Friday, December 01, 2006


Say a congrats to my little brother, who just was admitted (early decision) to the engineering school at the University of Virginia!

It's no Carleton (people have heard of UVA), but I'm proud of him anyway :-P. And certainly ACC sports can beat up on the MIAC.

Legal History into the Blogosphere

I've been meaning to welcome Southern California Law Professor Mary Dudziak to the blogosphere, as she has started the new Legal History blog. You might recall my mentioning Professor Dudziak in reference to Derrick Bell's work on interest-convergence theory.

Welcome, Professor!

The Passion

A Time Magazine article argues that the backlash against Barack Obama appearing at an AIDS conference hosted by mega-church pastor Rick Warren will hurt the conservative right more than it helps, by exposing them as extremists who have no interest in dialogue with the broader community. Here's hoping--and kudos to Pastor Warren for resisting would must be enormous pressure to withdraw his invitation, by the way.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

All For One...

BlackProf's Spencer Overton excerpts and asks for comments on the followig passage from Barack Obama's new book, "The Audacity of Hope":
Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites . . . tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization--or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country. . . . Most white Americans figure that they haven't engaged in discrimination themselves and have plenty of their own problems to worry about. . . . .

As a result, proposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America. On the other hand, universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans (schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it, a government that helps out after a flood), along with measures that ensure our laws apply equally to everyone and hence uphold broadly held American ideals (like better enforcement of exiting civil rights laws), can serve as the basis for such coalitions--even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities.

Good strategy, or no?

I think there is a lot to say for this sort of approach. But I consider it to be more of a rhetorical approach and less of a substantive one. Professor Overton phrases the issue as whether Black leaders should abandon the press for race-specific policies (e.g., Affirmative Action). I think that much of that positive agenda can be preserved within Obama's framework, so long as we talk about it in a different way.

"[P]roposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America." That sentence, which has interesting echoes of Derrick Bell, is the crucial one for me. Policies like Affirmative Action have been relentless cast in this "us" versus "them" framework, with Black Americans seen as getting a special advantage over Whites. Some people might argue they deserve such an advantage due to the effects of discrimination, but few have challenged the popular norm that affirmative action is a racially zero-sum game.

Yet there is no objective reason Affirmative Action needs to be framed this way. Increased Black representation in the halls of business and academia do not just benefit Black people. There is ample proof that it helps society as a whole as well as White people specifically. I, a White student, proactively benefit because Carleton hosts a diverse array of students who do not all hail from one city, or study one major, or share one belief. Diversity is a fearure, not a bug. Calls for affirmative action should be phrased less as "you owe us" and more as "let us make this company/college/country a better place." In other words, the press for racial justice should be tied specifically into how it benefits the group as a whole. Which, coincidentally enough, it does.

This sort of rhetorical shift, advocated by Obama as well as academics such as Kenji Yoshino, offers a way out of combative racial discourse in which Whites feel they are under attack and hunker down. Forget about policies in which "the costs to whites aren't too high"--there are many policies which are and should be presented as paying veritable dividends to the White population, to the Black population, and to the American population.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


I am pleased to see that two prominent conservative voices, Eugene Volokh and Stephen Bainbridge, have spoken out against Dennis Prager's uncommonly stupid (even for him) column arguing that newly elected Muslim congressman Keith Ellison should not be allowed to swear his oath of office on a Koran. Not "because of any American hostility to the Koran," he argues, "but because the act undermines American civilization" (amazing how someone might view the latter as being indicative of the former).

Obviously, several liberal commentators (such as Steve Benen) were quick to pounce on Mr. Prager's appalling ignorance of the US constitution. But it's still nice to hear conservative voices being added to the choir--especially Bainbridge's timely reminder that Prager's proposal echoes eerily of anti-Catholic bigotry at the time of the founding.

The true danger in Prager's argument is not so much that it's wrong (that is quite easy to show). It's that--under the guise of defending "American civilization"--it proposes a political norm that would obliterate American democracy as we know it. As I've written before, America cannot be both a Christian nation and a democratic nation at the same time. Nor can it be "Judeo-Christian" or Muslim or Hindi or what have you, but Christianity ("Judeo-Chrisianity" is but Christianity's twin brother in drag) is the only religion that is actually trying to press itself as supreme inside our domestic political arena, so that's the one we must focus on. People who try and enforce Christian supremacy aren't just making a bad policy decision, they are, perhaps unwittingly, warring with the very fundamental ideals of American freedom and democracy.

Since I do believe the stakes are that high, it is quite heartening to see that some of the intellectual heavyweights of the right are pushing back. Of course, there are less sane voices that still aren't onboard with the idea that America does not just grudgingly tolerate but in fact celebrates its religious and cultural diversity. But thankfully, in this case at least, the big names appear to be onboard.

Oh, and can you imagine the uproar if anyone compared the Christian Bible to toliet paper or (as did Prager) Mein Kampf?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Three Views of the Torrent

Heidi Kitrosser points to three editorials which have deal with the Michael Richards controversy in a particularly intriguing or erudite fashion. From the Baltimore Sun, Leonard Pitts Jr.; from The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson; and from Blackprof, Spencer Overton. Mr. Pitts, in particular, raises a good point when he questions why people are so quick to assume the best case scenario in Mr. Richards' outburst?
If so many of my white countrymen refuse to recognize racism when it is this blatant and unmistakable, what expectation can we have that they will do so when it is subtle and covert? In other words, when it is what it usually is.

After all, modern bigotry usually isn't some nitwit screaming the N-word. It is jobs you don't get and loans you don't get and apartments you don't get and health care you don't get and justice you don't get - for reasons you get all too clearly, though no one ever quite speaks them. It is smiles in your face and knives in your back. And it is, yes, a sitcom - like Seinfeld - that presents New York City, of all places, as a black-free zone.

These are complaints blacks have sought for years to drive home to their fellow Americans, only to be met largely by indifference, the defensive apathy of those who are free to ignore or diminish any claim on conscience that makes them uncomfortable. At the risk of metaphor abuse, the response to this debacle makes clear that you can't explain Advanced Racism to those who haven't passed Racism 101.

And, with all due respect to my correspondent, that need to make excuses gets old. The man spent 2 1/2 minutes screaming racial insults. You say that's not racism?

Then, pray tell, what is?

In most cases today, racism appears in cases of ambivalency rather than in easily demarcated explicit violations. It comes pre-equipped with plausible deniability. Often it is operating unconsciously. Richards is the anomaly here, in that it presents an "easy" case. And while Pitts is right that too many of us are failing even this elementary exam, even those who are not still have only reached stage one. Stopping here, only seeing (and condemning) racism in the "easy cases" means most racism slip through the cracks. So with all due respect to Richard Cohen, it's still just a bit too early to celebrate.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Richards Effect

Black leaders including Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters are seizing the opportunity posed by the Michael Richards scandal to try and press for a general ban on using the n-word in comedy routines. I presume that the ban would not be a legal prohibition but rather a general agreement amongst comedians. For example, the club that hosted Richards announced a policy of fining any acts which used the term on a per use basis, taking it out of their paycheck (apparently to some people with a weak concept of contracts this is extortion).

I won't say I'm not for this press (and I think this might be the only time this sort of momentum might be available), but I think that this issue remains more complex than people give it credit for. For example, I think the view that Black versus White uses of the word are equally harmful is simplistic and naive. Certainly, the spectacular work Jody Armour has done elucidating the distinction in the African-American psyche between Black people and "niggas" is not the equivalent of a Klan rally, and it's deeply wrong to treat it as such. However, I'm not convinced that Black usage is sufficiently divorced from the negative impacts to make it worth preserving (although I think there is a general carve-out for academic work in these sorts of things anyway). Paul Mooney, a prominent Black comedian and a former user of the word in his routines, has sworn off it in response to Richards. So even though Black persons who try and reclaim the term are not the moral equals of a Richards or a Klansman (and it's foolish to treat them as such), but their efforts may be doing more harm than they intend.

Even still, it is clearly obvious that Richards case--an over the top tirade designed to show some Black patrons "what happens when you interrupt a white man"--is more hurtful, more dangerous, and more worthy of a response than reclamations--however misguided--within the Black community. After all, while such an explicit portrayal may not hit the public eye very often anymore, the underlying sentiments have more potency than we'd like to admit (witness this classically racist rant that argues why "maybe [Richards] was more accurate than everyone thought"). And I think that the comedy club's private decision to make that rule is far, far better than anything else that could be done--the idea that racism will no longer be tolerated socially will get us further than any number of abstract legal or moral maxims preaching color-blindness.

This is a bit murky, and I apologize for it. I guess the upshot is that a) obviously, I hope that this makes inroads against similar racist tirades by White persons in and out of public; b) I hope this also reduces the usage of the n-word in Black communities as well; but c) anyone who thinks that the latter is a higher priority than the former does not understand the mechanics or the harms of racism in modern society.

Monday Reviews

Featuring Stranger than Fiction and my first impressions of Final Fantasy XII.

First, Stranger than Fiction, the story of a man who finds his life being narrated by a voice inside his head. I'll admit I was skeptical of Will Ferrell being able to play this role, and that was without realizing how indie the movie really was. Yet he pulled it off in an impressive fashion, and I enjoyed the movie immensely. Obviously, the post-modernist in me loved the blurring of story and reality, and the romantic in me loved the idea that even dull, boring guys such as myself can catch beautiful Harvard Law-attending bakers who will make us delicious cookies. The author in the movie reminded me just enough (in terms of appearance) of one of my professors at Carleton to be unnerving, but she might have been my favorite character in the whole show. My mother complained it was too long (perhaps, but I didn't notice), and my father couldn't take the story at face value. I say that you have to suspend your imagination or accept it as a literary metaphor. But it's not like I have room to talk: I figured out a great way to resolve the great climatic conflict in a pain-free manner (write the happy ending page, then tear it up!). The only other complaint I have is that said climatic ending really was obnoxious in its way, both because I just didn't buy the idea that he "had to die" for the sake of literature, and because the proposed ending would not have constituted great literature at all, but a cliche. Please. But all in all, a stellar movie that hit the same bundle of happy nerves as, say, I <3 Huckabees (if you liked that sort of thing).

Final Fantasy XII. First, my background on this is having played parts of VI, VII, IX, and X. I have never actually finished any of the games: VII I came the closest, getting about half-way into the final dungeon, IX quitting right before I traveled to that dungeon, and VI and X not even coming close. That notwithstanding, I am a big fan of the series and XII does not disappoint. In terms of structure and artistic stylings, it reminds me a lot of IX (which I think is one of the more underrated games in the series). The voice acting is quite good (the Scottish accents can be a bit jarring, though), and the characters are solid (though there is not any one that stands out from the pack). The plot starts a little slow but picks up nicely, and at this point in the game (around 12 hours in--for those of you who have played, I just got the first Esper after beating Gigas) I am thoroughly hooked. As always, Final Fantasy is the type of game that anyone with even the remotest interest in RPG style games can enjoy.

XII's big innovation that has folks talking is the "gambit" system, which allows a significant part of combat to proceed automatically. I'm ambivalently positive towards it. To make that statement clear, I should comment on another major shift from previous games in the series: the lack of random encounter battles. Now, you can see all the monsters on the main map as you wander around, choosing to engage (or not) as you will. That I think is a major innovation, and the gambit system works really well with it. On the one hand, I think that the non-lead characters don't react as quickly given their gambits as I would expect them to. That's a minor quibble, though, and I think overall it's a successful and reasonably intuitive system.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Beautiful Day

Computer is fixed!

The computer guy came today with bad news: he was "not optimistic" about getting the data off my hard drive. Things looked grim. But then, a ray of hope! As it happens, rather than my hard drive simply having melted down, it had merely been knocked ajar from its connection to the motherboard during my travels from Northfield to Bethesda. It turns out that, much like myself, the hard drive had a few screws loose on the bracket that kept it steady. It must have taken a bit of a whack on the flight home, and thus was knocked off. The guy reattached it, and all is well.

As a result of this ordeal, I just backed up all my files to an external hard drive. This was the best of all possible worlds then: A problem large enough to give me a bona fide scare (and thus motivate me to do a long overdue backup), but one that did not do any actual permanent damage.

Life is good.