Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Iraqi Jewish Archives

One of the artifacts recovered after the US invasion of Iraq were items detailing the long history of Iraq's Jews. Many of these pieces are currently being stored in America, and there is a bit of a fight brewing over whether and under what circumstances they should be returned.

There are, I think, three angles to this.

1) There is the fear that, in a country where "Jew" is a dirty word and anti-Semitism has considerable potency in the public square, the archives will simply not be safe in Iraq. There have already been concerns that Ezekiel's Shrine -- a Jewish holy place within Iraq -- will see its Jewish heritage erased under the guise of "restoration" under pressure by Islamic parties eager to suppress Jewish history and connections to the region.

2) The flip side of number one is the idea that preserving and publicly displaying Jewish cultural history in Iraq is an important way of restoring the values of pluralism and tolerance in that community, and dissipating the view that Jews are their enemies. During the controversy over Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's possible elevation to a top UN position, one of the things that was concerning was his stated opposition to building a museum of Jewish-Egyptian culture on "anti-Zionist" grounds. This conflation of "Jew" with "Israel" in many parts of the Arab world is deeply problematic. Still more problematic is the ongoing belief that "Jews" aren't in some sense real human beings -- they continue to be perceived as a sort of extra-social malevolent force, based out of Israel, responsible for all global ills. Grounding Jewish lives and experience in their actual historical roots, including areas in the middle east, is important to checking that instinct. Many of the Iraqi officials who are promoting return of the artifacts to their country are making arguments that strongly echo the above. In large part, the debate between the first and second angles is whether a) you believe them and b) whether, even if you think they're genuine, you have confidence in their ability to maintain control over the situation in the face of hostile pressures.

3) The third angle has to do with whose heritage these pieces actually represent: Iraq's, or Iraq's Jews. Oh yes, middle eastern Jews -- how quickly they tend to be forgotten. The richness of Iraq's Jewish history is testament to its status as a centuries-old community that for a considerable time ranked as one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, during the 20th century, the majority of the community was driven out through violence and intimidation; the current Jewish population of Iraq is estimated at around 10. Not 10,000 -- 10. Representatives of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora are somewhat incensed that their own history will be in the hands of the very people responsible for driving them out. More concretely, since substantial portions of the Iraqi Jewish community now resides in Israel, there is a good chance that any documents remaining inside Iraq will be inaccessible to them, as Iraq continues to have no diplomatic relations with Israel (hey, another victory for boycott policies!). The article indicates that representatives of the Iraqi Jewish community, though upset, are "resigned" that the material likely will be returned there -- which goes to show just how little power and influence that have on the decisions and discourses which affect their lives.

I don't have an answer to these problems -- they are quite vexing. But it is an issue that will have to be addressed somehow, in a way that is both just to all the heirs of the traditions at issue, and that contributes, as much as possible, to peaceful and just reconciliation between the affected communities.

Friday, January 15, 2010

They Don't Understand

Jon Chait, on Republicans ill-fated attempts to play the race game (they, it seems, are the only ones who see it as a game).
Steele perfectly embodies modern Republican racialism. Democratic racialism represents a perversion of the civil rights ideal--an opposition to racism taken to excesses of hypersensitivity, occasionally devolving into a mere political tactic. Republican racialism is an attempt to mimic Democratic racialism without first having any grasp of the original sentiment underlying it--a parodic replica of the original thing, like a person who decides to convert to Judaism by studying Madonna.

Republican racialism is not an expression of racism but, rather, a failure to understand racism. Obama’s appearance on the scene has made this misapprehension painfully apparent. On the right, there lies an enduring suspicion that Obama’s race has been his greatest, and possibly only, political asset. As Glenn Beck complained in 2008, “a lot of white people will say, ‘Look, I’m not racist. I voted for Barack Obama.’ ” Only white racial guilt could explain the inexplicable rise of this inexperienced, ultra-radical, teleprompter-dependent figure.

Chait notes that the first GOP response to the rise of Obama has been to "get their own Black guy" -- an instinct that also showed up in the Palin selection.

On the topic, see also LGM and Matt Yglesias

Race and the Decision to Arrest

An interesting ruling from the 9th Circuit in Elliot-Park v. Manglona, concerning allegations by the victim of a traffic accident that the officer on the scene refused to arrest the perpetrator because she (the victim) was Korean and the aggressor and officer were both Micronesian. The court held that such discriminatory treatment, if true, violated the victim's civil rights, rejecting the police officer's argument that there is no constitutional right to have your assailant arrested. This is intriguing, since generally decisions to arrest or not arrest are widely left to the officer's discretion. But the court not only ruled racially discriminatory decision making was impermissible, it ruled that this legal position was clearly established at the time of the alleged acts, thus stripping the officer's qualified immunity.

Via. And I should note that these are just allegations at this point -- at this point in the case's procedural posture, the reviewing courts must accept all of the plaintiff's allegations as true. But they are just that -- allegations -- for now. They have not been proven in a court of law. That doesn't make the legal precedent it has set any less interesting, but I think it's still important to note.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

DC Nearly Reaches the Summit

A DC court has turned back a request by gay marriage opponents to put the question to a ballot. Under DC law, referendums are not allowed for questions that touch on the civil rights of residents, a clause which the elections board decided precluded putting gay marriage on the ballot. That decision was upheld by the court today.

Opponents still have a few chances to derail gay marriage in the district, but they're running out of time. They'll appeal this ruling, and they can try and get Congress to intercede, but both options are considered long shots.

Almost there. Almost there.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Random Congressional Thought

Am I crazy, or can I see ex-Rep. Harold Ford running for Senate in New York as a Republican?

He's tacking right to run in New York, which makes no sense. He's ambitious enough that I doubt he'd be deterred by some deep connection to the Democratic Party. He'd immediately become the most high profile Black Republican in the country (even more than Michael Steele). He'd ride a boondoggle of gushing press coverage about how the Democratic Party is falling apart (so much so that even a Black man is leaving the party).

Or maybe I'm crazy.

When You Lie Down With the Devil....

Pat Robertson explains why Haiti just lost thousands of people to a natural disaster:
"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal."

Robertson said that "ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other" and he contrasted Haiti with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic.

Tough to top Ta-Nehisi here:
The next time your wondering why there are so few black Republicans, consider the fact this unreconstructed Confederate was not long ago one of their greatest crusaders. Consider that he is equating the resistance of slavery, with a rejection of Christ.

Incidentally, Matt Yglesias has the background on what event Robertson might be talking about. Unfortunately, for it to fit with his "devil" theory, we'd have to posit that the God of the French colonialists was the ward of slaveowners and the boot on the neck of the slaves -- a position you wouldn't expect Christians to be rushing towards.

Hanania on Hamas

Palestinian-American writer Ray Hanania, founder of the Yalla Peace movement, has asked his readers to distribute the column he wrote for the Jerusalem Post on Hamas in Gaza.

No problem. Mr. Hanania is fighting the good fight -- I'm happy to do anything I can to assist him in it.

Hey, You Never Know

From a Wall Street Journal profile of Judge Vaughn Walker, the man presiding over the challenge against California's Proposition 8:
Two days into the trial over the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban, Judge Vaughn Walker has upset some opponents of gay marriage by allowing gay couples to testify on the meaning of marriage.
Judge Walker has been open to testimony that was "totally irrelevant to the issues of the case," said former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III. He wrote in Sunday's New York Times that Judge Walker has tilted the case in favor of gay-marriage proponents.

...[Judge Walker] has a mainstream Republic pedigree. He was nominated for a judgeship by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, when Mr. Meese was attorney general.

Democrats assailed the nomination because Judge Walker was member of an all-male private club. (He resigned his membership during the nomination process.) Gay-rights activists protested his appointment because, as a private lawyer, he had represented the U.S. Olympic Committee in a copyright suit against an organization called the Gay Olympics.

Sometimes folks surprise you.

Radical Professors

One of the great strengths of America's constitutional and academic systems is the latitude they give towards free speech. We allow people to advocate overthrowing the government, so long as the call is "abstract" and no concrete steps are taken to effectuate the call. We allow professors with such manifestly anti-American views to continue teaching, unhindered and unmolested, because that's what academic freedom means.

So when this George Mason professor seemingly promotes overthrowing the American government (and, perhaps, watering a tree with President Obama's blood), know one thing: he absolutely has the right to do this. He will and should face no official professional sanction for declaring himself an enemy of the lawfully constituted government of the United States. Whatever we think of a university system which is inhabited by such radicals must take second chair to our commitment to free speech and academic liberty.


UPDATE: The professor's post has been updated, removing the part about watering the tree of liberty with Obama's blood.

Sticky Slopes on the Charts

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UPDATE: Discrimination, Law & Justice (Recent Papers): #7

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You May Not Be a Racist, But Your Logic Needs Work

Dafydd (via) can prove he's not a racist:
To be a racist, one must, at the very least, believe in the concept of race -- where "race" means some discrete and self-perpetuating subgroup of humans, defined by skin color and a certain morphology, but that also affects behavior and (some argue) thought itself. Anybody who accuses (e.g.) Clarence Thomas of "acting white" passionately believes in race-determinism.

This seems accurate to most people; but I simply don't believe in different "races" of Man: The morphology is inconsistent and its connection with behavior and thought is utterly spurious.

It is absolutely true that skin color and morphology are not determinate of behavior or ideology. But it is absolutely false to say that one must hold a belief in such determinism in order to be racist.

[Before we go further, a warning: this is a long post. And it does not address the totality of Dafydd's post; I don't take on his (badly misguided) account of culture, for instance. It has a narrower focus: disproving that not believing in biologically determinate races necessarily makes one "not racist".]

It is notable that Dafydd doesn't provide a definition of racist -- something quite essential to the supposed proof that believing the above proposition (we'll call it proposition X) is a necessary condition for being racist. If "racist" was defined as "anyone who votes Republican" (what I imagine the frustrated GOPer seems to believe is the effective definition for many folks), then not believing X would be quite consistent with being racist. Of course, "voting Republican" is a bad definition of racist. But that just illustrates the need to give a solid definition of racism -- then we can figure out whether disbelief of X necessarily immunizes one to it.

So let's try and nail down what "racism" means. Dafydd doesn't seem to deny that there can be such thing as a racist, he just denies the existence of "races" as he defines them. This indicates that he believes there can be racists in a world where, as a matter of objective fact, there are no "races". The implication is that a "racist" is one who (falsely) believes that there are such things as biological races. This would complete Dafydd's syllogism nicely: Believing in the existence of "races" is not just necessary to be a racist, it is what it means to be racist. If X is necessary and sufficient to be racist, then not-X means not racist. Hurray!

So what's the problem? Well, several, but here's the first: Very few people define "racist" in this way. Racism is generally not thought to be an identifier of (even false) descriptive affiliations (akin to being a "flat-earther"). Rather, it is generally taken to involve certain normative commitments; namely, treating certain (other races) as inferior, or otherwise rejecting the rights and freedom of people on basis of their perceived racial affiliation. Of course, belief in innate behavioral differences between the races is plausibly taken to be highly correlated with such differential treatment. But they're not the same thing, and it is important to be clear about what the actual problem is. Presuming that Clarence Thomas has a normative obligation to hold certain beliefs because he is Black is racist. Presuming that Clarence Thomas washes his kinky hair less often than I do my straight hair is not (even if my supposition is incorrect).

Once we put that view of "racism" on the table, then the shortcomings of Dafydd's logic become quite apparent. We can imagine someone who cheerfully admits the following:
I fully accept that there are no inherent biological differences amongst the "races"; skin color and morphological differences have no bearing on either behavior or ideology. Nonetheless, I still do not believe that people with certain skin colors and/or morphological features, or their blood descendants, should have the right to vote. It's just a prejudice I have. Besides, restricting voting rights to persons with my skin color and morphology means my vote has proportionally more influence -- restricting voting rights along those lines is in my self-interest.

Would anybody hesitate to label this "racist"? Hopefully not, even though the espoused ideology is in no way dependent on racial biological determinism. At the end of the day, we are agnostic as to why a person believes that socio-political benefits should be distributed in ways that track morphology -- we just think it's bad, and criticize accordingly. A hint that this view is correct is how you reacted when you read the word "prejudice". Taking Dafydd's view for all its worth, "it's just a prejudice" would be an argument that what we're dealing with isn't racism, but simple insanity -- a normative stance completely devoid of rational reasons backing it up. But for most of us, "prejudice" is signal pointing towards racism, not its absence. Racism is the expressed normative view, not the putative factual accounts (or lack thereof) backing it up.

Seems like a small outlier? Alright, let's push it a step further. Presumably, part of what is driving Dafydd's intuition is that the only reason one would hold the above normative commitments is if one already has some account of "other races" to treat differently, the very premise Dafydd rejects. Yes, we can imagine someone who is cheerfully agnostic to this question, but surely by and large he's right.

Except not, or at least not necessarily. Now the problem comes in the restrictive definition Dafydd gives to "race" (biological determinants of behavior). I'd argue that most scholars wouldn't define "race" this way, at least not anymore. The general view on race nowadays is that it is a socially constructed form of categorization that has no biological basis, but which has historically and contemporaneously been used as a method for distributing socio-political benefits and burdens (by "socio-political" I mean to encompass both legal rights, like voting, and also social treatment, like stereotyping -- such as Justice Thomas being accused of "acting White" -- or suburban "White flight". I also include economic discrimination, like redlining and employment discrimination.). This definition is perfectly consistent with Dafydd's rejection of proposition X.

The history of race in America is one in which such benefits and burdens were so distributed. The category doesn't depend on whatever faux-biological rationales were originally given for it. A mistaken biological belief may have gotten the ball rolling, but now it has its own momentum. Indeed, while I'm willing to concede arguendo that race gained its original salience through bad scientific beliefs, I don't have to: We can imagine a situation where elites conspired to simply make up biological racial determinism and spread it amongst the people to justify enacting racist policies, never actually believing it themselves (highly unlikely), or where people deluded themselves into believing in biological racial determinism as an ex post facto way of rationalizing the creation of a state of affairs they'd otherwise consider to be unjust (far more likely). Both permutations demonstrate the unnecessary nature of a metaphysical underpinning for a race to have salience.

So if race doesn't correspond to a real biological thing, what is race? Simple: Race is race; that is, race is that which we have described as and made policy based upon its identification as race. There is nothing but the edifice. That it turns out there is no biology underlying the whole deal doesn't cause the schema to snap out of existence, it just emphasizes that there is nothing beneath the construct.

Race can be thought of as an building. Perhaps some unenlightened people would think that the building was a natural feature of the world; there from creation. As it turns out, we know that it was, quite literally, socially constructed. But that constructed quality (distinguished from being metaphysically grounded) doesn't make any less "real". Calling out the building as being "constructed" doesn't itself do anything; it doesn't cause the edifice to come crashing down, it has very little effect on whatever social or political arrangements have developed around the building. Same with concepts. Whether the categorization schema continues to have salience ("as a method for distributing socio-political benefits") is completely divorced from whether the belief that originally motivated its creation was ever factually correct, whether anyone still holds it today, indeed, whether anyone ever genuinely held the view at all. Call it a simulacrum, call it hyperreality -- big words for a not-actually-that-controversial position. Now let's be clear, it could be that the categorization system of race no longer does have salience. Buildings don't last forever; the point of the analogy is simply that you have to do work beyond a mere expression of disbelief to bring them down. Whether race continues to have salience in the distribution of socio-political benefits and burdens, as it had done for many, many years, is an empirical question.

That was a tragically long diversion: I apologize. So let's circle back to the supposed topic of the post: the possibility of being racist without believing in biological racial determinism. What we've accomplished is clarifying our terms. "Race" is not a descriptor mapping onto any brute biological race, race is a socially constructed categorization schema which at at least some historical point salience as a manner of distributing socio-political benefits and burdens, one that has no content but that which we've created for it (which doesn't mean we can simply declare, ala Santa Claus, our disbelief in it to make it disappear). Empirically, we then have to look to see if the system still is active -- if we still do, in fact, distribute benefits and burdens in way that tracks the lines the system draws. The evidence here is overwhelmingly that yes we do; this post is too long already for me to elaborate beyond that.

And what is a racist? I'd say a concept or argument or behavior is racist if it causes or reinforces unequal inegalitarian distribution of benefits and burdens on racial lines. It's not any descriptive beliefs, it's not the mere usage of race, it's not even the existence of the category -- it's the perpetuation of inequality on lines tracking the category. Calling a person racist probably means they have a normative commitment to such a state of affairs; the question, really, is at what level of knowledge we demand: to borrow from criminal law, is it intent, knowledge, recklessness, negligence, or absolute liability? I can't resolve that question.

I will say this: people, including people who believe themselves to be non-racist, act in ways that discriminate on basis of race -- they adhere to the categorization schema. The literature on subconscious racism is overwhelming in this respect. Regardless of whether we label them "racist" or not, what is clear is that the cognitive state of believing that race "doesn't exist", or believing oneself not to be racist, has very little to do with whether the categorization system of race maintains its salience; assuming that one has an obligation to be anti-racism, not just "not racist", this is a damning moral flaw. More likely, trying to restrict the field of racism so narrowly to outdated questions of biological determinism is generally a signal that one is unwilling to look at the question in its full breadth or depth, meaning that one is unlikely to have much of an effect on dissipating it.

So here are the conclusions:

(1) Logically, it is pretty much just wrong to say that a belief in biological racial determinism is necessary to be a racist, unless your definition of racist simply is "one who believes that";

(2) The likelihood that someone who does not hold that belief is a "racist" is highly dependent on our definition of racism; and

(3) There is virtually no reason to believe that not believing in racial biological determinism will do anything to break down the continued salience of race as a categorization schema, which to my mind is a far more pressing issue than whether we get to use the word "racist" or not.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Timmy, Please

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, widely viewed as a rising GOP star, has a plan for getting the budget back into balance:
Balancing the budget will require some tough decisions. Congress must reduce discretionary spending in real terms, with exceptions for key programs such as military, veterans, and public safety. The Congress must also reject costly new spending initiatives, like new health care entitlements.

There is, alas, a problem:
Someone needs to tell Pawlenty that discretionary spending except for "military, veterans, and public safety" is less than $400 billion a year. A real reduction of, say 10 percent (a ridiculous amount but use it for simplicity sake) would save a little more than $40 billion from the baseline and that doesn't come close to doing what needs to be done.

Finish us off, Matt Yglesias:
If I were planning on running for election, I might not be comfortable saying “to deal with the long-term federal budget deficit we need higher taxes and we need to slow the growth of Medicare spending.” But if you’re not willing to say “we need higher taxes and we need to slow the growth of Medicare spending” then you shouldn’t run around talking about the long-term federal budget deficit. There’s really nothing else to say about it.

Fictive Republican budget hawkery strikes again!

TNC on Senator Reid

Count me in the camp of folks who think Senator Reid's comments were clearly racially insensitive, but not a "racial slur". "Negro" as a referent to African-Americans is the sort of thing you say if you're totally out of touch with racial progress over the past, oh, 50 years. It's how you 75 year old great uncle from rural Kansas would put it -- he doesn't mean harm by it, he's just entirely clueless. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a bad thing -- we want our senators to have a better finger on the pulse of America's citizenry than that, and it's worrisome when they don't. But there is a qualitative difference between being that sort of person, and, say, endorsing White supremacy.

A point Ta-Nehisi Coates makes quite well:
Claiming that Harry Reid's comments are the same [as Lott's], is like claiming that referring to Jews as "Hebrews" is the same as endorsing Nazism. Whereas a reputable portion of black people still use the term Negro without a hint of irony, no black person thinks the guy yelling "Segregation Forever!" would have cured us of "all these problems."

Leaving aside political cynicism, this entire affair proves that the GOP is not simply still infected with the vestiges of white supremacy and racism, but is neither aware of the infection, nor understands the disease. Listening to Liz Cheney explain why Harry Reid's comments were racist, was like listening to me give lessons on the finer points of the comma splice. This a party, rightly or wrongly, regarded by significant portions of the country as a haven for racists. They aren't simply having a hard time re-branding, they don't actually understand how and why they got the tag.

These guys are lost. But Michael Steele's "off the hook" strategy will, presumably, point the way back. Not for nothing, I offer the wise and venerable words of my people: Negro, please.

As I've come to realize, they really believe this shit. They genuinely think that this is how racial politics work. And they are going to be woefully disappointed when the Black community doesn't respond they way the GOP expects them to.

Or perhaps alternatively, this isn't about Black people at all. This isn't about trying to level the playing field in terms of competing for Black voters. This is about blurring the line for White voters, relying on the widespread White misconception of what racism is and what is and is not racism to think that Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same (because canvassing the Black community on the matter is, of course, out of the question).