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.