Saturday, February 25, 2006

Irrational Response

But you know what, it was an irrational idea to begin with.

In Ohio, a bill has been interested by state Republicans to bar homosexuals from adopting children. It's a spectacularly stupid idea--if not outright unconstitutional--and only serves to harm underprivileged children who need a family more than they need to be political playthings.

So, in response, Ohio State Senator Robert Hagen (D) has drafted a counter-bill, to prohibit Republicans from adopting children. Oh the irony. Hagen argues that children in Republican families are at increased risk of "emotional problems, social stigmas, inflated egos, and alarming lack of tolerance for others they deem different than themselves and an air of overconfidence to mask their insecurities." Of course, he admits he has no solid scientific data to back it up--but then, neither do the anti-gay adoption forces, so that washes.

If nothing else, great political theater. Irrational discrimination is irrational discrimination, be it against gays or conservatives.

Friday, February 24, 2006

When Good Men Do Nothing

UNC Law Professor and Japanese Internment expert Eric Muller tells a fascinating and revealing story of the immediate aftermath of WWII. I reprint the relevant part here:
He [a former Nazi party bill collector] asked me whether I had known anybody connected with the West Coast deportation. When I said "no," he asked me what I had done about it. When I said "Nothing," he said, triumphantly, "There. You learned about all these things openly, through your government and your press. We did not learn through ours. As in your case, nothing was required of us--in our case, not even knowledge. You knew about things you thought were wrong -- you did think it was wrong, didn't you, Herr Professor?" "Yes." "So. You did nothing. So it is everywhere." When I protested that the Japanese-descended Americans had not been treated like the Jews, he said, "And if they had been -- what then? Do you not se that the idea of doing something or doing nothing is in either case the same?"

On the one hand, not doing anything in the face of a moderate injustice is not as bad as not doing anything in the face of a serious injustice, which in turn is not as bad as doing nothing during a grave injustice. On the other hand, the rationalizing procedures we use to justify our inaction remain roughly the same throughout. So when we let moderate injustices slide by, it is highly indicative that we would do the same even if the sin committed were far more shocking.

In other words, the average American's indifference toward Japanese Internment is not, morally, equivilant to German indifference toward the Holocaust. But it is strong evidence that, if our policy toward the Japanese was one of extermination rather than internment, we'd have not protested then either.

I'm not even sure I believe that. I think values count for something, and I think that America has a sufficiently strong tradition (at least by 1942) of not sanctioning random killing in its own borders such that such a move would not be tolerated. But yet, counter-examples abound--lynch mobs, genocide of Native Americans, even the fire-bombing of Dresden or the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all indicate that our respect for the human life of non-combatant "others" was severely deficient.

Food for thought, anyway.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Gay Palestinians, Israel, and "Collaborators"

My TMV co-blogger HollyRob sent me an interesting article in The Forward about Gay Palestinians and their desire to flee to Israel. Anti-gay sentiment is so strong in Palestine (and the Arab world in general) that these people brave tight Israeli border security to try and make it to Tel Aviv. Israel is by far the only state in the Middle East with meaningful tolerance and protection for its homosexual minority.

The article slams Israel for giving virtually no allowance to these asylum seekers. Apparently they were very tough to begin with, and when in 2002 a group of Palestinians used their Israeli identity cards issued under a family re-unification law to assist suicide bombers, the country tightened its laws yet further.

I'm a big advocate for giving bona fide refugees asylum, though I think Israel is a bit of a special case given that it's one of the few countries where "border security" isn't hyperbole but an actual life-and-death matter. I do think that Israel could be doing much more for these people--even they can't keep them in Israel, giving them temporary asylum while negotiating 3rd-country asylum status seems very reasonable (this seems like an issue America could help with immensely). But I think we should keep in mind the context here--the article seems a bit too trigger happy in condemning Israel for not unconditionally granting asylum, and barely even notches a condemnation of Palestine for letting these people be stoned to death if they stay at home.

On that note, I'd like to make a brief aside about something that's bothered me for a long time regarding the I/P issue--calling Palestinians who assist Israel "collaborators." The article used this language in making the argument that Palestinians, knowing how susceptible their gay comrades are to blackmail, assume that they are or are vulnerable to becoming collaborators for fear of exposure. They use it again further:
Several petitions are pending in the Supreme Court in Jerusalem challenging the [asylum] law on constitutional grounds, because there is no exception for those with a well-founded fear of persecution. (There is an exception for people who "identify with the State of Israel and its goals" and who "performed a material act to advance the security" of the state - in other words, collaborators - thus validating the common suspicion among Palestinians.)

I hate this rhetoric. Technically, of course, "collaborator" is value-neutral, it just denotes a person who helps another organization. But in war time, it takes on a very clear connotation of assisting the enemy, of doing wrong. The paradigmatic collaborator is a Nazi collaborator in occupied France. The problem with applying "collaborator" here, then, is that there is almost no way to condemn what these people are doing as "wrong" if one believes (as most people at least profess to) that Palestinian terror operations are evil and should be stopped. Giving intelligence to a body to stop an action that is nominally regarded by both sides as something that needs to be stopped can't rationally be called "collaboration" in the classical sense. The fact that the body is Israel, as opposed to the PA, is completely irrelevant to this analysis--a rational actor could (and almost definitely would) conclude that if he wants his information to actually get in the hands of people who could intervene to stop the violent act, the IDF is far better situated than the PA.

In fact, I think that giving information to the IDF about terrorist attacks is pro-Palestinian, because giving the IDF more specific information let's them tailor their response strategies to particular events, rather than having to depend heavily on general defense strategies that heavily burden the entire populace. In other words, there are two different plausible scenarios here. The first is that the IDF gets little or no information from "collaborators", but still is obviously aware that there is a vibrant terror infrastructure in Palestine, and attacks that are and will continue to come. Without anything in the way of specifics, though, they have to make very general responses--building big walls, really secure checkpoint systems, and invasive sweeps. I'd say that pretty well characterizes the status quo. Alternatively, consider an environment where they get a lot of specific information. Then they can use that information to tailor their responses accordingly. If a town has overall positive views toward Israel and isn't harboring terrorists, it can get much more relaxed security arrangements, while if a city block is a particular terror hotspot, it can get a pinpoint raid without sending troops through the whole town. That's obviously qualitatively better for Palestinians, because it more precisely tailors the burden of Israeli security needs on the people who are actually causing the problem, rather than the population at large.

It may seem counter-intuitive to assert that Palestinians helping the Israeli government aren't in some sense betraying their own people. But that's because we've implicitly come to associate "Palestinian interest" with "terrorism", and I don't think that's fair (one could argue that's closetly racist). Everyone should agree that Palestine would be far better off if it didn't resort to terrorism, just as everyone should agree that Palestine would be better off if it was a free, democratic state. If we agree to these terms, then we should laud Palestinians who are actively stepping up to fight terrorism. That's far more "pro-Palestinian" than anything Hamas has ever done.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Journalistic Narrative

My latest piece for the Carleton Progressive is online. I reprint it here for your reading pleasure. Some of the references are to Carleton-specific institutions like The Lens, but I think the point of the article comes across just fine.

* * *

Last week, in an editorial written in response to the funding controversy for The Lens, The Carletonian made an interesting set of claims about the role of media in society. Defending their reporting from charges of bias, the Viewpoint Editor Patrick Reis laid out a vision of what their obligations were, as journalists, in service to the Carleton community. By far the most interesting was their assertion that they had no duty to screen the accuracy of quotations attributed to individuals. In fact, Mr. Reis argued, to do so would be "the essence of editorializing, a violation of journalistic ethics." Instead, the only legitimate end of the Carletonian is to find differing perceptions among the student body, and accurately report those perceptions.

This is not a viewpoint limited only to the Carletonian. I'd wager that most mainstream media sources abide by it as well. This vision is one of a mirror, a value-less object that uncritically and dispassionately reflects the world around us. In its faux-neutrality, it represents a seductive vision of non-partisanship and objectivity. But progressives around the country are increasingly discovering how the "objective" newspaper is a myth, and how conservative activists are exploiting these journalistic norms to spread falsehoods and lies.

We live in a world of narrative, a world in which things are told as stories. A story, by definition, is only a partial truth--it is impossible to incorporate every viewpoint or perspective into one's tale. But yet, we know that the inclusion of marginalized voices can drastically change our perception of a story; Hamlet seems far less straight-forward to anyone who has read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In political narratives, the stakes are even higher; where the addition of one fact can change intuition greatly, the decision to include or exclude that fact, or any other, is extraordinarily significant. Because every perspective is important, and not all perspectives can be included, any narrative (including newspaper stories) is definitionally biased from the start. Narratives also serve to constrain our perceptions of the world around us--unless constantly challenged, they subconsciously shape our assumptions of political and social actors. There are infinite narratives floating around at any given moment, all which exercise real power--even though the world is too complex to be contained within overarching generalizations. Democrats are dovish wimps, Republicans are manly hawks. Republicans hate gays, Democrats hate Christians. Democrats want to spend lots on social programs, Republicans are stern minders of the deficit. The list could go on indefinitely, but it represents a false picture of reality. For example, there are many hawkish Democrats, and there are excellent reasons to argue that Republican "hawkishness" is actually making our country less safe. However, the former function of narrative--selective inclusion/exclusion of facts--acts to reify the latter; all else being equal, the average reader will default to her pre-existing perceptual horizon when interpreting confusing or controversial events. By not challenging these forms, the media is not acting "objectively" but instead acts in the service of deception.

Two examples might serve to illustrate. Jonathan Chait wrote a spectacular article ["The 9/10 President," The New Republic, 3/10/03] detailing how Republicans gained their advantage on the "national security" issue in the wake of 9/11, despite virulently opposing virtually every security initiative put forth by Democrats in the aftermath of the attack. President Bush and congressional Republicans opposed increasing funding for Hazmat security, securing loose nuclear material, port inspections, communication improvements--in fact, Bush, the president who still has yet to veto a bill, threatened to do just that if congress spent more than the original emergency $20 billion dollars passed immediately after the attacks. At the same time, Democrats, led by Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, proposed establishing a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Bush immediately announced his opposition, only to reverse himself several months later when faced with overwhelming popular support for such a program. But Bush wasn't content to work with Democrats. In a move of astonishing hubris, he then proceeding to accuse the very Democrats who proposed the program in the first place of obstructing it, painting them as opponents of America's national security. The actual point of contention was absurdly superficial and clearly concocted to provoke a fight--Bush wanted to eliminate union protection for future DHS employees, Democrats wanted to preserve it. But the media went dutifully along, reporting Bush's attacks on Democrats while failing to note his previous opposition to the bill or Democrats' vociferous support of it.

Rather than challenge Bush's clearly fictional commitment to national security, the media viewed the matter as one of two competing perceptions in which it could not objectively take sides. But by not taking a side, the media took the Republican side, because it elevated their lies and distortions to the level of Democratic fact. And when neither side's credibility was challenged by the media, Americans simply assumed Republicans were right. Top conservative strategist Grover Norquist explains that the public perception is that "Republicans are tough on crime to the point where they'll take away your civil liberties. Republicans are so tough on foreign policy that they'll flatten cities." The argument, then, that Republicans might actually be weaker than Democrats on these issues was viewed by most Americans as so far-fetched as to be laughable. Indeed, the facade was so successful that Democrats themselves began to adopt it as truth. In the 2004 election, there was a "resume" handed out that listed President Bush's "achievements" during his first term. One such "achievement" sarcastically listed was "the largest increase in federal bureaucracy of all-time, the Department of Homeland Security." I was forced to lecture countless Democratic activists that a) the program was a Democratic initiative, and b) it was actually a good idea.

Alas, the problem gets no better when there are actual "facts" proving one side to be correct. Chait tells the story of then-Governor Bush's promotion of his promised tax cut on the 2000 campaign trail. One of the key Democratic responses was that his cuts were slanted heavily to the wealthy. Vice President Al Gore cited non-partisan analysis using treasury department models which showed that Bush's tax cuts would give 40% of its benefits to the wealthiest 1% of tax payers. Bush responded with his own analysis purporting to show that only 22% would be so directed. But Bush's analysis was done by his own hired flunkies, and, more importantly, reached its figure by omitting the impact of the estate tax and upper-income bracket cuts--the very cuts most likely to slant toward the rich. Under the Carletonian's standard, "objective" media sources should not challenge Bush's assertion in their coverage of the story, despite the fact that he blatantly lied. And sure enough, the media dutifully reported both "sides" of the debate, with The New York Times reporting that "the richest 1 percent of taxpayers would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits, depending on how the calculations are done." Again, with the media refusing to critically challenge the validity of Republican statements, Americans defaulted to their pre-existing narrative structure--one in which Democrats had no credibility on tax issues. And so the tax cut was passed even though most Americans, when informed of the actual properties of the plan, were clear in their opposition.

Does this mean that media sources should just abandon their pretense of objectivity, and openly advocate for favored political views? Not at all. However, it does mean that these sources must be cognizant of the world around them, and how their powerful function in a democratic society serves to shape popular opinions and perceptions. Both challenging a falsehood, and refusing to challenge it, are equal manifestations of bias. Both incorporating a narrative structure, and attempting to dismantle it, are equal manifestations of bias. Given that reality, why not make truth the tie-breaker? Why not try and paint a more accurate picture of the world, rather than blindly follow the voices of the charlatans? If completely apolitical reflection is impossible (and it is), then journalism as a profession needs to find a new raison d'etre. I submit that purpose be to inform and educate the population.

The Carletonian justifies its reliance on "he-said/she-said" journalism by arguing that it "allow[s] the reader to determine validity for him or herself." Presumably, most mainstream media sources who follow the same paradigm would agree. But most people don't have the tools to determine the validity of a political debate any more than they have the tools to determine the validity of a complex mathematical proof. Or more accurately, they view the media as that tool, and thus see an unchallenged quote present in a story as not just any perspective, but a valid perspective that is in some respects "true." In a world where all actors are arguing in good faith, this might work. But we don't live in that world. It is simply impossible to argue that the media's complaisance with lying gives us a fairer, more deliberative, more informed, or more effective democracy. Refusing to challenge deliberate falsehoods isn't objectivity. It's a bias in favor of slander, an abdication of professional and social responsibility, and it hurts progressive causes in America and around the world.

* * *

You can access this and more liberal articles at the Carleton Progressive's website.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Partial Restoration

The Supreme Court has just released a unanimous decision in O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, a religious freedom case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFLA). I blogged about the case previously, but the analysis I gave in that post was based off a really bad reading of City of Boerne v. Flores on my part, and is thus rather worthless. In any event, the Court ruled that the under the RFRA, the UDV Church could not be prosecuted under federal drug laws for the use of a controlled substance in their sacramental rites.

My TMV co-blogger Andrew Quinn calls the decision "a sloppy way of adjudicating", and thinks the Court needed to make a more "definitive call." Since I think the Court takes too much undeserved flak on it's decisions generally, and on it's religion cases specifically, I'm going to explain why this case was perfectly sensible and adjudicated in precisely the right way.

It's unclear from the post if Andrew has read the decision itself, or just a radio blurb and the brief CNN summary (word to the wise: never undertake to criticize a legal ruling based only on what you hear in the mainstream media. I guarantee you it's been dumbed down to the point where the important legal distinctions have been obliterated), but I think that it might be useful to give a bit of background on the legal context this case operates in. I think that knowing the history would explain why the Court did everything it needed to do, and in fact has answered most of Andrew's objections already.

In the beginning, there was Sherbert v. Verner. Sherbert was a free exercise case, and it basically held that laws which impinge on the free exercise of one's religion have to survive "strict scrutiny." This is the same test that's used in a variety of other fundamental rights contexts, and in a nutshell it says that the law is only valid if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. So, to use Andrew's example, preventing a religious group from engaging in human sacrifice would clearly pass strict scrutiny, because there is a compelling state interest in not letting people kill each other, and there's no real way to meet that interest other than banning it outright. But, for example, if a state wanted to ban religious solicitation because it bothered local homeowners, this probably would fail strict scrutiny, either because "preventing annoyance" is not a compelling state interest, or because an outright ban isn't the narrowest way to achieve that objective (see Cantwell v. Connecticut).

To me and many other folks, this was a very intelligent and common-sense test. However, in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, the Court effectively (if not explicitly) abandoned the Sherbert doctrine, and held that any generally applicable law automatically was not a Free Exercise Clause violation. That is, unless the law explicitly discriminated against a particular religious group, it could not be challenged under the Free Exercise Clause--the government did not have to show a "compelling state interest" or that the law was "narrowly tailored" or anything of the sort. Smith, as it happens, also dealt with sacramental drug use, in this case Native American use of Peyote.

Smith was a tremendously unpopular decision, and Congress quickly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The goal of this act was simple: re-establish the Sherbert test for determining the validity of a general legislative prohibition as applied to a particular act. So, with Peyote, Congress quickly enacted an exception to it's general drug laws saying they don't apply to Peyote. But even had their been no such exemption, now the Native Americans could argue that the prohibition of their Peyote use was not a "compelling state interest" or that the blanket prohibition was not "narrowly tailored" to serve that end. That is, if the compelling state interest behind a blanket prohibition of Peyote is that its unhealthy, the Native Americans might be able to muster evidence that shows that their carefully supervised and monitored religious use has few to none of the health risks associated with recreational use.

Bringing us back to the case at hand, the Court's decision was a relatively straight-forward application of the RFRA. The question is whether or not the government had a compelling interest in prohibiting this group from using a drug essential to their religious practice. The Court concluded that they didn't, for a variety of good reasons they lay out in the opinion itself. This is not, as Andrew describes it, a "hazy grey area", but the application of a very specific federal statute with years of doctrinal history behind it. And the fact that the use of this drug is generally illegal is not "all we need to know", because federal law creates an exception to general laws when it burdens religious practice (subject, again, to the strict scrutiny test). "Compelling state interest" may be contested in certain cases (that's why we have litigation), but the Court here did exactly what it should: it took the pertinent rule (the Sherbert "strict scrutiny" doctrine), and applied it to the facts of the case at hand. That's not "call 'em like we see 'em." That's how one decides cases. The compelling state interest standard clearly answers Andrew's human sacrifice objection, and for situations that are perhaps a closer call, those cases should be decided when they're litigated, not pre-emptively without factual briefings and oral arguments.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Demeaning God

Now here's a shot across the bow by pro-evolution clergy:
"The intelligent design movement belittles God. It makes God a designer, an engineer," said Vatican Observatory Director George Coyne, an astrophysicist who is also ordained. "The God of religious faith is a god of love. He did not design me."

Oh snap. Oh snap.

Strange Bedfellows

They say politics makes them. And "they" are right. The WE Blog (blog of the Wichita Eagle's editorial staff) says that an "ultra-leftist organization" is urging liberals to be more like Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) when it comes to human rights abuses in North Korea. In fact, the group, Ironweed Films, calls Brownback "the strongest congressional advocate for human rights in North Korea" (they've got a petition you can sign too).

I had a conversation with a friend over the weekend, in which we were talking about "principled conservatives" (such a rare specimen these days!). She said that she could respect some principled conservatives, but there were certain types she thought were just flat wrong, like the "social conservatives." I demurred, saying that while I think social conservatives are really, really bad on a host of important issues, their moral passion can also lead them to really stand out on some critical issues that other politicians (Republican and Democrat) would rather just let slide. Brownback, on both North Korea and Darfur, is a perfect example of this. If being a hard-right Christian Conservative makes you more likely to support a Darfur intervention, then I can't bring myself to indict the whole movement (and lest we forget, the Darfur victims are primarily Muslim, not Christian, so this isn't just sectarianism acting up).

On a moral level, it's appalling to think that Democrats are ceding the human rights issue to folks like Brownback (to be fair, most Senators in both parties are pretty weak on the issue). It's distressing that no Democrats have seemed to come out as hard on this issue as he has. But on a political level, I think this is fertile ground for Democrats to bridge the gap to moderate evangelicals who think our party is hostile to everything they stand for. Because it clearly isn't. Sure, we'll probably never come to an agreement on abortion rights. But not torturing prisoners? Not supporting genocidal regimes? Not letting poor people starve? These are "values" too--and ones that Democrats have a clear advantage on. Use that leverage to crack the GOP base, and we'll be reaching that rare pinnacle of doing what's right and what's popular.

Thanks to Patrick Kowalczyk (via e-mail) for the heads-up.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

We're Doomed! DOOMED!

This Dan Drezner post had one of the scarier openings for me that I've seen ("Well, it's time for me to pack it in -- blogs are finished, caput, history."), but the post itself is very interesting (and yes, I'm pretty sure from the post text that the Drez isn't actually quitting). Essentially, its a collection of the latest media articles harbringing the end of the blogosphere. We'll never make a profit, our influence is fleeting, we're too white-male, we'll be co-opted by the hated MSM--oh the horror!

Like Drezner, some of this I agree with, and some of it I don't. I am skeptical that blogging will ever become a profitable activity for more than a few lucky souls. I think we'll continue to have influence, simply because there's a lot of us, because we offer fresh perspectives on the issue, and (perhaps more importantly) we've demonstrated considerable effectiveness at framing issues and (at least at some level) agenda-setting. I'm not particularly worried about corporate co-opting either--even if it does completely subvert the independence of those blogs (and I'm not convinced it will, look at Andrew Sullivan), the low entry costs mean that another 20 will spring up in its place. And while it is difficult to break into the top ranks nowadays, it can be done (both Glenn Greenwald and firedoglake are pretty new, as are PrawfsBlawg, Concurring Opinions, and BlackProf).

The blogosphere (at the top at least) clearly isn't diverse enough. I'm pretty happy with the amount of gender diversity on my blogroll, but I have virtually no racial diversity (Yin Blog, Half the Sins of Mankind, and BlackProf are the only minority-run sites I know of off-hand on my blogroll). To someone as interested in racial issues as I am, this is embarrassing, and I'd appreciate help in rectifying the situation. Booker Rising was the most glaring omission I can think of (since rectified), I won't link to Steve Gilliard after the Michael Steele smear (not that he needs my traffic anyway), and I was thoroughly unimpressed by Afro-Netizen.

But I digress. The point is that the blogosphere may not turn into the superpowered behemoth that (some) predicted it to be. But it still will serve some purposes, have some impact, and have some influence. Though it can be tough and stressful at times, I continue to love this blog, and all the people I've met(/"met") through it. I wouldn't give it up for the world.