness to his own sociopathic response to psychotic environs, magnified close-up through his sniper’s lens.  How does one deal with that, righteous or not, without some kind of dissociation from reality? Without surrender to the very souless hell that has become an igrained part of life? That process might have been a story more worthy of Eastwood than the militarist propagana that American Sniper is reported to be.
Look. The point of this post is not to smear Chris Kyle’s name. Whatever his story,  he did the deadly job that he was trained to do. He served his country in the self sacrificing way that we have all been socialized to know as right,  that fighting and killing and sacrificing our health and sanity and even or lives for our country is a noble cause. My goal is to raise questions about the assumptions underlying the sociopathy of state militarism and violence. That underlying assumption which defines slaughter and assassination in the name of one’s country is glorious and heroic and those who most effectively slaughter and assassinate are glorified as heroes.
Chris Kyle may have been guilty of using this paradigm for self promotion–Hell, successful marketing is almost as American as militarism–but he didn’t invent the rules of the game. He simply played his part. At best, Chris Kyle’s lack of affect and empathy for the other was used by the state as an effective weapon. No more marketable quality than that exists in a militaristic state. The same form of heartless sociopathy is expected of us,  the citizens who silently stand back while our government kills in our name.  At worst,  Kyle was turned into a sociopath, another victim of state violence, hushed and silenced by a blind, fawning hero worship. Instead of adulation,  however,  Kyle should be understood as the damaged individual he was. Instead of seeing Kyle as some heroic decoration used to shroud a meaningless, criminal war in false glory in preparation for the next, we should see in his lack of affect and empathy, and his bloody record, the kind of inhuman travesty that war really is. That we become so invested in the myth of the military hero suggests that Kyle was not alone in this particular form of psychosis.

A Game of Life and Death

With clear winners and losers…played every day!

If you answered, “the twelve year old boy, of course!” then you are pre-qualified for a position on the Cleveland Police Department.

On Oak Trees and High Stakes Testing

And selling what everyone knows to be a bad idea

Some time ago my school district showed us an interesting video and sent representatives around to explain the new Value Added Model (VAM) that they were using for assessing teachers. The goal, of course, was to sell this woefully inadequate system and to convince us not to worry about the inherent iniquities. Everything had been taken care of. The representative was very nice and cheerful, reassuring us that all factors were taken into account when applying VAM to our teacher reviews.

This post was moved to the New Mad Sociologist Page. To read the entire article, click here.

Actual Facebook Conversation That Took a Curious Turn

We might want to be a bit more concerned for the political future of the US than we are.

The following is a conversation that I had on Facebook just yesterday. The gentleman involved is a friend of mine. A good, hardworking guy with a family. This fact makes what he actually says and what he believes even more disturbing to me.

The conversation starts off pretty innocuously with a meme that, frankly, I largely agree with…

This post has been moved to the new Mad Sociologist Blog Site: Click Here to read it in full



Implicit Bias, the Thomas Theorem and Police Violence

Fear and Prejudice in Police Decision Making

Two articles that appeared in Vox, taken together, were very revealing with regard to the ongoing debate and protest on police violence. The first had to do with explaining the violent responses of police in the field. The second elaborated on a psychological phenomenon referred to as implicit bias. Both were revealing and, as is typical of Vox, not very radical in their approach. Read together against the context of contemporary concern about police over-reach, however, they could be very helpful in understanding police behavior without resorting to finger pointing and vilification.

The first article is, Why Police Officers Often Resort to Lethal Force as a First Response. The author, Dara Lind, attempts to help us understand police responses. After all, police have multiple, non-lethal tools at their disposal, including Tasers, pepper spray and batons. Why resort immediately to the gun? The answer is non-controversial. Police use their guns because they are afraid for their lives. Psychologists might suggest that there are few levels of fear registered by the human mind. To our psyches, those things that make us afraid are perceived, perhaps unconsciously, as threats to our lives. So psychologically, an offender with a gun, or an offender with a knife, may elicit a similar response. And certainly we can’t blame police officers for being afraid. Someone coming at you with a knife or gun or baseball bat is scary and, in a very real sense, life threatening.

According to police experts, though I haven’t seen the actual research on this, an officer or deputy has about two seconds to decide upon a response. Assuming this is true…though I hypothesize that it is not…then resorting to the gun over the Taser is the right decision. After all, you don’t want to be underprepared for a potentially life threatening situation. If more than a Taser is required, and all the officer has is two seconds to respond, then the gun is and should be the default weapon.

So why carry a Taser at all? Well, the article is not clear on this. Lind points out that the Taser was intended to reduce the probability of lethal force being used. However, according to this article, that has not happened. What has happened is an increase in non-lethal force being used. This seems counterproductive, but that is another issue.

The second article is called, Understanding the Racial Bias You Didn’t Know You Had, by Jenée Desmond-Harris. In this article, Desmond-Harris points out that we are all imbued with what psychologists refer to as implicit bias. Despite the psycho-speak, this is a sociological phenomenon. In short, our cultural understanding of subordinate groups in society (those who are not of the dominant group) imbues our assumptions about those groups. In the United States, this includes racial minorities, women, old people and the poor. Since these assumptions are intrinsic to our socialization, we don’t even realize that we are influenced by these biases. People may be convinced that they, “don’t even see color,” but they do. In the United States, they do.

Some questions then arise. Does a police officer’s implicit bias influence how he interacts with black suspects? Do police perceive black suspects as inherently more dangerous and threatening than they do white suspects and, therefore, more likely to use force, specifically lethal force, against them? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the answer to both questions is yes.

We can then address the interactive component of this issue. One should be able to predict that in communities with a history of racial disparities, poverty and adversarial interactions with police that negative perceptions will be mutually reinforcing. Police officers’ perceptions of black males in the community increase the likelihood of violence, which in turn influences how black males in the community perceive police officers. Black males who perceive police officers as motivated by racism or the abuse of power are more likely to resist arrest or to act belligerently toward the police, thus reinforcing the implicit bias of the officer.

This is where the Thomas Theorem, what people perceive as real becomes real in its consequences, comes it. Both sides perceive the other as dangerous, thus responding to each other in such a way to promote these preconceptions. As a counselor, when this happened between individuals, I referred to it as a conflict cycle. I see no reason why the same term cannot be applied to this problem.

So how does one end a conflict cycle? Ideally, both parties should come together and openly decide to end it. However, ending a conflict only requires one side to cease its part and the cycle must end. My rule of thumb is that the agent with the most power has the responsibility to end its part of the conflict cycle. In this case, that means the responsibility is on the police, as the legitimized representative of state power, the agent authorized to use violence, to end the conflict cycle. Policies must be negotiated between the police and the community, with the police taking the lead, that re-establishes the legitimacy of policing while protecting the rights, autonomy and dignity of those subject to police authority.

To that effect, whiny actions like the police turning their backs on Mayor DeBlasio just recently, only further de-legitimizes the police in the eyes of those whom they are expected to serve. It is my experience that crybabies don’t take it upon themselves to resolve problems. They only make them worse.

Discriminatory or Wanton Police Violence is Dangerous

To the Police

Note: I was planning this post for a few days, but in light of the despicable murder of two police officers in New York I feel that a caveat is in order. Violence is only justified in terms of self-preservation or protection of the innocent. And this only if no other options are available. Anger. Revenge. The target had it coming. Or, as a friend of mine once commented on social media, “it’s better to be tried by nine than carried by six.” These are not legitimate excuses for violence any more than is “he reminded me of Hulk Hogan and I was scared” or “a black teen in a hoodie must be up to no good”. The man who killed two police officers in New York yesterday, a man whom I speculate will be revealed as deeply troubled, is not in any way justified in his actions. Any future assaults on police, and I fear that there will be, are criminal acts. Period. They are not a legitimate form of resistance to police exploitation or discrimination. The following post should be read as a sociological analysis and a reason to solve the dissonance and anomie that exists between many police departments around the country and the communities that they serve. It is not a call to justify violence.

Max Weber defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against a defined group of people. The police are the ultimate manifestation of this monopoly. It is the police who are assigned the task to actually perform the violence required by the state to assert external social control. For instance, if an average guy on the street approaches you, tells you to lean against a wall and then attempts to put you in hand-cuffs, you are probably going to resist. You are going to defend yourself. Whoever this person is, if you do not perceive that they have a legitimate claim to assert force over you, you are justified in defending yourself.

However, if that person has a badge, identifies himself as a police officer, even if you believe that you have done nothing wrong, you will probably submit and allow the officer to cuff you. In most cases, if you feel that there has been some mistake, you know that there are protections for you, so your life is not in danger. There are in place legitimate protections for your rights and a means of redressing any errors that might have been made. We are, for the most part, not in a Kafkaesque world in which one is guilty just by virtue of being arrested.

This legitimacy, in modern society, is predicated on a concept of the social contract that was born three hundred years ago and elaborated by highly regarded founders of modern thought, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. We no longer talk much about this social contract and what it means, but it is implicit in our understanding of state legitimacy, and consequently in the legitimacy of state actions.

It is clear from the description above that this legitimacy is pretty tenuous. After all, what is the real difference between someone with a badge and someone without? Why is one perceived as a threat which must be fended off, while the other is seen as a valid agent of power, even violent power? That shroud of legitimacy isn’t very thick, and in many communities it is tattered and gossamer thin.

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the system. Communities do account for human error. We recognize that there will be times when violence, even deadly violence will be used inappropriately, be it maliciously or unintentionally. After all, the actors of the state are humans, subject to human error, misjudgment and frailty. When such incidents occur, there is outrage, but that outrage can be addressed and the social contract renegotiated.

However, when there is a clear pattern of long term and systemic exploitation of this social contract, when it is clear that power has corrupted the very agents responsible for its exercise, the legitimacy of the state as an institution is called into question. Racially segregated systems, such as the police force in Ferguson, or inherently exploitative policies such as ‘stop-and-frisk’ in New York will, without redress, undermine the understood legitimacy between the state and people. Patterns of abuse will manifest in the citizen as an expectation of abuse. Then, when asked to lean against the wall and put my hands on my head, I may feel that I am threatened, that my life is in danger. That this exercise of power is not legitimate. I may be inclined to fight, to defend myself or my family as is my right. The authority invested in the badge is validated by the legitimate exercise of state power. Once that legitimacy falls, the badge is nothing more than a thin piece of metal, and the holder is no more subject to deference than anyone else on the street.

That’s why it’s incumbent on the police and on the state to protect that legitimacy. Being a police officer is difficult enough. Without this shroud of legitimacy, policing becomes impossible regardless of how devoted and altruistic the motives of the officer. We must understand that the relationship between the community and the police is an ongoing negotiation. Without open negotiation and a fair and just process for redressing grievances, this negotiation must become adversarial. Adversarial interactions ultimately take on an in-group/out-group manifestation. Each side becomes socialized to believe that it is “us against them,” and consequently, each side entrenches itself for conflict. Interactions become increasingly adversarial, and, consistent with the Thomas Theorem, this contentious relationship shapes and reproduces future conflicts. This is known as a conflict cycle.

We see this in black families who feel obligated to teach their children, especially their boys, how to “survive” an encounter with the police. Clearly the social contract has broken down. Re-establishing that social contract must be the priority of activists and police forces alike. That being said, police, being the representatives of the state and state power, are charged with the responsibility to take the lead in these negotiations. The police represent the state when they pick up their badges and don their uniforms. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the police to serve the community, not to oppress it, regardless of the circumstances, to preserve the validity of the relationship. If that shroud is torn, it is the state’s responsibility to start the mending process.

Added: That’s why I was deeply disturbed when I read the response from the head of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, in response to the shooting. “There’s blood on many hands tonight—those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Comments like this only build walls between the police and the community. More walls are not needed. More doors are needed.

The community counts on the police for protection. The police require the legitimacy of their station as public servants licensed to do violence under very specific circumstances. When that relationship breaks down, as it has in communities all over the country, then both the community and the police are in danger. A state of anomie exists that can be exploited by the unscrupulous both at the community level, the police level and the level of the state. This is the nature of the protests (there is no “guise.” There is legitimate outcry against abuse). Those who believe that this crisis is over Mike Brown or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds, even thousands of victims (not all of whom have died) of police exploitation and abuse, misunderstand the nature of this issue. This is about delegitimizing patterns of systemic exploitation and corruption.

The fact is that the tenuous legitimacy of the police as a valid representation of state authority has been undermined by years, sometimes generations, of abuse. The killings of unarmed black suspects are only the clearest manifestations of that abuse. The increasingly militarized precincts throughout the nation represent further entrenchment and greater dissonance between the police and the communities they serve. Added: If there’s blood on anyone’s hands, it’s on the hands of those like Patrick Lynch who perpetuate an ongoing conflict cycle. It’s on the hands of those who profit from and exploit this dissonance, be it looters or weapons dealers.

It is clear that this breakdown of the social contract is dangerous to members of the community. However, it is also dangerous to the police—even to the great majority of officers who conscientiously serve.


Addendum: Condolences to the family and loved ones of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

The Point of Protesting

One Ridiculous Argument Against Protesting for Social Justice

I just want to respond to an argument that I’ve been hearing regarding the protests around Ferguson, Eric Garner, etc. I’ve also heard some variation of this argument offered regarding other protest movements.

First, the moronic argument:

“Why don’t all of these people hollering about the police protest gang violence and black on black crime?”

My response:

Protesting criminals makes no sense. That’s why they don’t do it. Protest is a method for speaking to power and building community. As such, it is exactly the wrong method for addressing black on black crime or gang violence. True, community gatherings have come together to address rampant gang crime, but this kind of action is hardly protest, more community organizing. A large enough, ardent enough protest can, conceivably, catch the attention of those in power. When people feel that the legitimate means for redress are not available to them, protest becomes a reasonable option. This is not the case when criminals act against a community. There is not chance that a criminal or gang banger will change his wicked ways upon seeing people take to the streets. If anything, he will see that as an opportunity to pursue more crime.

Look, it’s not like black communities have done nothing to address black on black crime and gang violence. In fact, one could speculate that their attention has been largely successful as the incidence of black on black crime has declined. Gang activity has been rising, which is to be expected when the legitimate means of attainment has collapsed. It’s just that protesting is not a reasonable response.

The given argument sounds good. It probably plays well among the unthinking. It’s just completely idiotic. It’s like saying, “doing heart surgery on people with bad hearts is so hypocritical if we are not also doing heart surgery on diabetics.” It’s the wrong procedure.

Don’t believe for a minute that those who created this argument actually believe it. This is just another attempt to steer attention away from the complex issues, like endemic racism in our institutions of social control, and to support the status quo.