Saturday, November 23, 2013


Several assorted thoughts on CNN's article regarding a series of teenage assaults, titled "Terrifying teen 'knockout' game assaults spreading". First, some excerpts from the article:
- A sick so-called game known as "knockout" -- where teens randomly sucker-punch strangers with the goal of knocking them unconscious with a single blow -- is catching the attention of law enforcement throughout the nation.
Authorities have reported similar incidents [to one occurring in New Jersey] in New York, Illinois, Missouri and Washington.

One of the latest attacks happened on Friday, when someone was allegedly punched on a street in Brooklyn. Police brought four men in for questioning and arrested 28-year-old Amrit Marajh.
Youth violence expert Chuck Williams blamed the media and parents for what called extreme aggression by America's youth. Negative attention, he said, is often rewarded.

"That's America. America loves violence and so do our kids," Williams said. "We market violence to our children and we wonder why they're violent. It's because we are."

Williams, a professor of psychology and education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said some young people are desperate for attention. He called it the "Miley Cyrus effect," where teens will do anything to get noticed, no matter how heinous or unconscionable.

"These kids know the consequences," he said. "They want to get arrested. They want to get caught, because they want that notoriety. They know they won't go away forever because they're kids. It's a win-win all around for them."
Republican New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco on Wednesday proposed new legislation he's calling the "Knockout Assault Deterrent Act," calling for juveniles charged with the random assaults to be tried as adults.
Now, my reactions:

First, I am 100% confident that this is not a national trend. There are several reasons for this, starting with the fact that these "terrifying teen crime-as-game wave" stories always turn out to be overblown (at best). Remember "wilding"? I'd ask how the media gets duped by this over and over again, except "duped" is the wrong word for "actively enflaming social anxieties in an effort to sell copy". Beyond that, there being reports of teenagers attacking people in five states does not a meaningful trend make. This would be true even if the one of "teenagers" cited as being part of the trend wasn't 28.

Second, I am 100% confident that "the media" and "culture" are not to blame for attacks by teenagers. Aside from the causality problem evident from the fact that everyone is exposed to this same culture yet most young people are not turning violent, juvenille crime rates have been consistently falling for the past 15 years. At the moment, our rates of juvenile murder and rape are lower than they were in 1960. Perhaps we should start contemplating what horrors were wrought by the horribly violent culture of the Leave it Beaver era. Or perhaps we can talk about our ongoing media culture of sensationalizing fictive "crime wave" stories which serve to justify over-policing and further damage trust relations between the police and communities they serve.

Third, I am 100% confident that the vast majority of young people contemplating engaging in random acts of violence do not have any sense of the legal framework and sentencing guidelines which govern their contemplated offenses. I base this on the fact that I'm pretty sure I was in the 99.9th percentile of legally-aware teenagers, and I had no idea about what criminal penalties existed for various offenses. To the extent that teenagers do have beliefs that their sentences will be relatively lenient, I am sure it comes not from poring over the latest statutes to emerge from the legislature but rather from a vague sense that "juveniles don't do hard time," which won't be sensitive to changes in penalties. Moreover, the youths most at risk for this sort of behavior are also those most likely to know from personal experience that teenagers can and are sent to prison for long periods of time.

Honestly, stories like this make me really angry. They're the same "mistake" over and over, and unlike the majority of American teenagers they actually do pose a systematic threat to the safety of our nation, by misdirecting legal and police resources and by reinforcing narratives that lead to the police and young Americans seeing each other as enemies. It's disgraceful.

UPDATE: As if to mock me, CNN posts the video entitled "Is The Knockout Game Even Real?" They spend 95% of the time rehashing the knockout game sensationalism, followed by quickly noting that there may be nothing distinguishing these attacks from other random acts of violence (let alone warranting a "trend story"). Even this caveat is immediately brushed aside on the grounds that we all should be terrified of this wave of violence.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Things People Blame the Jews for, Volume VIII: Colonialism

It's Thanksgiving, and of course that brings to mind colonialism. And that ideology and action is the subject of this week's edition of Things People Blame the Jews For.

But I was thinking -- it is a seemingly inevitable facet of this feature that it portrays only one side of the story. I might write about people who blame the Jews for Energy Speculation, for example, but in doing so I invariably ignore those who blame the Jews for not allowing enough energy speculation. How unfair is that? It certainly does not give due respect to the fantastic creativity of the blame-the-Jews crowd.

So this week, I decided to make things harder. Obviously, it is not difficult to find people who blame Jews for colonialism (generally in the Middle East, though again the range really knows no bounds). But can we find someone who blames the Jews for making us care about colonialism? Yes we can! []
Aztec culture was the pinnacle of the civilizations speaking the Nahuatl language when history says Mesoamerican civilization was discovered by Christian Europeans. This “civilization” lends an element of belief to the Cthulhu Mythos of HP Lovecraft. Savagery so unprecedented in the annals of known human cultural practices that the original assessment of the conquistadors, that it was orchestrated by Demons from hell, is still the most valid.
Much revisionist history has been written about the conquest of the Aztecs in the hundreds of years after the facts, especially by those within the scientific community indoctrinated into the Caucasian self-loathing and cultic denial of the soul which has become the standard Smithsonian and National Geographic fare welded like a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of Jewish professors.
Stupid Jews, making good White people feel bad about slaughtering savage brown people. Truly, the idea that it is bad to invade others' territory and mercilessly slaughter its inhabitants for the gain of outsiders was one of the more insidious weapons in my arsenal back when I was a Jewish professor.

The New Old Line State

The secession movement (which, as per history, is comprised of conservative furious that liberals win elections) rolls into Western Maryland. Fun fact: If "Western Maryland" was admitted, it would become the first state featuring more counties than people.

(Fun actual fact: The combined population of the targeted counties -- Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington -- is roughly 653,000, which would place it as the 48th most populous state in the union: ahead of Vermont but behind North Dakota)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Normal Identities

Via Amp at Alas, a Blog, I see a column up by Jonathan Rauch that opposes efforts to pass expansions of employment discrimination protections to gays and lesbians. He argues that such laws are emblematic of "victim" politics -- gays needing protection -- rather than "responsibility" politics, whereby gays actively seek to take on public responsibilities. Gay marriage and service in the military are examples of the latter.
I would never deny the continuing and often harsh reality of anti-gay discrimination, especially for kids. And I would agree with anyone who points out that allowing gays to sue discriminators in federal court is fair and reasonable. (Federal antidiscrimination law, after all, already protects other groups, like Christians, that endure far less social hostility.) But at this point, the right to file federal lawsuits is unlikely to make a big difference in gay people’s lives, and the 1970s civil rights model has become a warhorse in need of retirement.

The next Congress should be the second since 1994 when ENDA is not introduced — this time because gays ourselves have decided to move on. A country of gay spouses and parents and service members and veterans is a country of gay citizens, not gay victims. Ten years after Goodridge is a good time to recognize and celebrate that change.
As Amp points out, this puts the cart way, way before the horse. It reeks of someone who lives in a climate where gays really have made huge strides towards acceptance, without regard for people living in locations where anti-gay prejudice still looms large and really does affect employment (and housing) opportunities. That being said, I think I understand the theoretical impulse here, and perhaps can explain it in a way that explains why it can't apply to gays and lesbians at this stage in the political game.

Take two of my identities: I am Jewish, and I am (former) high school athlete. One of these two identities enjoys protections through anti-discrimination law, and one does not. One of these two identities also is one where I feel concerned about my status as a full and equal member of the polity, while the other elicits no such anxiety.

It may seem odd that the identity that enjoys greater legal protection is also the one whose position feels more fraught. Indeed, the vast majority of our identities garner no specific formal legal protection whatsoever. And it's not because they are not the subject of regulation, even controversial regulation, either. Athletes can face significant regulations (such as mandatory drug tests, or heightened academic requirements), and they may have strong views about the propriety of these ordinances. Lawyers (to take another example) face a massive array of regulations governing their conduct and certainly have no qualms about arguing over them. These arguments, however, occur without the backstop of any formal legal regime recognizing specific protections against unfair treatment for the identity. We fight these battles with nothing more than the normal tools of politics.

Yet this thought does not fill most of us with dread. To the contrary, it strikes us as utterly unremarkable. It is normal that most of our identities will be regulated and protected through nothing more than the normal channels of political and social dialogue. The need for something like anti-discrimination laws suggests a particular aberration from this norm -- recognition of a particularly dangerous or fraught area of controversy where the normal rules cannot be trusted.

For this reason, it is wrong to view the end-game of anti-discrimination work as the enactment of a robust array of legal protections. As one jurist put it, anti-discrimination laws "acknowledge—rather than mark the end of—a history of purposeful discrimination." Hernandez v. Robles, 7 N.Y.3d 338, 388-89 (N.Y. 2006) (Kaye, C.J., dissenting). Or to quote myself:
If one only has protections because one devotes every spare vote, dollar, resource and minute to secure them, one can hardly be said to be an equal. Equality comes when equality is normal — so normal, that you don’ t have to be perpetually on your guard to defend it. So normal that it wouldn't occur to anyone to try and take it away.
What Rauch is trying to get at is the securing for homosexuality the status of a "normal identity" -- one in which their equality is so natural that it need not be remarked upon, and where the natural flow of social and political channels will regulate matters of sexual orientation in a manner which, if not agreed upon by all, at least is not viewed as something extraordinary.

Needless to say, we are not there yet. And Rauch makes a huge mistake by jumping the gun. Indeed, part of being a normal identity is that one can insert yourself into the political process and secure benefits (same as other groups do as a matter of course), so it is antithetical to the notion to throw up barriers to a group's particular political ambitions. That is to say, it is not necessarily the case that a "normal identity" never receives protective measures, it is simply that if they do so it isn't seen as any more remarkable than, say, dairy farmers gaining legislative protections -- we might debate about it or oppose particular proposals, but it is not viewed as a high stakes deviation from politics-as-normal.

In sum, I see the appeal of Rauch's endpoint. He's just wrong to force the issue.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sounds Like a Job For...

As soon as a read this story about a woman who was "fined" $3,500 by a company for posting a poor review of their services (it allegedly violated a "non-disparagement clause" in the contract), I immediately thought "this sounds like something Popehat would tackle." So I hopped over to their site, and lo and behold...
By popular demand — which is a polite way of sayingyes, I heard about this, for the love of God stop sending me emails about it — it's time to talk about KlearGear, an online company that sells "desk toys" and gadgets and tchotchkes and such. Tim Cushing at Techdirt has the story.
Poor guys. At least I checked before sending them a link. But it's too their credit that they've carved this niche out for themselves.

(Their post on the subject is good reading, too).