Proposal for a new form of Intellectual Property: the CultureMark

Intellectual property is one of the most important institutional developments of the modern age. The protection of trademarks, patents, and copyrights has generated more wealth and economic growth than any human innovation other than the domestication of plants and animals, thousands of years ago. It has financed more than 90% of all literature and visual arts; all communication technology from the telegraph onward; all non-military electronic technology; and most medical technology.

However, intellectual property (IP) can be abused, such as pharmaceutical corporations attempting to block production of HIV therapies in Brazil, and their current suppression of unlimited production of COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, IP can be mis-designed. Disney lobbied Congress to extend copyright-protections indefinitely so that early creative works like Snow White (1935) do not go into the public domain. Their concern is that the face of Snow White could be used in ways that damage their family-friendly corporate reputation. But if brand-protection is the issue, the remedy is rather self-evident: the graphic design of Disney characters could be protected by trademark—which is indefinite—because they are linked with the Disney brand. Copyright-protection has a different purpose, and should revert to the 7-years-plus-7-renewable-once policy. This would also help rappers and other samplers of earlier music to know that they can build on the creative work of earlier artists.

But perhaps the greatest mis-design is that we have not yet incorporated cultural protections into our intellectual property rights. If a Native American group has a specific name, a specific aesthetic, and a specific reputation, we know those are valuable because companies have used those names and designs to promote products which they profit from. This includes Jeep using the name Cherokee for one of its vehicles, and it includes Zuni restaurant in San Francisco, using the name of a pueblo community with their appealing desert-southwest aesthetic.

Part of the problem is that IP is designed to be assigned to individuals. This has caused many problems in patent law, because complex technologies are usually developed by teams. Assignation of a patent to one member of that team is usually more a reflection of power-inequalities within a corporation, and not an accurate reflection of creative contributions. Likewise, IP protection of the words “Cherokee” and “Zuni” would have to be assigned to communities, not individuals. However in the latter case, the solution may be more straightforward: assign the rights to the recognized governing body of the community. The design of the type of IP is also important: since it is related to the reputation of the community, it should be modeled on the permanent form of protection: trade-mark. I suggest that it be called a CultureMark. Some communities would want to license-out their name or other unique creative works, in exchange for license revenue; their choice. The ability to license would be both a source of revenue and political leverage. Like trademark, it should be perpetual. Unlike trademark, perhaps CultureMark should be inalienable so that a wealthy buyer cannot repeat the crimes we have already committed by stripping a community of the right to declare its identity, again. I would feel far more comfortable eating at Zuni restaurant, if I knew that they had negotiated terms with the Zuni government and were providing revenue to that community on the terms that the community had specified.

A Little Disruption of Western Chauvinism

White supremacists such as the Proud Boys have revived and articulated a belief that Western Civilization is superior, and that Western Civilization is White. I love Gandhi’s retort that Western Civilization “would be a good idea,” but simple snarkastic dismissal might not be the most effective way to disrupt this racist, fascist American movement. There are some half-truths mixed in with descriptions of Western Civ, so this essay is about sifting out the half-truths and distractions that lead to such toxic politics.

Origins of ‘The West’

In the Middle Ages, Europeans called their region Christendom. The term ‘West’ actually came from Arab geographers, who were trying to decide how to distinguish large regions of the Muslim world. They agreed that areas west of the Kharga Oasis in Egypt would be called The West (al Maghrib). Lands from Kharga eastward would be called The East (al Mashriq). The fertile part of northwest Africa was called ‘the Island of the West’ (Jezirat al-Maghrib) because it was bounded by the Mediterranean sea on the north and east, the Atlantic on the west, and the dune seas of the Sahara on the south. Both Algeria (Arabic: Jezira) and Morocco (Arabic: al-Maghrib) derive their names from this.

Medieval European Christians regarded classical Greek geography as a pagan, pre-Christian field of study. They did not pay much attention to it, whereas Arab scholars translated Claudius Ptolemy’s works from Greek to Arabic and the study of djugrafiyya continued to develop in the Muslim world. Since Europe was west of the Kharga Oasis, it was also generally classified as ‘The West’ one thousand years ago. This lined up more consistently with Roman Catholic Christendom after their permanent schism with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.

al-Idrisi World Map, 1154 AD

Detail of Idrisi’s world map, made in Palermo in 1154. South is at the top; this portion of the map shows Italy and Sicily. Stromboli has the red labeling, and is shown “upright” relative to the northern Sicilian coast.

Starting with Martin Luther’s excommunication (1520) and Henry VIII’s maneuvering for a divorce (1530s), Catholic Christendom split so violently that—to this day—many Protestants are reluctant to acknowledge that Roman Catholics are Christians. In elementary school in Connecticut in the 1970s a friend of mine was surprised to hear that I was Catholic. “Oh. I thought you were Christian,” he said with no ill intent. In 21st-century California, Catholic Latinx avoid calling themselves Christian because they do not want to be mistaken as Evangelicals—a group whose abusiveness and intolerance I endured firsthand in the 1980s. So I sympathize with their caution.

Back 400 years ago, as Catholics and Protestants were butchering each other in Europe, they dropped the collective term Christendom. The two terms that persisted were ‘European’ and the Arab term ‘Western.’ Since the Enlightenment, many Europeans wanted to present their culture as somehow universal and post-Christian. The term “Western” avoided acknowledging Christian roots, but its universalist aspirations were also a bit imperialist.

The Massive Retcon to Contrive Westernness

Retroactive continuity, or “retcon,” is a succinct expression for how modern history has been built: from the present backwards, to justify the present rather than to understand the past. The rise of the discipline of History had an upside: nation-states have the resources and the incentive to fund universal primary and secondary education for their citizens—so long as those students learned the high-story, the national History. Often that History has been extremely valuable for civic political debates. But it is a fatal error to presume that History is objective, or that it is a person. ‘History’ does not teach us anything. We teach history, and we bring our biases (known and unknown) to the way we teach it.

Here is an example of omission, not deception: in U.S. History, especially in California, we teach that many Chinese were recruited to build the railroads in the 1860s and were only subjected to the most brutal discrimination in the 1870s, during one of many economic crashes with high unemployment. But why were so many Chinese willing to leave their families and spouses to come to California? Only in 2015 did I learn of the Taiping Movement (a.k.a. Taiping Rebellion), in which a charismatic Chinese Christian leader sought to defy the Qing Dynasty in the 1850s and 1860s. The Qing military suppressed the rebellion by sacking Suzhou and devastating Nanjing. About 20 million people died in this conflict in the early 1860s. I know that U.S. History focuses on the U.S. Civil War going on at exactly the same time. But no mention of a mid-19th-century conflict with a death toll twentyfold greater? A conflict that drove immigration to our own country? I don’t regard this as a malicious omission, but…dang. We Americans ought to know.

The construction of Westernness from the 1600s onwards has more disturbing features. English and German scholars emphasized the way Athenians promoted demokratikos without paying attention to Greek xeno-phobos. They praised ‘white marble’ statues and architecture, while ignoring the fact that Greeks actually painted this white stone to better reflect our own complexion, which is generally nut-brown. Why did Greeks use marble? Because it is available in Greece, and soft enough to be carved. But for ancient Greeks, it was actually the wrong color—white—so it needed to be painted with vivid colors. Many modern peoples would regard the Athenian color-scheme as garish. Fine. But then don’t claim it as the origin of Northern European arts and design. The people who really continue the ancient Greek color-palette are the Punjabis and Afghans of northern Pakistan. And that is an unbroken line from Bactria, Kush, and Gandhara into modern South Asia.

Erechtheion, Athens, Greece. Right half is digitally restored to original vivid colors.

Nut-brown Roman with color digitally restored from chemical analysis of trace pigments. Roman colors were often relatively muted, compared to the colors the Greeks used.

This slippage of ‘Whitening’ ancient Greek and Roman cultures means that American White-Supremacists can adopt symbols of the Roman Republic and Empire without any sense of the perverse irony in doing so. Racism as we know it is a modern ideology created to justify slavery. Romans predate our present bigotries (they had their own). It took a while for modern scholars to realize that some Roman Emperors would have been considered Black, by modern Americans. They came from Libya, and eventually we found sculptures portraying them, with wiry hair and facial features from beyond the Sahara.

Emperor Caracalla of the Severan Dynasty. Wiry hair, like my grandpa. Now that you know the color is missing, you can imagine his actual complexion.

Romans actually believed in welcoming many peoples and their Gods into their culture. It was an extension of the notion that strength comes from gathering together into unity, represented by the Roman fasces (bundle of sticks). The designers of the U.S. quarter got it right when they put an eagle, holding the Roman fasces below the motto E Pluribus Unum (Unity from Plurality). Modern European nationalists missed a key point when they associated the fasces with mono-ethnic nationalism and exclusion, or Fascism. American White-supremacists are making the same fundamental error today.

U.S. Quarter, 20th century. The bundle looks like arrows, but it is wrapped as fasces.

U.S. Senate Official Seal. Definitely fasces at the bottom.

Latins and the Disruption of Western Whiteness

Since the 1950s, Italian-Americans have been classified as White, and Catholics have been allowed to hold the highest offices since the election of JFK in 1960. So I have always been treated as White, and frankly that is a privilege that I appreciate. However it has always been a little weird for me to clarify that I am not Latin American, because I am literally descended from people (Neapolitans) who lived adjacent to Latium for thousands of years, and I am a 4th-generation American. So I call myself American-Latin out of respect for Latinx who continue to suffer discrimination—no pretense that I am a victim of the hardships they endure.

But a second look at Southern European history throws a huge wrench into the idea that Western=White. Spaniards and Portuguese, like Italians and Greeks, are quintessentially Western. According to the modern ret-conned version of History, southern Europeans defined the Western Civilization that was inherited by our Northwestern European brethren. In which case, Latin America is an absolutely Western project of colonization, settlement, intermarriage, anti-colonial struggles, and modern nation-states. Spaniards and Portuguese intermarried with Native Americans, just as English settlers did in Georgia and Tennessee with the Cherokee. There is prejudice against indios in many parts of Latin America, including Norteño prejudice against Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. So I am not trying to say that Latin American culture is any more innocent than ancient Roman or Greek. But Latin Americans—including Latinx in California—are as Western as I am. And according to English scholars, my Greco-Italian ancestry makes me a sort of an index-definition Westerner. So on this question, I am qualified to judge better than any White supremacist.

That said, my complexion is dark enough that my parents worried about how I would be treated if they raised me in North Carolina, where I was born. Like my daughter, I am a light nut-brown. Not enough to provoke discrimination, especially in California. But also no different from the Afghans I have worked with since 2003. In a Berkeley coffee-shop I was once mistaken for the author Danial Moinuddin (from Multan, Pakistan) by a Pakistani fan of his works. Like me, I think many Middle Easterners and South Asians felt relieved to ‘pass,’ though for Muslims this has gotten much more difficult since the 1990s.

Muddy Waters

The partial exception to my Westernness is that the other side of my family is Swedish. Even though Swedes have Caucasian complexions, they were not Christianized until the 1300s and were not considered Europeans until the 1900s. The family immigration story on that side is that we slipped into American society under the radar because we look like English and German Americans. Considering that many of my Swedish ancestors emigrated because they were facing starvation under an indifferent 19th-century aristocracy, I am relieved that their appearance made it easier for them to immigrate to the United States. This included my great-great grandfather Axel, who did not have immigration papers and got off the ship early in Boston harbor to avoid Customs and Immigration inspectors. No member of my family—or the thousands of other families that immigrated under shady circumstances in the 1800s—has any right to question refugees seeking to immigrate to this country now. The Lakota, Diné (Navajo), and other Native American tribal councils are the only official agencies in the U.S. with any ethical standing on the question of immigration. I would be interested (and somewhat nervous) to hear their judgment.

Unity from Plurality

Malcolm X exhorted his admirers to read, in order to know where they came from and in order to better understand the current conditions of the world. His exhortation to read also comes from Islam, in which literacy is a very strong ethic. But unlike the QAnon cult—where you embrace your own bigotries first and then ‘do your own research’ merely to affirm your self-deceptions—the kind of reading Malcolm X called for was anything but self-affirming. His own spiritual growth after his Pilgrimage to Mecca was deeply challenging to himself and his followers. Critical exploration and struggle with both our history and our History can be deeply disruptive to our own identities.

This disruptive search, for Americans, is our great strength. There is a way in which we are, collectively, much more ancient than most societies in the world. We are a braid of cultures and experiences from the entire world. And if that metaphor seems too sweet, imagine that braid includes some barbed wire, some slave-chains, and some glass-coated kite-string from South Asia. It might be a painful braid to grasp, but it is what we are.

Push back against impunity and empire

During the election process of 2020, Republican elected officials made a series of statements and policy decisions that show pretty clearly that they wanted to suppress the votes of Black Americans. If you object to their statements and actions, but for some reason voted for Trump, this is not a criticism directed at you.

In addition to these overt attempts to force the vote towards their preferred outcome, there are still many elected officials, including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, who refute the election results a full two months after the vote (it is now January 3). There is increasingly strong indication that the president and his most devoted followers actually reject democratic processes and want to force the United States to accept a re-election of the incumbent over the will of the majority of voters: 81.28M for Biden/Harris versus 74.22M for Trump/Pence.

The fact that the president himself is trying to force this override of the vote is quite an accusation. It is supported by several indicators: (1) his fondness for autocrats, especially Vladimir Putin; (2) his contempt for actual facts, the scientific method, and research-based journalism; and (3) his attempt to use the power of the presidential pardon to impose his own immunity against prosecution.

The president also has a much longer his track-record of acting with impunity as a businessman who inherited much, lost more, and was compelled to halt his pattern of racist discrimination as a landlord. He has never apologized for taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park 5; the five boys who were convicted and later exonerated for being falsely accused of a gang rape in Central Park.

The common theme through all of this: the president’s assertion that he has complete impunity. If he seeks to override democratic will, he seeks to become emperor.

Impunity and a re-think on Empire

Americans often imagine the British Empire as the paradigmatic model of imperialsim. As an Italian-American, I tend to check back on the Roman political processes that led from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Imperium, the source of the term, initially only meant ‘command over an area’. When the Roman Patrician Senators refused to admit Gallic leaders into the Senate, they perpetuated the condition of military direct rule over Gaul; the condition of ‘recently acquired territory through conquest’ evolved into a permanent political arrangement in which the commander-in-chief of the Roman military maintained total domination over that territory. And most importantly: the conquered people of that territory had no say in their own governance. The commander (Imperator) did not have to answer to them in any way. This impunity, this total lack of accountability, is the functional definition of empire.

It is also worth noting that these first Emperors were not kings. Augustus adopted the term princeps, meaning ‘first citizen,’ as a was to portray himself as a Roman-among-Romans while within the capital, but also the absolute dictator in areas under his direct command. The term ‘prince’ derives from princeps, ironically exposing the betrayal hidden in its ostensibly Republican origins. Augustus paid lip service to the Roman ideal of rejecting kings, while at the same time establishing an even worse form of imperial impunity.

Which made me re-think the American Revolution this morning.

Push back against tyranny, not monarchy

Americans are taught that the colonial leaders initially despised the British Parliament for imposing taxes upon them, while not granting the colonists any seat or voice in Parliament. The objection was not to taxation itself (as recent conservative extremists have implied) but rather an objection to taxation without representation. The parallel with the condition of the Gauls is important here.

However, throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, the colonial leaders did not disparage the King. When the King decided to back Parliament’s tax-impositions, the colonists then argued against tyranny. For years, I missed the distinction here. They were not categorically opposed to monarchy. Rather, they were opposed to political leaders acting with impunity. Once George III began to treat the colonialists the way the Romans treated the Gauls, he shifted from being a King to the role of being an Emperor. That is what the colonists found intolerable.

This also lines up with a critical moment in British history that is normally not taught to Americans: the Glorious Revolution of 1689. In that Revolution, James II was deposed and the English nobility invited William of Orange to become King. William accepted their terms, which meant that his family would be the royal heads of state and the Anglican Church, but he would NOT be an absolute monarch like the French royalty. He and his successors would be required to serve the interests of the people, rather than be a monarch equated with the existence of the country itself. The Glorious Revolution redefined the British govern-mentality: British subjects had a distinctive expectation of their King and how they would be ruled. Among those British subjects were the ones colonizing North America.

This does not exonerate the colonists for their widespread practice of slavery. In the 21st century, we tend to re-visit this period with a condemnatory view of the founding fathers; and in that sense I would rather amplify: slavery was legal and practiced not just in the southern colonies, but also in New York and New Jersey at the time; and Boston merchants were deeply involved in the African slave trade. So, no apologia here. The challenge of historical analysis is to hold those ugly facts in our view while also trying to understand the thinking of the colonists who led the American Revolution.

A more useful 21st-century way of looking at this history is that Black Americans, now, are demanding equal treatment under the law, and an equal right and opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In which case, to honor the epic struggle of Black Americans and their demands, we cannot dismiss the assertions made by colonial leaders who were also slaveholders. Even if Jefferson looks pretty hypocritical to our eyes today, we can still hold him to his words. And we need to understand how those words came about. What Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Madison, and Adams were objecting to was tyranny. They were experiencing the moment that the United Kingdom was really becoming the British Empire, and they rejected this sudden pivot towards imperialism.

Like the Romans, the British stumbled into imperialism with a lack of clear intention. For the Romans, the reinterpretation of the word ‘imperium’ is an indication of bass-ackwards political improvisation. Julius Caesar’s initial intention was to gain sufficient credibility to be able to join the Senatorial elite. He also expected that Gauls, like other people under Roman rule, would be incorporated into the Republic.

For Britons, the Virginia Colony and the East India Company were profit-seeking chartered corporations. The Plymouth Colony was a bit of an escape-valve, a place granted to religious extremists (Puritans). This began to change with an attempt to assert more direct Royal control over New England in the 1680s, by the very same James II whom the English themselves later rejected for his high-handedness.

When the British East India Company gained direct governing control of territory through the battles of Plassey (Bengal, 1757) and Buxar (Bihar, 1764), a new question arose: is Britain a mercantile kingdom, or is it a global empire that rules territories and peoples through direct coercion? British conservatives such as Benjamin Disraeli were very much in favor of the imperialist identity, but that was a full century later during the era of Industrial Imperialism. Americans may view “rule Britannia” through that 1870s lens, but politics were understood very differently by Brits in the 1770s. Adam Smith argued that the American colonists should either be given representation in Parliament or political independence. Many contemporary British leaders apparently agreed with him. The British attempt to retain the Atlantic colonies in the 1780s was somewhat half-hearted. Why? Because it conflicted with their own conception of political accountability, framed by their own revolution in 1689. They themselves objected to imperious domination. A generation later, conservatives like Spencer Perceval (Prime Minister, 1809-1812) were already shifting to an imperialist viewpoint. The British attempt to recapture the United States in 1812 was far more brutal.

Always in motion, the past is…

Donald Trump has actively opposed the removal of 20th-century Confederate monuments, and opposed the military’s stated intention to rename military bases. He claims that you cannot change history, and the removal of these 20th century monuments and names is like an attempt to erase history. The perverseness of this argument is that he is trying to reinforce the white-supremacist arguments that arose after the Civil War and treat them as uncontestable truth. This gets very personal for me: I was born on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I would very much like to see my birthplace renamed for someone who actually served the United States and defended the Constitution, not someone who betrayed that Constitution to perpetuate slavery. I would rather list my birthplace as Fort Robinson, named after General Roscoe Robinson Jr., who actually commanded the 82nd Airborne. I get the sense that the president, and anyone who still supports his cause on 3 January 2021, would rather fly the Confederate flag and betray the Constitution of the United States.

History is not a fixed object. It does not ‘provide’ any inherent justification for racism, nor for willful amnesia that supports imperial impunity. To understand where we are now, we need to actively study connections to prior events, and to keep re-visiting those events as we learn more. “History” is our understanding of the past, and we need to constantly refine that understanding as life-experience reveals more to us. Events in 1st century Gaul, 17th century England, and 18th century India directly pertain to how we need to understand January 2021 in the United States. We need to push back against impunity, and the creeping encroachment of imperialist thinking that it promotes.

E Pluribus Unum

Today it appears that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected as President and Vice President of the United States. They will have a difficult time governing in a country which has expressed such hostility towards inclusive government. In the long term, however, Biden and Harris need to govern for the future: an America which is plural in all ways, with no majority–white or otherwise. This is the future which America declared as a promise: a union whose strength is its plurality.

California has not had any demographic majority since the beginning of the century. Since 2014, the largest single group has been Latinx (now 39.4%), so the Census classifies California as an “Hispanic plurality state,” based on the largest group in the state. White non-Latinx constitute 36.3%, and are an aging population with a lower birth rate. Anglos continue to hold a preponderance of political and economic power in the state, as a legacy of greater opportunities than other groups. The moral and political hazard which California faces is that it might become a “White-minority government,” which is a term we used to use for Rhodeisa and Apartheid-era South Africa. Such a fate would be disastrous and permanently destructive.

Political logic immediately changes in a plural society. First: there is no majority. So the concerns about majoritarian/minoritarian democratic conflicts are replaced with concerns about representation of multiple interests. Second: none of these demographic distinctions align consistently with political interests. Latinx are not a unitary bloc in any way: not racially, not culturally, not politically. This is also true of the 14.8% of Californians who are Asian-Americans: large proportions are of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander ancestry. Even the Anglos are not unitary: San Franciscans and the “Hollywood Left” contrast sharply with rural and suburban Whites, and we include Italian-Americans (like me), Armenian-Americans like George Deukmejian, and Austrian-Americans like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What sets us apart as a country is especially apparent in California: we are not a nation insofar as “nation” means a country associated with one race, one culture, one religion, one history. Most countries are nation-states, but we are not. We are held together only by the political agreement on the Constitution and its promises: equal treatment under the law, tolerance of disagreement and real difference, no inherited elite class. How does such a society function together? We do not have a lot of comparative lessons to learn from, not in the past nor even today: Cyrus’ religious tolerance, the late Roman Republic, the Inka Empire, the Ottomans, and Hindustan under Mughal Emperor Akbar. In most of these cases, plurality was possible because government was extremely autocratic. In recent decades South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have made major strides, some of which Americans can really learn from. So we are not completely unique, but we are part of a very rare fellowship of countries committed to strength through plurality.

True plurality means Whites need to find our place again as members of a society in which we do not dominate. Joe Biden understands this: he explicitly credited Black Americans in South Carolina with propelling him towards candidacy in 2020, and it appears that non-Whites made the difference in getting him elected. So the fact that he is White does matter, but at least as important is the fact that his political success is based on a very new, truly plural political logic.

Time to rename my birthplace

How the political tide shifts in a week! On June 6, I reflected on what it means to be Southern-born and to reject the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. That seemed to match the general zeitgeist: only a few days later, Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed changing the names of U.S. military bases named after C.S.A. commanders. The resolution was passed in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and was backed by Senator (and decorated veteran) Tammy Duckworth. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper has voiced support for this change as well.

My birthplace, Fort Bragg, was named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg. I understand the conciliatory attitude of the Union when they allowed state governments to choose the names of new military bases within their respective jurisdictions. Unfortunately, some indignant white supremacists chose to name this vast base after a commander who was not only a Confederate, but also incompetent.

There are many American soldiers who trained and served at the base, and fought bravely for the United States. There are many Medal of Honor recipients associated with the base, who better deserve to be memorialized by our military, such as Army Sergeant First Class Bennie Gene Adkins. However, I agree with War on the Rocks commentators Quinn and Fritz that probably the most appropriate choice would be to rename the base for General Roscoe Robinson Jr. In addition to his great service record, he served at the base itself as commander the 82nd Airborne Division. My dad was serving in the 82nd when I was born on the base, so I have a special affinity for the 82nd.

I would be honored to re-state that I was born at Camp Robinson.

Which lives matter?

Some well-intentioned Americans are still wondering why the term “All Lives Matter” is being criticized at this moment.

It might seem that the expression “Black Lives Matter” is an argument for special treatment of African-Americans. Out-of-context, this call for the recognition of the worth of only one group’s lives might seem like a rejection of the American ideal of equal treatment under the law. Context, in this case, matters very much.

Since I teach students from a wide variety of backgrounds, for years I had to explain the United States as a split-screen experience. For many Americans, police are the public servants who keep the peace and enforce the rule of law. For many other Americans, police are instigators of violence. That seems like a contradiction, but both perceptions are true and accurate. The fact that some people were surprised at the “Police-as-threat” perception is a really clear indicator of how segregated our society has become.

Segregated? Didn’t we ban segregation with the Shelley v. Kramer (1948) and Brown v. Board (1954) Supreme Court decisions? Didn’t we reinforce de-segregation with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977? Unfortunately, no. Massey & Denton (1993) used U.S. Census data beginning in 1900 to show that residential racial segregation steadily increased over the 20th century. In the 27 years since they published, scholars have found that the trend of increasing segregation continues. So if you are not black, the chances that you have a black neighbor are lower today than ever before. The chance that you will hear an African-American viewpoint from someone whom you personally know are consequentially extremely low.

The rise of the internet does not compensate for direct interpersonal circles of trust. The current structure of internet-based social media tends to amplify extreme points of view. We find the answers we want to find and reinforce the narratives that we want to hear, rather than expand our understanding of the world from sources that we do not personally trust. The information may be out there, but there is no automatic mechanism to translate information into understanding, much less compassion. There is, however, a natural human preference to reinforce the narratives we know, in order to make sense of the world. That preference is recognized by for-profit media who sell us the stories we want to hear.

Improvements to the internet have not helped. Smartphones are the newest technology to transform cyberspace. In 1991, the video-capture of LAPD’s beating of Rodney King was fortuitous–not because beatings were rare, but because video-capture devices were rare. What smartphone video-capture reveals is actual events that might defy the story we tell ourselves about the character of our society. Unfortunately raw footage is not sufficient to overcome the mistrust of unfamiliar “others” in a highly-segregated society, as we see in non-prosecutions and acquittals in cases from Rodney King to Eric Garner.

It might seem that the people you disagree with “should know better.” But in practice, residential segregation has reinforced a segregation of communities into increasingly disconnected conversations–a process I call discursive segmentation. Understanding does not cross these barriers very easily. A video of an unarmed, cooperative black ban being murdered by a police officer with other officers complicitly standing by might be a shocking surprise, if you live in a community where you don’t spend social time with African-Americans. It might still seem implausible that police-murders are so frequent that they can only be described as a systemic pattern of behavior. Long lists of names of African-Americans murdered by police may seem abstract, if this has not happened to anyone you personally know. At a distance, it might feel like the appropriate response is to invoke the American ideal of equal treatment under the law. Yes, all lives should matter equally under American law. “Should” is the important verb-tense here, because the gap between an ideal-condition expressed by “should” and the practices that “are” is too large to be considered legitimate by an increasing number of Americans.

During the 1990s the Italian scholar Giorgio Agamben studied the modern political logic of genocide. He exhumed an ancient Roman concept which helped explain the process: the concept of Homo sacer. In Roman law, a person could be condemned to an exceptional (“sacred”, or set-apart) category. Such a de-personalized person could be killed, with no consequences to the killer: no prosecution, not even social disapproval. In law and in practice, the life of a person designated Homo sacer did not matter. Agamben found a parallel in the way that the Third Reich dehumanized Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and disabled people. These exceptional groups were set apart in order to reinforce political and identity-solidarity among Germans. It was the promotion of violent partisanship as a core process of modern democratic politics.

Americans tend to portray “the Nazis” in almost cartoonish fashion, such as in Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Italian scholars like Agamben have a more sober view. Not only did Italians embrace facismo nazionalismo before Germans, but Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra entered Italian politics, and the Lega party is an openly nationalist political party. The American caricature of Nazis as a monstrous group of foreign villains does not hold up for Italians, who see the Third Reich as very close to home. Agamben argues that the concept of Homo sacer helps explain modern politics more generally: it is a cautionary tale for all of us.

In practice, American police officers frequently murder unarmed African-Americans with (1) no legal consequences (2) no harm to their career and (3) no social condemnation. In actual practice, this pattern sends the signal that black lives do not matter. Therefore, declaring that black lives do matter is an argument that African-Americans should be treated the same way under U.S. law as any other Americans. It is also an argument that, at the moment, the lives of African-Americans are not treated equally. Likewise, the use of “All Lives Matter” as a counter-argument sounds like a defense of the status-quo. In this status-quo, equal-protection remains an un-realized ideal, and police murders persist with impunity.

Beyond a grudging acceptance of Black Lives Matter

Police officers are quick to use deadly force in the United States because many police officers have been killed by citizens in our heavily-armed society. In California, the Highway Patrol asked for military-grade weapons because they encountered military-grade weapons among drug smugglers. These may have been the white cannabis-growers in rural northern California, but through the American lens the image of “drug dealer” has a specific skin color. If that seems unfair, consider how the people you know would interpret these two headlines:

Armed protesters disrupt the Wisconsin legislature
Armed black protesters disrupt the Wisconsin legislature

One of these statements is true, but the fictional statement is far more feared. That fear, the depth of that phobos, is the depth to which racism is embedded in us.

Yet even as we expose deep-seated racism in the U.S., it is also true that we should ensure the safety of police officers, since we expect police to operate under very dangerous conditions. How to improve their safety and well-being? (1) Serious gun-law reform, (2) expansion of public social services including mental healthcare, and (3) psychological support and deeper training for the officers themselves. Unfortunately, the same conservatives who argue that “Blue lives matter” also oppose precisely these three reforms. Police officers, therefore, are left feeling paranoid about enforcing law in a heavily-armed, de-regulated society with pitifully poor emotional support. The stressful conditions of policing cause many police officers to become exceptionally unsuitable to perform the jobs they are required to do.

Which brings me to a concluding point. Since I returned from Afghanistan to teach in American universities in 2018, I have been getting an increasing sense among students from all backgrounds: that all the significant events which shape America today are crimes. No student has actually said this to me, perhaps because I am seen as part of an older, 20th-century Generation-X. But if the acquisition of all territory in the U.S. was criminal, if the origins of police as slave-patrols were criminal, if the status quo of any year from 1789 to 2020 is criminal, then it seems that my students regard the American ideals of equality and justice not just as infeasible, not just as unfulfilled, but rather as a distraction that justifies a criminal enterprise only addressed to the people who benefit from it. And the fraction of the American population that actually benefits from living in the United States is shrinking. This may not be immediately apparent to the beneficiaries, who live in social and spatial segregation from the rest of the country. Can this status-quo be maintained? Should it be maintained? What will be the cost?

Leaving the Confederacy behind

I was born on Fort Bragg, adjacent to Fayetteville, North Carolina. My brother, who was born in New York City, would taunt me that his side won the Civil War, and my side lost. So I had a early resentment to a Unionist viewpoint. Then we moved to Connecticut, where my 5th-grade Social Studies teacher made clear that the Union did not engage in warfare with the Confederacy in order to free the slaves; but rather to maintain a strategic advantage in a global competition with the British Empire–which sided with the C.S.A. despite the ostensible abolitionist position of the Brits advocated by Prince Albert. I know that is a lot of obscure history, but now we have the internet so I feel more at liberty to cite some less-known linkages. Perhaps if Albert had not died in 1861, British frigates would not have tried to run the Union blockades to access slave-picked cotton.

But back to the first-person direct experience: I was appalled to hear from Yankees themselves that the Union did not enter the war to free the slaves, which is the shaming-narrative used as a weapon against Southerners. I think that since it was a suburban Connecticut classroom, the teacher assumed this critique was being shared among Northerners who would not question the rightness of the Civil War due to a ret-conned perspective that it was justified, post-facto, because it did end (official) slavery. Meanwhile it left me with the sense that the state I was born in was blasted flat by the Union and forcibly annexed (back?) into the United States. Kind of a double-standard since Vermont had been allowed to secede from both New York and the Continental Confederacy in 1777 (Yeah, more obscure references; but easily verifiable online). The whole ‘but…we ended slavery!’ might hold up as a post-facto justification for this double-standard, but that end-justifies-any-means is a poor way to interpret history.

I did not examine this history closely, partly because so many of the texts on it are toxic. The resentment of the pro-Confederacy “Lost Cause” side, the fascination with minutiae of warfare historians, and the grim triumphalism of the Union perspective are all off-putting. But then Katy Perry came out with a song (California Gurls, 2010) in which she referred to “Daisy Dukes.” These are denim short-shorts worn by the character Daisy Duke in the 1970s-1980s television show that Perry was referencing: the Dukes of Hazzard. I enjoyed the show as a child, but I thought it had been lost to cultural history. Perhaps it would have been, if Perry had not referenced it. In the show, Southern affinity with the C.S.A. and the “Lost Cause” was treated as camp: the frequently-airborne car was the General [Robert E.] Lee, and the corrupt plutocrat of Hazzard County was Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg.

Before criticizing the role of the show in 21st-century politics, one thing to consider: yes, The Dukes of Hazzard did not address problems of racism in the South. But when you try to portray a South without African-Americans, what you get is a portrayal of the extreme class-inequality. The erasure of blacks from the whole setting is a form of media violence, yes. But at the end of the 1970s there was also an uncomfortable awareness of widespread violence against black in Northern and Western cities as well. But in the South, racism had been developed and promoted strategically by white elites to justify their property-claims over humans, and to defuse insurrection by poor whites against the elite planter class. Take away the race issues, and the extreme inequality of the planters against poor whites becomes quickly apparent. As Eric Williams pointed out in 1944, the specific form of chattel slavery developed in the Americas after 1600 was shaped by–and gave shape to–capitalism as we know it. It might have started as an acute labor shortage, but coerced labor made cotton and tobacco crops especially at the expense of whites, who might have demanded humane pay and labor conditions. Ensuring that poor whites despised even-poorer blacks was a divide-and-conquer strategy ensured stable profits. If there had been no African slave trade, perhaps the extreme inequalities among whites themselves would have been more apparent and a place like Hazzard County, Georgia is a reasonable piece of speculative fiction.

However in the 21st century, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy has been revived to justify very contemporary racist violence. In this century, Warner Brothers’ campy portrayal of Hazzard County no longer appears corny. It looks like an apologia for a Southern way of life that dodges the most important issue of race. At exactly that moment (1979-1985), Ronald Reagan and his supporters insisted “let’s not talk about race” as if making racism a taboo topic would somehow solve the issue.

And in this 21st century, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic finally clarified an issue where I had been misdirected decades ago. In his dismantling of the myth that Robert E. Lee was a “kindly gentleman,” Serwer points out that all of the Confederate states mentioned the continuation of slavery, at least indirectly, as a justification for leaving the Union. Serwer also points out that the Union did not initially decide to wage war against the C.S.A. to abolish slavery. So both are true. The fact that the C.S.A. was formed to perpetuate slavery did not mean that the U.S.A. invaded and conquered it in order to abolish slavery.  Only about 5% of Northerners truly believed in abolition; but it made great propaganda after Gettysburg.

Unfortunately the ‘conquering liberators’ rhetoric also contributed to a global conversation about justified Liberal wars of conquest. King Leopold of Belgium used the protection-of-Africans-from-enslavement as a justification for colonizing the central plateau of Africa. In a propaganda-move comparable with Leif Erikson’s naming of “Greenland,” Leopold named his new personal royal colony “Congo Free State.” Adam Hochschild estimates that about 10 million Congolese died in the efforts of Leopold to enrich himself by extracting ivory and rubber from his colony. The same rhetoric emerged in the justification for invading Iraq in 2003; Americans would ‘spread democracy’ by knocking out a tyrant and hastily setting up a winner-takes-all style of democracy in a country that was 60% Shi’ite and otherwise divided among Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldean Christians, and Yazidis (yes, more obscure references; but they are not hidden and not secret. A few keystrokes and you can verify).

Going Forward

I have a few specific points I want to draw from this global perambulation through modern history:

  • Don’t shame a people you have conquered and annexed into your country as a way to justify warfare. For 150 years, Southerners have weaponized that resentment and now non-Southern white supremacists are embracing the Stars and Bars as a way to threaten African-Americans. 
  • Don’t walk away with a “Job Well Done!” attitude, leaving African-Americans vulnerable to predation from 1865 onward, and Iraqis subject to extremists from the moment L.Paul Bremer left his role as Viceroy of Iraq. Rumsfeld called the spread of democracy “messy.” I would like him to look a Yazidi in the eye and say that.
  • Don’t assume that slavery was actually abolished. The 13th Amendment has a “weasel clause” in it that has never been addressed: convicts can be treated as slaves. This weasel clause is widely abused here in California, where we need to do massive prison reform. In addition, the anti-immigration movement effectively enables widespread human trafficking. So if you actually believe in abolition, we have a lot of work to do, planet-wide, in this 21st century.
  • Track and challenge the way your rhetoric might be reinterpreted through time and across the world. ‘Wars of liberation’ have used the Unionist position to justify all sorts of invasions, occupations, and colonizations.
  • Keep back-checking history to clarify efforts at actual liberation. I often paraphrase Yoda’s epimethean brother, Da-yo, who says: “always in motion the past is.” Though it is not just passive motion, but rather the active cultural warfare over how to understand our past in order to forge a better future.

Beautiful Civics Lessons

Today is June 4, the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which an authoritarian regime violently cracked down on peaceful (if boisterous) protesters calling for democracy. One of the protesters at today’s march in Oakland reminded me with his sign, and emphasized how important it is to remember the struggles for democracy, rule of law, and justice at this moment. Rights-struggles have a global context we must remember.

On Tuesday, June 2, I blacked out my Facebook photo to honor Blackout Tuesday. This precipitated a quick lesson in globalization: one of my Afghan friends called me from Los Angeles, and two called from Afghanistan to ask whether we had experienced a family tragedy. I explained that we were honoring George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery). They understood, but were wondering because a terrorist attack had just killed one of the most respected religious leaders in Kabul: Mullah Mohammed Ayaz Niazi. Again, this is a reminder that many peoples around the world are struggling and suffering. They respect why we are protesting, and they watch our successes and failures very closely because it can impact them directly. Authoritarian leaders across the world are greatly emboldened by our current president’s tone and behavior. Conversely, they may feel worry at the civil pushback against him.

Firsthand experience

This afternoon, I participated in a protest honoring George Floyd. Our family discussed the risks of COVID-19 infection beforehand. This is not a new discussion for us. When I returned from Kabul in 2006 and promptly broke into a very high fever, I was appalled to think that I might have contracted multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (which had been spreading from Russian prisons). Turns out it was only pneumonia from when I was caught outside in a dust storm in Kabul without a mask, so intravenous antibiotics knocked that out. But it put us on notice in a way that persists to this day.

Some of the only people my age in Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland.

 

 

At the plaza

The protest, however, was beautiful. At one point, the folks at the podium led a centering-calm chant:

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

Almost everyone was wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Medical students from the Berkeley/UCSF program showed up in greens with white jackets. As we headed out of the plaza to march around the downtown, someone parked, opened their hatchback, and handed out scores of lightweight plastic face shields.

“White Coats for Black Lives” med school students.

We then marched through streets with verry little traffic. However, many people leaning out of windows, cheering us on. And then under the freeway and past the huge tent-settlement of unhoused people. Four disasters represented in one location: auto-dependency causing climate change; failed housing policies; a global pandemic; and a failed response to systemic racist violence.

The only awkward moment was when we were heading back towards Frank Ogawa Plaza. We had to cross over Interstate 980, and apparently the California Highway Patrol have jurisdiction on the city street that passes over the highway. They showed up in riot gear. One had a shotgun, perhaps with rubber bullets? Another had an M16. Might have been an AR-15 (I cannot tell them apart), but given the high per-capita rate of police killings in California, I think it was the former.

CHP in riot gear choosing to block a city street.

Not only is this CHP officer sporting a military assault rifle, he is also not wearing a mask. And he is blocking the bicycle lane that we planners have been advocating! Contrast with OPD officer at upper left.

Oakland police also showed up, not in riot gear, and talked with the protesters.

OPD behaving in a reasonable manner, unlike CHP.

Within a minute of arriving at this blockade, most of us knelt.

Kneeling in standoff with CHP

After about 15 minutes, the CHP backed off and we proceeded cheerfully back to Oakland City Hall.

Giving peace sign to the police as we crossed 14th Street Bridge.

Once we gathered back at Frank Ogawa Plaza, one of the speakers reflected on the promises enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We need to think very hard about who is most likely to argue for American ideals. In this case, a young Asian-American man. Consistent with their policy of allowing many voices, he handed the bullhorn to an older African-American man who stepped forward from the crowd and asked us all to support veterans. He described his three tours in Iraq, and said ‘We did what we were asked to do. We served our country.’ The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Some civics lessons

Who faces danger on a daily basis, in a living struggle to get the United States to fulfill its promises?
Who is best suited to teach us civics? Those who have experienced official violation of civil behavior, and yet still argue that we must embrace civility and confer citizenship on those committed to the ideals enshrined in the American Declaration and Constitution.
We glimpse the promise of our future below:

Life and dignity are more important than property damage right now.

Our Lady of Ferguson by Mark Dukes (2015).

On Sunday night, rioters set fire to part of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Those rioters are working to undermine the message of the protesters. The protesters grieve at the murder of George Floyd and all other people of color who have been harassed, intimidated, beaten, humiliated, tortured, and murdered by police and white mobs. We call for justice; for equal treatment and protection under the law; for treating humans with decency. We actually call for the United States to at least try to fulfill the principles that are the basis for governing legitimacy.

It does not matter whether the rioters are extreme-left or ‘false flag’ extreme-right agitators. Either way, they are seeking to undermine legitimate public grief at illegitimate police behavior. What does matter is that any citizen or public official who tries to conflate rioters with protesters is using that violence as an excuse to reinforce white privilege, institutional racism, and a grotesquely unjust government. By only acknowledging the rioters, those officials are adopting the same belief in terrorist violence as the rioters, rather than engage in the hard work of implementing justice and public accountability.

Community support for justice. Flower shop in our neighborhood.

I teach planning and public policy and San Francisco State University. My students represent the diversity which is increasingly the United States as a whole: Latinx, Anglo, Asian, African-American, Native American. Furthermore, as a state university, we serve many veterans and I have had at least one veteran or active-duty serviceperson in all of my classes. Like many of my students, I am a public servant: as a teacher, as an employee of the State of California, and as an advocate of the planning profession.

Planners serve whole cities: not just the people we like, nor just the people we agree with. Like park rangers, astronauts, soldiers, pandemic researchers, and police officers, we are part of the ‘deep state’—which is another way of saying that we are public servants.

A central principle of our profession is E Pluribus Unum. Unity, in this public sense, cannot be coerced. It can only be earned through recognizing and respecting the pluribus—the plurality of our people in all aspects of race, class, gender, and gender preference. This is the practice of soft power that enables urban policies to be implemented effectively.

I grieve for the people who have been harmed by abusive police violence, especially when that harm has been made permanent by officials and agencies who do not acknowledge that violence, and who do not hold themselves answerable for abuses. Truly, I cannot image what it is like to live with daily reminders of that poisonous official contempt of you as a human being. What I can understand is the shared threat we all face when public officials act with arrogant impunity. An unjust government lacks credibility, and therefore loses the broad-based support of a society which might otherwise help enforce laws and policies.

Several of my colleagues teach in the Criminal Justice program at SF State. Their students often pursue careers as police officers, and the faculty often work with police. They point out that in communities with a bad history of suffering abusive police behavior, officers cannot get witnesses to give evidence and testimony to prosecute violent crimes. This is toxic on both sides: honest officers cannot actually enforce the law, because prior abusive officers have undermined community trust. For residents of these cities, they have no one to call during emergencies, because the police historically have been the instigators of harm and violence, not the protectors from it. What this also means is that abusive behavior breeds long-term resentment towards police, and therefore endangers future police officers. Abusive police behavior is a uniquely heinous crime: it is a betrayal of the public trust, and a betrayal of your fellow officers in the most profound way.

Public officials who excuse abusive behavior are direct accomplices to this heinous public crime. Even worse, elected officials claim to speak for the whole society; so when they remain silent about abuse, and only condemn protesters, they essentially argue that ‘white people only object if there is threatening social unrest’, but not when a human being is murdered by abusive police officers. This is grossly malicious towards all Americans—the many who are directly harmed, and the whites who DO NOT accept this contemptuous impunity.

Which brings me back to St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. A Fox News report portrayed the church and its community as crime victims. Fox did not differentiate rioters from protesters. At the end of the interview, Rob Fisher, the rector of St. John’s, said that this unrest will persist until racism in America is addressed. The Fox News correspondent did not even acknowledge his comment, because it does not fit the conservative narrative. Conservatives would like to presume that all Christians are white-supremacist Evangelical Fundamentalists. In fact, the dominant Christian view is that racism is sinful, and police violence is unjustified both as a provocation and as revenge. Mariann Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, was appalled that Trump presumed to visit St. John’s church in a violent way:

I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to enflame violence.

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500590-bishop-says-she-found-out-trump-visited-historic-dc-church-by

It is difficult to evaluate this president in terms other than the malice and hatred that he espouses and promotes. A compassionate response seems like it will only invite sneering derision from both Trump and his supporters. However, this raises some important questions. For those who support sneering contempt and disparagement of anyone who disagrees with Trumpism, do you feel that you support a unified republic? The Constitution was intended “to form a more perfect union.” Do you oppose the Constitution and the principles within it? Anyone arguing for justice and rights-recognition at this moment is arguing in favor of the principles and promise of the Constitution. If you oppose calls for justice, what are you advocating?

The Floyd family asks us to grieve, to protest, to call for justice. They oppose the violence of extremists, and I agree: including extremists who command troops and helicopters.

We need to implement public healthcare right now.

One hundred years ago we implemented universal, mandatory primary and secondary education. In many ways, that is the model we need to use to build public healthcare.

For decades, Americans have been debating healthcare at the national level. Our current partisan stalemate means we still have no public healthcare. However we do not need to accept this partisan stalemate as defeat. The national debate rests on the assumption that public healthcare must be enacted at the national level, as one policy. That is not how universal public education was implemented. Public schools started at the local and state level, and only became universal because of a sustained popular movement.

Healthcare systems are also run, largely, at the local level. Reaction to the coronavirus outbreak shows a great example of how this can work. The Bay Area is a Pacific Rim metropolis, so we were worried about the coronavirus a little earlier than other parts of the country. The first large-area lockdown was requested by the health-department directors of the Bay Area counties on March 16, 2020. Then the state of California followed suit. We did not need to wait for direction from the federal government. In practice, we implemented health policy first at the metropolitan level. As of March 26, the federal government is still sending conflicting messages, including a suggestion that we get back to work after only a two-week self-quarantine.

This outbreak also shows why we need a public healthcare system. We should not be trying to figure out the medical-insurance status of someone who needs to be put on a ventilator, let alone their citizenship status. A person with severe COVID-19 symptoms is in imminent danger of death, and is also a serious contagion threat. For both reasons they need immediate care and isolation from the population. Once under care, there is time for questions; but questions they need to be about contact history, travel history, and prior medical conditions of the patient, not about which insurance policy covers them or what deductible they have.

As for bureaucracy? Somehow we keep missing the elephant in the room: insurance companies are private, and yet they generate reams of paperwork. The thick “health care benefits” packets we get from insurers include a lot of fine print about what they do not cover. Their bureaucratic, excessive-busywork practices are part of their profit model. If bureaucracy is profitable, then private-sector bureaucracy can and does greatly exceed public bureaucracy. Use your own evidence: recall the paperwork-hassles you have had with a private medical insurer, compared to the paperwork-hassles you have had getting your child into a public school. Public school operations and regulations are actually extremely complex, but for the vast majority of parents and their children the process of enrollment is incredibly easy.

We now assume that free, public education from K through 12 is both a right and an obligation. But that did not exist 120 years ago. No one is alive to remember that fundamental shift in public expectations and policy change. Nor is there any Constitutional Amendment declaring universal national K-12 public education. It built up locally, by popular demand.

Public education does provide one cautionary tale: unequal implementation. Because it grew from local roots (and pre-dated income tax), education was funded locally. Unfortunately that means per-student school funding corresponds to the relative wealth or poverty of each jurisdiction. As we build our public healthcare system, we need to maintain equitable funding at every step of the way. That means adjusting the sources of taxation in order to maintain equitable funding, if necessary. One under-funded healthcare district can be a source of accelerated contagion for us all. We literally cannot afford that risk.

Funding public healthcare will require policy changes, yes. But clearly, we need a more robust emergency-response infrastructure as a standing asset. We also need more continuous health-maintenance, and we have plenty of data to show the robust economic payback for maintaining a healthier working population. This parallels public education: a massive, tax-funded, labor-intensive process of teaching literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking to the entire American public since 1910. The result? Unparalleled economic growth, innovation, and improvement of everyday life. There is no question that public education is a huge expense, and there is no question that it has been very worthwhile.

This crisis is a decision-point where we can choose to go in very different future directions. It is not just an economic downturn; it is a shock that will permanently alter our political economy. We should not wait for national leadership to respond to this. We do not need to wait for top-down policies to start this shift. It began with county health-directors in the San Francisco Bay Area. We can begin to make a public healthcare system at the county and regional level. Successful practices will not only shift expectations and demands on governors, but also provide models for how to actually do it.

Call your local representatives now. Public healthcare is a right, and we need it now.