Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Alabama's Pro-Muslim Bias

Eugene Volokh has the scoop on a fascinating lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Alabama, alleging state religious discrimination ... against Christians and in favor of Muslims. Here are the alleged facts:
Plaintiff Yvonne Allen is a devout Christian woman who covers her hair with a headscarf as part of her religious practice. In December 2015, Ms. Allen sought to renew her driver license at the Lee County driver license office, where officials demanded that she remove her head covering to be photographed. When Ms. Allen explained her religious beliefs, the County officials responded with a remarkable claim: They admitted that there was a religious accommodation available for head coverings, but contended that it applied only to Muslims.
Assuming these claims are accurate, there is no question in my mind that the practice constitutes religious discrimination.

Yet it seems implausible, to say the least, that local governmental officials in Alabama are systematically biased in favor of Muslims and against Christians. So what gives?

One possibility is that we're seeing a weird confluence of dutiful bureaucratic obedience with a genuine belief in Fox-inspired "Muslims get special rights!" nonsense. That is, the relevant civil servants assume that in our decaying politically correct world Muslims get special rights that everyone else doesn't, and being faithful public officials they are simply following (what they take to be) the law.

But another way of thinking about this reflects something I've long wondered about religious and cultural accommodations (I could have sworn I've written a post on this, but I can't find it) -- what if the accommodation itself is motivated by some sort of degrading or stigmatizing belief about the accommodated party? Let's say one thought of a particular religious outgroup as being especially backwards and primitive. So one offers an "accommodation" to that faith that makes it easier for them to pass their GEDs. That accommodation could itself be a form of discrimination against the religious group -- a public message that they, as a collective, are the sort of people too dumb to pass high school on their own. And so here, an accommodation for Muslims-only could make sense to the extent that it marks them as other/deviant, whereas a Christian seeking the same accommodation threatens the communal sense of Christians as normal, Western, and integrated.

This type of wrong is by no means especially "conservative" in nature. It is more or less the same instinct motivating the left-wing Jewish college professor who fell over herself to be friendly to the her head-scarf wearing bus-mate when she assumed she was Muslim, but went ice-cold upon finding out that she was in fact an observant Jew. There are slight differences in valence, but in either case the "accommodation" is really a way of demarcating otherness or strangeness.

In any event, to think of Alabama as favoring its Muslim residents over its Christians is amusing enough on its own to be worth flagging. Again, the case itself seems pretty straightforward, at least on the facts alleged.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Not a Conversion, But a Unification

The Hebrew Israelite community -- an umbrella term encompassing a variety of Black Jewish organizations and movements -- has just selected Chicago Rabbi Capers C. Funnye as its official Chief Rabbi. The Forward has a good overview of this historic event and the current status of Hebrew Israelites in the United States.

Rabbi Funnye is a well-known figure in both the Hebrew Israelite and American (Ashkenazi-dominated) Jewish establishment (I was well aware of his congregation when I lived in Chicago during law school). He is also relatively unique in the Hebrew Israelite community for having undergone a "formal" (Conservative-overseen) conversion to Judaism. Many members of the Hebrew Israelite community do not do this, primarily because they already see themselves as Jews and they bristle at the suggestion that their Jewish pedigree needs validation or ratification from other (predominantly White) Jewish institutions. A similar controversy often exists in African Jewish communities, who frequently see conversion requirements as disrespecting their own historical identification as Jews.

Yet there is no doubt that Rabbi Funnye's conversion has assisted him greatly in building bridges between his Jewish community and the "mainstream" one populated by people like me. Which got me thinking. There are not that many Jews, and there are not that many people seeking to identify as Jewish. Our default stance should be to embrace diverse populations which want to join our community, and at one level a "conversion" is a great formal ritual to make clear on all sides that regardless of what you look like or where you come from, we are all equal as Jews. Yet I am sympathetic to the notion that there is something askance about forcing a predominantly Black Jewish community, that has been practicing Judaism for multiple generations and fully identifies as Jewish, to submit itself to Jewish approval by predominantly non-Black institutions. What gives us the right to form that hierarchy? And what does "conversion" say about their prior status as Jews?

So it seems to me that it should be a Jewish priority to come up with an alternative. Not a conversion, but a unification -- a ritual or practice whereby persons from Jewish communities that have historically been on the margins of normative Judaism, who perhaps have not always been recognized as Jewish by normative Judaism, can have the opportunity to declare themselves and be declared part of the broader Jewish family. Of course, this is not an open-door proposal -- unification requires, if not agreement by all parties on all aspects of what Jewishness means, then at least consent by both parties that they mutually understand the other to be Jewish in a sufficiently robust way so as to be part of a single community.

Were I a Rabbi -- and lord knows I'm not -- this is what I would be spending my time developing. I think along the same lines regarding the children of interfaith couples where the mother is not Halakhically Jewish but the child has been raised Jewish and fully identifies as a Jew. For that child, it seems to me that the Bar or Bat Mitzvah could just as easily serve the role of a "conversion" as well: it is, after all, the moment where a young person assumes the responsibilities as a Jewish adult, and so a young person who was not born a Halakhic Jew but who is willing to assume those same responsibilities can, in my view, reasonably be said to have been accepted into the community as a Jewish adult.

Judaism is strengthened by our multiculturalism -- the vast montage of human diversity and experience which is enveloped under the Jewish umbrella. We should be proud that we are a faith which for thousands of years (and through no small adversity) continues to exercise a pull on persons of widely divergent histories. I have no desire for Judaism to become a proselytizing faith. But in a world where different faiths and ethnicities interact and intersect like never before in human history, it is time for Judaism to adjust in how it embraces persons who -- diverse though their heritages may be -- are united in their identification as Jews.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Warning Against Warning Against Trigger Warnings

A recent letter sent by the University of Chicago to its incoming students has generated quite a bit of attention for its verbiage on that ever-present collegiate bugaboo, "trigger warnings":
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
One point of contention has been whether this statement, fairly read, means that the U of C now bans its professors from issuing trigger warnings. I'm inclined to doubt this is the case, but if it is so it most certainly is an intrusion on the academic freedom of Chicago professors to manage their own classrooms. Hopefully, we can all agree that the issue of trigger warnings is one best left to the sound academic discretion of individual professors -- it should not be mandated or forbidden by academic administrators.

But leave that aside, and turn to the advisability of "trigger warnings" as a pedagogical tool. Ilya Somin offers his "Warning against Trigger Warnings" that he delivers at the start of his Constitutional Law course.
I don’t believe in trigger warnings. But if I did, I would have to include one for virtually every day of this course. We are going to cover subjects like slavery, segregation, sexism, suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. There is no way to teach this course without discussing these issues. And there is no good way to cover them without also considering a wide range of views about these subjects and their relationship to the Constitution.
This is, to reiterate, framed as a statement against trigger warnings. But it seems to me that it functions ... basically as a trigger warning. It tells students, accurately, about some of the content they'll be reading, and notes that much of it deals with issues of deep injustice and controversy. It explains why that material is there, and why it needs to be addressed forthrightly. We see things like this a lot. Jerry Coyne argued in The New Republic that while perhaps it is appropriate of professors to prospectively inform students of triggering content, there most certainly should not be a trigger warning -- heaven forbid! What they do in disclaiming trigger warnings is for the most part not far different from what many, though not all, trigger warning advocates are asking for.

What, exactly, is going on here? In part, many people seem to ascribe to "trigger warnings" a function they are manifestly not designed for -- to avoid teaching sensitive topics. But that's silly -- if you don't want to teach a sensitive topic, you don't put it on your syllabus. The very fact of including a trigger warning indicates that this material is present on the syllabus and being taught.

What else? Well, clearly what many people have in mind when they think of "trigger warnings" are not the mild cases outlined above, but more extreme versions where every ticky-tack element of the syllabus is meticulously sorted through and warned over to appease the most sensitive theoretical student. Perhaps cases like that do exist -- I'm sure one can find some obscure sociology professor at Southwest Oregon State Technical College who's hard at work making a 12 page list of potential triggers on his syllabus -- but certainly they don't represent the main. And in any event, that's a difference of degree, not kind.

So we can certainly say that certain extreme manifestations of trigger warnings are ridiculous, pedagogically and otherwise. But this argument cuts both ways -- it seems to me that there are cases where something like a "trigger warning" would be universally agreed to be not just prudent but the only pedagogically responsible course of action.

I was talking with a colleague at another law school who teaches First Amendment law. As part of the course they discuss various anti-pornography ordinances, and as part of that unit she shows a clip in class of graphic rape pornography of the sort targeted by the ordinance. And the class before that class, she tells her students that this clip will be shown and asks them to prepare to discuss and react to it. In short -- though she doesn't use the term -- she provides a trigger warning.

We can of course debate whether it is wise to show such a clip in class at all. But given that she does so, I imagine all of us think it is wise that her pedagogical tact is not "surprise! Rape porn!" Of course you give students advance notice that it's coming. Anything else would be recklessly irresponsible. Does anyone disagree on that score?

The other argument against "trigger warnings" that might apply even in a case like this is the appeal to the "real world". In the real world, this argument goes, people are exposed to disturbing or hostile events without warning. It will happen, and it is important that young adults learn to cope with it. The proponents of this view sometimes recognize that people really do have deep-seated aversion and anxiety to certain topics, but, they suggest, the way to resolve it is through some version of "exposure therapy." We expose people to their fears under safe and controlled conditions so they learn to cope.

This argument really just does not grasp the professional and pedagogical role of a university professor. To begin, I am not my students' therapist. I am not professionally trained in getting students to overcome their anxieties. If I were forced into that role, however, my instinct would be that exposure therapy would exist alongside "trigger warnings" and even some of the more controversial forms of university "mollycoddling" that conservatives like to condemn. As my friend Kate Manne observed, we do not cure arachnophobes by randomly tossing spiders at them. If we do exposure therapy, it is in controlled environments, with advance warning and significant support to help the subject recover when they're (understandably) rattled.

But there's a deeper misunderstanding here. Just as my job as an academic is not to be a therapist, likewise it is not to be a generic life coach offering exposure to the various hard knocks my students will inevitably encounter as they walk through life. Yes, it's true that my students will "in the real world" encounter disturbing or distressing material without warning. It's also true that my students will "in the real world" most likely have a supervisor who is a jerk. Does that mean I should be a jerk to my students? They'll have to get used to it to survive in the real world! No, of course not. My job is not to offer a buffet table of life's prospective misfortunes for my students. My job is to teach the material I offer in the most effective manner possible. The advisability of a trigger warning, as far as I'm concerned, depends wholly on how it meets that criteria: will it aid or impede my students in the learning process? That will be a matter of individual judgment on individual cases, and it strikes me as fairly ridiculous to try to sweep more broadly than that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

SHOCKED To Find Out There Was Gambling!

A Sheldon Adelson backed anti-BDS group has distanced itself from one of its grantees after it launched a poster campaign identifying pro-Palestinian student activists as "Jew-haters." 
The Maccabee Task Force issued its disavowal of the poster campaign Monday after the Los Angeles Times reported the link between it and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which launched the campaign in February. 
The David Horowitz Freedom Center is a conservative foundation based in Los Angeles. 
“The Maccabee Task Force did approve a modest grant to the David Horowitz Freedom Center to focus on the true nature of pro-BDS organizations, but we did not ask for or approve the poster campaign that targeted student activists, and were not aware that our money had been used to support it. It should not have been,” Maccabee Task Force Executive Director David Brog said in a statement issued Monday.
“The Maccabee Task Force does not believe that focusing on student activists who conduct themselves civilly is an appropriate or effective way to combat the BDS movement on campus. Focusing on the true nature of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups like SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), however, remains a core component of our approach and we will continue to fund efforts that expose those organizations and their leadership,” Brog also said.
Holy shit, you're saying that giving money to David Horowitz might not result in an advocacy campaign that scrupulously adheres to principles of civility and political justice? Who could have known!

In any event, this statement by Brog is worth nothing unless it is followed by (a) the Task Force cutting off Horowitz from any further grants and (b) the Task Force taking cues from those Jewish organizations which managed to fight BDS on campus and condemn vicious political stunts like this at the same time.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXX: Sadiq Khan Endorsing Owen Smith

Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London, the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a major Western city. Khan is also a member of the UK's Labour Party, which at the moment is embroiled in a major anti-Semitism problem many lay at the feet of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is unpopular with the general public, but his numbers among Jews are especially abysmal -- approaching Trump-among-Latinos depths. But Khan is relatively well liked by his Jewish constituents (London is a major center of the UK Jewish community). His campaign for mayor was characterized by an impressive level of outreach to the Jewish community, and following his election he has walked the walk. Khan is proof that Jews are perfectly happy to vote Labour if Labour offers a choice that incorporates them as part of Britain's multicultural tapestry and offers them respect and solidarity. The problem with Labour is that Corbyn-style Labour is not making that offering.

In any event, Corbyn is currently being challenged for his post as head of Labour by another MP, Owen Smith. And Khan has just come out hard for Smith, though his focus was not on the issue of anti-Semitism but on Corbyn's general lack of leadership, particularly on the "Brexit" vote. All of that information is background for this:


Five minutes. That didn't take long at all (the photo, incidentally, is genuine -- Khan really did eat Matzah at a Passover event during his campaign).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Post-Contemporary Roundup

Yesterday, I had my first Ph.D subfield exam (in contemporary political theory). It was a delightful smorgasbord of Rawls, Walzer, Rorty, Anderson, and Landesmore; thus (hopefully) proving I am a smart young man who knows things about contemporary political theory.

As one can imagine, this has been taking up much of my time (well beyond the six hours I spent taking the actually test). But now it's over, and I can enjoy my ... one week before the Fall Term begins! Anyway, here are some links that have been cluttering my browser over the past few days.

* * *

Glenn Beck has some surprisingly thoughtful and introspective remarks on Black Lives Matter. Good for him.

MEMRI says there has been a recent streak of articles in the Saudi press urging its readers to renounce and reject anti-Semitism. Sea change, or drop in the bucket? Who knows.

"For Israel, It’s No Jew Left Behind — Unless You’re Ethiopian".

Jeremy Corbyn must find it baffling how his friends mysterious keep on saying things to Jews like "F**k him, they should cut his throat."

Department of Justice to phase out the use of private prisons. Good news, though my suspicion (possibly unfounded) is that most private prison contracts are with the states, not the federal government.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Complicated Problems are Still Problems

When I teach a unit on controversial topics, I sometimes begin by making an observation about "hard" and "easy" problems. Many of us have a tendency to convert hard problems into easy ones. This can be a great skill at times, particularly for lawyers -- distilling a complex and multifaceted mess of a fact pattern into a simple set of issues that straight-forwardly demand victory for one's clients. As thinkers, though, it is a more problematic instinct. For example, I've argued that there is a peculiar left-right convergence -- some of the time -- regarding how they talk about issues of racism. Some persons on the left think racism is a simple matter, in the sense that once we've identified something as racist that's all we need to know on the matter. And some persons on the right will agree with that sentiment, but proceed to argue that since such-and-such case is not simple but rather quite complex and complicated, it therefore can't be racist (since racism is, by stipulation, something that is straight-forwardly wrong). These two views converge to box out what seems to me the far more plausible reality: racism being often a matter of great complexity and moral difficulty, an appraisal which in no way diminishes the seriousness or gravity of racism as a wrong. Complicated problems are still problems.

Having told this parable, I continue to tell my students that the instinct to make hard cases easy ones is troublesome for at least two reasons. The first one is perhaps obvious: when we do it, we almost always act to exclude morally relevant considerations that should be factoring into our analysis; nuances and wrinkles that make the case a hard case and so are written out. But there's a more subtle problem as well: When we make hard cases easy, we condition ourselves to think that only easy cases are solvable cases -- that hardness is a synonym for "intractable" or (worse) "apolitical". Sometimes this leads to a sort of quiescence around hardness (as in the case of the conservative who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice is a sufficient response to claims of racism). Other times it leads to a suspicion of hardness (as in the leftist who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice represents a failure to take it seriously). Either way, it is a path that leads nowhere, and so I conclude by telling my students to "lean into the hardness." 

All of this came to mind when reading the penultimate paragraph of Daniel May's contribution to the MBL/Jewish flare-up, which discusses the issue of "complexity" and credibility. May offers up a list of some of the more egregious instances of Israeli injustices and then derides those who claim "that such realities must be understood in 'context,' as 'complicated,' or a tragic consequence of 'ha'matzav' (“the situation,” as Israelis call it)." 

May is articulating a real wrong here -- the conservative voice in my parable who thinks he has responded to an allegation of injustice by asserting "it's complicated." Yet there is the question of how we frame our retort. The shortfall of the conservative reply is not that the problem isn't a complicated one. The shortfall is that complicated problems are still problems. It is absolutely true that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is bound up in all sorts of immensely difficult nets and traps which defy simple solutions or easy finger points. None of that removes the fundamental injustices that exist where an entire population is deprived of the basic democratic entitlements to vote for the sovereign authority controlling their lives, where racist incitement against Palestinians continues to surge, where "price tag" attacks by Jewish terrorists occur with near-impunity, where a military occupation persists indefinitely while insulated from any accountability to the people in its cross-hairs. And those fundamental injustices, in turn, don't flatten or dissipate the complexity of "the situation" that produces them. We deal with hard problems by tackling them in all their difficulty and complexity.

There's a reason why I think the most powerful sentence in Stacey Aviva Flint's superb reflection on the Movement for Black Lives platform is also its shortest: "I choose discomfort". The issues posed by police violence targeting people of color, or Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, or the dispossession of ancient Jewish communities in the Christian and Muslim worlds, or continued vulnerability of Arab and Muslim communities to state-sponsored and individual acts of violence, or systematic racism, or ongoing global anti-Semitism, are not easy, comfortable issues. They are not morality plays and we are not blessed with simple and straightforward choices. Crafting a just social sphere is hard, complicated, complex business. That observation is part of the work; it's not an excuse to refrain from it.