Saturday, February 21, 2009

White Guy in a Little Coat....

Sarah Steelman, former Missouri state treasurer, gears up to take on Rep. Roy Blunt in the GOP Senate primary to replace the retiring Kit Bond.
In the interview, Steelman took some sharp jabs at Blunt, describing the seven-term congressman Blunt as being part of the “old-boys' network” who has spent too much time in Washington.

“Roy Blunt is another white guy in a suit, and I think the public wants change,” Steelman said. “There’s a good old boys’ network out there that’s hard to penetrate… and it’s not always in the best interest of the party or for conservative principles.”

File that one under "if a Democrat said it, it'd be tarred racist". Anyway, Steelman narrowly lost a brutal primary last cycle to Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who went on to be defeated in the general gubernatorial election. Looks like she's got plenty of fire for another bid for higher office.

From Beirut to Economic Salvation

It was an unpopular move at the time, but today, it may have saved his nation from sharing the rest the world's economic ruin: Lebanon's central banker, Riad Toufic Salame simply issued a blanket order back in 2005 barring any bank in his country from investing in mortgage-backed securities.
He says the mortgage-backed securities worried him from the start. He watched curiously as investment bankers engaged in what he calls "rituals" to please the credit ratings agencies and got back such safe assessments of their products. He didn't get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were just too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you're fronting cash and who's going to pay you back.

Via Kevin Drum.

Last Rites or Darkest Moment?

Apparently, the phrase "the darkest hour is just before dawn" is a myth. But the point it tries to raise -- that in a bad situation, definitionally you have to hit the worst point (whatever that is) before things improve, is true. Time put out an ... article? Opinion piece? I hope the latter, given how clearly the author's biases shine through, but whatever. Time put out a piece entitled "Preparing for a Hard-Right Israel" -- namely, one run by the right-wing Bibi Netanyahu, with support from even further-right parties like Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-orthodox right.

Netanyahu ran on promises that essentially "would bring the peace process to a halt." This is true, though I hold a glimmer (and only a glimmer) of hope that Netanyahu will pull a "Nixon goes to China" and spark some pragmatic progress with the Palestinians. The author also says, though, that "A Netanyahu government may end up merely giving last rites to a peace process that is already almost dead." This, I'm not sure of. Even if Netanyahu does not forge towards peace, the pressures and realities that will eventually force Israel to negotiate are not going away. If it is possible that Netanyahu spells the end of the peace process, it is at least as possible that Netanyahu's election represents the last roar of the dying vision of the Israeli right -- that the Palestinians will concede to permanent dispossession in a one-state solution, that Israel can be protected by force of will and arms alone, that the settlements can expand indefinitely and unchecked without undermining the structure of Israeli democracy itself.

Netanyahu's policies won't work. The Israeli populace is going to find that out in the next few years. I hope it does not come in the form of anything too dramatic, but the right will fall. Dawn will come.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

Another blizzard is coming through Chicago.

Julie's post on the ADL's 2009 European anti-Semitism survey inspired me to read the survey memo for myself. The data can be a little hard to parse at times, but overall paints a rather disturbing picture.

The survey was conducted over 7 European countries: Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom (500 questioned in each country, MoE +/- 4%). The heart of the survey was contained in these four questions:
1) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country. (49%)
2) Jews have too much power in the business world. (40%)
3) Jews have too much power in international financial
markets. (41%)
4) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in
the Holocaust. (44%)

Percentages are of respondents who labeled this statement "probably true" across all countries. Each country's response rate for each question was also broken out individually. The worst case country-to-stereotype was Spain's answer to "Jews have too much power international financial markets" -- a whopping 74% agreed. For every question, the UK demonstrated the lowest levels of support. As noted though, the statement which got the highest overall level of support was "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country" (high: Spain 64%, low: UK: 37%).

The ADL then charted what percentage of respondents agreed with at least three of the above four statements. The "winners" were Spain, Poland, and Hungary, with 48%, 48%, and 47% (respectively) fitting this criteria. Austria came next at 30%, followed by France and Germany (20%) and finally the UK (10%).

The ADL also asked several follow-up questions which were not included in evaluating the overall levels of anti-Semitic sentiment. For example, 23% of Europeans believe that Jews are responsible for the death of Christ (Poland is the far and away leader in this category, at 48%). The survey also asked respondents if they felt that violence directed against Jews in their country was the result of anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiment. For the most part, they believed it was due to anti-Jewish feelings (38% to 24%). The exception was Spain, where "anti-Israel" held a 38% - 26% lead over "anti-Jewish".

Finally, the ADL also tried to get a feel for whether Jews were being blamed for the global financial crisis. They asked
How much blame do you place on Jews in the financial industry for the current global economic crisis? Do you blame them a great deal, a good amount, a little or not at all?

The ADL here charted those answering "a little" or higher, and found that 31% of respondents blamed the Jews at least "a little" for the crisis. Hungary led the way with 46%, followed by Austria (43%) and Poland (38%).

Finally, these were the questions that elicited the strongest levels of support for each country:

More loyal to Israel: France (38%), Germany (53%), Poland (63%), UK (37%)

Power in business: Hungary (67%)

Power in international markets: Spain (74%)

Too much talking about the Holocaust: Austria (55%)

And the least support:

More loyal to Israel: Hungary (40%)

Power in business: Austria (36%), Germany (21%), UK (15% -- tie)

Power in international markets: France (27%), Poland (54%), UK (15% -- tie)

Too much talking about the Holocaust: Spain (42%)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Anti-Semites on My Left, Neocons on My Right

It's dangerous in this hood.

Jeffrey Goldberg and Glenn Greenwald are having what has to be a hall of fame candidate in the field of unproductive exchanges. It started with Goldberg quoting a writer saying "however much the extreme left and the extreme right might disagree, the one common ground upon which they met comfortably was anti-Semitism," and using that to segue into discussing "the brown-red coalition aligned against Israel in Europe," and "in less dramatic, but still disturbing fashion", the presence of left-wing writers in The American Conservative attacking Israel (TAC was formed by Pat Buchanan and thus occupies a special space of mistrust in the Jewish American psyche). One of the writers Goldberg singled-out was Greenwald.

Greenwald fired back with a furious post, associating Goldberg with the "neoconservative Israel fanatics" and using his post as a case study for the proposition that "Anyone who criticizes the actions of the Israeli Government will, for that reason alone, have "anti-Semite" tossed in their vicinity and attached to their name". As for TAC, Greenwald says this argument is "rank guilt by association" and that "it's intellectual dishonesty of the lowliest kind to toss around epithets based on Buchanan's views aimed at anyone and everyone who writes for that journal, regardless of what they write."

Goldberg rejoins that whatever his politics are other issues, a cursory reading of his writings on, e.g., the settlements would pretty clear show him to be "not a revanchist Zionist". Greenwald, Goldberg alleges, is merely covering for the fact that writing in The American Conservative, which remains "animated by Buchanan's hostility to Jews and to Israel" is a sure-fire way to convince Jews to run screaming from J Street and back into the arms of AIPAC. Greenwald, in an update to his post, calls Goldberg's rejoinder "adolescent" and says that Goldberg's views on the Iraq war are sufficient to justify labeling him "neoconservative".

Both are tip-toeing but not crossing the other's red-lines: Goldberg doesn't actually call Greenwald an anti-Semite, just someone who associates with them (or near-them, depending on how one reads "less dramatically"); Greenwald doesn't actually make specific claims about Goldberg's politics on Israel, but uses Goldberg's views on Iraq to lump him in with neoconservatives and strongly implies that he holds the same no-criticism-under-any-circumstances standard regarding Israel as his putative compatriots.

I cannot think of a conversation that has this extreme a ratio of heat to light. I think most American Jews have a definitively negative view of The American Conservative, because Buchanan-style conservatism has always been extremely unpopular with American Jews and most Jews do consider him to be flatly anti-Semitic. Greenwald's writing in that magazine was, at the very least, probably a tactical mistake regardless of the content, if the goal is to persuade the Jewish community writ large that the dovish positions that Greenwald holds are a safe location for them. But I don't think he himself is anti-Semitic or that there are any grounds to imply otherwise [UPDATE for clarity: I likewise don't think there are any grounds to imply that Greenwald is anti-Semitic. The original was unclear as to what "otherwise" referred to].

At the same time, if Greenwald thinks that "anti-Semitic" gets hurled at anyone insufficiently hawkish regarding Israel, he seems most interested in propagating a counter-norm wherein anyone with views on Israel to his right (unless they're right-wing anti-Israeli, in which case they're fine no matter how vile their politics otherwise are) is now a "neoconservative", and thus beyond the pale of legitimate discourse.

Meaning that someone like me (likely to be perceived as to Goldberg's left and Greenwald's right) gets to be an anti-Semitic neoconservative! Oh joy.


The Oxford University Press' mail labels to Dave Noon and Eric Rauchway represent a blogger win, but an epic professional fail.

Who's Investigating Who?

International law professor Julian Ku notes that, whereas both Israel and Palestine are accused of committing war crimes in the Gaza campaign, only Israel has any serious domestic mechanisms for investigating the allegations. Whereas Israel has launched an internal investigation on the practices of its military during the Gaza operation (encompassing, among other things, the shelling near a UN school and the usage of white phosphorus), Hamas spokespersons simply refused to investigate any allegations of human rights violations at all, saying they were "completely baseless and nonsense", stemming from the "Israeli propaganda machine of fabrication". This was in response to the allegation of using human shields -- though Hamas' rocket attacks on Israel are a per se war crime, Hamas refuses (I imagine) to concede that rule as legitimate in the first place.

Under international law, the international forums for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes in most cases are not supposed to be utilized unless the state in which the alleged crimes occurred is either unable or unwilling to investigate the allegations themselves through domestic processes. This is, in a large respect, a sop to the sovereignty of modern states, and runs into major problems when the alleged wrongdoer is an agent (or even just a national) of the state. An investigation by the Israeli government will undoubtedly not satisfy the Palestinians, nor will it necessarily be particularly credible given that in large part the judge is the same as the defendant. Still, Ku writes, "if it were subject to ICC jurisdiction, Israel would have a decent case for claiming to have fulfilled its duty to investigate and punish war crimes committed by its nationals or on its territory." By contrast, the blanket Palestinian denial and refusal to investigate would, potentially, be the sort of behavior which could trigger ICC jurisdiction.

OMG! I Love That Blog Too!

Lars Ohly is currently the party chairman of the Swedish Left Party -- essentially, the successor to Sweden's communist party. He is a member of parliament along with 21 of his party mates. He also has a list of favorite blogs. Number two on the list contains some delightful sentiments about Jews:
“If Obama hadn’t crawled before the Jewish Zionist mafia AIPAC & Co, we would never have heard of him, US policy is governed directly from Tel Aviv”.

“The Zionists has bought all resistance within the most important sectors of the world with the billions of dollars from the Holocaust industry”.

“Talmud encourages the Jews to kill Christians”.


Soak the Poor!

After winning a lawsuit seeking to hold it responsible for the shooting deaths of several Nigerian villagers, Chevron is firing back with a request for legal reimbursement:
Chevron Corp., which prevailed in a human-rights lawsuit seeking to hold it responsible for the shooting of Nigerian protesters at an oil platform, is seeking nearly $500,000 in legal costs from the villagers who brought the suit.

Chevron's claim for reimbursement, filed in federal court, includes $190,000 in copying charges. The San Ramon-based company, which posted a record $23.8-billion profit for 2008, says it is entitled to the money because a nine-member jury decided in the company’s favor in December.

Loser pays is not an uncommon legal principle. But here it is rather clearly extortionary. Not only is the sum of money being asked for here entirely out of reach for the plaintiff-class, but the tenor of the entire proceeding (as one of the plaintiff's attorneys put it) is that the request is "punitive" and a "shot across the bow" for other potential plaintiffs who might be inclined to bring similar human rights actions against large corporations. If the risk of trying to vindicate legal rights is bankruptcy, legal rights are worthless. Chevron, it seems, views this as a good thing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Criticism as Punishment: Retribution, Utility, and Outrage

In the field of criminal law, there are two main philosophical schools on how society is allowed to punish offenders. The first is the retributive school -- basically arguing that we can punish people solely based on how much they "deserve" to be punished, no more and no less. Punishment is seen as a matter of just deserts, apportioned to the moral culpability of the offender. We can't raise or lower punishments because might make society better off (a more severe punishment might serve as a superior deterrent, a less severe one might allow a brilliant scientist to continue his work unhindered by a jail term).

The second school is utilitarian (or consequentialist) -- it says we can punish because and only when society benefits from it. Deterrence (preventing further crimes) is a utilitarian rationale, as is incapcitation (preventing the criminal from committing more crimes) and rehabilitation (making the criminal a productive, socially beneficial member of society). We can punish up to point where all parties continue to reap a net benefit, but no further. This might mean we can't punish at all, in certain situations, where the social consequences of punishment would outweigh its gains. Alternatively, it might mean we'd be justified punishing completely out of accordance with moral fault if there were socially compelling reasons to do so. Hanging an accused thief by his entrails may be wildly out of sync with just deserts, but it would probably make other accused thieves think twice before picking pockets.

Retributivists and utilitarians are not friends. Utilitarians allege that punishment without social benefit is barbaric -- solely seeking to quench the victim's or society's thirst for blood. Moreover, punishment that isn't tailored to increase social benefit imposes huge costs on society by, for example, missing critical opportunities to change behaviors. Insofar as we are missing opportunities to, say, deter rape, a utilitarian would say that we are in a lot of ways responsible for the rapes we could have prevented but didn't. Retributivists counter that utilitarian punishment has no checks to insure it products the basic human dignity of the condemned and risks devolving into state-sponsored torture if the state claims a net benefit from it. On the other hand, it also provides an out for politically or economically-powerful individuals to escape liability for even the most horrific of crimes, if they claim that society would suffer more by their removal than it would gain through punishment. Because the idea of "social gain" is always indeterminate, punishment becomes solely the province of the poor and marginalized, and even can become a collateral weapon against social dissidents who are labeled "undesirable". This a just a sampling -- the literature in this field is rich and dense, and won't be resolved in the space of a blog post.

Outside the academy, though, I suspect most of us blend together elements of both schools. We want our mechanisms of punishment to achieve social goals -- make us safer, rehabilitate wrongdoers, recompense victims -- while still staying at least tied to some rational conception of culpability.

One other function of punishment that I think sometimes gets elided in these categories is the function punishment serves of communicating social outrage. When we punish someone by, for example, sending them to prison, we are implicitly communicating a message by society that the behavior they were convicted of is deeply offensive and wrong to our communal sensibilities. The longer or harsher the punishment, the more outrage we are communicating. In its simplest form, I think this can be folded into a retributive model. The claim that X conduct "deserves" Y punishment is another way of communicating the degree the wrongdoer has deviated from communal norms, and our ensuing anger. You could argue that this expressive function of punishment also serves utilitarian ends in the form of social catharsis, or checking the potential for vigilante justice.

I don't think this is per se invalid. One of the reasons I support hate crimes legislation is because I think it is important for society to send a message that such actions are not "taken in our name", are not silently endorsed by the majority, but represent an egregious violation of community standards whose voice is communicated most clearly through law. But sometimes, the expressive element of punishment bursts beyond the constraints of either retributive or utilitarian considerations and takes on a life of its own.

In Arizona v. Berger, the Arizona state supreme court upheld a mandatory minimum 200-year sentence with no possibility of parole against a 52-year old man with no prior criminal record after being convicted of possession of 20 images of child pornography (10 years per image, running consecutively). The sentence was greater than the mandatory minimum for murder, rape, aggrevated assault or (ironically) sexual assault of a minor under the age of twelve.

Commenting on the case, law professor Hanno Kaiser wrote:

The sentence in Berger is largely expressive conduct. It uses law as a means to display moral outrage. It is a celebration of moral hatred, as aptly described in the opening chapter of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish....Here, the offender was technically not punished, if we require punishment to be a meaningful intra-societal answer to the offense. Rather, the boundaries of society have been redrawn so as to exclude the offender. Ejected from society into a natural state, society is free to wage war, to lash out and crush the offender, unrestrained by considerations of proportionality.

"The decision in Berger cannot be rationalized with arguments from traditional consequentialist [utilitarian] or retributive theories of punishment, as it violates every requirement of proportionality."

The legal machinations that gave us Berger constituted a situation where the expressive functions of punishment took on a life of their own, stretching beyond retribution or utility and instead violently ripping the offender out of society -- essentially rendering him a non-person. The motivating factor to writing the statute this way was neither to exact just retribution (there is no way possession of child pornography is worse than actually sexually assaulting a child), nor was it tied to utilitarian considerations designed to make society as a whole better off.

Rather, these sort of ratcheting effects in criminal law occur as legislators race to present themselves as more and more outraged by the behavior in question. The most efficient way to signal that outrage is to direct and support greater state violence against the wrongdoer. By contrast, once the targeted class is rendered extra-social -- as beyond the realm of the community or even moral personhood -- there is virtually no constituency or incentive to try and pull the rhetoric back down. Research on group dynamics indicates that the membership of like-minded organization will constantly push each other to adopt more and more extreme positions, particularly vis-a-vis the other. An arms race of moral self-righteousness ensues, wherein the targeted class is pushed further and further away from the type of communal bonds and empathies that might otherwise restrain us. Dehumanization and violence are the likely and predictable result of this treatment.

One way to think about this sort of behavior is to view it as self- rather than other-regarding. Retribution is premised off what the wrongdoer deserves. Utilitarianism looks at what makes all parties (offender, victim, and society) better off. The expressive function Prof. Kaiser describes at work in Berger, by contrast, is primarily directed at the critics themselves. It is designed to make them feel more secure in their moral personhood by drawing a clear line between themselves ("good") and the violators ("bad"). It also signals and affirms their membership in the group by participating or leading in the criticism -- nobody wants to be the guy who thinks child pornography is less bad than everyone else, and there are real risks of exclusion if one takes that role upon themselves. Consequently, while wrapped in the rhetoric of punishment, the sort of moral outrage that breaks loose from normal penological discourse is fundamentally self-indulgent -- it can claim neither to be doing justice as to the offender, nor to be particularly concerned with improving society, deterring future behavior, or protecting victims.

Prof. Kaiser limits his analysis to the legal system, which he says needs to be separated from "the moral system". I disagree, both because I think punishment is a form of moral expression, and because I think that in modern society, punishment is not the sole province of the state. There are non-legal sanctions one can impose upon someone or something accused of morally wrongful behavior: e.g., boycotting them, shaming them, or even simply morally criticizing them. These are properly construed as forms of punishment.

When I say that "criticism" is a form of punishment, I don't mean to say that it is something that should be avoided or something that requires a full-blown hearing to be justified. I'm merely expressing the (hopefully uncontroversial) idea that we criticize due to our belief that the target has done something wrongful. We often punish children by giving them a "stern talking to". Like all punishment, the language of criticism is wounding and hurtful (which is part of what makes it effective), consequently, it should not be deployed unless it is being used for a legitimate penological end. "Stop being a jerk", said to someone who just laughed at a child who broke their leg, is legitimate in a way that saying the same thing to a different, innocent person merely because you don't like them and you want to make them feel bad, or because you want to ostracize them from the clique of popular kids, is not. Criticism is thus part of the panoply of non-legal punishments we direct against wrongdoers. In many respects, it is the punishment of first resort (as it should be).

As a punishment, however, criticism ought to be restrained by the same considerations as all of its other cousins, that is to say, it must be reasonably related to either a retributivist or utilitarian rationale. If we are being retributivists, for example, our criticism needs to be tied to some rational conception of moral fault. The way we determine what is proper retribution is by comparison -- we look to how we criticize other moral failings, and try and figure out where the failing at bar falls with relation to its peers. The reason we know that 200 years is too much for possession of child pornography isn't because there is some transcendental ideal of "justness" which tells us how many years in prison is correct. The simplest way of knowing that the punishment is too harsh is that it exceeds that of crimes which we all agree are more serious (such as actually sexually assaulting a minor). Criticism can work the same way -- we look to see how we are criticizing other wrongdoers, compare the degree of moral fault between the past cases and the current, and adjust our current criticism so that it fits with the broader schema we've established. If we're criticizing a less serious act more harshly or more frequently than a more serious act, or vice versa, then we are not being retributive.

Of course, we don't have to be retributivist. Criticism can and often is utilitarian in nature -- seeking to reform the perpetrator or head off wrong doing towards victims rather than express a message of "you deserve criticism". This might justify directing more criticism towards an objectively less severe act, if, for example, we think that our criticism in this case is more likely to have a positive effect in the form of deterrence, behavioral modification, or justice. There are all sorts of reasons we might think that the effectiveness of criticism won't mesh perfectly with a list of the most grave wrongdoers. We might expect that less grave wrongdoers are more likely to listen to the critique and take it to heart, or we might have stronger connections with some persons or groups compared to others, giving our criticisms more weight. I'm sure there are others. All of these would justify directing more frequent or perhaps harsher criticism towards a less culpable wrongdoer, from a utilitarian perspective.

But if we're going to be utilitarian, we have to be utilitarian. Utilitarian considerations don't always counsel extra criticism or punishment. Indeed, they counsel the precise amount of criticism and punishment most likely to yield positive results. Sometimes, even retributively just criticism may not meet this burden, for a variety of reasons. Where criticism, punishment, or threat of punishment is likely to yield bad consequences, it must be dropped, because it isn't about "justice" in the abstract, it's about consequences on the ground. Often, this requires painful concessions that cut to the heart of our conception of just deserts. One would be hard pressed to find a man more deserving of being hauled in front of a war crimes tribunal that LRA head Joseph Kony. Yet it may well be that the only way to secure peace in Uganda, wracked for decades by civil war, is to drop ICC prosecution against him. Should they do so? A utilitarian would be hard pressed to say no. A retributivist would be hard pressed to say yes.

Just like legal punishments, non-legal punishments can very easily detach themselves from the bounds of these two limiting factors and take on the solely expressive purpose of signaling moral hatred. When this occurs, the same rules (or lack thereof) apply -- the ratcheting incentive and arms-race of evermore strident condemnation, the primary self-regarding (and thus self-indulgent) nature of the discourse, the removal of the alleged offender from the bounds of society, the presentment of the offender (and his or her defenders) is something less than human, and finally, violence. Last month in the UK, the occurrence of anti-Semitic acts exploded seven-fold compared to a year prior and more than doubled the previous month on record. The normal wardens against racism and hate proved themselves unable or unwilling to interpose themselves against the tide. Both the perpetrators, who cast even the beatings as being a sort of criticism against Israel, and the victims seem to agree on the cause. In Venezuela, a fifth of the country's Jewish population has fled the country, a synagogue was recently sacked, and the country's remaining Jews are quite clear on who they lay the blame upon, because one simply cannot say the things Chavez says and then be surprised or defensive when folks start physically assaulting Jews. In both nations, the primary instigator of this violence was "criticism" of Israel and Zionism that had become so poisonous, so far removed from considerations of justice or consequences, that it mutated from a call for dialogue between members of the human community, to a delineation seeking to establish who is human and who is not.

This isn't about criticizing "politely". Nor is it an argument against criticism, any more than objecting to the Berger sentence is an objection to legal punishment or the morally blameworthiness of possessors of child pornography. This is about the very predictable results of dehumanization enacted through "punishment" as an expression of moral hatred, as opposed to just deserts or utilitarian considerations. Render someone extra-social, and someone will take you up on it. The responsibilities to stay tethered to retributive or utilitarian goals if you are to punish is no small matter. People's rights, people's safety, and people's lives depend on it. In a real and significant way, the entire moral system depends upon it.

That's Some Catchy Hooks

RNC Chair Michael Steele has a new PR strategy:
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele says his party is going to launch an "off the hook" public relations campaign that will update the GOP’s image by translating it to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings."

The new GOP leader told the Washington Times that the party’s defeat in states such as North Carolina and Virginia made it clear they needed a new approach.

“We need messengers to really capture that region — young, Hispanic, black, a cross section…” he said in an interview published Thursday. “We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings.”

He added, jokingly, that “we need to uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets.”

Steele described the new multi-platform PR offensive as “avant-garde, technically. It will come to [the] table with things that will surprise everyone — off the hook.” Asked whether that meant cutting-edge tactics, Steele demurred. “I don't do 'cutting-edge,’” he said. “That's what Democrats are doing. We're going beyond cutting-edge.”

A for effort, but C- for too much effort. You're trying too hard, Mr. Steele. Nobody wants to hear their grandmother rap. A slanguage fail is worse than not trying at all.

The bizarre thing is this is precisely the sort of "outreach" towards people of color that Steele flaming when he was running for an office. It's still throwing a cocktail party, it's just changing the stereo settings. There's no indication that attracting people of color might involve, you know, actually policy modifications. Lay down the right beats, the argument seems to be, and they'll follow you wherever you might want to go.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Didn't See These in the MPC

Warning: Reading USA Today may be hazardous to your Crim Law grade.

Peace Pulse

The Israel Policy Forum has set up camp in the blogosphere with its new venture, "The Mideast Peace Pulse". The IPF states its mission as "to promote active U.S. engagement to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace and security for Israel with the Palestinians and the Arab states." Along with J Street, the IPF is a leading element of the burgeoning set of institutions pressing for a "pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace" position (via the Z-Word).

I am also heartened to see that the Peace Pulse will apparently include posts by Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning and Labor, and Ziad J. Asali, head of The American Task Force on Palestine and former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. There are unfortunately far too few forums where pro-Israel and pro-Palestine voices feel comfortable sharing a space, much less working together productively in hopes of a shared future and a peaceful tomorrow. Without these circles of engagement, however, the prospects for advancement look dim. I'm a pleased the the Peace Pulse will provide one of those spaces, and I look forward to reading the contributions of all its contributors.

Welcome to the 'sphere!

Stepping Out

Late last month, the Zionist Organization of America had a message for the Israeli government:
The Zionist Organization of America called on Israeli and U.S. supporters of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal to apologize.

Noting the "past three years of rapid security deterioration in the southern part of Israel," ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement that "in these circumstances, it is high time for all MKs, journalists and others, regardless of party affiliation, who supported the process of unilateral withdrawal to apologize to the Israeli electorate. They should explain that they now understand the disastrous consequences of unilateral concessions to an unreconstructed Palestinian terror regime.

"Doing so would help restore public trust in the Knesset and the political system and be the best demonstration of honesty and the willingness of political figures to stand accountable to the electorate for mistaken and failed policies which they advocated," he said.

Now, the ZOA and its leader, Mort Klein, are annoying as a general rule. But this is revelatory. The ZOA says its "pro-Israel". But, speaking from outside Israel (the Zionist Organization of America), it claims the authority to say Israel should apologize to its own citizenry for the "failure" of the Gaza withdrawal. This is another case of the type of person who would normally say we shouldn't "second guess" Israel on its national security decisions ... second-guessing Israel when it takes actions that don't perfectly adhere to the most hawkish possible line.

Klein, of course, has the right to believe the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake. I disagree with him, strongly, but that's fine. But the upshot of that is a concession that Israeli governmental policies are open to criticism and second-guessing by the plethora of persons out there who have ideas over how Israel should behave consonant with its own security concerns and its obligations to respect the human rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people. The ZOA isn't the only body which gets to play this game. Israel can't only be open to criticism from right-leaning voices.

I should add, incidentally, that if creating a Palestinian state wholesale (i.e., not just withdrawing from Gaza) would have yielded the same security situation that Israel has faced over the last three years, I'd have whole-heartedly supported it. Not because I think Israel's been put in a good situation, or that the terror attacks it has faced since the Gaza withdrawal are trivial. But Klein would have us believe that the upshot of creating a Palestinian state now would be the destruction of Israel. If that were true, it might counsel waiting, but if creating a Palestinian state just means perpetuating the status quo of low- to mid-grade conflict and insurgency, then I prefer it being with an independent Palestinian state than without it.

This is true for several reasons: because it would entail a net gain in justice (the same amount of violence directed at Israel, but self-determination for the Palestinians), because it is more likely to lead to a negotiated settlement with other neighboring countries, and because it would greatly simplify a lot of the legal questions that surround how Israel can respond to terrorist attacks and it's legal obligations to the Palestinians.

The Bestest Jew of All

Ladies and gentleman, presenting former Congressman J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ):

HAYWORTH: ...I'll tell you what was bad: the sneak attack on our economy, the dress rehearsal that was the debacle of IndyBank, when Chuck Schumer helped get that started, and the guy in the background, George Soros, manipulating all the currency....

Oh, those sneaky manipulative Jews -- lurking in the background, pulling the strings of the financial market.

Okay, maybe it was just a poor choice of words. Sure, casting two Jews as currency manipulators launching a "sneak attack" on the financial market is pretty classic anti-Semitic imagery. But maybe Hayworth didn't know that. Maybe this was just an isolated event.

Or maybe not. In 2006 Hayworth came under fire for proudly quoting Henry Ford's ideals of "Americanization" -- which, as we all know, was cast as being intrinsically opposite to being Jewish. Needless to say, the Jewish community was unhappy. Hayworth refused to back down, but he did send some of his staffers to meet with a local synagogue congregation. Where the folloiwing ensued:
Unable to defend his repeated praise of Henry Ford's anti-Semitic "Americanization" program, U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth bailed on a scheduled campaign appearance Tuesday evening only to send in his place surrogates who repeatedly lectured the audience at Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale and proclaimed that Hayworth "is a more observant Jew" than those present. [Source: Arizona Republic, Oct. 17, 2006]

The comment by Jonathan Tratt, a spokesman for the Hayworth campaign, drew loud and angry boos and caused nearly three-quarters of the crowd of more than 200 to walk out in disgust. After the walkout, another Hayworth surrogate, Irit Tratt, stood on the Temple's bimah as she told members of the audience who gathered to ask questions, "No wonder there are anti-Semites."

Yes, no wonder.

Oh, and Hayworth, the "more observant Jew", is a Baptist. Which, as any good Christian can tell you, has nailed down the Jewish thing far better than the Jews ever did.


Allen Hertz critiques the idea that there is a "firewall" between anti-Israel criticism and anti-Semitism. I explore the issue in more detail at Alas.

Believe in Arkansas

Andrew Sullivan says that the state constitutionally bars atheists from serving in state government, "even though this is unconstitutional at a national level." I'm pretty sure it's still unenforceable at the state level -- the text survives but is meaningless except for symbolism. The symbolism, of course, still matters, and southern states have a long history of resisting getting rid of the vestiges of their bigotry long after the "principles" were thought to have lost all respectability.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Responding to Lieberman

Rabbi Eric Yoffe says the Jewish community needs to confront Avigdor Lieberman. I'll start: Lieberman is a racist, fascist nutcase and it is a sad commentary on Israeli society that he got as many votes as he did. The sooner that he crawls back into the rock he emerged from, the better. In the meantime, if he even so much as blinks towards implementing his illiberal and anti-democratic policy proposals against Israeli Arab citizens, the pro-Israel Jewish community better respond with the rage of a thousand suns.

Rights and Left

Rights discourse is internally inconsistent, vacuous, or circular. Legal thought can generate equally plausible rights justifications for almost any result. Moreover, the discourse of rights imposes constraints on those who use it that make it almost impossible for it to function effectively as a tool of radical transformation. Rights are by their nature ‘formal,’ meaning that they secure to individuals legal protection for arbitrariness—to speak of rights is precisely not to speak of justice between social classes, races, or sexes. Rights discourse, moreover, simply presupposes or takes for granted that the world is and should be divided between a state sector that enforces rights and a private world of ‘civil society’ in which atomized individuals pursue their diverse goals. This framework is, in itself, a part of the problem rather than of the solution. It makes it difficult even to conceptualize radical proposals such as, for example, decentralized democratic worker control of factories.

Because it is logically incoherent and manipulable, traditionally individualist, and willfully blind to the realities of substantive inequality, rights discourse is a trap. As long as one stays within it, one can produce good pieces of argument about the occasional case on the periphery where everyone recognizes value judgments have to be made. [ Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, 32 J. Legal Educ. 591, 598 (1982)]

Duncan Kennedy spoke for a large portion of the Critical Legal Studies movement when he wrote these words in 1982. CLS scholars were, at the time, launching a left-wing Marxist attack on the traditional structures and assumptions of legal institutions. Critical Legal Studies attempted to subvert the supposed coherence of our dominant legal categories, exposing them to be actually chaotic and incoherent, and then examine what sorts of entities would have the interest in (arbitrarily) constructing legal reality as we now find it. One of their favorite targets was the idea of "rights", which they thought were (to say the least) overrated. CLSers dedicated themselves, in fact, to "trashing" rights -- exposing them as indeterminate, inchoate, and manipulable to whatever ends desired by the empowered classes.

The Critical Race Theory movement grew out of CLS, and agreed with many of its observations. The writings of Derrick Bell, in particular, took the legal world by storm as an indictment of some deeply held assumptions about the utility of the legal system as a tool for effected civil rights reforms -- particularly given Bell's history as a front line attorney for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund during the height of the civil rights era. Most Critical Race Theorists agreed with Bell that the efficacy of rights talk had been wildly overstated by self-congratulatory White folks, and that progressives needed to reevaluate their options.

Nonetheless, fissures rapidly began to appear between the largely White CLS movement and the more integrated CRT wing. These came to a head in 1987, when the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review published a symposium entitled, simply enough, Minority Critiques of the Critical Legal Studies. One of the primary angles of attack, ironically enough, was that CLSers had gone too far in their dismissal of rights, legal remedies, and formal legal protections. In her contribution, Patricia Williams -- one of the most important contributors to Critical Race Theory -- told the following story, which has stuck with me for a long time:

Some time ago, Peter Gabel [a founder of Critical Legal Studies] and I taught a contracts class together. Both recent transplants from California to New York, each of us hunted for apartments in between preparing for class and ultimately found places within one week of each other. Inevitably, I suppose, we got into a discussion of trust and distrust as factors in bargain relations. It turned out that Peter had handed over a $900 deposit, in cash, with no lease, no exchange of keys and no receipt, to strangers with whom he had no ties other than a few moments of pleasant conversation. Peter said that he didn't need to sign a lease because it imposed too much formality. The handshake and the good vibes were for him indicators of trust more binding than a distancing form contract. At the time, I told Peter I thought he was stark raving mad, but his faith paid off. His sublessors showed up at the appointed time, keys in hand, to welcome him in. Needless to say, there was absolutely nothing in my experience to prepare me for such a happy ending.

I, meanwhile, had friends who found me an apartment in a building they owned. In my rush to show good faith and trust-worthiness, I signed a detailed, lengthily-negotiated, finely-printed lease firmly establishing me as the ideal arm's length transactor.

As Peter and I discussed our experiences, I was struck by the similarity of what each of us was seeking, yet in such different terms, and with such polar approaches. We both wanted to establish enduring relationships with the people in whose houses we would be living; we both wanted to enhance trust of ourselves and to allow whatever closeness, whatever friendship, was possible. The similarity of desire, however, could not reconcile our very different relations to the word of law. Peter, for example, appeared to be extremely self-conscious of his power potential (either real or imagistic) as a white or male or lawyer authority figure. He therefore seemed to go to some lengths to overcome the wall which that image might impose. The logical ways of establishing some measure of trust between strangers were for him an avoidance of conventional expressions of power and a preference for informal processes generally.

I, on the other hand, was raised to be acutely conscious of the likelihood that, no matter what degree of professional or professor I become, people would greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational and probably destitute. Futility and despair are very real parts of my response. Therefore it is helpful for me, even essential for me, to clarify boundary; to show that I can speak the language of lease is my way of enahncing trust of me in my business affairs. As a black, I have been given by this society a strong sense of myself as already too familar, too personal, too subordinate to white people. I have only recently evolved from being treated as three-fifths of a human, a sub-part of the white estate. I grew up in a neighborhood where landlords would not sign leases with their poor, black tenants, and demanded that rent by paid in cash; although superficially resembling Peter's transaction, such "informality" in most white-on-black situations signals distrust, not trust. Unlike Peter, I am still engaged in a struggle to set up transactions at arms' length, as legitimately commercial, and to portray myself as a bargainer of separate worth, distinct power, sufficient rights to manipulate commerce, rather than to be manipulated as the object of commerce.

Peter, I speculate, would say that a lease or any other formal mechanism would introduce distrust into his relationships and that he would suffer alienation, leading to the commodification of his being and the degradation of his person to property. In contrast, the lack of a formal relation to the other would leave me estranged. It would risk figurative isolation from the creative commerce by which I may be recognized as whole, with which I may feed and clothe and shelter myself, by which I may be seen as equal--even if I am stranger. For me, stranger-stranger relations are better than stranger chattel. [Patricia J. Williams, Alchemical Notes: Reconstructing Ideals from Deconstructed Rights, 22 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 401, 406-408 (1987)]

Williams story evokes part of the general CRT discomfort with the CLS/Marxist attack on "rights" as a concept. People of color, Williams argued, are well aware that rights aren't all they're cracked up to be. They are not a panacea, and they can be manipulated to support near-infinite policy ends -- including brutally oppressive ones. But at the same time, Williams knows well the difference between even nominally being part of the rights-world and being excluded from it. One has the luxury to be alienated by legal formalities only when can be secure that informality will still accord you basic respect and dignity -- a luxury not held by people of color of all classes and backgrounds. The right to hold rights at least provides an foothold -- an avenue which the dispossessed can pivot from and assert claims against those wronging them; the pages upon which one can write a counter-narrative to the dominant conception of rights interpreted solely to protect the privileged.

Even losing a rights-claim is superior to not being allowed to assert the claim in the first place. The act of “[n]aming violence inside and outside the courtroom bears witness to it and preserves the possibility of judging it.” Undoubtedly, the forces of the legal system will attempt to refract the claims and stories so as to ratify the existing order. But stories are fickle things – they are not always read the way their authors intended them to be. Martha Minow points out that even losing arguments can still remain quite powerful “if they continue to represent claims that muster people’s hopes and articulate their continuing efforts to persuade.” One can lose a lawsuit, but still win “pages in the works of historians and anthropologists, and a chance at reviving and recasting memories." [ Martha Minow, Interpreting Rights: An Essay for Robert Cover, 96 Yale L.J. 1860 (1987); Martha Minow, Not Only For Myself: Identity, Politics & the Law 82 (1997)]

Critical Race Theory today remains a vibrant field; Critical Legal Studies, by contrast, is nearly moribund. The reason, I submit, is because the groups it thought it was speaking on behalf of still saw a use for rights, for legal formalities, for contracts, and for law -- all entities that CLS was seeking to "trash". Elsewhere, Williams wrote:

To say that blacks never fully believed in rights is true. Yet it is also true that blacks believed in them so much and so hard that we gave them life where there was none before; we held onto them, put the hope of them into our wombs, mothered them and not the notion of them.... [Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights 163 (1992)]

The promises rights hold out: to speak freely, to bargain equally, to be treated fairly -- these are powerful things. Even when dominant legal discourse seeks to squash them of any life, the concepts they represent do not die so easily. The seeds of life are always there, yearning to germinate.

More Bachmann Madness

I can only stare agape.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I heavily support Rep. Steve King (R-IA) running for Governor, but only on the assumption that he crashes in ignoble defeat. If by some hellish happenstance he won, it would be more terrible than I could possibly imagine.

The Writing on the Wall

British MP Denis MacShane details the rising tide of anti-Semitism running through Europe.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hostage Scene

A group of Jewish students were forced to barricade themselves inside York University's Hillel in what the Jerusalem Post called a "hostage" situation.
Jewish students at York University in Toronto were forced to take refuge in the Hillel office last Wednesday night as anti-Israel protesters banged on the glass doors, chanting, "Die, bitch, go back to Israel," and "Die, Jew, get the hell off campus."
During the clash in the hallway, Jewish students were singled out and pursued by a mob of more than 100 students. Tepper and the 15-20 other Jewish students escaped upstairs to Hillel's offices, where the situation worsened.

While students sat in the shelter of the Hillel office, listening to the "pounding" from the York Federation of Students office below, demonstrators reached the Hillel office, banging on the glass doors and made it impossible for students to leave.

Campus security personnel arrived and advised the Jewish students to stay in the Hillel office.

The police arrived almost an hour after the incident had begun and tried to "remain neutral," Tepper wrote.

The students in the Hillel office were evacuated soon after by police escort, amid cries of "Get off our campus" and "Shame on Hillel."

"I have never in my life felt threatened and hated like I did that night," Tepper said.

Ferman, the Hillel president, who was called a "f*****g Jew" and a "dirty Jew" by the protesters, said, "We were basically being held hostage in our own space."

The incident was somewhat "ironic," Ferman said, because 45 minutes before the press conference, members of Hillel and the Hasbara student organization had met with members of Students Against Israeli Apartheid, in an attempt to "decrease tensions" between the groups.

Ultimately, the students had to leave Hillel under police protection. You can get an eye-witness account by one of the Jewish students here.

The event that precipitated the scenario actually had nothing to do with Israel at all, though the mob besieging the Jewish students nonetheless yelled "Zionism equals racism!", "Viva, viva Palestine" and one student declared "Zionism does not speak for Jews. Zionism is an embarrassment. Shame on the Zionists." Rather, the situation flowed out of a press conference Hillel students participated in support of impeaching the York University student government for its support of a TA strike which had crippled the university for months.

I know nothing about the specifics of the labor dispute, and thus take no position as to what position on the matter is correct. I do know that it is distressing that (a) Jewish political advocacy on a topic of general concern immediately manifested itself into hatred and threats towards Jews qua Jews and (b) those threats manifested themselves in the guise of anti-Zionist talk, even though Zionism had nothing to do with the putative controversy.

This piece from the National Post is reporting a lot of rumor, so take it with some salt, but one thing he mentions is the possibility that the York Federation of Students is trying to change the subject from its support of the strike to the question of Israel and the Gaza operation. That would help explain how a move by Hillel to support an end to the strike was transformed into an opportunity to threaten Jews, and would also explain why Israel was used (as usual) as the "hook" in order to do so. It would be the same thing we're seeing in Venezuela: drumming up rage against Jews to cement shaky political support.

Unfortunately, this event was not isolated. Police already had to be called after death threats were made against a Jewish student earlier in the week. In general, Jewish students have been alleging a rapid deterioration in the security of their environment at the school over the last several years.

Together, Pulling Apart

Yossi Klein Halevi explores the relations between Jews and Arabs in Acre -- a city north of Haifa which has significant Jewish and Arab population (in fact, many of the Jews hail from Arab or central Asian nations). Particularly intriguing is the friendship between the local heads of the Jewish nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and the Islamic movement. Another data point for how the extremes always seem to meet at the edges -- you saw it with Marcus Garvey and the KKK as well. Anyway, the whole piece is interesting if, as usual, depressing.

The Tried and True

Julie points to a Washington Post editorial indicating that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is trying out a time-tested way to buff up his popular support: rustling up hatred against the Jews.
Then there is the assault on Venezuela's Jewish community -- which seems to have replaced George W. Bush as Mr. Chávez's favorite foil. After Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month, the caudillo expelled Israel's ambassador and described Israel's actions in Gaza as "genocide." Then Mr. Chávez turned on Venezuela's Jews. "Let's hope that the Venezuelan Jewish community will declare itself against this barbarity," Mr. Chávez bellowed on a government-controlled television channel. "Don't Jews repudiate the Holocaust? And this is precisely what we're witnessing."

Government media quickly took up the chorus. One television host close to Mr. Chávez blamed opposition demonstrations on two students he said had Jewish last names. On a pro-government Web site, another commentator demanded that citizens "publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park" and called for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, seizures of Jewish-owned property and a demonstration at Caracas's largest synagogue. On Jan. 30 the synagogue was duly attacked by a group of thugs, who spray-painted "Jews get out" on the walls and confiscated a registry of members. Mr. Chávez denied responsibility; days later, the attorney general's office said that 11 people detained in connection with the attack included five police officers and a police intelligence operative.

See also my post on the attack on a Venezuelan synagogue. Chavez eventually condemned the attacks, while cryptically blaming the opposition and asking "who benefits from these violent incidents. It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution." Well, I'll grant the people, and perhaps the revolution, but the government seems to be making out like a bandit.

What makes this all the more terrifying is that Venezuela, historically, has not had a significant problem with anti-Semitism. It's gone from 0 - 60 in the space of just a few years, and now up to a fifth of the state's Jewish population has fled the country. Venezuela is yet another example of how, even where it has been historically dormant, with the right leadership anti-Semitism can turn on like a switch. And the modern "hook" it uses as its justificatory schema is opposition to Israel.

Alas, a Change

So my anti-Semitism series (which is really not going to be a series anymore, just an array of thoughts) has officially moved over to Alas, a Blog. My first post, Taking a Theory, is up already.

Get excited, people.

Shane Battier

I've been a lifelong Duke Basketball fan (one of the benefits of giving to a tiny liberal arts school is that you can keep your childhood college sports affiliations -- my brother, who went to UVA, can't really go out screaming for Kentucky anymore). And possibly my favorite player in Duke history is Shane Battier. This New York Times magazine article helps explain why. It's full of things that my untrained eye observed but didn't really understand. Battier isn't the most gifted talent or natural athlete. But he has an unbelievably court IQ. He does all the little things that make his team better, and his opponents worse. In college, I was impressed that Battier was always stepping up to take charges. It was the cornerstone of his defense. He gets by on smarts and grit, and I like that.

UAE Denies Visa To Israeli Tennis Player

The United Arab Emirates has denied a visa to an Israeli tennis player scheduled to compete in a WTA event in Dubai. The WTA, while expressing "disappointment" with the move, will not cancel the tournament, even though under association guidelines players are not supposed to barred from tournaments that they have otherwise qualified for. The WTA will, however, consider removing Dubai from its spot on the tour next year.

No word on the UAE's reason for its decision as of yet.