Friday, March 27, 2009

What Passes for Good News

Hey, Republicans had a good week in the tracking polls! While Congressional Republicans saw a net two point gain in their approvals, Congressional Democrats fell two points. I guess the country finally is turning a corner and showing its true "center-right" colors.

Or, you know, maybe even Congressional Republicans couldn't stay at 17/72 approvals forever (they're now at 18/71 -- Democrats are at 43/49).

Of course, this poll doesn't include reactions to the Republican budget that wasn't -- brought to you by a media that decided to commit a sudden and random act of journalism by pointing out the GOP was essentially handing out blank pieces of paper with talking points on them and calling it a "budget". On the other hand, maybe the lack of detail was for the best: "Adding numbers to it would be like assigning a horsepower rating to Hot Wheels."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Another Jew Roundup

It's all I have time for between wooing my shiksa goddess.

The IDF released its casualty list from Operation Cast Lead. It claims a Palestinian death toll of 1,166, with 708 being "Hamas terror operatives". Its list of children (under 16) casualties is considerably smaller than that being put out by Palestinian sources. My guess is the truth is somewhere in between.

Gaza and Darfur: Some Lives Matter More Than Others. The events in Sudan, of course, shouldn't exempt Israel from exacting critique of their actions towards the Palestinians (and vice versa). But let's not pretend that the statements of many foreign governments towards Israel are anything but provincial power politics.

Latino radio host stirs up anti-Semitism in California (some of which seems clearly anti-Semitism in the form of criticism of Israel, and some of which has nothing to with Israel). Via Aliza "La Jewminicana" Hausman.

Shmuel Rosner tries to spin this as a problem, but the fact remains that 72% of American Jews approve of how Barack Obama is handling the Arab/Israeli conflict. To be sure, the strength of support is even higher on other issue areas. But it's more intensity of support: Obama's overall job approvals are at 74%.

Jews with tattoos. The reason (okay, one of the reasons) I don't get a tattoo is that I don't think it coheres with my religious values. But I don't judge other people who view their Judaism differently than I do.

The Israeli Air Force reportedly struck an arms smuggling convoy in Sudan -- Hamas denies the arms were meant for them.

Yemeni Jews reluctant to be rescued. The Forward reports that while conditions for Jews do seem to be worsening in the Arabian Peninsula state, the Jewish residents are reluctant to depart, citing inadequate jobs and opportunities elsewhere and the lack of compensation they would receive for their homes. I'd add that the Yemenite Jewish community is thousands of years old, and for many people, this is their home. Why should they have to leave? If they want to, that's fine, but if they want to stay, then our efforts should be focused squarely on pressuring the Yemenite government to give them all the protections of law and equality enjoyed by other citizens of the nation.

It's in the Music

Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin serenades Israeli Holocaust survivors. But is it struggle or surrender? Amazingly, I find myself not to care.

Via Ignoblus

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jill's Here Jill's Here!


Who Justifies the Means?

Ta-Nehisi Coates hits back against the idea that the hyper-tough on crime approach has been vindicated by events.
I'm less certain that the "tough on crime" approach has been "largely vindicated" by events--mostly because I think a large part of the events include the moral costs, and the real costs to communities where alarming numbers of men are under the watch of the state. One should consider the numbers here--blacks make up a third of all drug arrests, and black men are 12 times as likely to be imprisoned on a drug conviction. Four in Five of these arrests were for possession, not sale. Perhaps this is because the drug epidemic has run rampant through black communities, but probably not. The difference in illicit drug usage is slight (9.5 percent of blacks have used illicit substances, 8.2% of whites). Those are the sort of numbers that feed an intense distrust of the justice system in many black communities. I think Ross (though I can't be sure) sees the ends justifying the means. But the means are disproportionately born by people who live far away from those "Nixon to China" conservatives.

Coates goes on to tell about a college friend of his who was pursued on suspicion of being a drug dealer for no other reason than he was Black. For this man (who ended up being killed by the officer), the price of Blackness was death. The officer was not punished in any way, and still remains a cop.

I don't bring this out to be cheap or try to shame my colleague, but to say that when you live close to that line, when you've been stopped by the police several times, when you know innocent people who are dead, when you know kids who are coming up fatherless because of our obsession with drugs, it becomes difficult to say that events have vindicated our strategy. Cases like Prince's wear on an essential thread in our democracy--a belief that the people who are charged with protecting you, actually care about protecting you. We've paid a heavy price for our crime policy. I'm heartened that some conservatives are starting to see that.

The norms of policing have gotten to be such that being Black makes you automatically suspect to the police. Some departments are more explicit about it than others, but nobody who has to bear the costs of over-policing is under any illusion about what is going on.

Sex and Rape With Dolls

* Some spoilers ahead *

As Joss Whedon's new Fox drama Dollhouse finally hits its stride at episode six, some of the deeper philosophical questions posed by the show need a bit more play. I want to focus on of the more apparent ones: is what is happening to the Dolls rape? I don't mean the institutionalized rape of Sierra in Episode Six -- that's a clear cut case. I mean, when the dolls have sexual intercourse on an engagement, is that per se rape because they can't consent?

The revelation in episode six that Mellie is a doll really sharpens this point, because it puts a new frame on the sexual activities of the dolls. When the other dolls (namely, Echo) have sex, we're primed to see it as part of an engagement: we see the programming, we know that the personality isn't "real", and we see it all wiped away at the end. Meanwhile, her "partner" also knows what he is purchasing -- he is aware that he's getting a doll, and thus knows all about the consent issue.

With Mellie, by contrast, we were not told she was a doll in advance, and thus rooted for her as a person to land Ballard. So when she finally does get him in bed, it is a great triumph, and we all cheer. Until it is revealed she is a doll -- now, all the issues of consent come crashing back down on us. It's quite the clever inversion. Ballard, of course, does not know Mellie is a doll and that distinguishes him from the Dollhouse clientele insofar as rape seems to require actual knowledge of lack of consent.

But I want to explore what we mean when we talk of "consent" in the dolls. I will concede flat out that the dolls did not truly "volunteer" for their position in any meaningful sense. We saw that in the pilot episode, and I'm not sure if it's possible to consent to a complete erasure and recreation of your personality anyway. In any event, as one of the woman on the street put it, "The only reason someone would volunteer to be a slave is that they is one already."

The problem is, I'm not sure where that gets us. Well, that's not entirely true: It establishes that the Dollhouse are engaged in human trafficking, because they are committing a crime of violence against the original personality. But I don't think it establishes the capabilities or rights possessed by the dolls. The argument from lack of consent seems predicated on the fact that the "true" personality of Echo (Caroline) or the other dolls isn't consenting to actions in question -- only the construction is. This itself seems based on a notion of the unencumbered, unitary and individually determined self -- an image that I don't buy. Echo's personally as an active is imposed from without. But guess what: All of our personalities are, to varying degrees, impressed upon us via external forces. We have, it is true, at least a little more say in rounding off the edges, but it is a fact of human existence that all of us are living lives that are not entirely of our own creation. I don't think in of itself can negate consent.

Consider this hypothetical. Say a person was kidnapped off the street, and he had his personality permanently erased (it can't be recovered) and was imprinted with a new one. Then he was released back into the world (so this differs from Dollhouse in that the persons who reprogrammed him are exerting no control on him after he is released from the facility -- they ignore him ever after). Would we be comfortable saying this person, in their new personality, can never consent to anything? They can never sign a contract, they can never have sex, they can't even live independently? I don't think we are. True, his new person is completely severed from the old (that's tautological). But is it less "real"? How? Released into the world, the Active would behave essentially identically to any other person, including believing they are who they think they are and believing they are independent and autonomous. It would seem to compound, not mitigate, the violence impressed upon their body to say they've been permanently stripped of their capacity to act, when that isn't how they are experiencing their own life.

The second line of argument one could make regarding consent would have to do with how tightly the dolls' reactions are scripted by their imprint. There is a big difference between imprinting a personality that is designed to be attracted to a specific person, and an imprint which would actually override one's rational choice capabilities and force them into sex with someone, whether they like it or not. Real personalities are adaptable -- we have proclivities, but they are modifiable by actual lived experiences. And actives aren't robots -- like all of us their decisions are conditioned off their personality, but within those strictures they make independent judgments and engage in rational deliberation and critical thought. In episodes two and five, we are given hints that Echo's imprints are not tight scripts. If she was simply robotically programmed to be the perfect date for Richard, then when he stepped completely outside his expected parameters and become a sociopathic killer, she would have been left unable to function. But that's not what happened -- she instead responded roughly akin to how we'd imagine a "real" person would who was attracted to Richard prior to discovering his true self. Likewise episode five -- Echo's observations and experiences (including regaining her sight) seemed to pretty clearly affect the nature of her "true belief" in the cult leader.

This isn't to say that what Dollhouse is doing is morally okay. It's not -- writing and erasing someone's personality is a crime of violence in of itself. But the narrower question of whether actives can consent while on engagements seems tied up in a notion of the unified self, which I think the show is actually rather effectively deconstructing. The actives reason and make choices within roughly the same set of constraints as any other person. That the particular nature of those constraints comes from specific corporate necessities, rather than generalized social pressures, doesn't seem like a major distinction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yummy Yummy Constitutions

I'm reading Pierre Schlag's new article, Spam Jurisprudence, Air Law, and the Rank Anxiety of Nothing Happening (A Report on the State of the Art), 97 Geo. L.J. 803 (2009). It is, shall we say, strange. Quite out there, even for me, and I tolerate quite a bit of out there. This isn't an insult -- Prof. Schlag is quite deliberately intending to be out there, complete with "autonomous" footnotes that talk back to the author and refuse to do what they're told. For example, footnote 64 brags about including a pin cite, footnote 66 tells you to "See (or not) Symposium, Bush v. Gore, 68 U. Chi. L. Rev. 613 (2001)", and footnote 67 remarks "Also, do you like the small cap font above? I live for that." (I, too, have an intense adoration for small caps, and detest legal citation modifications which omit it. It pains me that blogger doesn't let me write in that font, and I'm forced to choose between lower-case or normal ALL CAPS!). I guess I shouldn't call it "footnote" anyway, because in footnote 30 it named itself "Daniel."

So that should give you a taste of the weirdness. The thesis of the article, as best as I can discern it, is that legal scholarship is "dead" (that part he's clear on) -- outside the treatise writers, it is a bunch of professors talking to themselves about imaginary things, listened to by nobody, with no effect and no real hope for an effect except that it transmits to the next generation of law students that this is what law is: a sort of self-important mediocrity existing in the middle of the bell curve between excellence and sloth (only trying desperately to hide the mediocrity, like an upper-class socialite treats her husband's alcoholism).

Eh. I'm probably willing to give this thesis more credence than 99% of the legal population, and I'm still saying: Eh. But this passage was golden:
I once read an article that purported to elaborate about what the Constitution should be. Now what struck me as odd was that the author really did want to free himself (and his reader) from any official pronouncements of what the Constitution is. This struck me as incredibly weird. What an odd thing to do. If the question “What should the Constitution be?” is not anchored in what the Constitution is (whatever that might be), then why not go for broke: I say let’s have a constitution that guarantees universal health care, tastes a lot like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and is laugh-out loud funny. You leave it to me? I say: Go big. (833)

The Law Journal published four responses to Prof. Schlag's article, which you can access from here: they're by Richard Posner, Robin West, Daniel Ortiz, and Richard H. Weisberg. Dan Filler comments as well at The Faculty Lounge, where he notes that the conservative (if iconoclastic) Posner "found himself in far more agreement with Schlag than he ever expected."

This doesn't surprise me all that much -- not only is Posner quite the iconoclast, but he's always been relatively close to the CLS positions that Schlag represents, just from a significantly more right-wing (and empirical friendly) stance. It's one of the reasons I find Posner so interesting, as a left-leaning fan of pragmatist and CLS/CRT style thought. I haven't read Posner's response yet, but I'll bet it's a good one.

Jew(el) of a Roundup

A Jewish metal band named Black Shabbis? I heart already.

Labor enters into Israel's governing coalition, with apparently a very sweet offer (including the Defense Ministry) from Netanyahu. Matt Yglesias is not pleased. I, not really caring if Labor lives or dies (though quite concerned about the state of the Israeli left), am more unsure -- certainly, the idea of a hard-right Likud-led coalition did not strike my fancy.

Norman Geras reviews Caryl Churchill's new play in verse.

Martha Nussbaum jumped the gun: 90 year old Jewish women practice for their (much belated) Bat Mitzvot.

An interesting exhibition at Penn State documents Jews in far-flung locations.

Graphic Violence

So after an epic battle against my computer, it looks like I finally got my CD/DVD drive working. Which means, among other things, I can play Heroes of Might & Magic V. I've been a fan of the whole M&M corpus for some time now (I adore Might & Magic VI and VII and find VIII passable [IX was wretched], and was also quite a fan of HOMM II and III).

The game is fine -- not stellar, but fine. But something about the graphics bugs me. They look almost precisely as if you took Warcraft III and made it into a turn based game. It's uncanny and a bit unnerving. And I feel like a lot of games have adopted this graphical style. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bit odd, as Warcraft III has a distinctively cartoon-y look to it that I think looks far less polished than many other games I've seen (compare it to, say, Halo 3 or Final Fantasy XII). Even put it against HOMM 3 (which by now is quite dated) is an interesting comparison -- obviously there is more detail in HOMM5, but I would call the third version quite a bit more artsy, if you will, and it feels weird to see a game step away from art. Again, not a criticism, just an observation and an oddity.

Colbert vs. Serenity

NASA opened a poll to name a module of the international space station, and it looks like "Colbert" won due to a write-in campaign launched by the Comedy Central host. It received over 230,000 votes. The article mentions that "Serenity" placed second with over 190,000 votes, but it fails to note the concerted campaign by "Firefly/Serenity" fans which helped it reach that lofty position.

Frankly, if Colbert can only get 40,000 more votes than a mid-tier movie and one-hitter-quitter TV series, I'm not sure he deserves the "victory". Serenity now!

UPDATE: In case any new visitors are confused, I should note that I love both Firefly and Serenity. Taking down Colbert may be impossible -- but that makes us mighty.

Another Canceled Event

There seems to be something about human rights conferences and South Africa that just doesn't mix. In the wake of South Africa's refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama (almost definitely under Chinese pressure), the organizers of a peace conference meant to coincide with the World Cup have decided to cancel the event. The government said the Dalai Lama's presence would be a distraction from the World Cup, but I can't imagine it would have been more distracting than the torrent of criticism being leveled right now from all corners of the globe.

Maybe the committed anti-imperialists of Malmo, Sweden can shlep down to South Africa and try and get the World Cup canceled too, brave defenders of justice that they are.

(Thanks to Chingona for the tip-off).

Bedtime Quick Hits

Clearing the browser before sleepy-time.

Abbas tells the EU not to lift the boycott on Hamas.

Vermont Senate strongly backs gay marriage bill.

Are we on the brink of genuine class warfare?

I once had a job interview with Amanda Terkel. It went catastrophically bad (not her fault -- it was just one of those interviews), and needless to say, I didn't get the job. Nonetheless, even if I did bear a grudge (and I don't), nobody deserves to be stalked by Fox News.

Why the success of the Black immigrant doesn't tell us much about the state of their American-born counterparts.

Alyssa Rosenberg reviews Dollhouse (and situates it inside Joss Whedon's larger body of work).

Monday, March 23, 2009

An Upset Victory for Mediocrity

The Forward writes on ultra-Orthodox pressure on El Al to run flights more accommodating to their religious sensibilities. The big sticking point at the moment is in-flight movies, which the rabbinate deems too secular and "immodest". El Al so far refuses to budge, so a group of rabbis released a guide to super-kosher flying. And here's the irony: it appears the way to attract an ultra-orthodox Jewish clientele is to suck at your job:
Meanwhile, airlines that are widely regarded as offering poor customer service — one symptom of which is the absence of in-flight movies — are highly recommended by the guide, and are likely to experience heightened popularity among Haredi travellers in coming weeks.

For domestic flights within the United States, US Airways is movie-free and therefore deemed the most kosher. The airline ranked last in the 2008 American Customer Satisfaction Index, a survey of airlines conducted by the University of Michigan.

For European travel, the no-frills approach of state airlines of post-communist countries strikes a chord with the rabbis. They endorse Poland’s LOT and Ukraine’s Aerosvit Airlines, which is ranked as “poor” by the Official Airline Star Ranking run by aviation consultancy Skytrax.

Travelers to Britain are urged to choose British Midland Airways, which shows no movies except on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays the guide suggests that travelers request to be seated in one of the 36 seats between rows 7 and 11, where there is an obstructed view of the screens.

I'd reference the old Jewish joke ("Why did God create Gentiles? Someone has to buy retail!") except that elsewhere in the article the super-observant Jews are quoted as saying they'd pay more for fewer amenities (or as they put it, an "appropriate environment").

Between these guys and Madoff, Jews are at risk of losing our reputation as being wise with money. Somebody page Tommy Thompson, quick!

A Positive Exchange

Posted on SSRN is an exchange on the legality of Israel's Operation Cast Lead between Prof. David Luban (Georgetown) and Prof. Amos N. Guiora (Utah). Luban argues that the operation violated both jus ad bellum and jus in bellum requirements, Guiora argues that it did not. It constitutes a stellar example of a fair-minded, scholarly inquiry on a subject of passionate concern.

I highly encourage you to download and read the whole thing (it's not unreasonably long). Perhaps the most interesting point was the agreement between Luban and Guiora that Gaza should not be considered "occupied" under international law. Luban came to this conclusion for two reasons: First, labeling Gaza as occupied would impose obligations on Israel to interfere more heavily in the Gaza strip (specifically, it'd have to actively govern it), which is the opposite of what everyone wants. Second, and more pragmatically, Luban observes that "genuine occupying forces -- which, in the words of the International Court of Justice, have 'substituted their own authority' for that of the government (Uganda v. Congo, decision of Dec.19, 2005, para. 173) -- do not have to fight their way in."

But the discussion encompasses a far broader range of topics: proportionality, the way the law of war interacts with asymmetric warfare, whether or not Hamas infrastructure writ large is a legitimate military target, and many others. I again give it my full recommendation.

Via Paul Cassell

I Chose Wisely

Kung Fu Monkey:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


Dalai Lama Denied

South Africa has denied the Dalai Lama a visa to attend an international peace conference in Johannesburg, CNN reports. A presidential spokesperson said the Dalai Lama's attendance was not in the interests of the nation, claiming it would be a distraction from the 2010 World Cup and would alienate South Africa's relationship with China.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu and F.W. De Klerk have announced they are likely to boycott if the decision is not reversed.