Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Rematch

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage has narrowly passed in Maryland's House of Delegates. It moves to the State Senate, and if it passes there, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) (who's really come out swinging for gay marriage -- and good for him!) will sign. This, as you may recall, is a rematch of last year, where a gay marriage bill narrowly failed in the House of Delegates after passing the Senate -- so getting through the former body is a very, very good sign.

Opponents may still muster signatures to force the issue to the ballot box come 2012.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Dramatic Change

A leading Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, Avi Shafran, was given space recently in The Forward to explain his organization's take on homosexuality. The second paragraph made the following eyebrow raising claim:
Whether homosexuality is fixed or changeable remains an open question. There are well-informed people on either side of the issue, but as of yet no incontrovertible proof of a “gay gene.” Whether the Jewish religious tradition is fixed or changeable, however, is not arguable — at least not for Torah-loyal Jews.

Skate past the first part. It's the last sentence which caused my head to tilt a little. Because I would also agree that "whether the Jewish religious tradition is fixed or changeable" is rather inarguable -- I just think the obvious answer is "changeable."

Unlike many Christian sects, Judaism has classically not engaged in Biblical fundamentalism. Rather, the Tanakh is only part of the official religious doctrine governing the Jewish community. Alongside it and carrying equal weight is the Talmud, which, in brief, is a corpus of interpretations and expansions upon Biblical doctrine extending for thousands of years.* The Talmud is basically comprised of countless Rabbis giving their own interpretations on what the Torah, the Tanakh, and other Talmudic stories mean, how they should be interpreted, extended, circumscribed, or modified. It is a vast menagerie of differing opinions, and together it paints a dramatically heterodox and pluralistic picture of what Jewish tradition "says". In essence, Jewish theology was the original common law method.

Through this, it is beyond obvious that Jewish law and tradition has changed, often dramatically, over the years, and is the furthest thing from "fixed". The Talmud is chock full of disagreements, with dissenting and concurring threads diverging into a host of different "schools". Indeed, for much of Jewish history there were two separate Talmuds (Jerusalem and Babylonian). The claim that Rabbi Shafran is making here is internally contradictory -- it itself is attempting to enact a dramatic change in how we think of Jewish traditions, replacing historic fluidity with modern (and dare I say, Christian-influenced) stasis.

* This also caused me to raise an eyebrow to the phrase "Torah-loyal Jews". That, to me, sounds like it should be the motto for Karaite Judaism, but of course, most Jews aren't and have never been Karaites. The dominant thread of Judaism is not "Torah-loyal", or at least, not exclusively so. What it is loyal to is the process of an evolving understanding and uncovering of divine principles as they instantiate themselves in an infinite number of social, historical, and political contexts.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Magic Pills of Darkness

New Hampshire State Rep. Jeanine Notter (R) has a novel argument for why health insurance shouldn't cover birth control: It causes prostate cancer.

In case we're unclear: Birth control? Almost exclusively taken by women (e.g., the pill, IUDs, Nuvaring, etc.). Prostate cancer? Only occur in men, because men, unlike women, have prostates. So unless those be some magic pills women be popping, the odds that birth control causes prostate cancer is very, very slim.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Return Slip

One interesting, albeit rarely discussed, permutation in the Israel/Palestine debate is the question of Jewish refugees. The history of Jews from the Arab world, both generally and immediately proximate to the creation of Israel, is poorly understood among the people of the world, and generally their interests are shunted aside (if not forgotten entirely) in the conversation.

The bare bones version is quite simple: There were approximately 800,000 Jews residing in various Arab countries in 1948, a figure that has crashed to less than 7,000 today. The majority were forced out in the years following Israel's independence, as anti-Semitic pogroms wracked the region and Jews fled to Israel (and other countries) for their own safety. This population displacement parallels the Palestinian refugee problem, where Palestinian residents of what became Israel also were forced to flee in the face of violence and war.

Then we have the population of Jews who lived in parts of what is now the West Bank (e.g., Hebron). The story itself isn't much different (although most of Hebron's Jewish population fled in 1929 after a particularly violent pogrom), but the basics are the same -- Jewish residents who had resided on a given plot of land forced to abandon their property and flee elsewhere. The trick comes, of course, from the fact that much of this territory now is under Israeli jurisdiction. And so this raises the question of whether they should have a "right of return".

My stance has been "no", for the same reasons I oppose return-rights for the descendents of Palestinian refugees, to wit: "I care more about protecting Jewish and Palestinian national self-determination rights and democracy than I do about letting every person live on the precise acre they wish." Insofar as "right of return" conflicts with the projects of creating and maintaining independent Jewish and Palestinian states, it's not worth it. We can query the hypocrisy of "pro-Palestinian" activists who simultaneously call for a Palestinian right of return while protesting in front of Sheikh Jarrah, but the basic principle isn't complicated.

All this is by way of introduction to this letter from the descendent of a Jewish family expelled from Hebron (via). The author is writing to formally disavow any claims to her ancestral property. Noting that her position is in principle no different from Arab families which have deeds to property in Jerusalem or Haifa, she reminds us that it is far too late to turn the clock back to 1948. The project can't be that anymore. The modern project is reaching a territorial compromise so that both a Jewish and Palestinian state can be created and flourish, and that's not going to include letting every person live on the precise parcel of land they might like. It means some Jews' whose families lived in Hebron but were violently forced out won't get to return, and it means some Arabs whose families lived in Jaffa but were violently forced out won't get to return either. It may be tragic, but it is a necessary component of a just peace. Kudos to the writer for a stark demonstration that many people are willing to make that sacrifice.

Google Strikes One For Team America

At an Iranian demonstration, a banner which reads in Farsi as "America can not do a damn thing" is rendered in English as "America can do no wrong."

It looks like the problem was with Google translator (that's how it renders the Farsi phrase into English).


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake

Via @AmandaMarcotte, Pat Archibald in the National Catholic Register enters a plea for a return to "pretty" in women, defined "as a mutually enriching balanced combination of beauty and projected innocence." This stands in contrast to "hot", which is not clearly defined but which he indicates is some sort of raw, sexualized energy. Back in the good old days (the 50s, natch. It's always the 50s), even our stars were more "pretty" than "hot" -- or at least many of them were. They might have still "sinned", but at least they projected "innocence".

But today, alas, women aspire to be "hot". The difference is in how men treat the two sorts of women:
[P]retty inspires men's nobler instincts to protect and defend. Pretty is cherished. Hotness, on the other hand, is a commodity. Its value is temporary and must be used. It is a consumable.


We might first note that it is hardly universally accepted that the desire for projected innocence is tied into a desire to "protect". Alexander King certainly had a different spin on things -- he wrote "That gentlemen prefer blondes is due to the fact that, apparently, pale hair, delicate skin and an infantile expression represent the very apex of frailty which every man longs to violate." And alas, King wrote in the first half of the 20th century, well before women's liberation ruined everything. Archibald concedes that the prettiness of yore was often a facade, not a true "innocence"; so long as we're explicitly valuing the hypocrisy of it all, we might as well remind ourselves it extends in both directions.

But more to the point, let's talk about commoditization, shall we? If it rings odd to hear it said that the former half of the 20th century was more respectful of women's agency, autonomy, and human dignity, well, it should. Archibald says hotness is a commodity, but what he doesn't say is that prettiness (as he defines it) is too. Being hot makes men want to consume you. Being pretty makes men want to protect you. What makes men want to treat you like an independent agent with her own talents, ambitions, and desires? Apparently nothing: The choice before women is to be the cake that one has versus the cake that one eats. Regardless of whether one prefers the former or the latter, we can hardly say that either option transcends the status of a commodity.

Now, as a man I sort of resent that -- to borrow from the immortal post by Belle Waring -- I am viewed as so much like a retarded kitten in my ability to appraise people that my capacity to determine how to treat women is exhausted by their physical appearance. I have aesthetic preferences in women, same as any heterosexual guy, but I maintain enough of a trickle of blood-flow to my brain to recognize that these preferences do not, in fact, translate onto character traits, much less into "women to consume" versus "women to stockpile" (and what a choice that is!). So in this sense Archibald's prejudice extends to men nearly as much as women.

Ultimately, though, it is bad to commoditize women. It's bad to view them as perishable goods to be gobbled up, and it's bad to view them as precious gemstones to be hoarded away -- put on a pedestal that doubles as a cage. Women are humans -- they have an infinite variety of desires, talents, and ambitions that they should feel to pursue. That includes pursuit of sexual pleasure, and it includes the decision to stay "innocent" of it. It's their call, not yours. That's the difference between a person, and a cake.


This is one of those fascinating stories that you just don't think could happen in the 21st century: South and North Carolina still aren't quite sure where, exactly, lies the border between the two states.

They've got a bunch of surveyors out who are trying to actually retrace the steps of the original 18th century surveyors. It's tough work since the surveyors marked their progress via burn marks on trees, and those trees are no longer present some 200 years later.

Obviously, there's a humorous element to this, but unfortunately it also has the possibility to disrupt lives, given that there are some people who think they live in one state but "really" live in the other. Aside from whatever psychic damage they might receive from losing their identity as a North or South Carolinian, there are more tangible problems -- new laws, new drivers licenses, new phone numbers, new utilities -- just massive headaches all around.

Monday, February 13, 2012

NJ Senate Votes To Legalize Gay Marriage

The New Jersey State Senate has passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a 24-16 margin. Governor Chris Christie (R) is promising a veto, and right now the votes aren't there to override it. But nonetheless, this is yet more evidence of growing democratic momentum on the subject. New Jersey, of course, won't have a Republican governor forever. The tide has turned, and sooner or later, these laws will pass into the dustbin of history.