Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions: Take 2009

First, let's see how I did last year:

Met: 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 11

Failed: 2 (but I have one that's nearly ready to go), 7, 8, 10

Pick 'em: 6

And now for next year's resolutions!

1) Put last year's "6" definitively in the "met" category

2) Make law review

3) Succeed academically in law school

4) Apply to graduate school

5) Be more attentive to Jill

6) See Jill more often

7) Make peace with Hyde Park

8) Get the hell out of Hyde Park

9) Learn to cook something new

10) Write a publication-worthy paper

11) Have at least one major success with the blog

12) Find gainful summer employment

13) Don't ever again accidently start loudly singing in the middle of the law library because you have your headphones on (to add to the humiliation, it was Jay-Z and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love")

14) Score more converts to Firefly

15) Get at least one comment mentioned in the Comics Curmudgeon's "Comment of the Week" post (as either winner or runner-up).

Be safe, have fun, and hope everybody has a happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blago's Choice

Rod Blagojevich has announced his appointment for Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat: former Illinois AG Roland Burris. Kagro X has a good run-down of the various issues in play here, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's insinuation that he might not be seated. Burris, as far as I can tell, is a clean politician (both generally and specifically with regards to this controversy), but of course, he's tainted by the mere fact that he's associated with Blagojevich. The appointment also puts Democrats in a tight spot, as they may be faced with trying to deny seating to the man who would be the sole Black Senator in the entire body (for some reason, I imagine Republicans will find this significantly less awkward).

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Foolish and the Evil

Though my own posts haven't been bad, I think the folks over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money have probably the best package of coverage regarding Israel's latest operation in Gaza. One of the things I think they've done effectively is avoid some of the easy traps that obscure efforts to actually evaluate what Israel's doing.

Trap #1, emanating from the left, is the "disproportionality" argument. In international law, disproportionality is a term of art: It does not instill an obligation to match your foe only rocket for rocket. Proportionality is not measured against the precipitating action of the enemy which sparked the conflict, it's measured against the military objective the state is attempting to achieve.

In the current situation, Israel responded to steady rocket fire from Gaza with a punishing air assault aimed at destroying the political and military leadership and manpower of Hamas. This is a legitimate military objective, albeit one clearly more far-reaching than Hamas' rocket fire. Nonetheless, so long as long as the military strikes are proportionate to the goal of the operation, proportionality is not breached. Most sources I've read indicate that Israel has done a stellar job in this instance minimizing civilian casualties -- most of the Gazans killed have been Hamas soldiers, policemen, or leaders. The attack was wide-ranging, but so was the mission. This is not a failure of proportionality, as the term is understood in international law. Of course, the technical legal definition of "proportionality" has nothing whatsoever to do with whether, all things considered, Israel's behavior is wise here. But the proportionality argument is mostly being deployed not as a strategic argument but a moral one -- attempting to allege Israel is a lawbreaker here. And that just isn't right.

Trap #2, flowing out of the right, is the "what does everyone else do?" argument. Most nations facing a persistent mid- to high-grade insurgency react with far more bloodlust than Israel is showing right now (Russia in Chechnya is the typical example). The story often is cast more personally -- how would the US respond to Mexican rockets falling on El Paso?

This obscures for the same reason the first trap does: it argues along the axis of why Israel shouldn't be seen as an evildoer, by comparing to other nation's facing the same dilemma. But this misses the point. The proper frame for looking at Israel's response isn't whether, in some cosmic sense, it is "justified" in attacking Gaza this way. The proper frame is asking "is this attack going to accomplish anything?" LGM's own military expert, Robert Farley, gives four reasons to be skeptical that anything good will come out of Israel's operation, while nonetheless noting that the operation itself has been quite discriminating and has done a good job minimizing civilian casualties. His arguments -- particularly the problems with "sending a message" -- make sense to me. We might still understand why the government is behaving "as expected", and we might affirm that, in terms of moral judgment, we shouldn't hold Israel morally liable for a super-obligation where other countries are given relatively free passes. But none of that requires us to answer in the affirmative the remaining (and to my mind, far more important question): Is Israel's response a smart one?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the contemporary discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine seems stuck on debating "right and wrong", instead "smart or stupid". Anti-Israel speakers are unsatisfied with the idea that the state is merely behaving unwisely -- they are insistent that it is a qualitatively evil regime that must be treated as such, even when such demands make it concretely less likely for the Palestinian people to receive their just due. Pro-Israel writers, responding to such rhetoric, devote their time to defending the moral appropriateness of any Israeli action, to the exclusion of any long-term considerations about whether it ends up helping or harming Israeli interests (not to mention the interests of a lasting peace and liberation of the Palestinian people from occupation). This is why I'm such a fan of J Street: They call for Israel to ceasefire, not because Kadima is now the Middle East's version of the Nazi Party -- but because, based on their considered judgment, they don't think that the operation actually gives Israel anything of substantial, long-term value, and instead simply entrenches the never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat that hasn't gotten anywhere for decades.

As I mentioned previously, the question of whether Israel is behaving unwisely wisely in this particular case is one that I am not qualified to answer (though Farley is, and he answers "no"). But the point is that restricting the field to merely "who is in the right", rather than stepping up to the plate and saying "what actions should Israel, Palestine, and every other relevant party take to the current situation that best advances its security interests, the prospects of permanent peace, and justice for the Israeli and Palestinian actors", is a discourse that doesn't actually help anyone. So what I'd like to see -- from America and from everyone else -- is a commitment to cool it with the moral hyperbolics which don't accomplish anything, and focus on what matters: the reasonable, concrete policy moves both sides can do to advance the cause of peace and justice.

Cross-posted to The Moderate Voice

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I Remember This Trip

I'm leaving for Minnesota tomorrow. No more Carleton for me (though I plan to visit), but something even better: New Year's with the girlfriend!

Excitement city.

Top 10 African-American Political Thinkers

Because I like lists. Obviously, this is wholly subjective, and is my own special blend of "influential" and "correct". It also was created in the space of about five minutes:

Honorable mentions: Alain Locke, George Schuyler, Derrick Bell, James Cone, Kimberle Crenshaw

10) James Cone Huey P. Newton
9) Huey P. Newton Thomas Sowell
8) Thomas Sowell bell hooks
7) Marcus Garvey
6) Stokely Carmichael
5) Booker T. Washington
4) Malcolm X
3) Frederick Douglass
2) Martin Luther King, Jr.
1) W.E.B. Du Bois

A very diverse list, I think. You have liberals (King and Du Bois and hooks), conservatives (Washington and Sowell), nationalists (Garvey and Malcolm), Black Power enthusiasts (Cone and Carmichael), a communist (Newton), and the uncategorizable Frederick Douglass. Nice set.

UPDATE: This is why I need commenters -- to point out ridiculous oversights like bell hooks.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Needing a True Friend in the White House

So I think most of us are still trying to digest Israel's recent attack into Gaza -- one of the heaviest operations it's launched in quite awhile. Palestinian casualties are estimated around 200. Most bloggers I've read seem to be assuming that figure is primarily civilian, but I've yet to see a breakdown and the Washington Post claims that most of the dead are members of Hamas' security apparatus -- the legitimate military target of the assault. So that would be a good sign.

Anyway. Cara notes in her post that whereas the UN, Russia, and many Western European nations are calling on Israel to cease its attack, the US is limiting itself to pleas for Israel to limit civilian casualties.

This is one of those situations where I think it'll be really good for Israel to have a true friend in the White House. I trust Obama on Israel, because I think he really "gets it" in a way that few non-Jews do. On the other hand, I think it's also clear that Obama has a greater understanding of the plight of the Palestinians and more of an ear to their needs than any President we've had in a long while.

Part of being a good ally means knowing when to take your friend aside and tell them to chill. Israel has very good reasons to be wary of "advice" coming out of Europe, Russia, or the UN. The US, on the other hand, has a quite solid relationship with the Jewish state and can provide the external impetus needed to push beyond the "default to hawkishness".

Is this attack a time when a good friend would tell Israel to cool it? I dunno. If the Post is to be believed Israel has actually done a good job tailoring its attacks to minimize civilian casualties, which is good. But as my last post indicated, it's far from clear Israel is actually accomplishing anything here. I really don't have a firm enough grasp on the particulars of the situation -- who Israel is managing to kill, what the expected upshot of the operation is, how much Hamas' operational capacity will be depleted -- to evaluate that. Presumably American intelligence sources do have that information and can judge accordingly. The point is that Obama is the type of person who knows that, sometimes, you got to lean a bit even on your friends.

What Do You Do When Nothing Changes?

With the shaky cease fire between Israel and Hamas now expired, Israel has commenced a pounding air assault into Gaza, targeting a wide range of Hamas targets and facilities and killing nearly 200 people (no word on the civilian/militant breakdown). Israel launched the attack in response to continued rocket attacks across the border into Israeli townships.

The problem is that I'm not sure how much these reprisals do to deter Hamas' terrorism. Even in the midst of this latest operation, Hamas managed to fire off a rocket which killed an Israeli woman in Netivot. And of course, Hamas has promised to step up its "retaliation" against Israel in the wake of the attack.

But it's not like a more lenient policy changes things either. When Israel withdrew from Gaza -- a major concession to Palestinian authorities -- they were met with more rocket attacks. When they relax border checkpoints and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, the result is ... more rocket attacks. Very little the Israelis do seems to have much of an effect on the constant stream of rockets falling into their territory. This makes it difficult to formulate effective policy.

UPDATE: Here's Eamonn McDonaugh defending the operation on the grounds that peace will never flow out of Gaza until Hamas is convinced it does not have a military option available that will succeed in bringing down Israel. Two points: First, there is a lot of shaky psychoanalyzing going on here of the Hamas and Iranian leadership. I'm not really sure that they were convinced that Israel was on the brink of collapse, and even if they did believe that, an operation such as this could easily be seen as a last gasp stand. Second, McDonaugh talks at the very end of Israel's obligation to let in food and medicine to the Gazan population. To my knowledge, this is not a duty that Israel is even trying to meet, and that has to be noted as a serious human rights violation wholly aside from how one evaluates the rest of their operation.

Friday, December 26, 2008

American Hard Power

Chica-chica-bow-bow.

Those Inferior City-Dwellers Need To Stop Being So Elitist!

In all my years of reading CNN, rarely have I seen a column as schizophrenic, offensive, and breath-takingly idiotic as the bit Ruben Navarrette just phoned in "defending" Sarah Palin. Navarrette trots out the tired canard that Palin was "targeted" by the media because she wasn't sufficiently "elite". I'd guess she was targeted because she wasn't sufficiently "talented", but that's just me.

But honestly, that's not what troubles me. What pissed me off to no end was Navarrette's hit job on Colin Powell, whom I lauded earlier this month for striking back against the idea that there is something inferior about the "values" of big cities. "[M]ost of us don't live in small towns," Powell said. "I was raised in the South Bronx, and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx."

Navarrette's response to this is astounding:
You'd think the presidential campaign was about conservatives picking on urbanites. It wasn't. Sure, some Republicans probably made a mistake by using phrases such as "real America" or "real Americans" as a rallying cry for the base. Americans who live in cities might have thought they were being slighted.

Gosh, what an absurd thought! Cast aside that "some Republicans" includes Palin herself, the woman Navarrette feels compelled to stand up for. The idea that the Republican Party isn't anti-urbanist is so fanciful I didn't even realize it was up for discussion anymore. There is virtually no overlap between "city resident" and "Republican" voter. Cities are primarily made up of groups that the GOP has always dripped contempt for: non-Christians, people of color, and GLBT folks. Nobody misses the code: When Republicans talk about "San Francisco values", they mean gay; and when they talk about "cosmopolitan elitists", they mean Jews.

But what's most striking about Navarrette's piece is that -- literally paragraphs after saying that nobody has anything against city people -- he then proceeds to launch into a broad-based attack assailing the values of ... urban dwellers.
After Powell attacked Palin, one of the governor's most vocal defenders, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, returned the favor by attacking Powell.

"What is this hatred for conservatives and small-town people and Sarah Palin?" Limbaugh asked on his radio show. "I know a lot of people that are from the Bronx, Gen. Powell, and if you think the values there in the Bronx today reflect the ones you grew up with, take a trip back and see if the street corners and the activities there are the same as when you were growing up."

Limbaugh got it. When people use phrases such as "small-town values," it's as much about time as it is place. The idea isn't that people who live in small towns have better values than people who live in cities. It's simply an attempt to recall, with nostalgia, what life was like when more Americans lived in small towns.

It used to be that more families ate dinner together and high school students worked summers and after school. It used to be that our schools didn't make excuses for why some kids don't learn because they were too busy trying to teach them.

It used to be that parents weren't interested in being their kids' best friends, only good parents. And it used to be that people pulled their own weight and would never dare ask for a handout.

Rush %*%#ing Limbaugh? And you're trying to pretend like you're the victim here? This defies belief. And you know what life was like when most American's lived in small towns? I couldn't tell you -- Jews often weren't allowed in, and Blacks got lynched. I actually have no problem with contemporary small town values -- but I'll be damned if I let this faux-nostalgia for apartheid America be recast as something noble.

I know people who grew up in inner-ring suburbs (like myself). And we're doing fine. I know people who grew up in small towns in America's heartland (like my girlfriend). And they're doing fine too. And I know people who grew up in the middle of America's great cities. And they're doing fine as well. There's nothing wrong with being from Bethesda, just as there is nothing wrong with being from Owatonna and there is nothing wrong with being from Chicago. And Barack Obama -- who will be our nation's first President with urban roots since at least JFK -- hopefully will let people like Navarrette know that, loud and clear.

Bursting My Bubble

Michael Cahill wonders if the law market is due for a bubble burst akin to the housing crisis. Like the housing market, law school tuition has risen dramatically over the past several years, easily outpacing inflation, due to easy access to credit. With the market in free fall, however, is that model sustainable? Answer: possibly, because law school admissions tend to be counter-cyclical, as people who are having trouble finding jobs anyway are more likely to leave the market entirely and go back to school. But that assumes the coming credit crunch doesn't extend to law school students.

My guess? Tuition raises will slow down, but not fast enough to do anything for me. But I'll be trying to enter legal academy right in the heart of the turn away from tenure track hiring. Huzzah!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Love and Property

SEE UPDATE BELOW

As some of you might know, I'm currently in an open relationship with my girlfriend, Jill. Originally, this was a pragmatic decision: we knew we were going to be apart for at least a year, and possibly much longer (depending on where she decides to go grad school). But after spending some time thinking about it, I also realized I had some philosophical issues with closed relationships -- namely, they reminded too much of a property claim.

Property, in its simplest form, is that to which you have the right to exclusive use (and can correspondingly exclude others from). In a very real sense, that's precisely what a closed relationship is: a mutual grant of exclusivity, reducing at least one element of another's personhood to the level of property. Ambrose Bierce, witty as always, defined marriage as "the union of a man, a woman, and two slaves, making in all: two." (You can see more arguments along these lines in this excerpt from the book "Open", though I find the author's tone quite off-putting).

Now, part of me finds the above argument at least a bit anachronistic. This is the 21st century -- nobody views women as "property" anymore, right? Well, wrong. A lot of bloggers have taken apart the risible Dennis Prager's sex advice column, in which he advises married women that they should have sex with their husbands even when they don't want to. The most thorough fisking of this monstrosity can be found here, and there have been plenty more around the web.

But the fact is Prager is a prominent author, who regrettably is reasonably influential in some right circles. Consequently, I also think Spencer Ackerman's short post needs to be kept at the fore: It's easy to laugh at Prager -- a twice divorced man -- acting like he understands how to keep a marriage together. But women get abused because men read arguments like Prager's and decide that sex is their birthright. And since Prager insists on defiling my religion by writing from a putatively "Jewish" perspective, I have to add that Jewish women -- particularly from very religious backgrounds -- are particularly vulnerable to this sort of poisonous ideology.

The point being, the property aspect to how we view relationships is nowhere near dead. I'd like to think of it as part of a bygone era, but it isn't. And so it is important to at least challenge social norms which lie, even in part, on a view of another's person which can go so badly, badly wrong.

UPDATE: Well this post was one of my bigger epic fails in awhile. First of all, my girlfriend was -- quite legitimately -- a bit annoyed I posted it. The thought process was something we had briefly kicked around, but was something she wasn't entirely on board with and something I knew she wasn't totally on board with. I can post my own haphazard thoughts as they come, but she has the right to know that every step in our relationship won't be put onto the web in real time (don't worry -- she pre-cleared this update before it went up). So the first and most important apology goes out to Jill.

Meanwhile, the emergent consensus in the comments section is that I'm being a dick. Hard to blame them, given the aforementioned apology #1. Anyway, I think it's pretty clear that this argument has a couple of serious holes in it (as usual, Jill's instincts prove vastly superior to my own). I still don't think it's totally groundless, and in general if I didn't post theories and ideas that were somewhat inchoate, I wouldn't have a blog. More importantly, some other folks touched on something that I think is evidently true -- much of the "problem" here stems less from deep philosophical insights than from the more mundane fact that I'm trying to mediate between being 22 and wanting to experience the big wide world, and possessing the horrible misfortune of having already found a beautiful, intelligent, sexy, witty girlfriend whom I adore and love more than anyone in the universe. I know, woe is me.

Jill and I are looking at at least another half year apart, and perhaps a lot longer. And we're still trying to figure out the best way to make sure we're both happy while maintaining the incredible bond we've developed over the last three years (two as friends, and one as a couple). As I've now demonstrated in rather humiliating fashion, there will be missteps along with the way. But the important thing is I know she loves me, and she knows I love her. And fortunately, that gives me (well, both of us, but I tend to use it more often) a generous cushion as we head out together on our way.

Merry Xmas!

Grinch-like sentiments notwithstanding, I'd like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my Christian friends and readers, as well those atheists and agnostics who still have not fully liberated themselves from the hegemony (as one friend of mine put it, "if liberation means not asking my parents for $200 worth of gifts, then I don't want it!").

As for me, I'm fulfilling the traditional Jewish celebration of Christmas: a movie, followed by dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The movie, Marley and Me, was produced by a friend of mine, so of course it will be a fabulous tour d'force. The Chinese food will likely be rather standard fare.

Quote of the Evening

After running some numbers about the death rates of high profile occupations (which reveal that being President of the United States renders you roughly as vulnerable to assassination as your average street-level drug dealer), Daniel of Crooked Timber plugs the book which inspired it all:
"The Politics of Large Numbers" is an excellent book for anyone who is ever tempted to think Bruno Latour's work never had any really useful applications.

Not only was I "tempted to think" that, it never even occurred to me that the alternative was possible.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Canada is Just a Northern Province of Minnesota (or Vice Versa?)

An Ontario woman was miraculously found alive after being buried in snow for three days during a blizzard. But it's her statement to rescuers that comes straight out of the Land of 10,000 Lakes:
"She was lucid, and said, 'Wow. I've been here a long time!' and then she apologized and said, 'I just wanted to take a walk, I'm sorry to have caused you any trouble,' " said Staff Sgt. Mark Cox of the Hamilton Police Department, one of the leaders in the hunt. "And we're all thinking this is incredible, this is really something."

Oh, Canadians. I feel such an affinity towards you.

It Just Hit Me

Firefly is gangsta rap for White people.

It was comments to this post that sparked the revelation. I mean, think about it. The show glorifies sex, violence, thievery, and anti-social activity. The characters are basically a gang -- a gang with standards, but a gang -- one that plies its trade through a mixture of smuggling and robbery, backed up with copious amounts of gun play. Festering hatred for the state is not just encouraged, but the engine driving the show. I mean, do you have any idea how many cops they kill? But -- lest it be mistaken for a libertarian manifesto -- the illicit activities are directed in equal parts towards private actors.

I speak as a White person who adores the show. And I don't even think the characters are necessarily bad people either (but then again, neither are all rappers). We should just be clear on the niche that it fills.

Shooting Through Detroit

The gun-loving boys at The VC would love this post at the Detroit Blog, about Detroit's one remaining (legal) gun store -- owned by a Black man who counts Robert F. Williams as a personal hero and considers gun-control laws an outcropping of White racism. That's because they actually do the historical work of tying gun control to White supremacy. I wonder if, say, the National Rifle Association would be quite as fan-friendly to the Black Panthers though?

Look. You can't be pro-gun control and not recognize the fact that many of those laws have deep, deep racist roots. At the same time, I think it's pertinent that nowadays, it's the Black urban political leadership that is among the heaviest supporters of gun restrictions.

I think gun policy is a complicated issue. Though I think the laws do need to be tightened (primarily because extremist groups like the NRA have managed to keep even common sense regulations off the books), beyond some of the more obvious reforms (background checks, registration, assault weapons bans) I can see the arguments on both sides. It's important, I think, to remember that there is a significant branch of the urban Black community whose position on guns is fundamentally conservative, precisely because their current environment is so violent and deadly that they feel they need a gun for protection.

Anyway, the post is interesting. And if you want to know more about Robert Williams, I can highly recommend Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Willaims and the Roots of Black Power.

Bobs and Weaves

Responding to my post on why it's wrong to be happy when the suffering of marginalized people gets worse, Larry, aka the Barefoot Bum says a number of interesting things. He has an interesting perspective on the way libel law works, for example, and he has an interesting view that simply asserting that someone doesn't understand the word "palliative", without any warrant for why the way I applied it is wrong, is a meaningful argument.

But most interesting is the fundamental shift in position Larry takes. Recall what I was criticizing in my previous post: the view that we should oppose marginal improvements in the lives of the oppressed (which don't really effect the overall structure of oppression), because in doing so we make it less likely that they were get so fed up with their position that they will actually go out and revolt (we'll call this Reason "A"). There are a lot of reasons why that position is pretty appalling, which you can find in the post and in the comments section.

But in the new post, Larry, without telling anyone, quietly but dramatically changes stances. Now he argues against supporting marginal improvements for the subordinated absent corresponding structural reforms for two quite different reasons. The first is a simple deontological, "I don't want to get my hands dirty supporting even the lesser of two evils" (Reason B). The second is a consequentialist sop to the first: arguing that staking out seemingly radical (but "right") positions can help shift the political terrain and make the hitherto impossible, mainstream -- shifting the "frame" of the debate rather than accepting as inevitable two bad choices (Reason C). It's unclear whether these positions are inextricably linked together; that is, if C (which is primarily an empirical question) doesn't hold true, whether B is still justifiable. In any event, these are certainly superior grounds for Larry's position than the one he previously held, though I don't think actually succeed either.

A sub-point of my last post was a note on how abstract analogizing tends to be more obscuring than illuminating when making philosophical points (in that case, the body politic can't be analogized to a human medical patient, because particular human cells aren't morally relevant individuals, whereas particular citizens are). Here, we see this same beast roaring again, this time in the form of a hypothetical about killing babies. Political Party 1 "wants" to torture and kill 1000 babies, Political Party 2 (the "liberal" one) wants to torture and kill only 500. Radical Party 3 wants no babies killed or tortured.

Of course, in the real world no American political party "wants" to kill babies. However, there are certainly differences on how much different parties might tolerate babies dying. There's a fascinating debate on how much intentionality matters in these sorts of things (I think it matters very little in terms of assessing consequences and quite a bit in terms of assessing moral culpability), but the point of framing the scenario in this way is to put us in the realm of cartoon villains cackling about how they will soon shroud the world in evil and misery. It's simply not productive. The goal is to elevate the third party to a position of moral superiority: even though it's participation in the political sphere may yet lead to the death of babies -- indeed, perhaps more than certain less "radical" alternatives -- it's different because they don't want the babies to die. Unfortunately for them, that doesn't make them different from anyone else. The only standard for evaluation is seeing what blend of political participation produces the least number of dead babies.

So let's take a scenario we can imagine happening, one that strips out the self-congratulating and distorting elements best left to Marvel Comics. Suppose each year in a particular inner city, 1000 babies starve to death. We'll imagine Party 1 doesn't address this at all -- it's policies will basically continue the status quo, or even increase the amount of dead babies moderately (say, to 1,500). Party 2 has a package of proposals which make it so only 500 babies starve to death, but which doesn't strike at the root problem that leads to starving babies. Fringe Party 3, which will never get elected, has a set of proposals which they say would reduce the amount of starving babies to a negligible amount. Note that I'd consider any baby starving to death to be an example of injustice even if I believed that society had done everything possible in its power to prevent it.

Under Larry's original position (Reason A), of course, the right thing to do is to try and increase the number of starving babies dramatically, in the hopes that the oppressed will wake up, mobilize, and make Fringe Party 3 not so fringe anymore. In the "torturing babies" hypothetical, perhaps Revolutionary Communist Party members could start kidnapping babies and torturing them in the public square, and broadcast it on national television, in hopes that it might shock the nation into passing a "no torturing babies" law. If that's too visceral, maybe they could just give an award to the killer of Dantrell Davis, who finally managed to create the political will necessary to do something about violence-plagued high-rise projects.

Reason C, as I said, is an empirical claim that depends on the strategic impact that flows out of each particular political move. It also seems to assume that voting is exhaustive of one's ability to influence political framing: that while voting Party 2 there is no way to nevertheless challenge the dominant framing of the issues. I highly doubt that is true, and I think a superior counterplan to voting Party 3 and ignoring the fact that it will immediately and directly lead to more starving kids is trying to get as much mitigating policy as possible passed (through voting for Party 2) while simultaneously engaging in advocacy, grassroots organizing, letter writing, blogging, whatever to increase the profile of the radical alternative. I don't believe these are mutually exclusive. One might argue that the "palliative" effects of Party 2's mitigating policies will dissipate the momentum needed to put together a radical organization, but that's just the discredited Reason A method of thinking that complains that the underclass isn't miserable enough to listen properly to the revolutionary music. Color me (still) unsympathetic.

But even restricting the scope of analysis just to voting, I think Larry is off base. Larry says that leftists who "hold their noses" and vote for the center-left party are likely to alienate moderates who then will cross-over to the right, obviating their impact. Not only do I not really think that's true, I think the effect is probably worse if the leftists go it alone. The presence of Danny Davis in the Democratic Party doesn't make the Party that much less appealing to moderates because he's just one guy in a big tent. An undiluted, pure communist movement is far more likely to elicit visceral revulsion from the middle. Revolutionary Communists have an annoying habit of over-estimating their appeal to the proletariat, when in general they're "anti-persuasive": the greater presence they have amongst the leadership of a particular political position, the less likely it is that position will be seen as viable by the majority of voters. Unfair as this may be, if you're going to play politics you have to understand the shape of the political terrain, and there is absolutely no evidence that the Communist Party in America has ever even nudged our nation to the left -- but a lot of right-wing crap has come together under the guise of suppressing it.

Put less polemically: There is good reason to believe that political outcome of defecting from Party 2 and voting Party 3 will be both an increase in the number of starving babies (both because Party 1 is likely to gain more support, and because Party 2 is likely to tolerate more dead babies as the most vocal proponents of feeding infants leave) and a decrease in the credibility of the "no starving baby" position (due to it being now associated as a position held only by fringe radicals). To the extent this is true, and assuming that even with the defectors Party 3 still will be a negligible player on the political scene (both of which -- given just how fringe the communist movement in America remains -- I think are quite reasonable), Reason C cuts entirely against Larry's argument.

So finally, we get back to Reason B -- the wonderful moral purity of deontological ethics. Of course, even Larry seems to concede that this isn't really the case: he has blood on his hands for all those who would have been saved through "the expedient path"; just as I have blood on mine for all those who will continue to suffer in the status quo (and I do accept that I am, at least in part, morally liable for this injustice). Whom, it must said, Larry isn't actually accomplishing anything for either -- he's just making himself feel good. So even had this argument not collapsed back into consequentialism, I'd still label it as pretty self-indulgent. Larry asks at what point slightly better marginal benefits cease to justify participating in fundamentally unjust social arrangements (10,000 dead babies versus 9,999?). My answer would be: at the point at which alternative practices are reasonably likely to lead to actual superior consequences for the oppressed -- a standard under which participating in revolutionary communist politics (even if I believed that ideally they'd lead to better results) dramatically fails to meet.

But turning the question back onto him -- at one point does one's desire to stay pure from the corrupting effects of the real world collapse against the need to produce actual, tangible improvements (even if only "palliative") in the lives of breathing human beings? One can imagine the purist of them all -- refusing to even sanction the "framework" of contemporary Western bourgeois capitalist democracy -- engaging in a piece of performance street theater to protest against the structure of contemporary capitalism. But if their actions merely alienate the public, and end up blocking an S-CHIP expansion that gives millions of kids insurance, is it still worth it? At least Nero didn't cloak his fiddling in the drapes of self-righteousness.

A final point which I put down in the comments to the last post, but feel compelled to raise on the front page. Nowhere in Larry's analysis is there even the slightest nod at respecting the desires or agency of oppressed people themselves. Oh sure, they'll make noises about the need for the revolution to occur with democratic support, but when push comes to shove the lack of such a mandate is held to be a failing of the people, not a fault in the ideology. This, perhaps, is why he uses the example of babies: who don't have articulated desires or agency to speak of anyway. We don't have to wonder why babies aren't communists -- it's their intellectual maturity, certainly not anything problematic on our end. It's a perfect metaphor for how he envisions the oppressed more generally: helpless infants whom he can swoop in to save from themselves with his message of revolution and communist brotherhood. The fact that the damsels in distress do not now, nor ever have, really found the message compelling doesn't even seem to give Larry pause.

There are many reasons why oppressed persons in America might not be rushing to join the RCP, that don't rely on tagging them as intellectual infants. They might not find the ideology compelling. They might not think that the RCP truly has a grasp on the realities and particulars of their current existence (crazy as that might sound). Or, they might not believe it is the best repository of their limited political and social capital. All these compete with the RCP line, which is that these people are crazy and don't know what's best for them -- but we do, and we'll get it for them over our their dead bodies!

If the marginalized classes in America -- the poor, people of color, women, LGBT persons, religious minorities -- were working actively on behalf of the RCP, then I think we'd have an obligation to take that view seriously. But of course, most members of these classes do not support the RCP. Most of them vote Democratic, often by overwhelming margins. Insofar as they seem to think incrementalism is the way to go, then by golly, I'm going to incrementalize to the best of my ability. If they want to get tactical, then it's not my place to sabotage their efforts because it interferes with my "strategic framing".

Iris Marion Young -- a greater exponent of progressive philosophy than either I or Larry could ever hope to be -- once wrote that "Normative judgment is best understood as the product of dialogue under conditions of equality and mutual respect. Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice." There is no question that the status quo is a massive failure in this regard, but this is also one axis where revolutionary communism can't even claim theoretical superiority. At every step of the way, it is sectarian, exclusivist, anti-democratic, condemning of alternative worldviews arising out of the experiences of the oppressed (when it isn't actively ignoring them), disrespectful, arrogant, and ultimately elitist. No wonder it's fringe.

Poor Joe

Swing State Project has an open thread where you can list the top 15 most vulnerable GOP seats next cycle. Without fail, the number one slot is held by Rep.-elect Joseph Cao (R-LA), who managed to overcome the odds in one of the deepest blue districts in the country to oust corrupt incumbent William Jefferson (D).

I have to say, I feel a little bad. Cao seems like a nice enough guy, and he certainly did us a favor by kicking Jefferson to the curb. But alas, there is no way he survives the next cycle. He's the Republican version of Nick Lampson, only in a worse position (the district is even more liberal than Lampson's was conservative, and Lampson had far more political experience than Cao does).

Oh well. Hopefully the Democrats will nominate someone worth supporting to ease the guilt.

Excuses Excuses

WASH: Well, I'm not sure now is the best time to bring a tiny little helpless person into our lives.

ZOE: That excuse is getting a little worn, honey.

WASH: It's not an excuse, dear. It's objective assessment. I can't help it if it stays relevant.

I think of this quote whenever I come across social scientists (not always conservatives) who are exasperated by critiques of their work that center around the continued presence of racism. From their perspective, it's easy to see why it'd get a little old. It's really hard to control for racism when the hypothesis is that it's an ingrained, structural part of our everyday existence. Sheer professional sanity makes one want to buy into the conservative mythos that racism can externalized to "times past", if only so that one can put together a viable control group.

From our perspective, of course, "racism" isn't an excuse, it's an objective assessment. And it's not our fault that the criticism remains relevant over time.

(This post is sparked by nothing but the desire to put a Firefly quote up on my blog).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Franken Squeaks Through

With all the challenged ballots allocated, Al Franken has opened up a 48 vote lead over incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman (MN). There are still a few things left to resolve (improperly excluded absentee ballots, potential duplicate ballots), so we can't call the race quite yet, and indeed won't have an official word until after New Year's. But neither of those two categories are expected to favor Coleman (indeed, the first likely points in Franken's direction), so at the moment we have to project an Al Franken victory.

Phew! Congratulations, Senator!

Worst Pillow Talk Ever

A convicted murderer is moving for a new trial, alleging jury misconduct that tainted the verdict. Specifically, he claims, two jurors had sex with each other while sequestered. And that's not all -- the deputies who were supposed to be keeping watch were having sex too (hopefully not -- or hopefully so! -- in the same room!).

Orin Kerr says (and I agree) that unless the jurors talked about the case during their romps, this probably isn't grounds for a new trial. One would hope there were other things on their minds at the time.

It Has To Be Said

Latkes are the Jewish version of lutefisk.* I don't know how we manage to screw up fried potato -- indeed, I'm not sure I've ever found another version of fried potato that hasn't been deliciously heart-killing. But somehow, we managed to pull it off. Hamentashen forever!

* Obviously, the real analogue to lutefisk is gefilte fish, but I actually like gefilte fish and won't slander them by comparing them that Minnesotan horror.

Monday, December 22, 2008

That's Obscene!

The other day, I found out that the Pioneer Plaque, placed on the Pioneer spacecraft on the extremely remote chance that someone might find them, contains an image of a naked man and woman. That makes sense, I thought, I'd like any extra-terrestrials to know what we looked like. But apparently, this was actually "controversial" at the time, with people yelling that NASA was sending "obscenities" into space.

Holy God, people are crazy!

What's a Few More Deaths for the Revolution?

Larry Hamelin, husband of The Apostate, has a post making the type of old, old-school leftist argument that I haven't heard in awhile. Here's the gist:
There's an important sense in which Barack Obama is actually worse than John McCain. Obviously, Obama is not an explicitly theocratic fucktard like McCain; Obama is a bright guy, and I'm sure he means well, but he knows precisely what the capitalist imperialist system demands of him, and he was supported by capitalist elite because they know he will deliver. Obama is a palliative, not a cure. A palliative is just fine when it relieves suffering while one is curing the underlying disease. But a palliative is actively bad when it removes the motivation of pain for curing the underlying condition while it worsens. And that is precisely what the Obama administration aims to do.

A McCain administration would have given tremendous impetus for progressives to actually organize. "Let's make the patient sicker," says Dr. House, "so we can diagnose the disease and cure it before it kills the patient." An Obama administration just masks the symptoms and has visibly and provably sucked the oxygen from the mainstream progressive movement.

As far as I know, this is the primary reason why someone sufficiently "on the left" (i.e., actually socialist or Marxist -- so not me) would decline to vote Democratic even granting that they might be -- on face -- marginally better than the GOP.

This really didn't sit well with me, and for a few days I couldn't put my finger on it as to why. At first, I assumed it was simply a function of the fact that I'm not that far to the left such that I only vote Democratic as "the lesser of two evils". There are plenty of issues in which I'd prefer the Democratic Party be significantly more liberal, but there are other issues where I think the policies on their platform right now will lead to actual, positive good things for millions of Americans (not to mention the rest of the world). I'm clearly not as far left as Mr. Hamelin, and so of course his argument wouldn't seem compelling.

But it was still nagging at me, and I think I've finally nailed down my problem. When phrased in abstract terms like "palliative care", perhaps Mr. Hamelin's argument might be convincing. But what such abstractions mask is that when you let the body politic grow sicker, people actually die. This isn't a side issue, it's what Mr. Hamelin is counting on: he wants enough people to die so that the underclass finally gets fed up and launches the revolution. Such calls, you might notice, are far easier to make when your own life isn't on the line.

When the head of the American Communist party was asked if President Roosevelt's New Deal policies had carried out the communist party agenda, the leader responded: "yeah, on a stretcher." He was making a similar observation to Mr. Hamelin: that by reducing the abject misery and desperation of the Great Depression -- by putting millions of Americans back to work, by getting Social Security established, by funding aid for the needy -- President Roosevelt dissipated would otherwise could been a revolutionary build-up in the American working class. But it'd be selfish bordering on obscene to say that we should have opposed Roosevelt's efforts, for the simple reason that the lives of the poor are not rightly pawns in our political fantasies.

And yes, this is the state of the Democratic Party today. Are they as liberal as I (much less Mr. Hamelin) would like? No. But they'll probably get S-CHIP funding passed, and that means millions of children who otherwise would lack health care will be able to see a doctor. And lack of access to basic medical care gets kids killed. You can talk until you're blue in the face about how S-CHIP won't solve the structural conditions that lead to unequal access to medical care: and you'd be right! But to say that even one child should have to die in the (speculative!) hope that it might aid the broader revolutionary goal is sickening. Barack Obama may not be as strong on choice as many would prefer. But he does mean that Roe v. Wade is likely safe for another generation. And were that not the case, in a world where Roe was overturned, women would die. Women died when President Bush enforced the "global gag order" on abortion alternatives. Women die when the safest abortion practices are outlawed. And for some people, that's the point.

Let's take one more example. Over break I'm trying to finish Waiting for Gautreaux, a book about efforts to remedy public housing segregation in the Chicago region. The litigators in Gautreaux were pushing for "scattered-site" public housing: basically, instead of concentrating all the Black public housing tenants in concentrated centers of urban poverty, scatter public housing sites all over the Chicago area, integrating a few impoverished tenants each in all the various working- and middle-class communities around Chicago (wealthier neighborhoods were excluded because HUD rules prohibit spending too much on public housing, and land in wealthy communities is outside their price range. Also, the wealthier the community in which public housing tenants reside, the more resentment bubbles up in working and middle-class communities angry that the poor get to live in communities that they themselves can't afford).

The author, Alexander Polikoff, was also the lead attorney on the case, and he gives a very sober assessment of the results of several decades of litigation. Most of the book covers the period after Polikoff won the original 1969 court ruling holding that Chicago had, indeed, practiced segregation. Over and over again, local politics, community opposition, White rioting and violence, and city and federal bureaucracy intervened to prevent scattered-site housing from ever actually taking root. By the time the book was published in 2006, only a few thousand families had successfully relocated away from the blighted urban core -- a mere fraction of the original class of 20,000, much less the total number of Black families crowded together in hyper-segregated Chicago slums.

From a structural standpoint, Gautreaux was a resounding failure. Originally designed to crack "American apartheid" once and for all, it ended up barely making a dent in the segregated structure of Chicago's residential community. But for the families who did manage to make it out, Gautreaux was a wonderful thing. Not every Gautreaux family was a success story, of course. But most studies showed that Gautreaux families were more successful, had higher quality of life, and were just plain happier than their peers who remained inside the city. And the difference was most noticeable for the children who -- despite often starting significantly their peers in higher-quality suburban schools -- managed to make up incredible deficits and post exceptional educational records far surpassing their brethren elsewhere. This is perhaps why each year far more families try to make it into the Gautreaux program than there are slots available.

You could argue that Polikoff and his team of attorneys were merely relieving the pain in the inner cities, but not addressing its source. There still is the problem of crushing, grinding poverty and hyper-segregation in America's inner cities, and Gautreaux is unlikely to solve it. Perhaps the children inside the high-rise urban projects are more likely to revolt. But that's precisely because they're more likely to die along the way -- and the fewer Gautreaux's we have, the more that will be killed. When this fact is viewed as a feature rather than a bug, leftism becomes nothing more than a self-indulgent obscenity.

Two different children were interviewed by two different journalists around the same time in the Chicago area. One was a Gautreaux kid, the other, a resident of one of inner-city Chicago's most notorious projects. Both were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The Gautreaux child hadn't decided yet: "construction worker, architect, or anesthesiologist" were his top choices.

And the other girl, the one skipping rope outside her urban high-rise?

"I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What's This Picture Worth?



This is the picture CNN has been using as its stock "Norm Coleman/Al Franken" piece. I like it, because it's spectacularly unflattering to both, yet entirely accurate. Coleman comes off as a slick loud-mouth jerk, which he essentially is. And Franken comes off as a know-it-all nerd with poor social skills, which is likewise pretty much true.

Score one for journalistic accuracy.

Year End Boxing Awards

All my pals in the boxo-sphere are doing it, so why not me? It was no 2007, but 2008 was -- all in all -- an excellent year for the sport of boxing. We saw the emergence of a new super-star in Manny Pacquiao, the end of an era of Oscar de la Hoya, and some great fights and upsets (along with the usual atrocities that still plague the sport) along the way.

Okay, enough introductions. Awards time!

FIGHTER OF THE YEAR

It's cute watching people pretend that there is a competition in this category. There isn't one. Manny Pacquiao, the pride of the Philippines, is the easy choice in this category. Cliched though it might be, he had a Henry Armstrong-like year, starting with a brutal dismantling of titlist David Diaz, followed by a hard-fought (if disputed) win over P4P #2 Juan Manual Marquez, and then a huge upset victory over the legendary Oscar de la Hoya -- only the Golden Boy's second KO defeat, and likely the end of his career. It was a year where everything went right for the Pac-Man, and he's got a bunch more big fights on the horizon.

Runners-up: Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams, Juan Manuel Marquez

FIGHT OF THE YEAR

It would churlish not to give this award to Israel Vasquez/Raphael Marquez III -- arguably the best fight in one of the best boxing trilogies in history. It was a fight that nobody said could go the distance -- and it did. It was a fight that saw two fighters with both technical savvy and bombing punches, a rarity in the sport. After two lackluster gate performances in the first two bouts, it was a fight that finally got the attention it deserved from the broader public. And through it all, both men showered themselves in glory.

Runners-up: Joel Casamayor/Michael Katsidis, Antonio Margarito/Miguel Cotto

KNOCKOUT OF THE YEAR

Sometimes, it's impossible to top the early leader. That's the case with Edison Miranda's devastating right-hand which ended the night for David Banks. There is so much lovely in this KO. Of all the contenders for top KO bid, it was the only one that did not land on the chin. It also featured the sublime sight of Banks suspended between the ropes -- looking like he was nearly floating. And the howitzer-esque sound effect Miranda's punch makes when it lands is in its own league.

Runners-up: Juan Urango/Carlos Vilches, Antonio Margarito/Kermit Cintron II

UPSET OF THE YEAR

Everyone and their brother keeps picking Breidis Prescott's first round bombing of Amir Khan. And yeah, that was pretty big -- but we knew Khan had a shaky chin already and that's not the sort of thing you test against Columbian sluggers. Another popular pick is Brian Vera over Andy Lee -- but while that was pretty big, it was also a premature stoppage in my view. No, my pick goes a bit higher up the boxing ladder: Bernard Hopkins' 12 round decision over Kelly Pavlik. For some reason, everyone wrote Hopkins off after his loss to Joe Calzaghe -- a fight he easily could have come away the victor of. And my head was telling me that Hopkins presented a nightmare style match-up. Still, Hopkins was 43, and Pavlik was the white-hot star of the sport who seemed to be entering his prime.

Well, young horse might be fast, but the old horse knows the way. Hopkins spent 12 round making Pavlik look like an amateur to sweep the cards and complete the shocking upset. KO upsets are nice, but over too quick: a bolt of lightening that doesn't give enough time for the viewer to really coalesce what just happened. The Hopkins fight was different. It progressed at a nice slow boil, as it slowly dawned upon the crowd that they were in the midst of something truly special. And that was something to see.

Runners-up: Breidis Prescott/Amir Khan, Brian Vera/Andy Lee

PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

See above. No question.

Runners-up Antonio Margarito in his fight against Cotto, Manny Pacquiao in his fight against Oscar de la Hoya

MOST EMOTIONAL MOMENT

Once again, Hopkins gets it -- for the immediate aftermath of his fight against Pavlik. Staring down press row -- which had virtually universally picked him to lose, the only debate being whether it'd be by KO or not -- and saying "I'm tired of proving myself". It was unbelievable. And boy, did we ever deserve it.

Runner-up: Rau'shee Warren finding out he lost his first round Olympic match.

PROSPECT OF THE YEAR

It's hard to think of him as a "prospect" given the quality of competition he's fought, but beyond that it's impossible not to give this to Yuriorkis Gamboa. There is so much to love about this guy. The way he refuses to clinch. His unbelievable hand-speed. The way he views getting hit as a virtual insult (coupled with a defense that consists of him basically daring his opponent's to hit him). Oh, and pretty explosive power. It's a nice combination.

Runners-up: Alfredo Angulo, James Kirkland.

CARD OF THE YEAR: Given the names in the above category, this wasn't that difficult: HBO's May 17th BAD card, featuring three spectacular match-ups. No "showcases" here -- all three of the undefeated prospects were up against live dogs. The one I thought might be the toughest -- Kirkland against Eromosele Albert -- turned out to be a one-round decimation. The one that was looking to be the easiest -- Gamboa against former Golden Gloves winner Darling Jiminez -- turned out to be a dogfight with Gamboa tasting canvas. And the middle fight -- Alfredo Angulo against Richar(d) Gutierrez -- was a great back and forth slugfest before Angulo just overwhelmed his man in round 4. Fabulous action.

Runner-up: Versus' December 12th card, featuring Steve Cunningham/Tomasz Adamek and Joseph Abeko/William Gonzalez.

COURAGE IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY AWARD

Folks who tuned into ESPN2 on June 20th saw something special. For 23 minutes and 59 seconds of boxing, they watched Kevin Burnett dominate a Maryland residing Brit by the name of Horace Ray Grant. And then -- as the bell rang at the end of the 8th and final round -- Grant landed his punch: a thunderous right-hand at the last possible instant. Burnett was floored and looked out of it. But slowly, he willed himself to his feet, just barely beating the count as the ref transitioned from 9 to 10. It was an amazing sight to see, and for getting back up and getting the decision victory, this award goes to Kevin Burnett.

Runners-up: Steve Cunningham getting up after three knockdowns against Tomasz Adamek, Monte Barrett's energizer bunny like effort against David Haye.

WORST FIGHT OF THE YEAR

Tough call. Is it worse for a fight to be awful and its very creation an insult to boxing? Or for a fight to be awful when it actually meant a lot to the sport and thus let everybody down? If you (dis)prefer the former, the winner is Evander Holyfield/Nikolai Valuev. But personally, I'm more outraged by the latter, so the champion is Wladimir Klitschko/Sultan Ibragimov. The first heavyweight title unification in recent memory, and it went like that? Ugh ugh ugh.

Runners-up: Holyfield/Valuev, Fres Oquendo/James Toney (fascinating the heavyweight slant in this category).

The Most Elite of 66

Here are the 66 nations that signed on to the UN non-binding resolution urging the decriminalization of homosexuality:
Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Obviously, a strong representation by the Western world. But I want to give a special shout-out to Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe -- the five African nations which signed on. The gay rights movement in Africa is far smaller and more fragile than it is in other parts of the world. And the opposition to it is stronger, better organized, and far, far more vitriolic in its hatred. Indeed, of the 60 nations which signed a counter-resolution against homosexuality (the text of which I'd really like to see), nearly half (28) were from the African continent.

The five states which chose to align themselves with the principles of human rights and universal ethics are well ahead of the curve for both their region of the world, and likely their own populations as well. This makes their signatures that much more symbolic. They deserve special support and praise for their stance.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Prop. 8 Drama Isn't Over

As opponents of Proposition 8 fight a last-ditch battle to overturn the results (on the grounds that the amendment is actually a "revision" to the California constitution, which would require a 2/3 majority to pass), proponents are trying to press their own advantage further: seeking to nullify the gay and lesbian marriages that already occurred under California law. Their argument is that the text of the amendment prohibits recognition of all marriages that aren't between one man and one woman, and that this necessarily applies retroactively.

Let's put aside a moment the fact that these people are assholes (I know it's hard, but let's try). My understanding (probably incorrect) was that the state is constitutionally precluded from nullifying previously created contracts. See, e.g., Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S 518 (1819); Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810). In Fletcher, that included a repealing a corrupt state grant of land, so the prohibition is pretty broad in scope. The marriage contracts entered into between the court's decision and Proposition 8 were valid under California law at the time, hence, I have difficulty understanding how the state could retroactively annul them without running afoul of some very old contracts clause precedents.

And So It Begins

Amp, Jill, and others have already provided good commentary on the horrifying story of 12 year old Black girl who was abducted by plain clothes police officers in front of her own house, accused of being a prostitute, beaten, then later charged with "resisting arrest". Suffice to say I agree with all their analysis.

I only want to add this. If this honor roll student grows up and becomes a "gangsta rapper", and spins out verses with her own version of "Fuck the Police", nobody has the right to complain or judge. Agreed?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Going South of the Border

A short while back, Feddie complained that there were no southerners in Barack Obama's cabinet. Now the final tally is out, and there will be one, lone representative of Dixie: former Houston Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as the US Trade Representative. Southerners don't seem mollified. Consider the reaction of Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston (R):
"Southerners need not apply," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "It's hard to believe that there wasn't anybody qualified for something from the South."

There are a bunch of ways one might play this. The first is to note that Kingston basically is calling for southern-based affirmative action -- right down to the rhetoric, which comes almost straight out of the LCCR's playbook.

Or, one might take John Cole's tact, which would be to note how difficult it is to find qualified southern politicians for elevation when they keep electing people like, well, Jack Kingston:



Hey -- the problem isn't that there are no qualified southern politicians. It's just that none of them are White. White folk want in on the meritocracy, they gotta start raising their game.

Or finally, you might go with my original instinct: wouldn't, under previously forwarded lines of analysis, any southerner who accepted a cabinet position with Barack Obama automatically be an "insult" to the region? I forget if it is better or worse that Kirk is a Democrat, but presumably the fact that he's Black makes it a moot point anyway.

The Vatican Deserves an Apology

Earlier, I noted that the Vatican -- alone amongst European nations -- had come out in opposition to a non-binding UN resolution urging the decriminalization of homosexuality. I described this choice as "an unconscionable decision and a formal decision to cooperate with intrinsic evil."

Unfortunately, they now have company in the Western world. The United States -- differing with every other major Western nation -- also withheld its signature, citing nebulous "legal concerns" with the mostly symbolic gesture.

UPDATE: It's worse than I thought: according to Human Rights Watch, the Vatican actually reversed itself, leaving the United States entirely alone.

UPDATE #2: The same source indicates that Israel signed. So all you defenders of "Judeo-Christian morality" can go Cheney yourselves.

The Big Lie

Quin Hillyer argues that limiting big government isn't just a good principle for Republicans, but historically has been good politics for them as well. He proves his point through the brilliant argumentative strategy of (a) defining "big government" only to encompass things that conservatives dislike (no critique of the partial-birth abortion ban here!), (b) excluding all counter-examples, like the 2000, 2002, and 2004 elections where George W. Bush was specifically running on big government conservatism, as outliers, and (c) making believe that Republican losses which clearly stemmed from other factors are really a result of having too loose a grip on the purse-strings. Republicans didn't lose in 1998 because they looked like crazed maniacs pursuing a broadly unpopular impeachment investigation which was the biggest political news story in a decade. No, the problem was they relaxed spending constraints in order to keep moderate GOP representatives on board! I only missed the scoop because I'm tainted by beltway-insiderism.

My understanding of the reality is that (a) Americans are opposed to "big government" in the abstract and (b) they, for all practical purposes, support every specific manifestation of big government with the exception of (other districts') pork -- which is a relatively insignificant portion of the federal budget anyway. As much as Hillyer might wish it were so, there is no proof that voting patterns in 2008 can be explained through broad-based disgust with the Medicare expansion. Indeed, if anything 2008 represented a broad repudiation of conservative purism -- there were several cases of Democrats winning districts they had no business competing in specifically because the local Republicans had replaced moderate incumbents with right-wing crazies (ID-01, MD-01, MI-07).

Now, is it true that different messages may work better in different places, and a principled small-government strategy might be a winner in some contested districts? Sure. But Hillyer's Palin-esque insistence that he's got the pulse of "real America" ("Washington might not have recognized it, but those of us outside the elite cultural echo chamber (I was in Mobile, Alabama, at the time) heard [disgust about big spending] not just among politicos but out on the street, quite regularly and quite vociferously.") is a sure-fire way to insure that the GOP remains a party that can only win in, well, Mobile, Alabama.

Hey, best of luck though.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Christmas Time. Again.

It's that time of year. The "holiday season", which for most people means Christmas. Even atheists and agnostics often celebrate Christmas. But of course, not me. I have Chanukkah, the ultimate holiday example of a battlefield promotion, which manages to be a) almost entirely mysterious to non-Jews and b) the most prominent Jewish holiday on the calendar at the same time.

I don't mind Christmas per se. Indeed, as far as I'm concerned it represents an excellent opportunity to get Chinese food, go see a movie, or hit the ski slopes while seeing virtually no crowds. But a surprisingly big stresser this year is how to respond when someone wishes me "Merry Christmas".

Of course, when unprompted my seasonal well-wish is "Happy Holidays". I've even thought of what I'll say if someone chides me for not saying "Merry Christmas": Ask them why they hate Protestants (What do you think "Christ's Mass" means?). But in many settings, someone will tell me -- with good intentions always -- "Merry Christmas"! And what do I do then?

Stephen Feldman, of course, would tell me that I should reply with a plea: "Please don't wish me a Merry Christmas!" But that seems quite churlish, and cuts against my adopted-Minnesotan instincts. Option two, which is what I tell myself I should do but never can bring myself to pull off, is to shoot back with a bright "Happy Channukah" -- matching sect for sect. But what can I say? I'm a very non-confrontational person. So generally, I just say "thanks -- you too."

But the whole ordeal annoys me. So I'm going to echo Feldman's plea. Happy holidays is the way to go. Jews are already making a concession in pretending that this is the holiday season, when of course the whole reason a podunk holiday like Chanukkah gets elevated to prime status is because this time of year is actually spectacularly unimportant to traditional Jewish ritual and practice (a point which was made by Justice Brennan in Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 646 (1989) (Brennan, J., concurring and dissenting), and has since been ignored by every other person on earth). The least y'all could do is not shove it our faces, or the faces of the various other religious denominations that don't frankly care that Christians like celebrating the birthday of Christ months after it actually happened.

UPDATE: Phoebe Maltz independently explores why (some) Jews dislike Christmas. I think the self-deprivation angle is pretty spot on -- there's an ascetic's pride in separating yourself from the Christian majority specifically by denying yourself what by all accounts is the best day of the year for all a few (I grew up in Bethesda) of your friends. Self-denial turns into bitterness, bitterness turns into hate. Of course, I'd wager that Jews would be less outwardly hostile to Christmas if it wasn't so omnipresent that we had to perpetually and publicly opt out of it. The pride here is coming after the fall -- we can only be proud of standing against Christmas because the alternative is being miserable about it.

UPDATE #2: Another contribution, courtesy of Howard Wasserman, examines what Christmas specials Jewish children are allowed to watch. I actually don't know if I saw any of these.

Paul Weyrich Passes Away

Paul Weyrich, one of the key architects of the modern conservative movement, has died at 66. He had been the first President of the Heritage Foundation, and currently served as leader of the Free Congress Foundation.

Weyrich was the epitome of a principled right-winger. He was extraordinarily conservative -- there was no doubt about that. But he was not of the sort to sell his principles short for the sake of political expediency. It's a rare quality amongst modern conservatives, and one I can appreciate.

Support for the Michiganers

As a proud member of the University of Chicago Law School's class of 2011, it's rare that you'll see anything but contempt by me towards our compatriots at the University of Michigan.* But I'll make an exception for the Michigan 2L who was charged by police after reporting her assault in the course of engaging in sex work. She gives her story here. If ever there was a reason to legalize and regulate sex work, it's so stories like this didn't happen.

* This is, of course, a lie. Not only is UM a fine law school, but they were exceedingly nice to me when I applied and had perhaps the finest personal touch of any law school that admitted me -- a sense that I've heard verified from other law school applicants. I'm genuinely appreciative of that fact.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Epic Fail

University of Chicago Law School Faculty blog shuts down comments on its post explaining its new comments policy after being overwhelmed with ad hominem attacks. Yikes.

Class Mobility and the Original Position

I had this thought at 3 AM last night, so forgive me if it is utter gibberish.

One of John Rawls key contributions to American political theory was the idea of the "original position". Basically, it imagines citizens under a "veil of ignorance" -- who have no idea about their actual social position, identity, or even capabilities -- deliberating about how they want their society to be constructed. Rawls argues that persons in such a society would be risk-averse (they'd be worried they would be amongst the least well-off members of society), and hence they would evaluate their options based on the minimax rule: basically, trying to get the best possible outcomes for the least well-off. Specifically, Rawls believes that citizens would demand a system wherein:
1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;

2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:

a) they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (minimax rule);

b) they are attached to positions and offices open to all.

One can argue about what particular social arrangements would reflect these standards, but for Rawls they are pretty closely tied to the modern liberalism (with somewhat of a democratic socialist bent).

Of course, the original position is just a thought experiment: in the real world, people do know their capabilities and do know their social position, and their political demands are reflected accordingly. But (and this is what I thought of last night), we can at least somewhat approximate the conditions of the original position along axes where there is significant social mobility. For example, think of class. In a society where there is a lot of class mobility (both upwards and downwards), people kind of are under a veil of ignorance, because even if they know their current position, they can credibly claim ignorance as to where they will be in a year, or two, or five. If Rawls is correct, we'd expect persons who meet that description to push politically for policies that roughly approximate those he believes will flow from the original position.

The problem is that most societies and most identities aren't that mobile. I'm pretty secure in my identity as White. There isn't much of a possibility that next year I'll become Black, and so I have no incentive to be risk-averse as to what happens to Black people, since I know it will happen to me. Even identities which are more amenable to change, such as religion, wouldn't fit, because most religious adherents -- even those who eventually convert -- don't imagine themselves as being in a permanent state of flux moving between religious affiliations.

An exception might be class. In the United States, there is a solid opportunity for upward class mobility amongst the White middle class, but very little downward class mobility. But the Black middle class is a different story. It is notoriously vulnerable to economic shocks -- "one paycheck away from disaster" -- and thus can credibly claim to be "ignorant", in a Rawlsian sense, to their permanent economic status.

Hence, we construct a thesis: If Rawls is correct, we would expect that the politics of the Black middle class, at least along class issues, to be relatively close to what Rawls would expect to flow from the original position, compared to the "control" of the relatively less mobile White middle class. And if we think Rawls is right that the original position provides a good template for ordering society, then it would also follow that we should give substantial weight to the political preferences of the Black middle class when making decisions about economic distribution.

The second claim is of course a matter of opinion. But the first I suspect would be empirically defensible (though I'd be interested to see someone actually to the legwork here). I'm pretty sure that the Black middle class is significantly more liberal than its White peer group, particular amongst economics, and particularly in terms of assistance to the poor. This would imply that the risk-aversion Rawls predicts is shining through -- knowing that they could become poor with frightening ease, the Black middle class seeks to create social structures that minimize that disadvantage.

Now, there are problems with this model. First, Whites are less downwardly mobile, but are they more upwardly mobile than the Black middle class? And if so, what does that mean (I'm not sure they are more upwardly mobile, but even if they are "poor + middle class" represents a bigger proportion of the American economic experience than "middle class + rich"). Second, Blacks might be more prone to protect the poor for reasons other than risk-aversion -- they might (and in fact are) more likely to have friends and relatives amongst the ranks of the poor, which could affect preference formation. Third, there is an obvious difference between "ignorance of one's social position" and "knowledge that one's social position is prone to change", which could exert an impact -- most notably, the latter position might over-privilege policies which either protect against downward mobility or provide greater resources to families undergoing class transitions.

But even still, I think there might be a there here. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Return of the Tab Dump

Travel means falling behind on my tabs. Here are some things that caught my eye:

Don't mess with Valerie Jarrett.

The Agricultural Secretary is Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Although slightly better than some alternatives (namely, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm), I know Ezra Klein won't be thrilled to get someone who will continue our focus on the corporate-ag side of things, rather than get us looking at sustainable and intelligent food policy.

Stop the presses! Christian organizations hate governmental support for religion when the religion isn't Christianity (see also). The irony is that the putative "church/state violation" the Thomas More Center is whining about wouldn't qualify under even the most stringent separationist doctrine. A doctrine which, it can't be emphasized enough, the TMC normally loathes when they're not being shameless hacks. Also worth noting: the argument the TMC is pressing is one that, if successful (it won't be) would be lethal to the equalization of minority faiths in American culture.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), who may or may not have been elected to another term, has lawyered up in response to recent corruption allegations.

Pastor Rick Warren didn't think torture was worth discussing in his meetings with President Bush.

Jackson was a Canary

CNN is reporting that Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), who had come off looking bad in the wake of the Illinois senate scandal, actually had been an informant for the FBI on Gov. Blagojevich for several years (though not on this particular case). That is interesting, and gives new credence to Jackson's furious denials that he acted at all untoward during this ordeal. It would be rather bizarre, after all, for Jackson to participate in corrupt dealings with a man he knew the FBI was taking interest in. Then again, it was kind of bizarre that Blagojevich tried to sell a Senate seat even as he know he was in the middle of (separate) corruption investigation.

Still, I'd like to see Rep. Jackson vindicated, both because I prefer fewer corrupt politicians to more, and because Republicans have gained way too much pleasure labeling Rep. Jackson as a slimeball.

Back to Reality

I got back to DC today. The astute among you will deduce this means I finished my law school exams, and with them, my first term of law school. Huzzahs are in order! Now, if only I could find a job. Anyone who has any great summer jobs for a hotshot law student, please feel free to let me know about them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Who's Ready for Some Football?

I'm not well-versed enough in college football to know if this is fair analysis by the LGM crowd. But I do know that the lack of Black coaches in D-I football is a long-standing problem, and one the NCAA has bent over backwards to avoid correcting. LGM's story is about the coaching moves by Auburn University, which just fired Tommy Tuberville after a disappointing 5-7 2008 season. Tuberville, prior to that, had gone 42-9 over the past four seasons. Still, college football is tough business -- a bad season at a football crazy school like Auburn can give you the yank. Okay, they ask, but why does Auburn choose to hire Gene Chizik (last two seasons: 5-19 at Iowa State) over Turner Gill (13-12 in his last two years at Buffalo -- but this a school that went 2-10 his first year and whom he just lead to a first-ever MAC championship and first bowl appearance in school history)? College football in general, and deep south schools like Auburn in particular, are infected with good ol' boy networks, and Gill is Black. (In fairness to southern schools, Gill also was passed over for a head coaching job by Syracuse, who elected to hire someone who had never been a head coach before at all).

Richard Lapchick, writing for ESPN, argues for college football to institute its equivalent of the "Rooney Rule", requiring colleges with open coaching positions to at least interview one candidate of color. Lapchick names his version of the rule the "Robinson Rule", after former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson, at one point the winningnest coach in college football history who nevertheless was never even offered an interview with a Division I-A program (Grambling State is D-I-AA). It wouldn't have helped Gill, as he was interviewed and ignored in favor of candidates which, on face at least, seem to have far weaker credentials. But with the number of Black head coaches in D-I football actually falling dramatically over the past decade or so, something needs to be done.

Harold Wasserman wonders about the Title VII and 14th Amendment considerations in all this. To my untutored eye, this is United Steelworkers of America v. Weber all over again, right up to Justice Blackmun and Judge Wisdom's analogy to walking a "high tightrope without a net beneath them." The NCAA's hiring practices are so sharply slanted against Black coaches as to invite a Title VII challenge (which apparently is being considered), but some of the more stringent interpretations of equal protection and anti-discrimination would prevent the organization from taking the fairest and most practicable options available to start remedying the disparity.

A Literal Eye for an Eye

A woman who was blinded by acid thrown by a male stalker has successfully convinced an Iranian court to blind the man in retaliation.
An Iranian woman, blinded by a jilted stalker who threw acid in her face, has persuaded a court to sentence him to be blinded with acid himself under Islamic law demanding an eye for an eye.

Ameneh Bahrami refused to accept "blood money." She insisted instead that her attacker suffer a fate similar to her own "so people like him would realize they do not have the right to throw acid in girls' faces," she told the Tehran Provincial Court.
[...]
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously on November 26 that Majid should be blinded with acid and forced to pay compensation for the injuries to Bahrami's face, hands and body caused by the acid.

That was what she had demanded earlier in the trial. But she did not ask for his face to be disfigured, as hers was.

"Of course, only blind him and take his eyes, because I cannot behave the way he did and ask for acid to be thrown in his face," she said. "Because that would be [a] savage, barbaric act. Only take away his sight so that his eyes will become like mine. I am not saying this from a selfish motive. This is what society demands."

Look, obviously I don't support eye gouging as legitimate judicial punishment. Indeed, there are many aspects of Iran's judicial system that I dislike -- find quite savage, to tell the truth. But the least we can do is ask that their brutal demands are applied even-handedly, and here it appears they are. One of the key liberal prescriptions for ridding a society of oppressive practices is insuring they're applied across the board. If the majority has to contend with what they impose upon the minority, they're likely to have a sudden flash of sympathy and tolerance. In too many countries across the world, throwing acid at women who refuse to submit to male patriarchal demands -- whether it's refusing to marry or simply going to school -- is considered legitimate practice. It is a practice that deserves to be met by the full weight of the judicial system -- whatever that system is.

UPDATE: Jill of Feministe writes as well. I want to clarify that I don't disagree with her -- the punishment being imposed here is barbaric. But my point is that this is hardly distinct from Iran's judicial system as a whole. What makes this case important is that Iran is treating this crime as "seriously" as it does other violations of human personhood. Obviously, the manner in which Iran responds to "serious" crimes is in violation of any modern standard of human decency. I just don't think that it's any more problematic when Iran starts doing these sorts of things to penalize anti-woman activity as when they do similar things to penalize women themselves.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Didn't You Hear Me? I Said UNBUNDLING!

I've always wondered if, in advertising, people simply modulate their tone to make perfectly normal or meaningless things sound wonderful or scary. If you surround "contains monochromaglutimate!" with enough colors and starbursts, I'm going to assume it's a good thing, even though I have no idea exactly what it is I'm getting. And the reverse is true -- a sinister tone can make even utterly benign actions seem like the worst form of evil and malice on the planet.

Though I can't hear his tone of voice, I'm pretty sure that is what's going on in this Ross Douthat post, where he takes issue with the claim that only 3% of Planned Parenthood's expenditures go towards abortions. Now, before we go any further let's remember what we're arguing about. The reason this 3% number is coming up is defense against those who want to strip Planned Parenthood of public funding. Opponents of that proposal are noting that doing that will have the primary effect of reducing Planned Parenthood's ability to give STD exams, distribute contraceptives, and provide other rather generic but important woman's health initiatives.

In his rejoinder, Douthat links to a Weekly Standard piece by Charlotte Allen which wrote the following:
The 3 percent pie slice in the 2005-06 financial report, representing 264,943 abortion customers served, can only be described as deliberately misleading.

One way Planned Parenthood massages the numbers to make its abortion business look trivial is to unbundle its services for purposes of counting. Those 10.1 million different medical procedures in the last fiscal year, for instance, were administered to only 3 million clients. An abortion is invariably preceded by a pregnancy test--a separate service in Planned Parenthood's reckoning--and is almost always followed at the organization's clinics by a "going home" packet of contraceptives, which counts as another separate service. Throw in a pelvic exam and a lab test for STDs--you get the picture. In terms of absolute numbers of clients, one in three visited Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and of those, a little under one in three had a Planned Parenthood abortion.

Let's push aside that my eyeball math translates Allen's figures to "11% of Planned Parenthood clients have an abortion" -- still leaving a massive 89% of customers that don't have one. What Douthat and Allen's argument boils down to is that we shouldn't count many of PP's health services (or should "bundle" it under the metric of "abortion") because many of the sluts women who receive the services also receive abortions. But unless you think that these women are somehow undeserving of gynecological or reproductive health care because they had an unwanted pregnancy and are seeking an abortion, there is no reason to find this remotely problematic. Indeed, if it wasn't for Douthat's clear yet inexplicable agitation, it wouldn't have even occurred to me that this type of accounting would be anything but above board.

One might note that women currently carrying an unplanned pregnancy might be one of the groups most in need of STD exams, contraceptives, and other reproductive health accessories, and laud the fact that PP is providing services to this segment of the population. But Douthat and Allen are essentially arguing the reverse -- they're saying that any reproductive health service provided to a woman seeking an abortion should be grouped under "abortion services" and thus (in the putatively pro-life worldview) not count as a harm if it is cut.

Look at this way. Suppose there was a proposal to cut PP's funding by the precise amount they spend on "abortion". So liberals would say: "that means cutting 3% of PP's budget -- the amount the spend on abortion". Douthat and Allen would argue that number is too small -- it doesn't include pregnancy tests for women seeking abortions, it doesn't count contraceptives given to these women, it doesn't count STD tests administered, etc., etc.. Add the costs of those procedures in, and then you get the dollar amount that we should be cutting. The clear upshot of that argument, though, is that it is not a problem -- indeed, it'd be a good thing -- if Planned Parenthood were not able to provide these services. Women who want abortions, Douthat is saying, don't deserve to be screened for STDs. That right, I imagine, is reserved for women who are not baby-killing whores.

Douthat is correct to argue that the raw number of abortions Planned Parenthood provides is enough for someone who finds abortion to be an unquestionable moral evil to justify withholding funding. That's true irrespective of what proportion of PP's resources are devoted to woman's health outside of abortion -- it's a deontological claim based off Planned Parenthood's clear participation in something many people consider to be immoral. But what is illegitimate -- what is, in fact, fundamentally "pro-herpes" -- is arguing that giving an STD exam isn't "really" part of woman's health because the woman also received an abortion. That's nothing more than dressed up slut-shaming, and it isn't improved just because Douthat and Allen hyperventilate and call accurate reporting "massaging the numbers".