Obama’s Just a Peaceful Guy

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As President Obama tells his supporters in an email:

This morning, Michelle and I awoke to some surprising and humbling news. At 6 a.m., we received word that I’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

That sentence pretty much encapsulates the morning every American experienced. I woke up at around 7 a.m. to news that Obama had received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and my honest reaction was: “Really? Is this some kind of joke?”

My second reaction was: “Must suck to be Dubya this morning.”

I’m a fervent supporter of President Obama, but I’m as surprised as anyone that he was this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s only now emerged out of his second 100 days in office, and it’s difficult to list what tangible accomplishments have occured in the first year of his presidency that are singularly deserving of the (arguably) most prestigious award in the world. Much to the disappointment of many progressives, military violence in Iraq and Afghanistan rages on, healthcare reform is still mired in political bickering, and Guantanamo remains open. 

Today, Obama’s political opposition have released hasty, biting criticism of the honour bestowed upon President Obama. RNC Chairman Michael Steele said:

The real question Americans are asking is, “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain — President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.

But, the Nobel Peace Prize hasn’t ever really been about concrete achievements — after all, the road towards peace is slow and difficult. The mission of the Nobel Peace Prize, as laid out by Alfred Nobel in his will, is to acknowledge “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”, all for the “greatest benefit of mankind”. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has the unenviable task of determining who, amongst hundreds of nominees, fits this rather vague description — and if all of these nominees were under consideration for having achieved concrete successes in their lives’ struggles, there wouldn’t be much of a long-term need for a Nobel Peace Prize. And after all, that is the point of the Nobel Peace Prize: it is a recognition that achieving peace has never been easy, and it is a reward for those who commit their lives to the struggle for peace.

This truth is reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize’s recent laureates. Many of the last century’s award recipients were honoured for their commitment to improving international relations and promoting the ideals of peace, rather than for a specific action or accomplishment.  Two years ago, former Vice President Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts towards raising awareness regarding climate change and bringing together international leaders of disparate ideologies to the table to discuss how to save the world’s failing atmosphere. Yet, the United States — one of the world’s leading polluters — has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and many of the Protocol’s participating nations have yet to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions despite their committment to meet a goal reduction by 2012. Gore succeeded in initiating discussions about climate change (essentially making environmentalism “cool” again), but there has been little tangible success in reducing the world’s pollution.

When compared to the list of prior Nobel laureates, Obama’s accomplishments are quite impressive. Following 9/11, when both the Democratic and Republican leadership were swept up by President George W. Bush’s drumbeats of war, Obama made the case for peace. During the 2008 campaign season, while Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Obama, then a first-term senator, for his “naive” view on international relations, Obama consistently defended diplomacy over military posturing. Since taking office, Obama has actively sought to break down anti-American sentiment around the world by traveling to foreign nations and improving relations with international leaders. Obama’s commitment towards diplomacy is no better represented than in his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Emphasizing the importance of forging diplomatic ties and finding commonalities, not differences, between disparate nations, Obama said:

“Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared.

“The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere – can enrich our world, or impoverish it.

“In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it’s what I will speak about today. Because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.

Beyond that, President Obama has united not just Americans, but an entire world, towards a hopeful vision of the future. And while that might seem like mushy stuff to cynical Republicans (and a few Democrats), I don’t think the power of that unity really can be denied; as Obama said, I do think that Obama’s first four years really will be a time of incredible change not just for America, but for the  international community.

Few world leaders have been so openly and so consistently dedicated to the mission of peace, and even fewer of those leaders have been sitting (or former) presidents of the United States. Consider this: the last president of the United States instinctively labelled international nations “evil” (and seemed confused as to why this might sour diplomatic talks) and always seemed  to enjoy a good saber-rattling with his morning Wheaties.

Bottom line, Michael Steele’s criticism of Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize seem in-keeping with the Right’s general xenophobia and American nativism. The Nobel Peace Prize is not about goings-on in American politics; it is about recognizing an international leader who has improved diplomatic relations globally for the betterment of all mankind. American unemployment rates, while a clear priority for the Obama Administration, is just not within the scope of the Nobel Peace Prize. Steele’s reference to these domestic issues only underscore the problem with the Republican Party’s version of international relations: a failure to recognize that the United States is only one nation in an increasingly globalized world. Yes, we’re a pretty important nation, but we’ve been through eight years of pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist (except when they’re “evil”!) and look where that has gotten us. Instead, we must understand that the United States isone of the most powerful and most influential nations in the world, and (to quote a comic book) with great power comes great responsibility. The president of the United States is not just this nation’s leader, he (or she) is a world leader. Fervent, fundamentalist Right-wing insularism denies this reality, and, too often, it leads to poisoning of international relations. 

That being said, I, too, wish there were more concrete accomplishments in Obama’s first year in office (although, I’m inclined to blame House Republicans, not Obama, for their feet-dragging). I take today’s announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as inspiration and motivation for elected leaders and grassroots activists to re-double our efforts towards improving our communities, whether local, national, or international. We can’t be drawn back into childish bickering and name-calling (such as the DNC’s comparison today between Republicans and terrorists for both criticizing Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize). We need to recognize today’s honour as the inspiration that it is.

In his email to supporters, Obama writes:

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize — men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.

That is why I’ve said that I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.

This award — and the call to action that comes with it — does not belong simply to me or my administration; it belongs to all people around the world who have fought for justice and for peace. And most of all, it belongs to you, the men and women of America, who have dared to hope and have worked so hard to make our world a little better.

I genuinely hope that President Obama and the members of his administration will be ready to answer this call to action. I hope that they will recognize this international affirmation of their commitment towards diplomacy, and they will be able to translate this honour into real, and tangible, gains in the path towards peace. There’s a long way still to go on this road, but at least, today, we finally began to understand that we’re headed in the right direction.

Defition of Hate Crimes Extended to Protect Gays

The House of Representatives voted in approval of extending the definition of a hate crime to include violence based on a person’s sexual orientation. About bloody time.

Judge Denny Chin Nominated to U.S. Court of Appeals

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The White House announced today that Judge Denny Chin, the accomplished judge who presided over the infamous U.S. vs. Madoff case earlier this year, has been nominated by President Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Here’s Chin’s biography, as released by The White House:

Judge Denny Chin: Nominee for United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Judge Denny Chin was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong. His family moved to the United States when he was 2 years old. Judge Chin was raised in New York City, attending Stuyvesant High School, a New York public school specializing in math and science, before attending Princeton University. He graduated from Princeton magna cum laude in 1975 and from Fordham Law School in 1978 where he was the managing editor of the Fordham Law Review.

After graduation, Judge Chin clerked on the Southern District of New York for Judge Henry F. Werker. He then spent two years at the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell before becoming an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1982. When he left the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1986, Judge Chin started a law firm with two colleagues: Campbell, Patrick & Chin. Four years later, he joined the law firm of Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C., where he specialized in labor and employment law.

In 1994, Judge Chin was nominated and confirmed to the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York, where he currently serves. He was the first Asian-American appointed as a U.S. District Court Judge outside of the Ninth Circuit.

Judge Chin has served as an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching legal research and writing since 1986. He is currently the Treasurer for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Judicial Council, and he has served as the President of the Federal Bar Council Inn of Court and the President of the Asian American Bar Association of New York. He also currently serves on the Boards of Directors for the Fordham Law School Alumni Association and the Fordham Law School Law Review Association and as the Co-Chair for the Fordham Law School Minority Mentorship Program. Judge Chin is a member of the Federal Bar Council Public Service Committee, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Judge Chin is being nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. 

Why is this a significant step?

The Asian American Bar Association (AABA) openly discusses the lack of representation of Asian Americans in the upper tiers of the judicial system. They write:

At the federal level, the number of Asian Pacific American judges is miniscule. In the Northern District of California, which includes San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties among others, there has never been an Asian American district court judge pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  As to all Article III federal courts, the number of active Article III judges who are Asian Pacific American is:

•  Zero in the Northern District of California
•  Zero in the federal circuit courts of appeal
•  Zero on the U.S. Supreme Court

In addition, former AABA president Celia Lee and Judge Ken Kawaichi wrote a compelling argument lamenting the embarrassing lack of diversity of judges in the federal courts system for the San Francisco Chronicle, with a specific focus on the state of California.

The absence of an Asian Pacific American jurist on the federal bench is a stark contrast to the Asian Pacific American jurists who sit on the state courts in Northern California, where there are 27 Superior Court judges, two commissioners, a justice on the Court of Appeal and two justices on the Supreme Court. Even with that number of Asian Pacific American jurists on the bench, state courts have not achieved parity with the Asian Pacific American population, which constitutes 33 percent of San Francisco’s population and about 20 percent of the Bay Area population. But at least there is progress. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently appointed five Asian Pacific American judges in Santa Clara, Alameda and San Francisco counties.

Lee and Kawaichi go on to state the case for why having equal representation among judges is critical; many of the country’s landmark civil rights cases throughout history were brought by Asian Americans against the state of California or the federal government. Here are those listed by Lee and Kawaichi in their article:

In Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, one of the earliest civil rights cases in American history, the Supreme Court in 1886 struck down a discriminatory San Francisco ordinance targeting Chinese Americans.

In Wong Kim Ark vs. the United States, a landmark immigration case in 1898, the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship to an American of Chinese ancestry born in the United States.

In Korematsu vs. United States, one of the most infamous civil rights cases in American history, the Supreme Court upheld the forced exclusion and detention of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II without the right to notice of charges, the right to attorneys or the right to a trial. Forty years later, in 1984, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of the Northern District court overturned Korematsu’s conviction, ruling that there was no good justification for the internment.

In Lau vs. Nichols, a suit brought by Chinese American students living in San Francisco, the Supreme Court expanded the rights of all students throughout the country with limited English skills by requiring language accommodation.

Asian Americans are not merely impacted by decisions made in federal courts, we have been instrumental in changing the face of the United States for the better throughout this nation’s history. Yet, Asian Americans are yet to be adequately represented in the positions that actually make these critical rulings.

Earlier this year, President Obama took a major step towards rectifying this disturbing lack of representation of Asian Americans among federal jurists; in August, Obama nominated Judge Edward Chen to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where he is now the first Asian American to serve as a federal judge overseeing a region encompassing some of the country’s largest Asian American populations.

If I read the AABA’s website correctly, if Judge Denny Chin were confirmed to the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, he would be the only Asian American currently serving in the federal court of appeals system. In other words, even with Judge Chin sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Asian Americans would still only represent 1% of judges in the federal circuit courts of appeal compared to representing more than 4% of the population.

Nonetheless, I applaud President Obama for this important step towards improving diversity in this nation’s courts. When Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he took a stance towards improving representation of underrepresented minorities in the judicial system, and it’s good to see that he has been true to his word when it comes to the Asian American community.

Act Now! The Asian American Bar Association has a number of recommended actions you can take if you want to let your elected representatives know you want more Asian Americans in the federal courts.

  • Send an email to Senators Feinstein and Boxer letting them know this is an important issue, letting them know that it is important for Asian Americans to be represented on the federal bench. For Senator Feinstein, click [here], and for Senator Boxer, click [here].

  • Become an AABA member and join our committees, including our Judiciary/Public Appointments Committee.

  • Support AABA, NAPABA, and other organizations seeking to diversify the judiciary.

  • Come to our Annual Dinner and other events to learn more.

  • Congratulations, John Liu!

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    John Liu isn’t Asian America’s singular political leader (do we even have one?), but he’s pretty dang close. Those of us who have been around the politically active wing of the APA community have seen how John Liu, a New York City councilman, is omnipresent in virtually every major political action that our community has involved itself in. Councilman Liu has made a career of encouraging Asian Americans to be more politically involved, more vocal, and more strategic in our demands for improved political representation and civil rights.

    This year, Councilman Liu rallied the national APA community in support of his race for NYC comptroller, a position responsible for overseeing billions of dollars of city funds. Yesterday, the votes in the Democratic primary were cast, and when the dust settled, Liu became NYC’s Democratic candidate for this position. And with NYC the left-leaning city that it is, there’s little doubt that Liu and other Democrats who won this tough primary race are going to emerge victorious against their Republican competitors in November.

    But the real victors here are the Asian American community, who worked vigorously to help Liu become the first Asian American elected to city-wide office in New York City. Daniel Collins at The Huffington Postsardonically attributes Liu’s win to the APA community’s “hunger” for representationdespite what Collins characterises as Liu’s lacklustre qualifications for the job as comptroller. Nonetheless, Liu has been an incredible advocate for his constituents, Asian American and otherwise, and I personally see no reason to suspect that Liu, power-drunk with the new position of comptroller, will bankrupt the Big Apple. 

    Meanwhile, there’s one inescapable fact here: how is it that New York City, with one of the oldest, largest and most vibrant Chinese communities in the country, is only now — in 2009 — capable of electing an Asian American to a city-wide public office? Yesterday’s election results in NYC are a blow to the rampant political underrepresentation of Asian Americans in this country, and I hope that pundits nationwide are finally sitting up and taking notice: in the new millennium, Asian Americans are –as we should be — a political force to be reckoned with.

    Act Now! The race isn’t over for John Liu: he goes against Republican opponent Joe Mendola on November 3rd. And while Liu is the front-runner in that race, now is not the time to get lackadaisical. Whether an NYC resident or clear across the country, volunteer for and contribute to Liu’s campaign at his campaibn website.