Friday, March 10, 2006

Darfur Meltdown

The UN has announced its cutting its aid budget to Darfur in half. Its stated reason? The area has gotten so dangerous that UN workers can't utilize most of the resources at their disposal. To me, that's an excellent tip-off that hey, maybe the time has past for just sending in aid workers, and it's time to send in some blue helmets instead. But alas, that appears not be the case.

The AU has just extended its mission in Sudan so that there still might be some troops (ill-equipped and undermanned as they are) in Darfur while the UN and other international actors continue to delay sending in their own forces. Sudan has vigorously opposed any UN intervention, going as far as to threaten terrorist strikes if UN boots hit the ground in Darfur. It's a vicious cycle--the AU knows that it is in way over it's head and wants the UN to relieve it, but the UN desparately wants to avoid any tangible action and thus wants to act as if the AU mission is succeeding.

But it's not all bad news! Check out this offer by the Sudanese government:
Sudan said earlier Friday it would reinforce African Union troops in Darfur with 10,000 men, half of them Sudanese armed forces and half former southern Sudanese rebel SPLA soldiers who have been integrated into the Sudanese army.

Reinforce or "reinforce"? I'm sure the Darfur refugees feel safer already, with at least 5,000 troops from the government dedicated to their extermination arriving on the scene.

It would be funny if it weren't so genocidal.

The Sound and The Fury

Ex-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lashes out at the anti-judicial right. She sounds furious. Regarding Tom DeLay's rants after the Schiavo rulings:
"This was after the federal courts had applied Congress' one-time-only statute about Schiavo as it was written--not as the Congressman might have wished it were written. The response to this flagrant display of judicial restraint was that the Congressman blasted the courts..."

And regarding Senator Jon Cornyn:
"It doesn't help when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with."

Retirement seems to suit Sandra. It's about time members of the judiciary started standing up for themselves in the face of an unrelenting assault on their dignity and character from the right.

In related news, the FRC endorses impeaching judges who issue rulings they disagree with (note: the FRC's site is notoriously fickle--I have no idea if this URL will point to the same site I witnessed).

Racist Faucets

Nick Schulz's rant against auto-flushers didn't blow me away, but I loved this anecdote:
Hands-free toilets and faucets are certainly smarter now than when they first came on the market. Pete DeMarco told me that when automatic fixtures first got popular in the early 1990s, they had difficulty detecting dark colors, which tended to absorb the laser light instead of reflecting it back to the sensor. DeMarco remembers washing his hands in O'Hare Airport next to an African-American gentleman. DeMarco's faucet worked; the black man's didn't. The black guy then went to DeMarco's faucet, which he had just seen working seconds before; it didn't work. This time DeMarco spoke up, telling him to turn his hands palm side up. The faucet worked.

Ah...structural racism at work.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Life Begins At...?

I'm not a big abortion blogger. It seems most people view abortion in terms of black and white. It's either akin to slaughtering babies, or it's a key aspect of woman's rights. And since the arguments seem to devolve into these simplistic terms rather quickly (even more so than in most political arguments), I remain confused.

One important question in this debate is when life begins. Pro-lifers have a very simple answer: at conception. Pro-choicers have a bevy of objections to this. Some are pragmatic (""If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you can only save a petri dish with five blastulae or a two-year old child, which do you save if all are equally persons?"). Others are theoretical--it is fair to argue that even if life begins biologically at conception, one does not have moral personhood until some later part of development (incidentally, the Catholic Church used to abide by this through the doctrine of "ensoulment", which did not happen "at conception" but (I believe) two months into pregnancy. But I digress). Peter Singer essentially believes this--he says that a fertilized egg is unquestionably alive, and unquestionably part of homo sapiens, so its a bit peculiar to say its not a "living human." He continues to argue that something else besides being biologically alive is required before one has complete human rights. Unfortunately, Professor Singer also defends infanticide, a position most pro-choice people would rather disassociate themselves from. On the flip side, some people say that it is illogical to assert even "biological life" begins at conception. PZ Myers takes this view, arguing that the privileging of fertilization over other stages of fetal (and human) development is completely arbitrary.

Thus, I'll group the objections to the "life begins at conception" (LBAC) claim in the following categories: it's (a) practically untenable, (b) based on falsely replacing moral personhood with biological personhood, and/or (c) biologically arbitrary.

All fair objections, and I find them compelling. But we still need to answer the question: when does life begin--if for no other reason than we think killing "people" is generally bad, so we need to establish who "people" are so we can avoid killing them. If one believes that "In a free society a woman would be able to terminate with absolute ease an unwanted pregnancy for any reason that strikes her fancy" (and I realize that not all self-identified "pro-choice" people sign on to that statement), then one needs to create a definition of life that precludes a fetus at any stage from being included. Because if a fetus is a full human (or at least as fully human as an infant) at any point in its development, then abortion "for any reason" becomes morally untenable. So I give an open question to pro-choice bloggers out there: when does life begin?

The answer should avoid the objections that are lodged against LBAC if it's going to be valid. One can object to LBAC on any or all of these grounds, but to be even-handed one kind of has to make sure one's own definition doesn't fall into the same trap. If the only objection is practicality, then why wouldn't "life begins at viability" be a valid response (which would sanction many abortions)? That seems practical in most cases, and while there are cases where it runs into trouble (life of the mother, for example), that problem also manifests itself in certain cases with post-natal children (a child with a severe medical deficiency born to a family with no health insurance bankrupting them). If the objection is based on "moral personhood", then when does one receive moral personhood--and will that definition also sanction killing newborns and/or the severely disabled (or even the elderly)? If the objection is based on biological arbitrariness, then explain why your standard is less biologically arbitrary than conception.

Again, I'm not taking a position as to any of these. As I pointed out, LBAC has serious flaws that I think preclude it from being a sensible standard for the abortion debate. But I do think it is valuable to explicate when full human life begins if not at conception. So have at it, pro-choicers--my comment boards (and/or trackbacks, if that's what you prefer) are yours.

UPDATE: A brief clarification, because I think I'm being misunderstood. Several people have said that the important question is not when life begins, but when we begin to protect life. In other words, the claim that moral personhood, not biological personhood, is the kicker question. That's lovely--I'd be inclined to agree with it myself. But that just shifts the question back a notch--when does moral personhood begin? If that's the position you take, then that's the question you have to answer, in lieu of "when does life begin," because I suspect the pro-lifers would argue that moral personhood is endowed at the same moment biological personhood is--I.E., at conception.

On The Shelf

It's finals season here in Northfield, and I'll admit to being swamped. Today was a big day in that respect--my last Hebrew test ever was taken, and I sent in my 15 page case note for Constitutional Law. On the horizon remains the final draft of a 10 page Hebrew research paper (due next Wednesday), my Hebrew oral exam (Friday), my Constitutional Law final exam (Monday or Tuesday), a 5 page Science and Society paper (Tuesday), and a 12 page Science and Society research paper (Tuesday). So yeah, blogging may take a back seat.

But even in the depths of soul-crushing work, I still make time to read. I'm in the middle of Notes of a White Black Woman: Race, Color, Community, by Judy Scales-Trent. It's quite good (though not as awe-inspiringly amazing as Kenji Yoshino's "Covering", which I finished a few weeks ago. Best book I've read in ages). Also on my laptop are two SSRN downloads: "The Equal Protection of Free Exercise: Two Approaches and Their History" by Bernadette Meyler (H/T: Rick Garnett), and "An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" by Susan Pace Hamill (H/T: Dan Filler). The former just plays off a generic taste I have for Religion Clause jurisprudence. The latter holds interest to me because I've skimmed its prequel article, "An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics." The latter article was written by Professor Hamill in support of a plan to overhaul Alabama's insanely regressive tax structure so that it was fairer to the poor. Needless to say, I support that goal. However, as frequent readers of the blog know, anytime I read "Judeo-Christian" my stomach ties in knots, and in fact I first found this article when composing a scholarly critique of "Judeo-Christian." In her overview of the impact "Judeo-Christian" arguments had on American political development, she cites almost entirely to Christian actors, with a single reference to Rabbis supporting the Civil Rights movement buried at the end of a footnote. And unfortunately, this new article (which I am only part way through) appears to suffer from the same flaw--a lot of analysis on "Christian" ethics, with a "me-too" citation to a single Jewish scholar at the end of each point (at least the scholar--Elliot Dorff--is a name I know and respect on the subject).

This isn't to be too hard on Professor Hamill--I'd suspect that the Jewish tradition would, in fact, be appalled by the Bush administration's tax policy, though perhaps for different reasons. But I still can't shake the feeling that the "Judeo" is present in these arguments less for the independent perspective the tradition provides on difficult moral questions, and more to add faux-diversity to a single-sect argument. Basically, saying that something is justified by "Christian ethics" seems narrow and provincial, while saying its justified by "Judeo-Christian ethics" seems to add at least some degree of cultural pluralism. But we're being used, people--if it turned out that the Jewish perspective was incontestably different from the Christian one, I suspect Professor Hamill would not change her article in the slightest--she'd just drop the "Judeo" pretense entirely and focus entirely on "Christian ethics." And why not? It fulfills her stated goals just as well--by her own admission, nearly 80% of America identifies as Christian (with around 2% claiming to be Jewish)--in Congress, that number rises to over 90%. If the objective is to show the powers that be that they aren't adhering to their own stated value systems, then Jews are a pretty small player in the game. I like seeing Jewish arguments on topics of moral importance as much as the next guy, but I'd rather they be presented as independently valuable, as opposed to Christianity's ethnic doppelganger.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Terror Check

Giving more ammo to the realist case for Darfur intervention, Restless Mania points to a column by Darfur expert Eric Reeves. He writes that Sudan has been threatening any potential intervention force with the prospect that al-Qaeda fighters will materialize in the country to fight the UN troops.
[I]f there are indeed al-Qaeda elements in Khartoum ("people in Khartoum who were not in Khartoum before"), it is because the National Islamic Front has permitted them to be there, and almost certainly encouraged them to be there. The NIF hosted Osama bin Laden from 1991-1996---the formative years for al-Qaeda. And even when bin Laden departed for Afghanistan in 1996, extremely close ties were preserved through, and after, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Khartoum's ruthlessly efficient Mukhabarat certainly knows the whereabouts in Sudan of terrorist elements; and any decision to allow them to remain is a deliberate, carefully calibrated threat directed against the possibility of a UN peacekeeping force, and more generally the international community. Khartoum is willing, in short, to use the threat of terrorism---which it can certainly control---as a means of forestalling international actions that might halt genocide.

If the international community yields to this threat, it will become a precedent well noted in other quarters in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

This argument is an almost exact parallel of the "don't let China check" argument. That argument basically said that if a country becomes a Chinese client state, and we let Chinese opposition stop an intervention in the event of a massive human rights catastrophe (like genocide), then other oppressive regimes will get the idea that they should enter the Chinese umbrella to slaughter their citizens with impunity. Sudan is ground-zero for this theory, since it is a major ally of China and China has been working to scuttle international intervention efforts. Apparently, Khartoum is experimenting with terror in the same way. And similarly, if other countries see that becoming a quiet al-Qaeda host acts as a deterrent to foreign intervention, we give a massive incentive for hostile nation's to encourage the growth of terror infrastructure in their borders. That would turn the "war on terror" into a farce.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Cross Purposes

Ah, competing forces at work. On the one hand, we have The Family Research Council announcing a presentation on "The Authentic Pro-life Tradition of Judaism". It purports to chronicle Judaism's pro-life ways, then "unmasks the attack launched against it by Jewish liberals in the latter half of the Twentieth Century." The speaker is one Richard Nadler, whose expertise in this complex area of Talmudic law is well set out in this biography the FRC provides:
Richard Nadler is a free lance journalist and policy analyst. A co-founder of the American Shareholders Association, he authored The Rise of Worker Capitalism (Cato Institute, Nov. 1, 1999), and The Influence of Intensity Factors on the Political Opinions of Investors (Dean Witter Foundation, Jan. 12, 2001). Mr. Nadler co-authored The Kyoto Protocol and U.S. Agriculture (Heartland Institute, Oct. 1, 1998) and Republican Issue Advertising in Black and Hispanic Population Areas: A Meta-Study of the 2002 Mid-Term Elections (Access Communications Group, Feb. 2003). He is the author of political biographies on Sen. Phil Gramm and commentator Pat Buchanan, and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review, Policy Review, Insight Magazine, Education Reform News, and Human Life Review.

Yep, chock full of theological expertise. By which I mean, none that is apparent aside from writing the book around which his talk is based. In absence of that, I'm going to stick with the article by Rabbi David M. Feldman, "This Matter of Abortion," in Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Reader (Elliot N. Dorff & Louis E. Newman, eds., New York: Oxford UP 1995): 382-391. Rabbi Feldman is the author of Birth Control in Jewish Law and Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition. It's a complex and nuanced argument, but what it comes down to is that abortion is nearly universally not considered to be murder in Jewish tradition, and that a "principle in the Jewish her [the mother's] welfare, avoidance of her pain, comes first." Though I hesitate to pass judgment on Mr. Nadler without hearing his argument, I'd be very interested to see how he deals with the significant amount of historical (well before the middle of the 20th century--we're talking Rashi here) support Rabbi Feldman musters for his position.

On the other side of things, the Grey Lady reports that the Conservative Jewish movement (whom I affiliate with) is considering lifting its ban on homosexual marriage and rabbinic ordination (H/T: MoJ). Obviously, I support this move, and the article makes it seem like the proposal is in good shape--because of Judaism's pluralistic tradition, the opinion only needs 6 votes in the 25 member committee to become a valid legal opinion.

Judaism's flexibility and tolerance for a diverse array of perspectives has always been one of its greatest strengths. I hope that my denomination's leaders will make me proud to be a Conservative Jew when this issue comes to a vote.

Bolt of Lightening

Regarding my previous post on the evangelical movement and progressivism, two great articles are in the latest edition of the Washington Monthly. Amy Sullivan has a piece entitled "When Would Jesus Bolt," and it should provide a hopeful note to the pessimistic tone my post set. She claims that the new leaders of the evangelical movement is getting increasingly pissed at the old guard's complete state of servitude to the Republican party, and is more and more willing to look toward the Democratic party as an alternative. That's a signal of the institutional shift I said wouldn't happen. But my analysis was predicated on the partisan loyalties of the current evangelical leadership--if we're approaching a changing of the guard there, the whole situation changes. Kevin Drum is a bit more cautious, but thinks its an avenue worth pursuing. I concur, and think this is a superb place to wedge the GOP. We won't rollup the whole religious votes, but I think we can make an impact, and in many places that's all that matters. We'll probably always disagree on abortion, on gay marriage, on contraception, and issues of that sort. But that shouldn't stop us from making common cause on AIDS research, on humanitarian intervention, and on human rights.

The second article is on the Prince of the Christian Right, Ralph Reed. It's not anything too new, but it does buttress the point made in the first. Reed has completely sold out his evangelical supporters (if he ever truly supported them in the first place). An out-and-out Abramoff clone, Reed shares both the lobby mafiaso's vices and lack of virtues. When the last temptation of Reed is revealed, it's going to be a backbreaker for that wing of the Christian Right.

Maybe I wouldn't give you all this, but Rachel Sullivan said she liked the post. And I'm happy to follow up on posts people like. That's the customer service you expect from The Debate Link!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Free Expression

This is actually an interesting story about Hamas' response to al-Qaeda's call for continued Palestinian violence against Israel, but for me it's all overshadowed by this statement:
Asked whether the timing of the appeal to Hamas from the network led by Osama Bin Laden had made Hamas leaders uncomfortable, Nazzal said only that Zawahiri "has the right to express his opinion".

"We believe in free thinking and free opinion," he said. "We can't suppress any opinion against our own opinion."

Hamas: Fighting for political liberalism since five hours ago.

The source is the Daily Times of Pakistan--I'm not sure how credible they are. But the quote itself comes from AFP, which is credible, so I feel comfortable running it.

The main thrust of the story, anyway, is that Hamas will do whatever it feels is in the interest of Palestine, regardless of whether al-Qaeda likes it or not. The Hamas official's position also seemed quite positive:
We are saying 'yes' to peace. We are saying 'yes' to building relations with the international community. We are saying 'yes' to anything we feel will be in the interest of the Palestinian people.

I'm still putting my money on the peace rhetoric being political posturing, coming as it did while a Hamas delegation was visiting Russia (Putin shows once more why he's not ready to join the West). But the brush-off of al-Qaeda I think may be more genuine. I think Hamas has no interest in becoming a subsidiary of al-Qaeda's war on the West, seeing its conflict as separate and also seeing itself as a far more effective organization at achieving its ends than al-Qaeda ever will be.

Anyway, interesting stuff.

On The Up And Up

It's bragging time. The nationally distributed college magazine I'm an editor for just won 2nd place in the Associated Collegiate Press' Newspaper of the Year award. Given that this was our first edition ever, I'd call this a big deal. So go us.

You can access The Lens online here, featuring an article by yours truly.