Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mitch Landrieu on Confederation Commemoration

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently decided to take down several city monuments honoring various Confederate leaders. Unsurprisingly, he faced significant pushback for this decision. This is a link to the speech he gave explaining why he did what he did.

It is one of the most powerful and unflinching speeches by a White southerner on the matter of race, the "lost cause", and southern identity that I've ever read. It's not long, and I'm not going to excerpt. Just read it in full.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Parodying While Minority: The Burden of "Black and Jewish"

A few weeks ago, I read another article (in the UK's Independent) about the latest set of antisemitism controversies in the UK's National Union of Students. There is a lot -- a lot -- that could be written about antisemitism in the NUS, and most of the article struck me as entirely fair play. But one of their examples was the following:

Meanwhile, another current NUS officer, LGBT+ Officer Noorulann Shahid, who uses the pronouns they/them, posted a link on Twitter to a comedy video that includes a number of anti-Semitic tropes and said they had “laughed out loud” at the clip.
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The video, titled “Black and Jewish”, is a parody of rapper Wiz Khalifa’s song “Black and Yellow” and makes jokes about Jews having big noses and being stingy. It features two black women dressing up in traditional Jewish attire and singing lyrics including “my ass and nose, they’re both big” and “don’t spend no money but you know I’m rich”. The tweet dates from 2012.
I remember seeing this video when it came out. I thought it was funny (though not uproariously so), and not particularly offensive. Clearly others disagree. But there's one aspect of this video that was completely overlooked in The Independent's coverage (and virtually all the other stories I've seen):

Both of the black women in the video -- Kali Hawk and Kat Graham -- are Jewish.

It is initially notable that, despite the title of the video being "Black and Jewish", it did not seem to occur to the authors that the artists were, indeed, Black and Jewish. They just assumed that the women were dressing up in foreign cultural attire and mocking Jews. So, as a commentary on the erasure of non-White Jews, this story seems to capture that in a very literal sense. And lest we think this is only a function of an ignorant non-Jewish media source, Algemeiner (which ought to know better) also alluded to Shahid "shar[ing] a video that includes tropes of Jews being stingy and having big noses."

But beyond the failure to recognize the existence of Black Jews, I think there's also a more subtle form of marginalization in play here. It's not that Jews cannot make antisemitic remarks. But jokes like "my ass and nose, they're both big" are hardly far removed from Woody Allen-esque self-deprecation that has long characterized Jewish humor. And such self-deprecation, in turn, has long been a coping mechanism for Jews and other outgroups -- we dissipate the power of hurtful stereotypes by mocking them or applying them tongue-in-cheek.

Yet my strong suspicion is that if you're a minority-within-a-minority, that release valve can be closed off. There's much greater pressure to be, not just hyperauthentic, but hyper-earnest about it all in a way that I can only imagine must be maddening. Again, their participation in a rather ordinary form of self-parody is taken to be not an act of Jewishness but an act of antagonism towards their Jewishness -- in a way I don't think would happen if they had a background and an appearance more like, say, mine.

If, as one might say, certain jokes or mockeries are "ours" (as in I can mock Jewish noses, but you, the goyish reader, most certainly cannot), that raises the question of whether Hawk and Graham are really included in the "our". To the extent their Blackness renders their Jewishness permanently provisional, that functions as an exclusion from the full expression of their Jewish identity. Ironically, the demand that they constantly prove themselves authentic Jews (in a way that, say, I rarely am asked to do) operates to make that request impossible to meet.

Friday, May 19, 2017

You Keep Using That Term, "BDS"....

The Israel Group sent out a message to their listserv warning of BDS starting to emerge at two Israeli universities -- Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.

At first when I read the article, I was confused. Neither of the two stories -- BGU reportedly hosting an event by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, nor HUJ declining to play "Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) at its graduation -- constitute a boycott, a divestment, or a sanction. Whatever one thinks of either happening, they're not cases of "BDS".

But then I reread the top of the article, where The Israel Group wrote the following (bold print original):
We strongly suggest that donors to Hebrew University immediately redirect their support to other Israeli institutions, and inform Hebrew U. as to why you are doing it.
And then I got it -- it was a call for divestment! The BDS link was to the right-wing response to the events. Calls to censor Israeli academic events or to divest funding from Israeli universities based on narrow political litmus tests represents the core of the BDS ideology. And it is indeed alarming to see BDS tactics emerge on the Israeli and "pro-Israel" right -- the Israel Group is sadly not alone in aligning itself with the right-wing BDS campaign. So hopefully principled opponents of BDS will call them out on it and protect academic freedom and independence in Israel -- no matter who happens to be threatening it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Heighten the Contradictions, Iranian Style!

Remember those annoying Jill Stein voters who "honestly preferred" that Donald Trump win the election because it would inevitably hasten the revolution that brings about the glorious workers' paradise? And remember how we all agreed those people were, in a word, morons?

Elliott Abrams just wrote that column about Iran. And it's just as nauseating.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Blues of Self-Regulation

One of the odder tropes of current conservative discourse related to the possibility of constraining the excesses of the Trump administration is blaming (who else?) Democrats for eliminating institutional checks available to the minority party, like the filibuster. What's weird about this is that if conservatives actually believe that such constraints are important parts of our system of checks and balances, they're absolutely free to restore them. Nobody's stopping them. But the idea that Republicans will self-regulate is seen as transparently absurd by all parties -- Republicans included.

Yet there's an even more fundamental absurdity: the implication that were it not for Democrats changing the rule-in-question sometime in the past eight years, the rule would be there to constrain Republicans. The problem being that, even when Democrats didn't change a rule protecting the minority party, Republicans haven't even blinked before casting them aside the minute they interfered with their partisan agenda. We already saw this with filibusters on Supreme Court nominees (Democrats abolished the filibuster for lower-court nominees, but not SCOTUS). And now GOP Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) is proposing that the Senate eliminate the "blue slip" rule, which allows Senators to block judicial nominations in their home states. Democrats had kept that rule despite its use by GOP Senators to obstruct Democratic judicial nominations in the Obama administration. But -- surprise, surprise -- it turns out that whether Democrats keep or change a minority-protective rule has absolutely no bearing on whether Republicans want to keep it.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Republicans Don't Care about Black People

FiveThirtyEight has an interesting graphic about which groups Democrats and Republicans think face "a lot of discrimination."


Democrats, as one might expect, tend to think that groups who face a lot of discrimination face a lot of discrimination, and groups who don't, don't. Republicans, by contrast, are oddly "egalitarian" in their beliefs. Yes, Christians are on top, because, you know, Republicans, but there isn't a huge gap between them and the rest of the pack. Eyeballing it, virtually all groups clock in between 40-50%.

With one glaring exception. Republicans seem willing to believe that a trans person has it as hard as a Christian or a Muslim is about as likely to face discrimination as the ever-oppressed White. But if there's one thing they're damn sure of, it's that Black people are made in the shade here in the US.

A Very Engaging Weekend

On the first weekend of May, my true love gave to me ....

Five restaurants to eat at;
Four Schraubs/Roddes with us;
Three days in Vegas;
Two stand-up comics;
And her hand to be married!

I'm so happy to announce that Jill and I are officially engaged!

(Many of you are no doubt surprised to hear this. Specifically, those of you who assumed we were already married).

Wedding date is TBD (we've already been together for 10 years -- what's the rush?), but great thanks to her family and my family for all meeting us out in Las Vegas so we could celebrate together.

Thank Goodness for the Jerusalem Post's Tough Questions

Jacob Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, on why his newspaper invited neo-Nazi-linked White House advisor Sebastian Gorka to speak at their conference (April 27):
We decided that ,,, he would be interviewed by me on stage while knowing that I will confront him with tough questions, including about the various allegations that have been reported in the press.
Jacob Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, at the conference (May 7):
Sitting on stage in an interview setting, Gorka was not pressed by Jerusalem Post editor Jacob Katz to provide any substantive explanation of his involvement with Vitezi Rend order in Hungary. Although he has denied being a formal member of the group, Gorka has repeatedly expressed support for the far right wing organization that the U.S. government says was under the control of the Nazis during World War II.
Katz allowed him to change the subject to his preferred topic of the threat of radical Islam.
Reports were that Gorka was showered with a "lengthy applause" by the "adoring crowd."

What a fantastic display of courageous journalism.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Israeli Singer's Detroit-Area Concert Canceled After Threats

A popular Israeli singer's scheduled concert in the Detroit area was canceled after organizers received threats and could no longer guarantee her safety.

A case of anti-speech extremists blocking cultural exchange between Israeli artists and the American public?

Well, the singer was Noa, a well-known member of the Israeli peace camp who has been outspoken in support of two-states and Israeli-Arab coexistence. The concert venue was going to be a synagogue. And the threats came from the Jewish far-right.

Which is to say, it is a case of anti-speech extremists blocking cultural exchange between Israeli artists and the American public. Anyone who is appalled by threats forcing cancellation of events on college campuses should be equally appalled by these threats; anyone who opposes BDS should oppose it with equal fervor in this case.

(Noa has been victimized by similar efforts before -- a Canadian concert was left in limbo after JNF-Canada falsely accused her of being a BDS supporter. Ultimately, the Israeli embassy stepped in to sponsor the concert).

Friday, May 05, 2017

Remembering the I Before I Changed My Mind

Sometimes, I change my mind about things.

That's normal, indeed, healthy. We should change our minds, sometimes. When we get new information, or circumstances change, or we ponder an issue more deeply, we will sometimes conclude that our prior thoughts on a given matter were wrong, and new, different thoughts are better. That's how it should be.

For example, when I was a Junior in high school, I was truly, deeply opposed to affirmative action. I wrote an entire "persuasive essay" on the matter for an assignment. As a debater, I was good at persuasion, and I poured a lot into that essay.

By the time I was a first-year in college, I had changed my mind. I had read more and thought more, and concluded that my prior views were wrong. I've remained a strong supporter of affirmative action ever since.

But whenever I change my mind, I always try to remember the person I was before I changed my mind. That person, I remind myself, was not avaricious or cruel. He was not mean-spirited or willfully obtuse. Of course, one thing he was was wrong -- if  I thought he was right, I wouldn't have changed my mind. But he was (obviously) persuadable, since something did in fact end up persuading him. And so I try to remember what was motivating him -- what were his fears, his concerns, his worries, his ambitions, his interlocking beliefs? Even when I am now quite convinced that past-me was just plain wrong -- I'm confident that my new positon is right and my old position is incorrect -- I keep in mind that I didn't generally arrive at my wrong-prior-position through either pure malice or abject stupidity.

And so when I meet other people who believe things I used to believe, I try to presume -- absent evidence to the contrary -- they were like me. They have reasons for thinking what they do -- not necessarily good reasons, but reasons that need to be responded to. They have concerns motivating their rejection of alternatives -- not necessarily overriding concerns, but concerns that need to be addressed. A project of persuasion, if it is to be effective, should remember the "I" that had not yet been persuaded -- if only as a roadmap to get from A to B.

Of course, since I have not most likely changed my mind for the last time, I also remember that it's possible that current-me is wrong, and I should be open to the types of discourse and challenges which have historically helped move me from worse opinions to better ones. Things like being open to others' views, reading widely, and interpreting charitably all have served me well in my desire to think better thoughts than I used to, and so they are virtues I try to consistently live out.

But even from the vantage point of believing my current beliefs are correct (and of course that is what I think -- if I thought my current beliefs were wrong, I'd change them to something else), my mantra is to remember that others have the same capacity and deserve the same opportunity I did to change their minds and come to better conclusions than the ones they hold now. It's not exactly the most groundbreaking thought. But keeping it at the forefront of my mind has made me more empathic, more respectful, and more persuasive.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

My Healthcare Story

The House of Representatives, in a razor-thin 217-213 vote, has voted to repeal and replace Obamacare with the AHCA. The crucial amendment to get conservatives onboard was to allow states to eviscerate the protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.

I've mentioned before on this blog that I've suffered from kidney stones. Right now I'm in the process of doing some tests to figure out my risk factors and what, if anything, I should change in my diet or lifestyle to make them less likely (since, as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) was so quick to remind us, any health problems I have are evidence of nothing more than my own degraded character). That's how it should be: when I'm sick, the focus should be on getting me better. My health care should be a conversation between me and my doctor. My investment advisor shouldn't need to play a role.

But the advent of the GOP vote has, of course, made me worry about whether kidney stones qualify as a "preexisting condition." After all, I'm not going to stay at Berkeley forever. So what would happen to me if I need to switch insurance or -- worse yet -- lose it altogether?

Kidney stones aren't the most expensive condition one can have, but they're not nothing either. Since they onset completely unexpectedly, they can send you to the emergency room at the drop of a hat. And they sometimes require surgery to remove (as mine did -- more on that below). My best guess is that it's unlikely that I'd be denied coverage altogether because of my past history, but it's possible that a new plan would exclude coverage for any future stone-related problems. Which sucks, because kidney stones are scary enough without having to worry about how to pay to treat them.

One argument one occasionally hears about foisting more costs onto sick patients is that it gives us additional "skin in the game" that inspires us to make better and more cost-effective choices. So I figured I'd offer a story on that front, because I don't think that makes any sense at all.

As I said, I recently had surgery to remove my kidney stone. But I almost didn't. Kidney stones are strange in that they can lie dormant for awhile -- lulling you into a false sense of security -- before roaring back to life and causing agonizing pain. This is particularly nettlesome because, especially with a smaller stone, it's possible to pass them without realizing it. So if you go through several months with no pain, is it because the stone has passed or is it just playing possum?

My stone was about 4 millimeters, which is on the small side. My urologist told me that a 4 mm stone will pass on its own about 70% of the time. I had been having attacks of pain about once every 1.5 - 2 months since the fall, and it did not seem to be passing on its own. So after the latest bout of pain in January, we scheduled me for surgery in March -- with the caveat that if it passed before then, we'd cancel the surgery.

The weeks pass, and I'm feeling fine. I didn't notice it pass. But again, I knew sometimes they pass without you noticing. Certain elements of how the stone had been progressing in prior bouts of pain made it plausible that the last bout really was the last bout. We did an X-Ray to see if we could pinpoint the stone inside me, but it was inconclusive. My urologist pointed to a vague spot and said maybe that's the stone ... but maybe it's nothing. X-Rays aren't actually all that good at picking up kidney stones. And unfortunately, there wasn't any safe way to know for sure if the stone was still inside me other than simply doing the surgery.

As we approached the day of the surgery, I asked my doctor if he thought we should go through with it. It was not implausible that the stone had already passed, after all. Moreover, I'd never had real surgery before, and was a bit nervous. The procedure entailed full anesthesia, followed by threading a scope up my urethra, into my ureter, and blasting apart the stone with lasers. They'd leave a stent inside me to handle residual bleeding, and that would be removed in about a week. Objectively, it's not so bad -- but you can imagine "having a tube stuck up my dick" isn't exactly on my bucket list, either. And how silly would I feel if I had the surgery and it turned out there was no stone at all!

The doctor listened to me. And he said that it was, indeed, possible that the stone had already passed. We could simply wait another couple of months and see what develops. The problem with that was (a) he still thought it was more likely than not that the stone had not, in fact, passed and (b) there's no guarantee that if I had another attack, they'd be able to schedule me for surgery promptly. Ultimately, his recommendation was to go through with the surgery as planned.

So I did. And when I woke up, I was told that yes, the stone was inside me, and they had successfully removed it. Moreover, he told me that the stone would have never passed on its own. My ureter was significantly enflamed and swollen around where the stone had nestled; it had gotten so narrow that it was physically impossible for the stone to go any further (I gather things were so tight in there that it had also made it no easy thing for the surgeon to even reach the stone with his laser. Good job, surgeon!).

All of this is run-up to the following: My kidney stone surgery cost me, with insurance, a little less than $1,000. That's not chump change. But without surgery, it would have cost closer to $10,000. That's more than a third of the annual salary of your average Berkeley grad student. Had I been paying that money out of pocket, I almost certainly would have ignored my doctor's advice and delayed the surgery. Which, as we now know, would have been the wrong decision. How wrong? I'm not sure -- I thankfully do not now need to know exactly how dangerous a badly enflamed, swollen, and rapidly narrowing ureter might have been.

In short, the only thing having (more) "skin in the game" would have done for me is caused me to have made the wrong medical decision. Because I'm not a doctor. I have no medical expertise. I'm not in a position to make smarter medical decisions just because I have to pay more for them. The most likely result of my having to pay a ton of money for medical expenses is me making bad medical choices. Thankfully, because I had insurance I made my choice for the right reasons -- the sound, professional advice of my specialist doctor who actually knows how kidneys work. And thank goodness for that.

In any event, now I've had kidney stones and kidney stone surgery, which means I may well be in "pre-existing condition" land (albeit far less so than, say, a cancer survivor). Which means that in the GOP world, it's quite plausible that if I leave Berkeley (which I no doubt will) and have to change insurers, I may no longer be covered for at least this particular medical problem. If my kidney stones come back, I won't be able to concentrate on, say, getting emergency pain relief or whether I need another surgery.

My friend Josh Blackman says there is a "contradiction" around the discourse re: pre-existing conditions: nobody wants to exclude them, until people learn that including them increases costs. Which, Blackman says, of course they do -- there's no such thing as a free lunch. I'd note that there's an ambiguity here: requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions doesn't necessarily increase costs so much as it redistributes them -- at least in a system where one can't opt-out of the medical system altogether (and here I'm talking less about a mandate and more about guaranteed access to emergency care. Unless we switch to a system whereby uninsured people are left to die in the streets, we're still "paying" for their healthcare). Persons who are relatively healthy pay a little more so that persons who are very sick pay a lot less, but the overall cost doesn't change (a simplification, of course, but it will do).

As it happens, even with this particular pre-existing condition I don't know whether I-as-an-individual am a net gainer or loser in the protect-preexisting-conditions world (other than kidney stones, I'm a relatively young and healthy man). But either way, I'm absolutely willing to pay my share so that I and others like me -- or not so like me -- can have the healthcare that they need. It strikes me as beyond petty for me to resent the possibility that others might "use" the benefits of health insurance more than I do. I should be so lucky! The best thing that could happen to me is for me to never again have reason to access the benefits of my health insurance other than routine checkups and peace of mind. But if I happen not to be so lucky, then I'll be grateful that I'll get the care that I need to survive and thrive.

There are many, many people for whom the AHCA will impact far more severely than me -- from cancer survivors to persons needing organ donations.to victims of sexual assault. These people will see their lives made much worse if the AHCA passes.

But there are a lot more Americans for whom the AHCA "only" will make our lives a little worse. A little scarier. A little more insecure. A little more unknown. A little less protected.

I had hoped we could beat the AHCA in the House. But House Republicans were determined to pass a bill they didn't fully understand, whose provisions  had not been scored by the CBO, and from whose dictates they exempted themselves. We have 18 months to make them pay for their hubris.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Crush the AHCA, then Hammer Republicans with it Anyway

There's some chatter that Democrats actually hope that House Republicans manage to pass the AHCA (aka, Obamacare repeal), on the grounds that (a) it will fail the Senate anyway and (b) it will make for a great cudgel to use against Republicans in the midterms (in fairness, I haven't seen anyone actually make this argument themselves so much as vague speculation imputing to unnamed House Dems). Objections to this strategy have generally focused on the "I hope Trump wins because he'll be so easy to beat" failure of risk assessment. And I don't disagree with that. But I also think this outlook is unduly constrained in how it assesses political strategy. So allow me to make the following counterproposal:

Crush the AHCA, then hammer Republicans with it anyway.

The "logic" behind letting the AHCA pass the House is that it lends itself to great attack ads against vulnerable Republicans come 2018. But the average American isn't paying attention to whether a bill actually comes up for a vote. They simply are hearing about a Republican healthcare plan which they hate. There's no significant obstacle to tying Republicans to that plan even if it never comes to a vote, let alone never passes. Write up a bunch of ads about how Republicans want to eliminate the protections for persons with preexisting conditions or remove essential-coverage provisions for pregnant women, and let them loose. An actual GOP vote on the bill is neither necessary nor, I think, will it prove particularly relevant.

The 2018 midterms are not going to depend on which bills pass which houses of Congress, or even how any particular candidate votes (or manages to avoid voting). It's going to depend on how Americans view the incumbent party in general on key issues like healthcare. Solidify in the public mind that the AHCA represents what Republicans think about healthcare, then beat them with it like they tried to steal something (say, something like millions of Americans' healthcare).

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Who Knew One's Obligations as a Public Servant Would Sometimes Cause Discomfort?

South Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the longest serving member of Florida's congressional delegation, has announced her retirement. Her departure presents a major Democratic pickup opportunity in a district that his shifted hard to the left in recent years (Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there by a punishing 20 point margin).

It's not that I begrudge her retirement. I can't imagine now is a fun time to be a Republican Congresswomen, particularly for some like Ros-Lehtinen who is, if not moderate, then at least idiosyncratic. Carrying water for Donald Trump doesn't seem appealing, but neither does full-throated opposition to her own party's chief standard bearer. It's the same reason Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced his retirement:
Like everyone else, [Chaffetz] assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election and provide him with endless fodder for high-profile investigations from his perch as chairman of the Oversight Committee. He'd be on the front page all the time, doing CNN hits, and just generally gaining lots of name recognition for the next step in his career. President Chaffetz? It could happen!
Then Trump won. Suddenly the Oversight Committee was all but shut down. There would be no investigations. In fact, it was even worse than that. There was a real possibility that Trump would do something so outrageous that Chaffetz would have no choice but to hold hearings. Then he'd really be in trouble. He'd be caught between loyalty to party and the need to avoid looking like a total shill. It's a lose-lose proposition.
Not that I think Ros-Lehtinen harbored presidential ambitions, but you get the idea. Being in Congress just isn't fun anymore for any Republican who -- whether by position or by principle -- finds themselves uneasy by Trump and his antics.

At the same time, there is something rather pathetic about this. Oh, it's uncomfortable to be in a position where one could be expected to operate as a check against your own party's President when he behaves recklessly or promotes outrageous policies? We can't have that now can we! Best retire and kick the can to someone else. Nobody could reasonably expect that those multiple decades of seniority and public service actually be put to use to protect the damn country!

Whatever, I'm cranky. The point is that it doesn't seem like Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is interested in doing her job anymore to the extent that her job would entail policing the Trump administration and thus antagonizing fellow Republicans. So it's probably better, all in all, that Florida voters get the chance to put into office someone who will step up to the plate.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The New Orleans DA Office is Out of Control

The other day, I read an article about an (apparently long-standing, but about to be discontinued) practice by the New Orleans District Attorneys office of sending out fake "subpoena" notifications to potential witnesses. The notice says "A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE,” but this is simply a falsehood. And it comes without any judicial or official sanction. Basically, it's a fraud. It's designed to mislead potential witnesses into believing they must talk to the DA's office, when they in fact do not have to.

So that's bad. But then today I read another article about a prosecution team that has been repeatedly charging its counterpart public defenders with trumped-up criminal allegations (none of them have stuck). Everything from contempt to impersonating a prosecutor to kidnapping(!). Some of the names sounded familiar, and, lo and behold, its the same office! The same DA team that's sending out fake subpoenas to witnesses is also leveling bogus criminal charges against public defenders. It's beyond parody.

This DA and his team seem completely out of control. Any one of these behaviors, on their own, would be shocking in its abuse of prosecutorial power. Together, it represents a pattern of thuggish intimidation that stands way outside of what should be acceptable in a system ruled by law.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The End of Grading Conservatives on a Curve

The controversy over noted climate change denialist Bret Stephens' hiring by the New York Times appears to have taken the Grey Lady by surprise. They've quickly fallen into a stock set of responses regarding the need to hear "alternative points of view" and the importance of providing a range of conservative voices to match the liberals on their editorial page. Under this framework, persons protesting Stephens' appointment are symbolic of liberal intolerance; the inability to even stand in the same (virtual) room as persons who don't agree with them on every issue.

I do think we are seeing the end of a sort of liberal tolerance here. But it's not the tolerance that the NYT editorial board has in mind. It's the end of an era where liberals tolerate grading conservatives on a curve.

For the last several decades -- really as long as I've been politically aware -- liberals have been required to simply accept mediocrity out of conservatives. Mediocrity in science -- as when Stephens spitballs at widely accepted data, not for scientific reasons, but simply because it doesn't match his politics. Mediocrity in argument -- as when a prominent writer at one of the top "intellectual" conservative outlets excreted Liberal Fascism and then had the gall to promote it as "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made  in such detail or with such care." Mediocrity in temperament -- as when conservative temper tantrums are accepted as simply a fact of political life; the responsibility of Democrats to dissipate by playing better babysitter.

There's no sin in mediocrity, of course. The problem is that it's coupled with a pervasive sense of entitlement. This mediocrity is supposed to earn them respected academic posts, earn them prominent editorial positions, earn them airtime on prestigious networks, earn them attention and thorough consideration. The problem isn't that liberals are asked to engage with good conservative arguments -- they should (although they in fact rarely are). The problem is that liberals are supposed to just close their eyes and agree for the sake of the camera that a terrible conservative argument is a good one; a thoughtful one; a demands-deep-consideration-and-serious-inquiry one. It's the political equivalent of social promotion. It's participation badges for Boomers and Gen-Xers.

And if you challenge that entitlement? Well, suddenly the right finds its post-modern streak. Can we really can know what a "good" argument is? Who's to say what is or isn't "true"? It's no accident that the straw that seemed to break the camel's back was Kellyanne Conway's blithe assertion that the White House was simply providing "alternative facts", and that a fair and just media shouldn't adjudicate the matter. It represented the explicit articulation from the right that merit no longer mattered -- and liberals were obligated to accept it as the apogee of liberality. "Reality has a well-known liberal bias" indeed.

We're finally seeing a revolt. A world where one of the two major parties can simply claim an exemption from standards of argument and deliberation is what gave us a birther as president. It's not about intolerance towards different opinions. Those objecting to Stephens have been rather clear that they don't object to alternative opinions, but they absolutely object to alternative facts. An alternative opinion may be good or bad -- it depends on how well-reasoned and supported it is, the degree to which it engages with the best possible arguments on the other side, and other such considerations. Good alternative opinions are a great virtue in political society. An alternative fact -- when it comes from a politician or writer -- should never be thought of as anything more than being bad at your job. If enforcing that standard lands harder on contemporary conservatives, that should be a sign of their weakness, not of the injustice of meritocracy.

The New York Times is not an open-mic night. Being employed there -- whether as a journalist or as an opinion-writer -- should be a mark of outstanding talent. Their editorial team should consist of those rare souls -- of any political persuasion -- who can make solid, lucid, provocative, compelling, well-warranted arguments in an accessible form. We can obviously argue amongst ourselves about which NYT columnists do or don't might that criteria. But what's distinctive about Stephens is that his place at the Times is explicitly justified and defended on the grounds that his mediocrity of scientific thought is actually the virtue of political disagreement. That degrades science and, in a better world, would degrade conservatism as well.

To be crystal clear -- no governmental or quasi-administrative entity (like a university) should ever ban any speech (good, mediocre, bad, controversial, racist, or otherwise). Those on the left (and they tend to be more left than liberal) who support censorship, disruption, or violent retaliation against persons for their speech deserve naught but scorn. And beyond legal entitlements, liberals should be exposed to and consider good conservative arguments, and vice versa. I've learned a ton from reading, e.g., Clarence Thomas and Robert Nozick; among my earliest blog sources were the right-leaning Volokh Conspiracy and Daniel Drezner. I'd be worse off if I wasn't exposed to them, because they are all outstanding thinkers even when I disagree with them. Anyone who can't conceive of an ideological adversary who is nonetheless capable of making great "alternative" arguments isn't thinking hard enough.

But the reaction to Stephens and his ilk isn't about juridical rights or some sort of blind antipathy to foreign points of view. It's a much more simple and straightforward matter of deliberative virtue. The only persons suggesting that the attack on Stephens represents an attack on all conservatives are those who think denial of basic scientific consensus is inherent to contemporary conservatism. It's their culture! How dare you impose your "truth" on the Other? Again, who is patronizing who here?

Enough is enough. Conservatives are not infants and it is no mark of respect to treat them such. They are perfectly capable of elevating their game. Maybe it will sting for a while. But both the right and the left, and America, will be better for it.

UPDATE: Just to gather up some sources to confirm my sense that this is a trend:
New Yorker fact checker Sean Lavery on how he'd handle Bret Stephens: "By all means publish Bret Stephens. But edit and factcheck him too. If his argument can't pass muster or the piece can't be fixed: goodbye!"

Jon Chait on how conservatives are shocked and angry that the media is finally accurately reporting that the Republican proposal for regressive tax cuts which primarily benefit the rich is a regressive tax cut which primarily benefits the rich.

Philosophy professor Jonathan Stokes on no longer letting people conflate the right to express an opinion with the right to have it taken seriously.

And finally, Matt Yglesias on Sebastian Gorka reportedly leaving the White House:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Did Ann Coulter Really Want To Speak at Berkeley?

A few weeks ago, when Berkeley was slated to have back-to-back appearances by David Horowitz and Ann Coulter, I asked my students if they knew who either one of them was.

For Horowitz, the answer was a universal "no".

For Coulter, the mode answer was also "no", though one student offered that she was "like an older Tomi Lahren?"

My how the mighty have fallen. But of course, even long-since faded stars are entitled to attempt a comeback. So what better way to do so than through a high-profile act of martyrdom? Fortunately, despite their unknown status to the average Berkeley student, the Bay Area has an active "black bloc" community happy to oblige them. And so threats are made, and talks canceled, and somber reflections on illiberal universities published, and Horowitz and Coulter get to bask -- if briefly -- in the glow of being the bold truthsayers too raw for Berkeley snowflakes to handle. A return to the glory days, if you will.

But what if things didn't go according to that script?

Neither Ann Coulter, nor David Horowitz, were prohibited from speaking on campus. In both cases, they were offered a time and a place to speak at Berkeley; in both cases, it was they who declined that invitation. The statement from Chancellor Dirks -- who in my estimation has done a great job navigating very choppy waters on this issue -- provides a useful corrective to the prevailing media narrative and is worth reading in full. But an excerpt helps set the tone:
The strategies necessary to address these evolving threats [to free speech] are also evolving, but the simplistic view of some – that our police department can simply step in and stop violent confrontations whenever they occur – ignores reality.  Protecting public safety in these circumstances requires a multifaceted approach.  This approach must take into account the use of “time, place, and manner” guidelines, devised according to the specific threats presented.  Because threats or strategic concerns may differ, so must our approach.  In all cases, however, we only seek to ensure the successful staging of free speech rights; we make no effort to control or restrict the content of expression, regardless of differing political views. 
This is a University, not a battlefield. We must make every effort to hold events at a time and location that maximizes the chances that First Amendment rights can be successfully exercised and that community members can be protected. While our commitment to freedom of speech and expression remains absolute, we have an obligation to heed our police department’s assessment of how best to hold safe and successful events.
[...]
If UCPD believes there is a significant security threat attendant to a particular event, we cannot allow it to be held in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass; in any space that does not meet basic safety criteria established by UCPD.  This is the sole reason we could not accommodate Ms. Coulter on April 27th, and the very reason we offered her alternative dates in early May and September, when venues that satisfy safety requirements are available.
Contrary to some press reports and circulating narratives, the UC Berkeley administration did not cancel the Coulter event and has never prohibited Ms. Coulter from coming on campus.  Instead, we received a request to provide a venue on one single day, chosen unilaterally by a student group without any prior consultation with campus administration or law enforcement.  After substantial evaluation and planning by our law enforcement professionals, we were forced to inform the group that, in light of specific and serious security threats that UCPD’s intelligence had identified, there was no campus venue available at a time on that date where the event could be held safely and without disruption.  We offered an alternative date for the event (which was rejected) and offered to work with the group to find dates in the future when the event could occur. Throughout this process our effort has been to support our students’ desire to hold their event safely and successfully. 
Now to be 100%, crystal clear: Violence or disruption, or threats thereof, to prevent Ann Coulter's speech is wrong and unjustifiable (and was unjustifiable when used against Milo). Ditto had Berkeley sought to cancel Coulter's speech outright (which again, it did not do). The people who engage in such violence are engaging in a wrong -- a serious wrong, a wrong that is antithetical to norms of free speech and free inquiry -- even when the subject is someone like Ann Coulter. One can believe that while simultaneously believing that Ann Coulter is a repulsive White supremacist who deserves naught but our scorn. And so the threats that Chancellor Dirks refers to are threats that cut to the heart of a free academic community. They should be investigated, and they should be dealt with.

But UC-Berkeley did not make those threats. UC-Berkeley did not engage in that censorship. And the way Berkeley, as an institution, treated Coulter seems eminently reasonable. Clearly, Berkeley has an interest in ensuring the event goes off safely. Clearly, and as an institution committed to free speech, it has an interest in creating conditions where her speech occurs without incident, obstruction, or unlawful disruption. Clearly, it can impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions to try to limit the damage and obstruction that might be caused by those persons making unjustified threats and promising unlawful riots. Surely this is them taking the responsible course of action, yes?

Placing Ann Coulter "in a venue with a limited number of exits; in a hall that cannot be cordoned off; in an auditorium with floor to ceiling glass" is a recipe for free speech disaster (not to mention the budgetary disaster for Berkeley when the -- quite literal -- damage has been done). And while there are limits to what sorts of venue-restrictions one could impose without violating free speech -- obviously they couldn't stick her in a broom closet and "allow" the speech to proceed freely -- that's not what happened here. Berkeley made a reasonable effort to reasonably accommodate Coulter's speech while reasonably insisting that the speech occur in a time, place, and manner that didn't cause chaos. That's entirely consistent with our free speech tradition. That's Berkeley behaving responsibly in the face of community members who were threatening to behave irresponsibly, even criminally. That's Berkeley seeking to facilitate, not censor, Coulter's speech.

So why is it being interpreted otherwise? The argument seems to be that when Berkeley institutes any sort of specific procedures or guidelines to facilitate the free speech of controversial speakers likely to face illegitimate obstruction, it's "giving in" to threats -- or worse, tacitly endorsing them. To quote my old college buddy Jim Kiner: "This is America. Someone giving a speech shouldn't have to worry about the size of the windows." (Of course, it's not Coulter who has to worry about the windows -- they aren't hers to worry about. Ann Coulter can be blissfully indifferent regarding their fate. It's Berkeley -- the property-owner -- who's concerned, and it seems clearly reasonable for them to take limited steps to ensure that their property isn't destroyed in the wake of their indifferent houseguest's visit).

Can we say that, in a good world, Berkeley wouldn't need to have these procedures for managing threats to outside speakers because everyone would respect everyone else's right to speak unmolested? Yes (though in such a good world nobody would be inviting repulsive trolls like Coulter to speak in the first place). But the Berkeley-blame for all this is strange, bordering on bizarre. In a good world nobody would try to hijack an airplane. Sadly, we don't live in that world, and so the TSA has certain procedures designed to manage the threat of terrorist hijackings while allowing us to travel freely -- procedures we only need because some people behave unlawfully, wrongfully, terroristically. Those procedures can be debated as too lenient or too harsh, but I've yet to hear anyone say that by having them the TSA was tacitly endorsing or normalizing terrorism. Responding to the reality of an unjustified threat is not the same thing as justifying or legitimizing that threat. Berkeley has to live in the world that exists, not the world of its dreams, and when it does so it doesn't endorse our fallen state. Rioters are wrong for rioting, but Berkeley is not wrong for taking reasonable steps to account for living in a world where rioting happens.

Which brings us back to the question in the title: Did Ann Coulter really want to speak at Berkeley? Does she really want Berkeley to succeed in creating a space for her to speak without obstruction, disruption, or incident? I'm dubious. She came to Berkeley because she wanted to be a martyr -- either canceled outright or censorially disrupted. For Berkeley to succeed in offering her a space where none of that would happen thwarts her goals. After all, accepting Berkeley's terms would mean that her speech would likely not be shut down, or disrupted, or even been particularly noteworthy. It would have to attract attention solely by the merits of her ideas. No wonder she found it unacceptable.

This, in fact, is what happened with Horowitz. He too was offered a different venue -- one which promised that his speech would be able to occur freely, without incident or disruption, and receiving only so much attention as was warranted by his fame, merit, and talent. And once that became the deal, his booking agent decided (I know this from first-hand sources) that the new offer to speak -- one which was unlikely to spark massive protests or demonstrations, but would simply allow his talk to occur in peace -- was unworthy of his time. What's the point of coming to Berkeley if you're not going to get run out of town?

And so here were see the horns of the dilemma Berkeley finds itself in. On the one hand, it is facing a community (often not primarily comprised of students) which behaves in ways which are censorial and intolerable towards particular viewpoints (that these viewpoints are fairly characterized as racist ones does not justify said censorship). And so it takes steps to counteract these violent tendencies and ensure that its doors nonetheless remain open to speakers of all sorts, even the most repulsive ones, without incident. But then it discovers that actually, many of these speakers desire nothing more than to be "censored", to be "shut down", to be the proof of the intolerant liberal campus and the censorial lefties who can't handle their ideas. The worst thing that could happen to them is a Berkeley which successfully manages to enable their speech without incident. The whole point is for there to be an "incident". The whole point is to become a martyr.

And so if they're not "censored," they'll just drop out and say they were anyway. And their gullible followers will eat it up.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Radical Feminism Takes Over Zionist Sharia!!!!!!

In a story that has something in it for everyone, the Israeli government just appointed the first Muslim woman, Hana Khatib, to one of its official Sharia law courts. Yes, that's right: Israel has Sharia law courts. And, as it happens, Jewish women still are prohibited from serving on Israel's official Jewish Rabbinical courts, so this is an area where Israeli Muslim women are actually more equal than their Jewish counterparts.

Female judges on official Muslim courts are rare worldwide, but not unheard of. According to the Arab News, for example, the Palestinian Authority has two women on its religious judiciary roster.

In any event, congratulations to Ms. Khatib, and condolences to the various medical professionals worldwide who are no doubt dealing with misogynists, anti-Zionists, and Islamophobes simultaneously having their heads explode.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Bank Robber Turned Georgetown Law Prof is a Bad Example of White Privilege

Shon Hopwood robbed a bank, and served 11 years in prison. While incarcerated, he studied in the prison law library and -- incredibly -- authored two cert petitions that were ultimately granted by the Supreme Court. This caught the attention of former Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who collaborated with Hopwood once the first of these cases was accepted for argument. Upon release from prison in 2009, Hopwood attended the University of Washington Law School and later clerked on the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for  the D.C. Circuit.

His story is already familiar to many lawyers -- his sentencing judge, Judge Richard Kopf of the District of Nebraska, publicly ate crow after admitting that he thought Hopwood was a low-life who'd never make anything of himself -- and for my part I distinctly recall read his clerkship application when I worked for Judge Diana E. Murphy on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. His was a remarkable tale, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime story one doesn't soon forget.

Now Hopwood is back in the news after he was hired to teach at Georgetown Law School. And a few people, including my good friend Joel Sati, have reacted by labeling his case one of "white privilege". I checked in with another friend and official privilege expert/skeptic Phoebe Maltz Bovy, and she was okay with the usage in this case. But -- despite generally being more comfortable with "privilege" discourse than Bovy -- I found it's deployment here to be off-base, and I thought I might explain why.

The obvious angle of attack, of course, would be to say that to talk of "white privilege" in Hopwood's case obscures his incredible accomplishments, talent, hard work, and so on. The retort to this would be that "privilege"-speak actually denies none of these things, but rather is the observation that a similarly-situated Black man would never be given the same opportunity Hopwood had for redemption. And so the crux of my hesitation is that I'm actually not convinced that this is true. I actually think academia would respond quite positively to a Black man whom, while in prison for bank robbery, authored two cert petitions that were ultimately accepted by the Supreme Court. That's an incredible (in the literal sense -- it defies credibility) accomplishment, and one that I think would be difficult to overlook no matter the race of the inmate. Of course, it is so incredible because it is breathtakingly rare -- there almost certainly isn't another inmate of any race who has managed to walk that particular path, and so the counterfactual remains wholly hypothetical.

However.

Let's say I'm right, and our hypothetical black male inmate did author two successful cert petitions and then was upon his release accepted into law school, allowed to take the bar, hired for a prestigious clerkship, and ultimately employed as an elite law professor. And suppose someone pointed to that man and said "Aha! There's no 'racism' in our prison system! Look at [Black Shon Hopwood]: He worked hard and made something of himself, and see how successful he is now. Instead of complaining so much about 'racism', why don't people try following his example?"

Such an argument would not be remotely compelling. Why not? Because the fact that a truly extraordinary individual can transcend the barriers of the incarceration system tells us virtually nothing about how that system operates on average men and women. To say to a regular prison serving out a prison term "your destiny is in your hands now: all you have to do is teach yourself law while incarcerated and become so proficient at it that you can write two briefs that will be accepted for hearing by the Supreme Court, and you can successfully reenter society" is a ridiculous joke. It is the beyond-parody version of thinking of civil rights in terms of the "talented tenth" (or tenth of a tenth of a tenth) instead of the "normal ninethieth." We would, in the case of "Black Shon Hopwood", rightly reject the notion that his story tells us anything useful about racial inequality or injustice as it pertains to persons convicted of crimes generally. But the argument that Black Shon Hopwood is abnormal and aberrational is inconsistent with the argument that White Shon Hopwood is illustrative and representative. The latter argument is alluring because such cases stick in the public eye. But the former argument is the right one.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander speaks of the propensity to take the life stories of exceptional Black men and women -- the Barack Obamas and Oprah Winfreys -- and use them as baselines for the typical Black experience. These are not typical stories, and so they have little to tell us about what equality or fair opportunity means for the typical Black man or woman. The problem with our prison system, or our educational system, or our political system, is not that it makes it impossible for the ludicrously talented to succeed. As Bella Abzug famously put it, "Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor; it is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel." So too, we might say, the struggle for racial justice for the incarcerated is not to get a Black Shon Hopwood hired as a paralegal. It's to ensure that the typical Black inmate has the same opportunities on release as the typical White inmate* -- neither of whom is likely to resemble Shon Hopwood in any meaningful respect.

That White privilege interacts with our prison system is undeniable. And in particular, it is clear that White ex-felons have a far better chance of being hired or given other opportunities than the Black colleagues upon release (indeed, the former's chance is equivalent to that of a Black man with no criminal record at all). That's White privilege not in an exceptional case, but in an appallingly ordinary form -- not tied to an extraordinary, nearly sui generis case like Hopwood, but as applied to regular people who are not going and should not be expected to write multiple successful Supreme Court cert petitions. Focusing on Hopwood's case is not just wrong analytically, it perpetuates the destructive frame whereby we focus anti-racism discourse on exceptional cases and then blame everyday people for not living up to near-unattainable ideal.

Most people -- Black or White -- aren't exceptional. They're normal. And for anti-racist politics to help them, it must break the habit of relying on the high-profile and high-octane cases to establish the circumstances faced by the normal, the unremarkable, the banal, and the everyday.

* And that both have opportunities that substantively offer them a real chance to integrate back into society as equal members.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I'd Do Anything for France, But I Won't Do That

The first round of the 2017 French presidential elections has concluded, and center-to-center-left Emmanuel Macron (23.8%) will face far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen (21.7%) in the runoff. Center-right candidate Francois Fillon came in third with 20%, while Communist-backed lefitst Jean-Luc Melenchon placed fourth at 19.4%. Benoit Hamon of the incumbent Socialist Party came in a distant fifth with 6.3%.

Le Pen's National Front Party has roots that are fairly described as fascist, and she is a fierce opponent of the EU. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin both are fans of Le Pen. And with Macron advancing to the run-off, he quickly earned the endorsements of erstwhile opponents Fillon and Hamon, as well from the French and Belgian Prime Ministers and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As for Melenchon: he won't endorse anyone in round two. Like Corbynistas in the UK, for all its "by any means necessary" pretensions the French far-left actually isn't willing to do what it takes to stop the far-right from winning. It turns out that it's one thing to oppose fascism by calling for the radical overthrow of the capitalist state and the seizure of the means of production, and it's quite another to do something truly radical like ... vote for a more centrist candidate.

The fact that Melenchon basically has the same view as Le Pen when it comes to the EU (compared to the definitively pro-EU Macron) probably isn't helping matters either -- and the far-left/far-right convergence around Euro-skepticism also buttresses the Corbyn comparison.

Fortunately, polls have Macron smashing Le Pen in a head-to-head race. But still, we've been deceived by polls before. And the decision by Melenchon to, in effect, join Trump and Putin in propping up Le Pen is recklessly irresponsible and deserves nothing but our scorn.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

My How the Pendulum Swings

A professor at Arizona State permitted his students to hold a protest on an issue of their choice as their final project. Students elect to do so. Conservative commenters view this as inappropriate. Said commenters then demanded that the university take official action against the students. Awaiting soul-searching think pieces from other conservative intellectuals about growing illiberalism in their community, how, even if one disagrees with the decision of the professor or the students, it clearly falls within the parameters of academic freedom and First Amendment protected activity, and how the way to respond to speech one dislikes is with more speech etc. etc. in 3 ... 2 ... forever ....

The thing is, conservative discourse about American academia swings, pendulum like, between "college is a cesspool of leftists indoctrination which must be stamped out" and "college is about encountering difficult ideas and if you don't like it, you hate freedom." Some people have the courage of their convictions. Most people are rather fair-weather.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Put Up or Shut Up

There are about a million and one things I dislike about Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly's recent speech on immigration policy. But there's one part that has a grain of truth to it:
[F]or members of Congress who don’t like the laws, Kelly said they “should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Even this passage is mostly wrong. But I will say this: I'm sick and tired of members of Congress who somberly say that they don't necessarily support this or that Trump immigration policy, that we need to be humane, that we shouldn't be tearing apart families, that we should protect DREAMers and DACA recipients -- and then proceed to do nothing tangible about it. If you're in Congress, your value-added isn't what you say on a talk show. It's the bills you write, the hearings you hold, and the votes you cast. And while talk can matter as a means of rallying and crystallizing public support, ultimately, if your chatter isn't backed up along those metrics (bills/hearings/votes), it's meaningless to me.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Epidemiology of Antisemitism

The New York Times has hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, lately of the Wall Street Journal, to provide an additional conservative perspective to the Grey Lady. Controversy immediately erupted, first over Stephens status as a climate-change denier, and then more recently over a 2016 column that characterized antisemitism as "the disease of  the Arab mind" (it came in the context of an Egyptian Olympian who refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor).

NYT Cairo Bureau chief kicked off the discussion with this tweet:


And his colleague Max Fisher succinctly articulating what I think is our legitimate squeamishness at hearing an entire group of people characterized as possessing a "disease of the mind."


Now, I've responded to a Bret Stephens column once, and it was not one I was impressed by -- a tiresome bit of neocolonialist claptrap seeking to establish which peoples are sufficiently civilized to deserve self-determination. So I don't have any particular interest in defending Stephens per se.

That said, this controversy did interest me because of an angle I don't think I've yet seen explored: the widespread literature on the "epidemiological" approach to racism. I first came across this view in an article by prominent Critical Race Theorist Charles Lawrence III, but it is hardly restricted to him. It is a perspective that is at least familiar to anyone who spends significant time in the literature on contemporary racism and prejudice.

The epidemiological view treats racism as, well, a disease -- a public health crisis that demands intervention. Among the motivations for articulating racism in this way is the belief that an epidemiological approach steps away from the focus on conscious choices (we don't choose to be infected) and with it, the politics of blame (we don't view cancer patients as being morally inferior because they have a disease). Rather, thinking of racism as a disease channels our focus onto (a) the devastating social consequences that can occur when racism is widespread and unchecked, and (b) what we can do to check the spread and, eventually, find a cure.

As it turns out, the use of the epidemiological approach for antisemitism has deep roots -- deeper, perhaps, than its use to analyze racism. Re-reading Lawrence's article while writing this post, I discovered that it actually contains a significant discussion of antisemitism as disease, as an epidemic -- and one that he investigates through the specific case of Black antisemitism right alongside the parallel case of Jewish racism.  Even more interestingly, a 1949 book by Carey McWilliams on "Anti-Semitism in America" claims to have found "hundreds" of examples of antisemitism being defined in epidemiological terms -- a "theme" that runs through descriptions of what antisemitism is. Among the statements he found was the claim that antisemitism is, simply, "a disease of Gentile peoples."

Under this view, then, the rhetoric of epidemiology and disease is meant to be gentler -- not stigmatizing to those it labels, not concerned with separating out the bad people from the good. But as Fisher observes, there is at the very least another set of tropes associated with "disease" rhetoric that is not so benign. Under the latter usage, "disease" connotes those groups which are dirty and mutated; those who need to be isolated, sequestered, or purged. Rhetoric of various outgroups -- including Jews, Arabs, immigrants of all backgrounds -- being "diseased" and therefore dangerous has a been a staple of racist fearmongering for generations. Again, it is not for nothing that we squirm when we hear talk of a group being "diseased".

I don't think that Stephens was intentionally referring to the literature on the epidemiology of racism. But leaving his particular case aside, here's my question: Do the concerns of Fisher et al mean that the epidemiological approach is inherently tainted and must be abandoned? If not, what interventions are necessary so as to use the method (and its necessarily attendant rhetoric of disease, infection, and so on) without triggering these problematic associations?

My familiarity with the epidemiological approach gives me some sympathy towards it -- I think it is at least a useful way of thinking through how racism and antisemitism operate, how they spread, and how they should be combatted. Yet at the same time, my familiarity with how rhetoric of disease is used to degrade and dehumanize means I am sympathetic to the concerns that it would do so here. The questions in the previous paragraph are those made entirely in earnest, and I in turn invite earnest replies.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The New Charles Murray, For Those Who Don't Know Him

A group of researchers decided to circulate a copy of Charles Murray's Middlebury College speech -- without saying who it was by -- in order to measure how readers gauged its political valence (did they think it was a liberal speech, a conservative speech, or a centrist speech?). They found that, without knowing who it was by, their sample of college professors viewed it as rather middle-of-the-road (5.05 on a 1-9 scale, where 1 is very conservative and 9 is very liberal). They also sent different portions of the speech to a random online sample group; averaging their responses together the speech got a 5.22 rating. Finally, they sent the speech to another group of college professors -- this time telling them Murray was the author. With that knowledge they rated the speech at 5.77 -- still basically "middle-of-the-road", albeit apparently more conservative by a statistically significant amount.

I'm actually not too surprised by this: my understanding is that Murray's recent work on American class divisions is not particularly conservative and certainly not as inflammatory as The Bell Curve's musings on race/IQ linkages. I would genuinely be curious about how readers would label the controversial portions of The Bell Curve under this methodology, mostly because I'm curious how most of us would "code" of that sort given contemporary political dynamics.

I do think there was some obscurantism -- sometimes deliberate -- regarding what Murray was going to be talking about at Middlebury and in other lectures. His challenged lectures were not going to be about The Bell Curve, which is widely discredited in the academic literature, but about this new class-related research, which has not been the subject of such scholarly disdain and which seems on face to fall well within the normal range of academic discourse. My initial instinct is that there's something off-putting about protesting a speaker not for what they will say, but for what they had said years ago that they will not be talking about in this lecture.

That said, I suspect part of what's going on is the idea that for a certain type of white conservative intellectual, it is impossible to discredit yourself such that you're no longer deemed a worthy entrant into public conversation; whereas for many outgroups there's a "one strike and you're out" standard where they are forever haunted by bad speeches, books, or ideas they propagated years ago (witness the treatment of Keith Ellison). The protests are an expression of the frustration that -- as Matt Yglesias put it -- "Charles Murray ... manages to be a best-selling author, in-demand speaker, have a think tank gig and be a free speech martyr."

None of this excuses illiberal modes of shutting down speech (see my endorsement of Jill Filopovic's column following the Middlebury event). But I think we can hold multiple thoughts at the same time:
  1. That Charles Murray's Bell Curve work is widely discredited and generally thought of as racist claptrap;
  2. That Charles Murray's present work -- what he currently lectures on -- is not particularly politically polarizing (and -- perhaps this is the more controversial point -- that someone who produces racist claptrap can also produce interesting arguments which fall entirely into the accepted range of ongoing political controversies);
  3. That many people are not like Charles Murray in that we have no interest in ever looking past bad statements, and it is not shall we say random who gets to make comebacks and who is permanently haunted by their past; and
  4. That, however we choose to manage the tensions elucidated by observations 1 through 3, certain types of remedies (like governmental censorship or censorial disruptions) are off the table as violations of free academic inquiry.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Goys Tell Jews How To Fix Passover

When I first started reading this story about a "Passover Against Apartheid" event at Canada's Concordia University, I figured it was about an anti-Zionist Jewish group doing an alternative seder that emphasized various left/liberatory themes and de-emphasizes/degrades Jewish connections to Israel (my understanding is that Jewish Voice for Peace publishes a haggadah for precisely this purpose). And while I'm obviously no fan of such activity on the substance, procedurally speaking I'd have no objection. Jews-not-me are allowed to practice Jewishness in ways I don't like or approve of; the fact that they take a message from Passover that I find distasteful is their prerogative.

But it turns out that the folks reinterpreting Passover as a critique of "Israel's apartheid state" and suggesting alternatives to "Next Year in Jerusalem" were not exactly who I thought:
“Passover Against Apartheid” - put together by the Concordia Student Union, the Fine Arts Student Alliance and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights groups - included sponsorship from no Jewish organizations.
So basically, this was a bunch of non-Jews coming in to explain Jews how to do Passover right. Indeed, the manner in which the flyers were distributed suggests that they wanted to avoid substantive Jewish presence at all.  And that I think I am justified in finding extra-special gross.

The term that's being used in a lot of the stuff I'm reading on this is "cultural appropriation", and while for me that concept has quite a bit of baggage (see here for a bit on why) I wouldn't necessarily object to its deployment here. That said, I'd rather just talk of it as part of a perceived entitlement by non-Jews to dictate to Jews the contours of our identity, culture, practices and beliefs. We saw similar behavior out of the Church of Scotland a few years ago, and from the UK's Methodist Church a few years before that. It is among the most central elements of what might be called global antisemitic patrimony: the authority, indeed the right, held by non-Jews to define the Jew. This entitlement, borne initially out of Christian and Muslim domination of Jewish bodies, is deeply embedded into modernity -- hence why it is seen as an entitlement, something non-Jews are simply owed, something that counts as an outrageous loss when it is challenged or stripped.
For thousands of years, for much of the world, part of the cultural patrimony enjoyed by all non-Jews—spiritual and secular, Church and Mosque, enlightenment and romantic, European and Middle Eastern—was the unquestionable right to stand superior over Jews. It was that right which the Holocaust took away, or at least called into question: the unthinking faith of knowing you were the more enlightened one, the spiritually purer one, the more rational one, the dispenser of morality rather than the object of it. To be sure, some people were better positioned to enjoy this right than others. And some people arrived onto the scene late in the game, only to discover that part of the bounty they were promised may no longer be on the table. Of course they’re aggrieved! The European immigrant who never owned a slave but was at least promised racial superiority is quite resentful when the wages of Whiteness stop being what they once were. Similarly, persons who lived far from the centers of Christian or Muslim power where Jewish subordination was forged are nonetheless well aware of what was supposed to be included in modernity’s gift basket. They recognize what they’ve “lost” as acutely as anyone else.
“The Germans,” the old saying goes, “will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” And not just the Germans. Many people deeply resent the Jews for what Auschwitz took away from them—the easy knowledge that their vantage point was elevated over and superior to that of the Jews, the entitlement to be able to talk about Jews without having to listen to Jews.
This is what is happening at Concordia. It is yet another manifestation of  the "willful refusal on the part of the global left to adopt any other position other than teacher/master to Jewish servant/children. To borrow from George Yancy, they 'admit[] of no ignorance vis-à-vis the [Jew]. Hence, there is no need for ... silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the [Jew].'" It is a practice and behavior that is pervasive, is systemic, and is antisemitic root-to-branch. It needs to be rooted out.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Shoes Might Save You This Time

This is a very interesting article by McMillan Cottom explaining why poor people seem to "waste" money buying certain luxury goods (especially clothes). Cottom, whose family experienced multigenerational poverty, explains that such purchases can serve important signaling functions that -- sometimes -- facilitate successful navigation of institutions which might allow for upward mobility. The parent who "looks" middle-class (and therefore looks like she knows how to raise a stink) might be more successful at insuring her school doesn't overlook the needs of her child. The job applicant who "looks" professional (and how often have we all gotten the advice of how important professional appearances are!) might be more likely to be picked out for a higher-status job with greater benefits. Even the supplicant seeking public benefits who "looks" like she knows how to navigate the bureaucratic maze may be more likely to get favorable attention from the various officials and functionaries whose discretionary judgment can make or break a case.

The essay is a useful corrective to the instinct of many to assume the irrationality of the poor -- particularly when they make choices that at first blush make no sense to us (the infamous "If I Were a Poor Black Kid"  essay is a classic of the genre). Very frequently, choices that seem "bad" from the outside have a logic to them -- albeit often a logic born out of coercion and impossible choices -- that makes them quite sensible to persons actually living in the relevant circumstances. It's easy to say "joining a gang is a bad choice." It's harder to say that if not joining a gang means that the gang will gang-rape your sister, or beat you bloody every day before school. It's easy to say "the quick money from dealing drugs isn't worth the long-term consequences of ruining your future." It's harder to say that if your discounted utility is such that you can say "I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."

Put another way, if people aren't making what we deem to be good, pro-social choices, we can conclude either:
  1. They have malsocial preferences (they're "bad people" who don't have a good set of ends);
  2. They're irrational (their choices don't lead to their desired ends); or
  3. The incentive structures are wrong (their rational choices, in pursuit of reasonable ends, nonetheless don't yield pro-social results).
Frequently, we rush to explanations #1 and #2 -- ones which pathologize the poor (and other outgroups). But explanation #3 will frequently be more plausible (not to mention less degrading). And essays like this, which disturb the idea that poor people are simply stupid or diseased, can help point us towards other interventions that view the poor as we view ourselves -- as generally good, rational people who want a basically decent life and are trying as best they can, within the limits of their resources, to secure those ends.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Predictable Punditry, Today

In a surprise announcement, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has thrown his hat in the ring to try and secure his old job. He will likely be running against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who brokered the Iran Deal with the US and is perceived as a moderate in comparison to the hardline Ahmadinejad.

Just to save everyone time, allow me to give you an advance copy of the various partisan pundits' takes on the outcome of this election:

If Ahmadinejad loses:

Republicans: "Now that America has gotten tough under Trump, hostile nations like Iran know better than to cross the US!"

Democrats: "Turns out that when you negotiate with a country rather than insist on it being an eternal international pariah, you decrease the appeal of the nation's extremist faction. Fancy that."

If Ahmadinejad wins:

Republicans: "I thought the Iran Deal was supposed to moderate Iran? Thanks Obama!"

Democrats: "Wow, you mean aggressive Islamophobia and saber-rattling by Donald Trump ends up emboldening radical forces in the Middle East? Who could have known?"

Monday, April 10, 2017

Syrian Kids Are Good Enough To Kill For, Not Good Enough To Save

On Syria, I have for the last several years stuck to the position that (a) it's an incredibly complicated and delicate situation with many moving parts that (b) doesn't admit to easy or obvious answers. During the Obama administration, I observed that many Republicans seemed to deal with this difficulty by waiting for Obama to tip his hand as to what he would do, so they could immediately and fervently advocate the opposite. This being a bad way to come to one's policy beliefs, I decided I would refrain from making sweeping pronouncements favoring or denouncing either interventionist or non-interventionist activities.

That logic continues to hold with respect to the recent airstrike launched by the Trump administration, done in response to a horrifying chemical weapon attack perpetuated by the Assad regime that yielded some ghastly images of dead or wounded Syrian men, women, and children. I don't think it is something that should evoke strong feelings -- if for no other reason than it was virtually entirely symbolic (the targeted airfield quickly was restored to operational status). In terms of actual, tangible policy towards Syria, the main differences between Trump and Obama can expressed succinctly as follows:
Trump would rather Syrian children die in Syria than survive in the US.
That's all. I suppose you could also say that Trump's wildly oscillating views on whether Assad should stay or go count as a "difference", and it doesn't strike me as implausible that the Trump administration publicly declaring that we no longer wanted Assad out is what emboldened the dictator to launch his chemical strike.

But really, this is the main difference. Syria is a complex, difficult situation, but what's incontestable is that it is producing a refugee population which wants nothing more than to escape the horrifying violence in Syria. The Obama administration wanted to rescue those civilians. The Trump administration insists that they stay in Syria and die. That's the function of the refugee ban. That's Trump's signature policy vis-a-vis Syria. Not a few rockets from a Navy destroyer.

Anyone who is chest-puffing about the toughness of Trump re: Syria who isn't appalled by the refugee ban gets a first-class ticket to my list of people whom I have no interest in listening to on Syria.

That was the main point I wanted to make, but briefly I also want to discuss concerns over the lack of explicit congressional authorization for the strike. The lack of congressional authorization is what deterred Obama from attacking Assad directly, though he did launch airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria on a regular basis, and in any event Obama previously had attacked Libya without authorization (misgivings over the results of that action no doubt acted to stay Obama's hands when Syria proceeded to flare up). While I'm not opposed to congressional authorization requirements per se, the fact is that Congress virtually never presses the issue and it's therefore been a non-issue for every presidential administration in my lifetime -- used almost exclusively as one-off partisan attacks. Congress, indeed, seems very much to prefer not having the responsibility for authorizing military force rest on its shoulders -- the same voices crowing about how Trump is strong and Obama is weak seemed utterly uninterested in actually getting the Republican Congress to actually commit to voting to endorse such actions.

So I can't bring myself to care about the lack of congressional authorization either way. Presidents of all parties and stripes take actions like this regularly, it is not worse nor better when President Trump does it. Ditto international law issues, where (as Julien Ku wryly observes) everyone thinks the attack on Syria was illegal except for virtually all the governments in the world.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Is This a Bit?

Reza Aslan says he's "worried about Israel's future" because of the growing numbers of Haredi Jews. The article (which apparently is a version of a segment he's presenting on CNN's "Believer"), notes the high birth rates of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and suggests that they will do unto Israel what political Islamists did to Iran in the late 1970s.

I have to say, though, I don't think the objective of this piece is to express deep concerns about Israel. I don't even think it's to make genuine observations about Haredi Jewry. Rather, this pieces reads to me like Aslan wanted to do something of a bit: taking well-worn tropes about how people talk about Muslims, Islam, and Islamism, and applying them to Jews.

I'm not a huge fan of this sort of writing, particularly when (as here) it isn't clearly satirical. Indeed, if anything the problem is that it's too earnest -- it speaks in a way that seems to be less about showing the absurdity of certain ways we talk about Muslims, and more in a way that seeks to (further) legitimate talking that way of talking about Jews. Overall, the presentation is done in such a way as to otherize and (dare I say) orientalize religious Jewry. Take the following passage:
[A]ccording to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 86% of ultra-Orthodox Jews want Israel to be a theocratic state governed by Jewish law, known as "halakha."
If the way he's talking about "halakha" sounds exactly like how countless articles talk about "sharia law", it should, because it does. If it makes you cringe to hear halakha presented as simply a force of backwards inegalitarian theocracy then every article which talks about sharia in the same way should make you cringe; and if you cringe at articles which portray sharia as univocally representing the most reactionary and anti-modernist forms of Islam then you should cringe at this piece as well.

To be clear: there are things to be worried about regarding growing Haredi influence in Israel. Their politics aren't mine, and they openly discriminate and subordinate Jews like myself and my partner. Judaism, like Islam, is as it does, and so we as Jews have an obligation to act out Jewishness in ways that are consistent with ethical commitments and to resist those wings of Judaism that are inconsistent with modern, egalitarian forms of life. At the same time, in a world beset by horrible stereotypes of what it means to be Jewish (or Muslim), it should not offend us that these are delicate conversations that need to be handled with considerable grace and care. Broad-brush strokes which seek to delegitimize huge swaths of the faith community en masse are inappropriate, do more harm than good, and often seem more motivated by exclusionary impulses than genuine efforts to facilitate inclusion.