Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

Colorstruck and Conservative

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There are some things I pick up practically by cultural osmosis; things that are assumed – or, rather, not assumed but simply known – that to refute or question them becomes less an exercise in free discourse and more a declaration of one’s origins. It’s not a question of understanding the other point of view: That division has long been impossible to be breached.

There is a weird debate on the second tier of periodicals as to the nature and legacy of Obama’s presidency. I say second tier in that neither source is a Paper of Record, although the importance of such in these tumultuous times is becoming less and less pertinent. On one side is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine; on the other, Jamelle Bouie of Salon.com.

Chait argues in the abstract: With Obama’s terms has come a more overt marriage of “racial conservatism” with “ideological conservatism;” this is to say, the unthinking and kneejerk hatred of all of Obama’s policies has turned into a cultural demarcation wherein, while opposition speaks of his agenda (and legitimacy) in terms of policy, color yet remains the common element in their criticism.

He then muses upon the nature of the conceit of a “post-racial” America, as we the people watch an overt backlash and governmental dysfunction not seen since, well, the Civil War. While I am heartened in a sense by the 2012 elections in that, if there is an Cold War of race, the demographic winner is foregone, Chait makes the salient point that fiscal or social conservatives are barred from voting Republican solely because of the racial barrier: He sees a future, therein, in the Republican party, insofar as the liberal Democratic dog-whistle of racism will fail to work just as soon as the GOP bridges that gap.

Obama’s policies, after all, have a neoliberal, if pre-Reagan, vibe to them: He, like most technocratic Democrats of the Clinton era, is nigh indistinguishable from the Republican ethos, except for one major facet which is color. The implications are clear, in that respect, and while that may not be Chait’s ultimate point, that remains at the heart of his argument: Were we to somehow transcend the racial “obsession,” as he puts it, of which Obama is the eye of the storm, politics would not be terribly dissimilar from where we are now.

Bouie argues in the particular: The unprecedented turnout of the Black electorate during the 2008 and 2012 elections speak to a cultural divide that is more than just an odd and unfortunate juxtaposition of “racial” and “ideological” conservatism. The partisan fights of those inside the beltway are tangential to the real issue, and the real issue is that racial and ideological conservatism are fundamentally inextricable.

Evocative of Malcolm X’s quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” Bouie argues that the debate cannot be rendered into the abstract, for it is at heart one of survival. Obama’s focus as eye of the storm then becomes an illustration of just how far we as a multicultural society yet need to progress before people can lower their defenses. He embodies the reason for which that gap simply cannot be bridged, not only because he is the wrong arbiter in the eyes of the opposition, but that he, and vicariously his policies, are categorically the wrong arbiter.

It goes without saying that Chait is white and Bouie is Black.

I am inclined to side with Bouie, for in my own way I have internalized just how impossible it is at this time and age to convince the likes of the opposition as to the means by which they are continuing to oppress people: The popularity of Ron Paul and folks who use the political moniker “independent” as “free-thinker” when they actually mean “libertarian” speaks to the ingrained complacency in maintaining the current inequity. You really don’t need to explain this to people of color. If they know anything in this world it is that.

I have argued before that class and race overlap more often than not, and this is not by chance but by design. Obama’s legacy will, no matter what happens next, be a milestone in American progressivism but, please, let us not oversell our progress.

Democracy

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Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party.

Democracy: The general population selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on media presence and advertising expenditure.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party.

Democracy: A constituency of registered voters selects the most qualified person to govern them by popular vote from a list of candidates that have managed to attain a certain subset of petitions prior to the election as well as the endorsement of a major political party, predicated on their adherence to the political party’s stated national agenda provided the party feels that the election is contestable at that juncture, as demonstrated by their successes in public opinion polls that are largely based on continued media presence and advertising expenditure fitting in a narrative for a 24 hour news cycle, as well as a victory in a preliminary election chosen by a subset of registered voters affiliated with said political party rooted on whether they believe said candidate would be competitive in the general contest.

Shit, I think I figured out why DC’s mayoral election sucks so much.

Deals with the Devil

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I get a fair stream of animal rights propaganda in my inbox and on social media – that platform for hashtag warriors and armchair activists – as I’m sure everybody does. It blends into the general background noise of liberal life, a form of the choir endlessly preaching to itself. Liberals are never quite so unified as all that, though, and each has their own tolerance for the wrongness around them and the steps provided to correct it.

Two news stories of late have sparked a bit of controversy in that regard, both related to New York City. The first is, of course, the ongoing fight as to whether the city should forbid any proprietors of horse-drawn carriages from plying their trade in upper Midtown and Central Park. The second is the city’s refusal to admit UniverSoul Circus in town due to the way it cages its animals. In each case, the ideal is pitted against the practical.

Animal rights activists complained that putting workhorses on New York City streets amounts to unwarranted cruelty that they should not have to abide. The owners of those horses and the men who worked with them argued back that the horses were fed well, given regular checkups with veterinarians and granted lots of attention; all of which was paid for by their service as workhorses.

Of course, horses are domesticated animals, which is why we put them to work in the first place: Even should the carriages disappear, riot horses that the NYPD use will still be a common sight around Times Square and during parades. The question to ask, however, is what happens to the horses if the trade is banned? The care of hundreds of workhorses would require a great amount of space and millions of dollars annually in feed and medical care, which, divorced from an income, would be untenable.

This is, in a way, the great conundrum of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that strongly advocates against negligent and cruel animal shelters and pet shops yet has been criticized for having one of the highest rates of euthanization of the animals under its care, for not only is the group’s stated mantra that “they are better off dead than abused” but, well, it’s cheaper that way. The money matter makes a difference.

It’s this money matter that makes each organization question the other’s motives. In the case of UniverSoul Circus, PETA was one of the loudest critics of their animal handling, and I personally am inclined to agree that circuses with names that don’t end in “du Soleil” are relics of a bygone era – though some organizations tend to overstate the case, as with the controversy over the ASPCA having to pay damages for falsifying evidence about animal cruelty against Ringling Bros’ Circus - but I’m also a great proponent of the work that the Wildlife Conservation Society does when it runs, among other institutions, the Bronx Zoo.

There are, however, critics of the WCS and similar institutions like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which runs out of the National Zoo in Washington, DC – foremost among them Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – who believe that no wild animal should be enclosed, no matter the size of the enclosure, and that the zoos themselves are also cruel anachronisms in our modern age. The work of the biologists and zoologists in these institutions, they argue, are hypocrites for their work, which I found rather difficult to believe as nobody becomes a zoologist unless they deeply believe in their work.

The divide, however, boils down to money. Organizations like Born Free USA and the IFAW are outperformed by an order of magnitude when it comes to fundraising by those like the WCS, and spend close to half their budgets on overhead rather than the programs themselves. Without the draw of real exhibits, it is difficult to garner attention and solicit donations to promote habitat preservation and wildlife conservation at home and abroad, and in promoting awareness, zoos have the inside track.

Even the Safari Club, a hunting organization, has jumped on the bandwagon to show that it outperforms such charities when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation. Their argument is simple: Nothing beats an entity with a vested economic interest in a species’ preservation when it comes to ensuring that species’ preservation. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt School of Nature Conservancy: If we hunt these animals to extinction, we have nothing left to hunt.

The scary matter is, they may have a point. Ironically enough, it was the Endangered Species Act that may have endangered the Scimitar-horned Oryx, as the Act put restrictions on hunting it, and its numbers were kept up largely because it was being bred for hunting. Without the economic incentive to keep them alive, their numbers dropped like a rock as ranchers dumped their livestock liabilities.

In a sense, then, the zoos are effectively a necessary evil.

This reminded me of the overarching controversy of our most popular museums. The most visited museum in the country is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the most visited museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Each is a monument and a testament to imperial hegemony and colonial theft. Each is also an indispensable resource to history education and cultural awareness. The AMNH, in particular, with its statue of Teddy Roosevelt prominently displayed out front (whose opinion of Native Americans seemed to match his opinion of other large game), has more or less continually been at the head of a controversy when it comes to Native American artifacts yet is also host to a wealth of educational programs that I personally remember partaking in on a weekly basis in junior high school.

The National Museum of the American Indian, which took an act of Congress to come to fruition, also has a checkered history: It works closely with native nations across America to present a diverse, educational display that spans both ancient and modern history, but the vast majority of its original collection comes from the archives of one man, George Gustav Heye, who can generously be labeled an asshole and a grave robber, and much of that collection had to be repatriated. Yet, these displays of stolen property are by far the most popular and therefore the most influential museums in the country. Where, then, is the line drawn?

It’s a moving line, to be sure, but I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and seeing a display about the evils of poaching in a mock-up construction of a poacher’s camp, covered in blurbs about where they operated, how destructive their practices were, and what steps were being done and could be done to curtail them. I would not have seen it, however, were I not already in line to go see the Amur tigers.

Politeness as Liberalism

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Tim Bray, a tech worker for Google hailing from Vancouver, quit recently, citing that he refused to relocate to California because the Bay Area was too racist, crowded, incestuous and overpriced. This brought to my mind an anecdote I had once heard about someone complaining about the rudeness of New Yorkers: “They were pushy, mean and jostled me all the time.”

“Oh, really? When did you come and where did you go?”

“Christmas and Rockefeller Center.”

“Then the people you experienced were not New Yorkers, but your fellow tourists.”

The problems with bigotry in the tech world is well-documented, as is the tech world’s impact on the Bay Area’s employment and housing situation. John Oliver has, as a true Daily Show alumnus, played the court jester and spoken to these very issues at the annual “Crunchies,” an awards ceremony the tech industry gives itself. There is also, of course, the fact that Vancouver is no bed of roses, even considering that, like its sister cities in the Pacific Northwest, it’s one of the whitest cities on the continent.

In effect, we have a tech worker complaining about the ills of tech workers, but more importantly, we have a person attempting to take the moral high ground from a position that is insufficiently considered. This is more than just a “casting stones” issue, however, as it speaks to an incipient aspect of liberalism that I rather detest.

It’s an aspect I had only begun to see while in an Irish bar up in the Heights with a couple of Midwestern WASPs who had recently moved to the city. They, of course, proudly displayed their liberal and libertine nature as a means of fitting in but were also extraordinarily easy to offend. This struck me, because I’m no stranger to Irish bars and pub conversation. A lot of hinky shit gets said on the regular. What I am a stranger to is the culture of Midwestern WASPs, and indeed when a comment of mine was retorted with a joke against Lutherans, I knew I was in over my head.

Where the disconnect would occur was when they would make off-hand comments about minorities or, really, anybody not them, but were made uncomfortable if, in the same manner, comments were made about them. To them, I surmised, the dominant culture was whatever they did, and being surrounded by “aberrations” was, to put it politely, an intense curiosity. Scrutiny went one way. They viewed themselves, despite all this, as liberals. They vote Democrat, they lament the party’s centrism and spinelessness, they spam Facebook with a regular supply of fresh outrages. Yet. Now, I’m obviously a commie pinko who grew up in a bubble - I believe Woody Allen called us homosexual Jewish pornographers - but I know liberalism and they ain’t it.

I’m wrong, of course. That is to say, I am a commie pinko, but I don’t live in a bubble: Quite the opposite. Everybody else lives in a bubble. This city is one of the few places in the world devoid of bubble. I wondered why was offending them so much, when things they would say simply wouldn’t fly in mixed company (which New York practically always is), but the heart of the issue is that, without reminder of otherness, one takes one’s own culture to be the standard by which all are judged. Midwestern WASPs are, by their dominance and insularity in much of the heartland, choking the very idea of pluralism and therefore liberalism.

I say Midwestern, but it’s actually most evident not in Ohio and Wisconsin but in Oregon and Washington, as well as points north. Their brand of liberalism is not like New York or Philadelphia. It can’t be: Seattle and Portland are the whitest cities in America, and they’re only getting whiter. They’re all deeply leftist – they sport high concentrations of liberal arts colleges, neo-hippies and, of course, Democratic voters – but their demographics come in stark contrast to such a self-image.

The reason for this is simple: They’re not as liberal as they claim they are. This is not, as I learned, what they would prefer to hear. This is the place where politeness comes in.

The nature of an open and frank discussion is central to my concept of public discourse and the public house. Namely, you show respect to your companion by speaking directly to their views and they do the same to you. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the conversation and insult those who you are speaking with: Deflecting or skirting the subject matter is to deem their opinions on it immaterial. This scared the transplants.

Their response was to complain that I was “aggressive,” and that I did not properly offer the respect their opinions warranted. Specifically, by countering their opinions, I was insulting them personally. This surprised me: By giving my full attention and directly engaging them, I was respecting them, putting thought to their comments and stating exactly where I stood. Why hide behind a mask of politeness? But politeness is what they wanted. That decorum had become a cloak for them, because without it they would have to defend their views, which I garnered were closely guarded.

There’s a word I started hearing used, like punctuation: “Fair.” “That’s fair.” It became a decorous means in which to acknowledge that I had made a point, but there would not be an answer to it. They were keeping up a rhetorical politeness, but what I heard was “fuck you, shut up already.” They offered views on hot button topics, but didn’t want to argue them further. This is disconcerting: Liberalism is forged through hammering out differences, not simply respecting different views. Political correctness isn’t correctness. Politeness isn’t liberalism.

This hideous affectation presents strange hypocrites like Tim Bray, who hides behind a mask of liberalism but doesn’t actually address either the issues or his involvement in them. The rhetoric is there, but it is a fragile rhetoric. It doesn’t want to be disturbed. The mask is doing its job, and to question it would draw out deeper issues that don’t want to be drawn out. It is an emotional polyp and it needs to be popped.

Home Rule

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and governor Andrew Cuomo can’t seem to agree on anything, yet it’s the city that seems to be getting short shrift. Our new mayor may have rode in on a landslide mandate, but thus far it’s been snub after snub from Albany. Admittedly, it was predicted during his campaign that there would be problems when it came to de Blasio’s “tax the rich to pay for pre-kindergarten” plan. His plans for a higher city minimum wage law, a la San Francisco, however, also requires state approval that is not forthcoming.

This time, Cuomo argues that the city would be less competitive with its neighbors, forgetting apparently that the city already has the highest tax rate of the country yet still can’t accommodate new residents quickly enough, or that a “race to the bottom” competition is really more the modus operandi of Tea Party representatives such as Indiana governor Mike Pence. Pundits surmise that Cuomo’s current shift to the right is part of a personal bid for the presidency, but this sort of action has more historical precedent than that.

New York City and New York State have sparred on money earmarked for Housing and Urban Development, money earmarked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, money earmarked for the Department of Education, money earmarked for Homeland Security in the wake of September 11th, money earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief, money earmarked for welfare and Medicaid, and more; each time the city had to beg the state to release federal funds directed towards the city, and each time the state balked and dragged its heels. Coffers in institutions that mainly supported the city, like the MTA and HUD, have been routinely raided by state agencies looking to shore up upstate spending. We can’t even set our own rent regulation; the very heart of urban living: That must go through the state, despite the fact that 85% of rent regulated units in the state are in the city.

In short, if half the population of the state can’t motivate the governor into action, New York City has a Home Rule problem. Indeed, it’s been the driver for every secession movement the city has had in recent memory: From writer Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral bid to councilman Peter Vallone’s 2003 referendum. In Vallone’s words when he resurrected his plan in 2008,

“It would be much, much simpler to be able to govern 8.5 million people without having to ask legislators who represent villages on the Canadian border for permission before we do anything,” Mr. Vallone said.

The problem has always been, of course, that there is no secession without the state assembly allowing it, and the state has no incentive or intention of allowing its cash cow to run off. As then-mayor Bloomberg complained then-governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008, the city pays $11 billion more in taxes than it gets back in services, and the state regularly short-changes the city on everything it has control over. Should the state cede control of the city, that’s a financial hole further deepening the misery of what is already a depressed region. Short of being the dumping grounds for colleges and prisons, upstate New York is a rust belt dead-zone hemorrhaging anybody with the wherewithal to leave that’s been compared unfavorably (!) to Appalachia. The state needs the city desperately. The city, on the other hand, has little need for the state.

Of course, the city has once been on the side of the needy, as when it found itself at risk of default in 1975. However, the city had to ask (unsuccessfully) for federal aid because the state refused to bail it out: Despite paying out more in taxes, the city did not receive financial help from the state. The state instead decided to saddle the city with an Emergency Financial Control Board that put the state in charge of the city’s budget and took to slashing services, laying off thousands and abandoning portions of the city. To quote Alan Finder from the New York Times in 1986,

The panel, made up of the governor, the mayor, the city and state comptrollers and three business executives appointed by the governor, was so aggressive in its belt-tightening that at one point Mayor Beame said the state was allowing the city little more than the power to tax residents more heavily.

Suffice it to say, despite having near-equal proportions of the population, New York City and upstate New York have never been equal partners. If anything, the concept of monetary redress to economically-depressed regions should be a federal issue, rather than a giveaway dictated by the state’s ability to take for itself out of city coffers and control city policy. That de Blasio can’t set minimum wage laws in the city when the cost of living in the metropole is twice that of upstate cities like Buffalo or Rochester is disturbing, especially considering the successes of San Francisco and Washington DC, and that Los Angeles is likely to work out a similar arrangement. No matter Cuomo’s counter-arguments, what’s really at stake here is New York City’s ability to govern itself.

Okay By Me In America

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It remains to be seen what will become of mayor mayor Bill de Blasio’s current attempt at documenting New York City’s many undocumented immigrants, but one thing is for sure: There is only one viable solution to our immigration crisis. Following the failure of former governor Eliot Spitzer’s bid to get undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses as a means of giving them some form of security from being had in this economy, de Blasio seems bent at proving that his liberal bite is as bad as his bark, and I for one hope he enjoys a full resounding success, as Democrats overall don’t seem to be as particularly enthused at solving the problem as they ought to be.

The problem is, the GOP and its self-deportation insanity aside, liberal Democrats like de Blasio are currently outnumbered if not by anti-immigrant Blue Dogs like senator Christine Gillibrand, then by “wait and see” centrists like former secretary Hillary Clinton. His proposal, like most of his policies, is painted as liberal, but even an optimistic interpretation would mark it as only the very first step in providing undocumented immigrants a path to legal residence, political personhood and citizenship. Overall, however, this schizophrenic policy in the party overall is a failure of leadership. Critics may abound when it comes to explaining why documenting undocumented immigrants won’t work, but their lack of alternatives illustrates the inevitability of the issue’s rightful conclusion. Let me highlight it by proposing what they feasibly can’t.

a) Mass Deportation. The GOP would very much like there to be no illegal immigrants in this country, but there’s one major obstacle in that: There are close to 12 million illegal immigrants here already. Obama has already removed almost 2 million illegal immigrants from this country, the most of any US president in the history of the country, and the borders have never be tighter during peacetime, but the total number that remain is actually growing. Even were the federal government to take more draconian measures to crack down on immigrants – something only suggested in Tea Party pipe dreams a la Michelle Bachmann’s 2011 campaign promise – that would amount to the greatest forced movement of people this side of the Soviet Union.

b) Second Class Citizen Status. Barring the elimination of immigrants from the country, the GOP was still hard-pressed to provide solutions to the immigration crisis. In this stead, the Republican National Convention came up with the bright idea to set up a permanent guest worker status, where-in immigrants who are here already can be documented, but have no path to citizenship. Not only is this against the ideals that the country was founded on – that all men are created equal, with the same inalienable rights – but in countries where such a reality is in place, such as the United Arab Emirates, the depreciated legal status goes hand in hand with human rights violations as well as inevitable protests, riots and uprisings. Such a system would turn a bad political situation here worse, erode the American image abroad and signal the beginning of the end of our great experiment.

c) The Status Quo. Most of what Congress has done, in what is the least productive legislative body in modern history, has been to kick the can down the road. Of course, what this means is that every ill to come from a flow of undocumented people to this country – namely, an exploited underclass that, due to its vulnerability, drives down wages and refuses, by dint of self-preservation, to cooperate with authorities, which can provide a screen for criminal behavior – goes more or less untreated. This crisis is indeed a crisis because the current format is untenable: The country needs the labor and expertise of these workers and thinkers, but it does not need an informal economy to compete against the established one, for that helps nobody – citizen or immigrant alike.

This leaves a single solution: Amnesty. After all, not acknowledging these people does not change the fact that they are already here and simply heaps needless hardship upon them as well as everybody else in the same economy as them, whereas either abridging their rights or removing them would be tantamount to a second Trail of Tears. The Democratic push for the Dream Act has been repeatedly demurred as “not amnesty,” but at heart it still legitimizes young people here illegally and gives them a quick path to citizenship. It’s a backdoor amnesty – as the very word makes conservatives splutter – that would effectively convert an illegal population to a legal one in a generation. It, like de Blasio’s proposal, is a step in the right direction, though not a full step.

The shortsightedness of these Democratic half-measures is foolish because time and demographics are on the liberal Democrats’ side: About a quarter of the nation is comprised of first or second generation immigrants, which also accounts for the vast majority of the nation’s growth, so as time goes by the population will necessarily become more diverse and thus more amenable to the idea of open borders. Meanwhile, the conservative constituency of modern Know-Nothings is shrinking. While de Blasio looks very liberal for proposing this documentation policy, just as Bloomberg, a third-generation immigrant, looked liberal for forbidding city employees from asking residents about their legal status, within a generation, it won’t matter how brave the Democrats are: The populace will want reforms far exceeding the proposals that are currently being discussed. It is only a question as to how quickly the Democrats will be able to react to such demand and position themselves as champions of much-needed change. The Republicans are already in the midst of being left in the dust: Will the Democrats also be?

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