Friday, April 11, 2008

Cause for Anger

Andrew Sullivan:
Sometimes I wonder if some white Republicans actually believe that black people in this country have no reason to feel any anger or alienation at times. I'm not talking about letting it consume you - just feeling it, dealing with it, managing it.

He then follows up with a moving account of how his own experience as a gay man makes it easier for him to understand Black anger and alienation -- along with the admission that, had he not been gay, he might have blindly adopted the same position as his Republican peers.

Lisa S. or L. Simpson?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has an odd view of anonymity:
"In my opinion, the plan, the scheme was the problem for me personally," said the jury foreman, who requested anonymity in light of the judge's request that jurors not yet speak publicly.

I presume the foreman's identity was public knowledge -- certainly at least to the judge who gave the gag order in the first place.

The case he's taking about, incidentally, is interesting too -- sadly, it might be yet another case of a politicized prosecution by the Bush Justice Department.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Social Condemnation as a Legal Substitute

Out in New Mexico, there is a burgeoning controversy about a photography company who refused, on religious grounds, to photograph a gay commitment ceremony. The couple complained to the state's human rights commission, which found the company in violation of the state's anti-discrimination policy and ordered her to pay attorney's fees in the amount of over $6,000. Eugene Volokh, by contrast, argues that photography is a speech act, and the Commission's ruling violates the first amendment by compelling someone to engage in expression they find distasteful (akin to, say, forced salute of the flag in West Virginia v. Barnette).

The legal merits aren't what I want to focus on. Rather, it flows out of a sub-issue that sprang out of a commenter alleging that very few people "would (dare to) take the photographer's side here if she refused to photograph a mixed-race couple." Volokh responds:
I should hope that virtually all of those who support Elaine Huguenin's Free Speech Clause rights would support that hypothetical photographer's constitutional rights, too. I certainly would, just as I support the constitutional rights of many people whose views I condemn.

When someone is discriminated against, the harms of that act are twofold. First, they are denied whatever benefit or opportunity that was being putatively offered -- in this case, having this photographer take pictures of a wedding. Second, they are faced with the stark and bald assertion that they are -- from the perspective of the discriminator -- a second-class citizen, one whom is particularly unworthy of her association or services.

Both of these harms can be remedied by law or by society. Law remedies the first by mandating the performance of the service. It remedies the second by sending the message the political community does not acquiesce to the assertion of inferiority. Both of these roles are important functions of anti-discrimination law.

Of course, sometimes it is not appropriate for law to intervene. Perhaps (as might be the case in the New Mexico controversy), the discrimination is intimately connected to another important right or principle, which the state must also be respectful of. In that case, society can also provide a remedy for both of the harms of discrimination. For the first, the couple can simply find another photographer. And for the second, society's expression of outrage and dismay can also send the message that the discriminated-against party really is to be included on full and equal terms, and it is the discriminator who is the outlier.

Often times, this expression of outrage occurs in tandem with the assertion of a lack of legal jurisdiction. "I condemn what you say, but defend your right to say it," as the saying goes. Volokh also makes note of this, condemning the hypothetical racist photographer while still asserting he would defend it. The availability of this sort of social sanction is, I feel, one of the ways we rationalize the withholding of legal remedy to many victims of discrimination.

But, this assumes that social sanction is, in fact, available. And for many gay and lesbian Americans, it is not. They are in a position of extreme vulnerability compared to, say, mixed-race couples, who can count on public outrage if they are discriminated against. Hence, they are even more reliant on legal remedy than many other groups. But of course, the fact that they are relatively more marginalized (that the question of their public equality is more controversial) makes it far less likely that law actually will protect them.

I've already noted the existence of this double-bind -- that law only protects minority groups who have displayed some measure of political power -- in the context of gay Americans before. In a sense, it merely states the obvious: it sucks to be marginalized, and the more marginal you are, the suckier it is. But it is important to note the extra layer of vulnerability that certain groups face when they can't count on extra-legal statements of support and affirmation in the face of discrimination. When the response to discrimination is not "I condemn but I defend", but "I defend and they're damn right to do it, too," the harms of exclusion are amplified dramatically.

Soylent Bling

Here. Morbid and creepifying.

Powell for Obama

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell had some awfully nice things to say about Barack Obama, and labeled himself an "undecided voter." Steve Benen wonders if an endorsement might eventually come out of it.

I almost hope it doesn't. Not because I really hold a grudge against Powell for his role in the Iraq fiasco -- of all the characters in that particular farce, he does not rank among the more risible, and I believe he still has a valuable role to contribute in our public discourse.

No, it's because I can't imagine anything that will destroy Powell as a public figure more than this endorsement.

Sure, Democrats will probably trumpet it for awhile. But Republicans (never much to countenance this sort of "betrayal") will flay him alive, in two ways. First, they'll scapegoat him for the Iraq war. I doubt that one will stick. But second, they'll undoubtedly portray him as a "race man", someone who let's his skin color dictate his political opinions -- basically no better than a Klansman. And I wouldn't be surprised if the media let that narrative run a little, if in slightly less stark terms. It's already been surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) difficult for folks to get their heads around the fact that Black people might want to vote for a Black candidate because they genuinely think he's the best person for the job, not out of mere race loyalty. When the subject is a high-profile defection like Powell, it'll be even harder to impress that point on the mainstream media. And this one, I fear, might hold together.

Daily Dose of Young

Well, I don't give Iris Marion Young to you daily. But if I did, you'd be smarter for it.

According to Young, "perspective" is derived from the fact that differentiated people, by virtue of their varied social position, have "have different experience, history, and social knowledge derived from that positioning." She conceptualizes perspective as a "starting point" for how we think about political affairs, but not an end -- it sets up our vantage point, but does not determine what we decide to look at or how we interpret what we see.

Here, Young explains why -- notwithstanding the fact that everyone, by virtue of their unique background and experiences, has a different perspective -- it makes sense to think about perspective in terms of group positioning. She also stresses that saying that people might share a perspective (or at least a similarly positioned one) is not the same thing as saying they will reach the same normative conclusions about what principles flow from that, or what their political interests are.
To be sure, each person has his or her own irreducible group history which gives him or her unique social knowledge and perspective. We must avoid, however, the sort of individualism that would conclude from this fact that any talk of structured social positions and group-defined social location is wrong, incoherent, or useless. It makes sense to say that non-professional working-class people have predictable vulnerabilities and opportunities because of their position in the occupational structure. The idea of perspective is meant to capture that sensibility of group-positioned experience without specifying unified content to what the perspective sees. The social positioning produced by relation to other structural positions and by the social processes that issue in unintended consequences only provide a background and perspective in terms of which particular social events and issues are interpreted; they do not make the interpretation. So we can well find different persons with a similar social perspective giving different interpretations of an issue. Perspective is an approach to looking at social events, which conditions but does not determine what one sees.

Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 138-39.

So, for example, all gay people in America (save Massachusetts) share a "position" in that none can marry the partner of their choice. That does not mean that they all share the same ideas of what moral principles should be brought to bear on that issue (what Young calls "opinions"), or what they imagine the effect or importance that reality has on their life prospects (what Young calls "interests"). Two gay people could start from their relatively similar perspective, and radically differ on what moral principles they apply to it, and/or what interests they imagine they have regarding gay marriage. But nonetheless, they operate from a different standpoint than straight people, who necessarily don't "see" the problem of marriage inequality in the same way (even if they adopt the same interests or opinions on the matter as individual gay people).

Perspective matters because it can bring agenda items to the democratic table that might otherwise go un- or under-noticed, or offer new ways of conceptualizing a problem that the dominant perspective may be less likely to see. To talk about needing to include the gay perspective, or the Black perspective, is not to say that we are committed to a particular conception of their interests or ideologies. Elsewhere in the book, Young cites the example of the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper. Though its news stories deal with a wide array of topics, and its editorial pages host political opinions ranging from right-wing libertarianism to left-wing socialism, it still identifiably comes from an "African-American perspective." It adopts an outlook that operates from the vantage point of where African-Americans reside in our social hierarchy, but still recognizes that people from that position can have widely variable interests and opinions.

Because people experience many social problems and controversies in different ways, it is important to insure that relevant groups are represented in discussion of those issues, even if we (rightly) assume that not every member of that group will have the same idea of how to respond to these issues.

UPDATE: An excellent example I just thought of illustrating this is my good friend, Clarence Thomas. Like many Blacks, Thomas interacted with the institution of affirmative action. He shares the position of his fellow African-Americans who also have reaped whatever benefits and hindrances that are the upshot of that institution -- particularly, the feeling by some Whites that he is less qualified as a result of being a "beneficiary" of it. Now, as is clear, that can lead to a variety of opinions on the subject -- Thomas considers AA actively harmful and wishes to abolish it, many other Blacks believe the problem is the White prejudice against AA graduates (flowing out anti-Black prejudice generally), not the program itself. The perspective, in other words, clearly doesn't determine one's ultimate opinion. But even granting that, it would still be absurd to the extreme to say that we should debate the question of affirmative action without consulting/representing those whose social position has given them this specific perspective on the matter.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Joys of Youth

One of the great things about being young is that every once in awhile, an older person who you respect will write an incredibly adorable post about how they just discovered some new-fangled technology, and find it amazing. There's little that tops the smug sense of superiority I feel in those moments. It's a feeling born of love, and only lasts until I realize that said older person still is wiser and more successful than me in all the substantive areas I care about. But it's still nice to feel like I'm winning a round in life.

Pushing and Shoving

What Clinton adviser Lanny Davis says:
I have tried to get over my unease surrounding Barack Obama's response to the sermons and writings of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But the unanswered questions remain.

.... Now is the time to address these questions, not later.

Clearly Mr. Obama does not share the extremist views of Rev. Wright. He is a tolerant and honorable person. But that is not the issue. The questions remain: Why did he stay a member of the congregation? Why didn't he speak up earlier? And why did he reward Rev. Wright with a campaign position even after knowing of his comments?

What he means:
Our best chance for derailing Obama's nomination has started to fall out of the political spotlight. Quick, let's pretend there are still "questions" that remain "unanswered"!

What's really pathetic about this particular effort is what Davis says "triggered" this latest column. Davis claims that he was forced to write after he "read for the first time" these three excerpts from Wright's sermons:
- "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
-- Sept. 16, 2001 (the first Sunday after 9/11)

- "The government . . . wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no. God damn America; that's in the bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."
-- 2003

- "The United States of White America."
-- July 22, 2007

Does anybody in their right mind believe that Davis had never seen these excerpts? These are the claims that were at the center of the controversy. You cannot have heard of the connection between Rev. Wright and Obama without having heard about the "God damn America" speech. It strains credulity to the breaking point to believe that this is all really new data for Davis. And he adds nothing new to the conversation. The only motivation for this sort of article is to pretend that this story is still a story. Unfortunately for Clinton supporters, Obama has by all objective accounts done an excellent job defusing it. Trying to shove it back into the spotlight is a waste of everyone's time.

Sistani Sanctions Sadr

This ain't good news, ladies and gentleman. Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, far and away the most influential religious figure among Iraqi Shi'ites, is telling Sadr not to disband his militia prior to the upcoming elections. Even if, as Publius says, this isn't Sistani "siding" with Sadr, it's still hardly a data point in favor of current American strategy.

I've said for quite some time that Sistani may well be the key to the game for America in Iraq. If that's so, we're beginning to lose, badly.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Politics of The Olympics

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber has an interesting post up about the growing political saliency of the Olympic Games, as demonstrated by the increased murmurings that Western leaders ought to boycott -- at the least -- the opening ceremonies of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Of course, it's not as if the Olympics were previously insulated from political machinations, as the dueling boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games demonstrated. But, Farrell argues, the dynamic of where the pressure is coming from has changed significantly:
The dynamic driving the Beijing Olympics seems to me to be rather different; what we are seeing is that the politics of boycott is being driven by mass-publics, and most recently by protestors, rather than by political leaders. In the absence of the public unrest that has culminated in the recent protests in Paris, I doubt very much that Western political leaders would be muttering about not showing at the opening ceremonies – the geopolitical stakes of market access etc are likely more important to them than the fate of Tibetans. But given the widespread public reaction in the West, even leaders like Gordon Brown, who obviously want very much to attend, are having to insulate themselves from public pressures by taking other actions liable to annoy China (such as meeting with the Dalai Lama). In short, I think we are seeing how public opinion and organized cross-national opposition can create significant constraints on the ability of leaders to respond to what they see as the geostrategic necessity of keeping China happy. This is, as best as I am aware, a new phase in the development of the Olympics.

In other words, the Olympics offer a new avenue for grass-roots public anger to manifest itself in actual pressure on global leaders. This is because the Olympics are a high profile example of international recognition and engagement, and one that (between the presence of hordes of news media, athletes with personal agendas that don't map on to diplomatic niceties, and even the easily protested torch-run) offers a nearly unparalleled opportunity for media-friendly protests.

On the actual merits of boycotting the opening ceremonies itself, see Steve Clemons versus Daniel Drezner.

Creativity in Advertising

Here's an ad for Steve Novick, running for the Democratic Senate nomination in Oregon.

Fantastic ad, no? I do like how it plays off his disability in a positive way. (Novick was born without a left hand, among other problems, and stands only 4'9").

He's a dark-horse candidate running against State House Speaker Jeff Merkley, but he's actually flashed an early lead in the polls.

Now, 40% are undecided in the primary battle, and Merkley hasn't hit the airwaves yet. Merkley is also the far more experienced politician compared to Novick. But the persistent murmurs I've heard about Merkley are that his resume is better than his will to win. We'll see if he can close the gap, but I have to say, Novick's ad is one of the best I've seen all season, and exhibits the sort of innovation and risk-taking that I think will serve him well if he makes it to the general.

The Much Maligned Warren G. Harding

President Warren G. Harding is not exactly the most beloved of American historical figures. I wouldn't say he's reviled either -- more thought of as pathetic. Former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo stated:
"His speeches left the impression of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork."

I believe (though I cannot find it) that another contemporary once described him as "a good, decent man who should be lieutenant governor of Rhode Island." That might have referred to someone else -- but sentiment seems accurate enough.

Harding's stated sins are generally that a) he was surrounded by utterly corrupt advisers (though nobody claimed Harding himself was), b) he was politically mediocre, and c) he was an intellectual lightweight. But, while not exactly calling him a world-beater, Ilya Somin makes the case that Harding might be one of our most under-rated Presidents.
Harding made a well-known speech advocating full legal equality for southern blacks in 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. As W.E.B. DuBois pointed out at the time, Harding went farther in advocating equal rights for blacks than any other post-Reconstruction Republican president (the Democrats, at that time the party of southern whites, were even worse). Indeed, no president went as far as Harding in advocating equal rights for southern blacks for several decades thereafter. Harding also lobbied hard for a federal anti-lynching bill to curb the rampant lynching of blacks by whites in the South - again, the first post-Reconstruction president to do so (the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate due to the threat of Democratic filibusters). As DuBois pointed out in the linked article, Harding was not wholly free of the racism common among whites at the time. But he was a lot better than the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Nor were these Harding's only positive aspects. As Gene Healy discusses in his interesting recent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Harding is also notable for reversing the severe violations of civil and economic liberties that had proliferated under his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. It's easy to belittle Harding's campaign slogan - "Return to Normalcy." But Harding's notion of "normalcy" included an end to the imprisonment of political dissenters (such as Wilson's notorious "Palmer Raids"), abolition of wage and price controls, and the reversal of Wilson's numerous illegal seizures of private property. As David Bernstein and I briefly discuss in this article, Wilson's administration was also highly racist and segregationist even by the standards of the day; here too, Harding was a sharp contrast.

All fair points, and worth considering. I particularly was unaware about his efforts on behalf of racial equality.

So let's have a cheer for President Harding: he really wasn't as awful as everyone makes him out to be!

Where's Wallace?

Dave Kopel writes on activities of another one of Barack Obama's spiritual mentors, the (White) Catholic priest Michael Pfleger. Though noting that Pfleger has done some good works (on racial profiling, Darfur, and opposing abusive rap lyrics), Kopel focuses primarily on Pfleger's aggressive anti-gun pose. It culminates in his protest of "Chuck's Gun Store", the closest gun store to Chicago (there are no gun outlets in the city itself). Kopel writes:

Yet the Reverends Michael Pfleger and Jesse Jackson have been organized large crowds to repeatedly picket Chuck's Gun Shop. On June 23, 2007, Revs. Jackson and Pfleger were arrested for criminally obstructing the entrance to the store. The charges were eventually dropped, just as Governor George Wallace never was criminally punished for standing in a doorway to obstruct the exercise of constitutional rights. (The comparison is a little unfair, since Wallace eventually stood aside, whereas Jackson and Pfleger had to be physically removed by the police.)

Okay, hold it. I'm not an anti-gun zealot, and from Kopel's description it sounds like Chuck's is behaving like a good citizen in terms of training its employees so that it's guns do not get into the wrong hands (there could be more information, of course, that Kopel is not telling us). That being said -- worse than George Wallace? I realize that the sin qua non of Kopel's existence is protecting gun rights. But come on, let's keep our heads on our shoulders, yes?

Also, Kopel cites Pfleger as promising to "snuff out" the owner of the store. Pfleger denies that he was advocating violence, and instead meant only to reveal where the owner lived. Now, I'm not a fan of that sort of intimidation either, and as Kopel notes, "snuff out" actually is primarily slang for "to kill." But I'm guessing that Pfleger was mixing it up with "sniff out", which would mean exactly what he said he meant. Again, only a small consolation, because I think trying to reveal a political opponent's home address is pretty threatening behavior, but relevant data nonetheless.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Something Corporate

Jonathan Adler complains that Starbucks allows you to personalize their gift cards so they say "People not Profits" or "Si Se Puede," but not "Laissez Faire." This is, of course, ironic, since it is (relatively) laissez faire economics that allow Starbucks its prosperity in the first place.

But doesn't Adler realize that the irony is precisely the reason for the prohibition? Starbucks realizes that part of its continued health as a coffee chain business is maintaining its image as hip and humane, and conversely, not some soulless MNC. "Starbucks -- Laissez Faire" cuts against the image they're trying to project, so they restrict it. All perfectly within their rights and totally rational in the pursuit of profit.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mr. Washington

Attention, law/grad schools! If you really want me to attend, this is an excellent idea. The amount of money is almost immaterial -- it's the performance that counts:
a friend in the office suggested we lay in a supply of thin black briefcases for grad and faculty recruitment purposes. we could cash out financial offers or start-up funds in one dollar bills, secure them in 50-note currency straps, and pack them into a stylish attaché case. if a recruit starts to waver, we'd pop it open dramatically, saying, perhaps mr. washington and his friends might change your mind. we don't have huge funds to throw around, but we can usually chip in fifty for gas.

Only grad students, of course, could be wowed by a brief case full of singles.