Friday, February 09, 2007


It's my birthday weekend (I turn 21 on Sunday). So if I seem to blog less frequent then usual over these next few days, rest assured it's a complete coincidence.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Noblesse Oblige

Mike Crowley on the media's discovery that John Edwards is actually rich:
The weirdest emerging theme, as seen in the lede of this AP story, is the implication that having money and a fancy house somehow exists in tension with Edwards's concentration on poverty in America. To the contrary, I say. If only every millionaire with a mansion in the Hamptons or Malibu gave more of a damn about poverty, and less about tax cuts or the availability of a good helicopter pilot, we might make some progress towards eliminating the American underclass.

Amen. Rich people have a particularly important responsibility to fight against poverty, because they are the key beneficiaries of the capitalist system which put them at the top, and others at the bottom. White people have a particular obligation to remedy racism, because they are the key beneficiaries of the racist system which gives them undue advantage.

Or, to state it broadly: "Human beings have a moral obligation to try and remedy unjust systems of which they are the beneficiary."

As I clarified in that post, this is not saying that said beneficiaries are responsible for the unjust state of affairs. White people are, by and large, not responsible for the web of White privilege which gives them their advantage. Rich people should not be looked upon as evil because they amassed wealth. This is not a guilt/innocence issue. This is about fairness and distributional justice. If you believe it is unfair for children to grow up in grinding, hopeless poverty simply because of their parents, or that a laid off mill worker is not at fault when his factory got outsourced to China, then you're admitting that the Capitalist system creates losers who do not "deserve" to be there, and the people who are winners in the same system have to fight against that.

So, good for Edwards. The fact that he's wealthy means we should expect him to fight on behalf of the American underclass. It's sad that we appear to be surprised at the prospect instead.

Bias Within Bias

Talking with a friend today after class, I remarked that much of my thinking on Israel/Palestin issues had moved away from the nuts and bolts of the conflict itself, and towards the meta-issue of how we talk about the conflict. This is the instinct that prompted my narrative frames post, for example. To a large extent, I truly do not believe that our society has figured out the ground rules of a conversation on this issue that allow all parties to participate while feeling like they are given equal consideration and due treatment. Because of this, the discussion on the discussion holds considerable importance to me--until we get that debate resolved, I believe the policy issues will indefinitely loop around and never actually be resolved.

In that vein, David Adnesik has a great post examining the claim that the media is more likely to report Israeli civilian casualties than their Palestinian counterparts. The subject of his inquiry is a report by FAIR that claims to have found this trend in NPR reporting on the conflict. This is FAIR's conclusion:
An Israeli civilian victim was more likely to have his or her death reported on NPR (84 percent were covered) than a member of the Israeli security forces (69 percent). But Palestinians were far more likely to have their deaths reported if they were security personnel (72 percent) than if they were civilians (22 percent). Of the 112 Palestinian civilians killed in the Occupied Territories during the period studied, just 26 were reported on NPR. Of the 28 Israeli civilians killed in the Territories--mostly settlers--21 were reported on NPR.

My narrative theory can account for this--indeed, on my earliest pieces on narrative dealt specifically with Journalistic Narratives. The narrative that creates this "bias" could be one of many things--it could be an implicit view that Israeli lives are more valuable than those of Palestinians. It could be that a desire for evenhandedness makes the media attempt to report casualties at a 1:1 rate, which yields the bias because there are far more casualties on the Palestinian side during the measured time period. It could be the manner in which Israeli deaths occur makes them more "reportable"--Adnesik notes that many of the Israeli deaths occur from massive suicide bombings that kill large numbers of civilians at once, while Palestinian deaths tend to happen in more isolated incidents. Any of these or other potential narratives, or any mix of these, could cause the disparity FAIR sees.

FAIR offered a spreadsheet to buttress its analysis, and Adnesik argues that it shows that the disparity is explainable by factors that are not related to any implicit devaluing of Palestinian life. The data apparently verifies my aforementioned point that Israelis tend to die in bunches, while Palestinians die one-by-one. He also points out that the status of many of the Palestinians FAIR labels as civilians is quite ambigious--FAIR does not seem to account for the presence of armed militants who aren't part of the official Palestinian Security apparatus, which seems like an elementary mistake--and the breakdown of what type of people are dying fits "the demographic profile of a fighting force." If NPR was more willing than FAIR to examine the prospect that some of these "civilians" were actually militants, it may then have decided that a battle that resulted in one death in a longstanding civil war is not worth its ink.

Thus, Adnesik concludes that
What NPR covered most was terrorism -- the intentional murder of civilians, especially when more than one was killed at a time. One might argue that a focus on terrorism is not the best way to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that is very different from arguing that the US media devalue Palestinian life and fear the retribution of the Jewish lobby.

So what do we draw from this? Well, as Adnesik says, one can argue that the focus on terrorism ends up biased towards Israel because the types of deaths it suffers are far more likely to meet the moniker than the deaths it inflicts. Or one could argue that NPR's decision calculus is perfectly acceptable, as there is a qualitative difference between civilians being delibertely targeted for death, and "civilians" who are possibly militants dying (or alternatively, civilians dying as collateral damage during operations against militants, which we've sort of internalized as one of the necessary tragedies of war).

Ultimately, then, the question of whether the media really is showing "bias" towards Israel is determined by whether its facial reasons for reporting disparity are coherent and meaningful conceptual categories, or are merely serving as a facade for the slant. That's not resolvable without getting inside people's psyches (again, back to the narrative frames issue), but at the very least, the reporting is not inarguably biased in favor of Israel.

Blogroll Moves

Some new additions to my blogroll:

Faux Real Tho has been linking to me reasonably consistently in her round-ups, which pleases me. More pleasing is that she links to the posts I actually find interesting--it seems that many of my links go to some of my least favored posts.

Black at Michigan is erudite and always worth reading. It's a recent discovery of mine through Rachel's Tavern, and I've been impressed by what I've seen so far.

To both of those two, I'd also be honored to be placed on your blogroll (however, I don't really believe in quid pro quo trades on that respect, so if you don't want to, that's entirely okay).

Wall of Separation, blog of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, also makes its debut.

Finally, That Black Lesbian Jew doesn't really blog frequently enough to get on the 'roll, but I think that if she ever starts cranking those gears, her perspective would be a fascinating one, so I'll keep my eye on it.

Congratulations to the newly inducted!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Glenn Beck's Race Problem

Since the very first time I saw him, I've always been keenly aware that Glenn Beck is a nut. So the following will not break any shattering new paradigms in that regard. But Steve Benen's analysis on why Beck justifies having so few Black friends is worth saving, simply because it shows the severe infirmities of a "color-blind" outlook at remedying racism. Here's Beck (talking with conservative Black author Shelby Steele):
"You know, I -- Shelby, I don't know if anybody else in the audience -- oh, this is just going to be a blog nightmare over the next few days -- but let me just be honest and play my cards face up on the table.

"I was thinking about this just last week. I don't have a lot of African-American friends, and I think part of it is because I'm afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare."

There are obvious things to say about this comment (starting with the fact that Beck seems utterly oblivious to the possibility that he might learn something from his would-be Black friends offense about race), but I want to bracket them for now. I just want to note that Beck, if pressed, probably would not admit that this is a racist action on his part. He's not not friends with Blacks because they're Black, he's not friends because he doesn't want to hang with people who will make him feel uncomfortable (which just happens to track being Black). Obviously, this is quite transparent to the folks observing at home. But it does show the infinite malleability of "color-blindness" to justify nearly any racial inequity (and it's been serving in that capacity since Jim Crow).

Is Beck's instinct shared by many White Americans, who also seem unreasonably skittish about interacting with Blacks because they're afraid they'll screw up and get tarred with the label, "racist"? Yes, I believe it is, and I believe it is something that needs to be addressed seriously and remedied (rather than simply chided from afar). But that won't happen as long as we delude ourselves into thinking that it is "color-blind" thinking on the part of White Americans. It isn't, and it can't be treated that way.


If you've noticed, I've been a bad blogger the last few days. The reason is that I'm trying to kick a rather nasty cough/cold before the weekend, when my birthday is. And it just took a turn for the worse.

So part one of this post asks the question: What do the following symptoms signify? A few days of a wracking cough, followed by really stuffy sinuses (but the coughing has stopped), and now the sinuses plus a sore and somewhat swollen throat?

People who don't have anything valuable to add to that conversation can instead debate their favorite Futurama episode. I think I'd probably have to say Love and Rocket, either of the two Xmas Stories, or Crimes of the Hot. But right now (this changes all the time) my favorite line in the show comes from I Dated a Robot, featuring the "Erotic Assassin" style Lucy Liu-bot saying, in a robotic voice: "I am Lucy Liu, give me your spines."

Devoted Lucy Liu fan that I am, I laughed uncontrollably.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Israel's Silence on Darfur

Martin Peretz rips into Israel for its anemic response to the Darfur genocide. The country founded on "never again" simply cannot stand idly by while, two countries over, genocide rages on.

I've noted that Israel has somewhat of an excuse not to be more vocal on the Darfur issue--the Sudanese government is already labeling the anti-genocide push as a Zionist Plot, and it seems foolish to play into their hands. However, as Peretz notes, Israel is also refusing to take in Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in its country. There is no excuse for that.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Narrative in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

Narrative is an inescapable condition of our lives. We organize and interpret reality through the lens of narrative spheres, taking otherwise discordant, unverifiable, or incomprehensible events and reinterpreting them so they represent order, meaning, and reality. This clashes rather harshly with the prevalent view that our perceptions reflect (more or less accurately) something "real" and that our perceptions are shaped solely by reality (rather than any influence in the other direction). But, popularity notwithstanding, it still remains true that--in the words of a fictional debate coach--"reality isn't."

Different narratives can coexist, but often they compete and sometimes they completely nullify each other. Indeed, the adaptation of one narrative necessarily involves the suppression of others. This is problematic, because the undeniably pluralism of reality makes it more than likely that even suppressed narratives contain grains of truth inside of them, and their marginalization thus operates as a cognitive shortcut to simplify (but distort) our perception of the world. Yet it is unavoidable--it is impossible to function while simultaneously affirming every possible narrative existent in the wide world.

I think this offers an important qualifier to discussions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There are many narratives clashing here: Jewish restoration of homeland versus Palestinian naqba, Binational versus unitary states, terrorism or resistance. People adopt a favored narrative and then interpret events through that lens. So, in the comments to the last post we discussed the shooting death of a young Palestinian teenager by the IDF. As usual, there are conflicting stories as to what happened--the IDF says he was trying to cut through the security barrier, his friends and family say he was riding a horse near the barrier but was not attempting to cross it. Whom one believes is largely a function of how one more broadly conceptualizes the narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My internal narrative frame emphasizes anti-Jewish oppression, of which Israel is supposed to be a haven from. In this context, Palestinian attacks on Israel is simple a localized version of a global trend. Israel's actions are understood in the context of preventing another Auschwitz--never again will we meekly march to our own graves. This narrative has a supporting super-structure of news reports, historical anecdotes, stories, polls, etc., which buttress the idea that much of the violence stems from Palestinian and Arab anti-Semitism and their illegitimate inability to come to terms with having Jewish neighbors on "their" land. And Israel, for its part, qualifies its behavior based on Jewish experience and ethics, which desire to minimize civilian casualties and have an ultimate desire to live in harmony with its neighbors. Civilians still die, of course, but these are seen as mistakes, tragedies, or products of Palestinian terror groups basing their operations within civilian populations.

Of course, even within this narrative, it is quite obvious that in any given case (or in this case) the Palestinian teenagers and their families may be telling the truth. All armies contain brutes who like inflict suffering, and the hierarchal nature of occupation make exploitation easy to cause and easier to cover up. But since I have no way to independently verify what happened in any particular case, I mentally categorize the events as what they are "most likely," which is accordance with the dominant narrative. The net effect is suppress instances of illegitimate Palestinian suffering that I theoretically "know" happen but never actually grapple with because I can derail their entry into my consciousness at the level of the particular event.

Hence, the dominant narrative of Israel attempting to defend itself from its enemies, while trying to do so as ethically as possible, suppresses a counter-narrative that I also know to be legitimate--that Palestinians, many of whom are innocent, are dying or are otherwise harmed by Israeli policies, that they face suffering which is illegitimate. My narrative also obliterates (i.e., refuses to recognize the legitimacy of) still other counter-narratives, ones that might challenge whether Israel legitimately exists at all, or whether it has any particular ties to ethical behavior constraining its action.

I focused this piece on critiquing my own narrative, because the point of the post is to be cognizant of the manner in which our internal proceedings construct and constrain our political horizons, and it would be hypocritical to try and deny this in ourselves. But it is important to note that the exact same analysis applies going in the other direction. A narrative which assumes Israeli mal intent, for example, might theoretically be aware that any individual IDF soldier is responding to a genuine threat, but subsumes that narrative into the dominant one suggesting Israeli brutalism as the primary precipitation of violent activity. This narrative obliterates the counter-narrative (i.e., the element of my narrative) that says Israeli institutions do care about such ethical boundaries. Still more radical narratives, such as the one that says Israel had no right to exist in the first place, forcibly exclude counter-narratives about Jewish history in the region, Israel as a haven for oppressed Jews, and other sundries which are part of my reality and my existence.

As I said, to some extent this is unavoidable, as no narrative can necessarily be complete or all-encompassing of reality. Yet, I don't ask of that impossibility. Rather, I use this example to ask us to be cognizant of our narratives, and recognize that by defaulting to particular views of the world, we are necessarily depriving ourselves of the full extent of the reality out there. A little humility is in order.

Leland's Grave

The Wall of Separation blog (arm of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) has an interesting post on George W. Bush winning the Southern Baptist Convention's John Leland Religious Liberty award. The post points out that, given the history of Mr. Leland, awarding it to someone like President Bush is a sick joke. Leland was a firm advocate for separationism, and he actually spoke out against "toleration" because he said it did not go far enough:
The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Leland also wrote that "the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than persecutions ever did," and maintained suspicion of politicians who wore their faith on their sleeve.

It is a well-documented historical irony that the Baptists, some of the most stalwart defenders of religious liberty (for minorities especially) at the time of the founding, have now become associated with an aggressive drive to mix Church and State into as indistinguishable a blend as possible. In fact, this is somewhat unfair, as it is more the Southern Baptist Church, which broke away from the larger Baptist movement in the mid 19th century (largely over slavery issues) that has really been driving for Church/State unification. My impression is that the original Baptists remain reasonably committed to a separationist standpoint. Leland had already died by the time of this schism, but his legacy is most certainly not expressed by the SBC award recipients.

The Case for The Case for Israel

David Adnesik is going to read and comment as he works through Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel. The stated point of comparison is to Norman Finkelstein, which seems to give Dershowitz an advantage from the start. I read The Case for Israel a few years back, and thought it was pretty good (not spectacular), however, I wasn't really in a stage of my intellectual development where I could cast a truly critical eye on it.

Adnesik's thoughts so far? Dershowitz wildly overestimates his own abilities, and his use of courtroom stylistic motifs is obnoxious and unhelpful. That being said, Adnesik appears to be convinced that Dershowitz is at least somewhat openminded, nuanced in argumentation, and does not qualify as a "loon."

Sunday, February 04, 2007


I didn't know this:
As a retired judge, O'Connor maintains an office at the Supreme Court, still draws a salary and fills in as a judge on the federal appeals courts.

I know that retired judges got to take "senior status" and would sit by designation on appellate panels, but somehow it never occurred to me that Supreme Court judges would do it too. That's got to be a little bit of a letdown. What if she's on the bottom of a 2-1 decision? "I used to own you people!" It would just be a bit rough on the ego, I think.

Da Bears

I was leaning towards rooting for them anyway, and this post was enough to convince me.

Plus it means I can put this picture on my blog.

As Stephen Colbert might say: The Bears are "godless killing machines without a soul." And what more could you want from a football team?

Ball Tribulations

I had a wonderful time at the Ball last night. But there was a problem. At the end of the night, as my date was getting ready to board the shuttle to go home, I leaned in to give her the ceremonial peck on the cheek. Alas, I did not get her cheek. Rather, I hit the ear-flap on her warm winter hat (it was, after all, probably -10 degrees outside). This is not the first time this has happened. The last time I recall attempting to give a kiss on the cheek, I ended up swallowing a mouthful of hair instead. I think I'm aiming too far back. I just hope this is the sort of thing that is endearingly awkward, rather than sad.

The night wasn't a total loss. I progressively learned how to dance from pretty much a cold start at the beginning of the evening. By the end, I had cobbled together a half-respectable West Coast Swing. When I told a friend (who does know how to dance), she said "Congratulations! West Coast is hard!" This leads me to suspect that I wasn't actually dancing West Coast, but rather a mutant hybrid formed from half-baked Bar Mitzvah memories. But whatever it was, it was actually pretty good.

So, in conclusion, balls are fun. And don't lean too far forward.