Saturday, April 15, 2006

This is Minnesota

Today, at the dining hall, was a quintessential Minnesota moment. It perfectly embodied the two qualities I most associate with Minnesota: incredibly friendly and helpful, and somewhat insular and unaware of the practices of other cultures.

It's passover right now, and that means no bread. Sad for me. Here in Northfield, the majority of the residents (which includes most of our dining hall staff) know absolutely nothing about Passover. They know it's going on right now, because the dining hall tries to accommodate us poor, afflicted Jews, but they know nothing of the specifics.

Anyway, one of the ways the college tries to ease the burden on us Jews is by having Matzah Pizza available every night. Tonight, when I got to the dining hall, however, there was no sign for Matzah Pizza. I asked the person working nearest to where the Matzah Pizza normally is served if they had it this evening. What followed was rather amazing (and amusing).

She said she wasn't sure, but she'd ask if there was someone who could make it for me. This request bounced around no less than five dining hall employees, most of whom did not even know what Matzah Pizza was. The dining hall was serving Mexican pizza on flatbread this evening, and at one point several of them gathered around that pizza to debate whether that qualified as "Matzah Pizza." I should note that the term "Matzah" was used only intermittently, more often it was referred to as "the cracker." Finally, I intervened on the side of those who (correctly) were arguing that Matzah Pizza was like any other personal pizza they make all the time, but on Matzah instead of pizza crust.

The original woman whom I asked then proceeded to get to work, but first asked "with no cheese right"? Slightly confused, I assured her that, no, cheese was fine. Now it was her turn to be confused. "But cheese is a dairy product." Apparently, her overseer at told her that Jews couldn't eat dairy (during Passover?). I explained that we could eat dairy, just not along with meat, and that this prohibition was a year-round thing, not just during passover.

Eventually, the pizza was made and she brought it over to my table (this was very nice of her, as normally we students just pick it up ourselves). It was delicious.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Clear as Black and White

Via Booker Rising, I came across this analysis of Maryland's (my Maryland) Senate election. The author, Robert George, is a Black Republican, and he criticizes the state and national Democratic party for getting behind Rep. Benjamin Cardin (who is White) in the primary, as opposed to former Rep. (and NAACP President) Kweisi Mfume.
The fact is that Mfume is well-positioned, if he so chooses, to play hardball with the Democratic establishment. If anything, the DNC memo could be interpreted as saying that black voters refuse to be taken for granted in the Democratic-heavy state. If the Democrats don't want to nominate a black candidate, African Americans can still support one of their own in the general election.

There are...problems with the post though. For one, its rather amusing to my ears to hear a Conservative using the "one of their own" rhetoric." Isn't that the type of radical, anti-integrationist rhetoric conservative Blacks decry from their liberal peers? What's good for the goose...

The second problem is that there really isn't any analysis on why Mfume is a better candidate than Cardin. I'm not following the race that closely, but I have heard murmurings that Mfume is not a particularly strong campaigner. In an update to the post, Mr. George responds to a study showing that White Republicans and Independents are more likely to vote Democrat when the Republicans run a Black candidate by arguing that in many of these cases the candidate might just be a sacrificial throw-away, not a serious performer. That may or may not be true (I doubt it can explain the whole thing), but it does seem to mandate at least some analysis on George's part as to whether Mfume is a solid candidate in his own right. And he really can't bring himself to compliment the guy, calling him a "conventional liberal" who was a better leader in the NAACP than the "insane" Julian Bond. High praise, that is. And there is absolutely nothing written about Cardin in the piece--how can we evaluate who the Democrats pick without a comparison to the leading candidate?

Part of the "problem" (and what a problem to have!) is that the Democrats in Maryland have a really deep bench. In many places, Mfume would be a tier-one candidate, as he deserves to be. Unfortunately, this is Maryland, and we have a lot of rising stars peaking right about now. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley are both extraordinarily popular in their home territories, and I think both of them stand a chance of unseating Governor Bob Ehrlich. That primary is one of the rare cases where my "reluctant" support of a candidate (O'Malley) is not due to a personal shortcoming on his part, but rather because both men are absolutely stellar politicians and deserve advancement. And beyond Cardin and Mfume, many people were floating my Representative, Chris Van Hollen, for Sarbanes' open seat as well. He withdrew his name from consideration, but he's considered a front-runner for Mikulski's seat when she retires. I should note that Duncan and Van Hollen, like me, both are from the DC suburb part of Maryland--the part that George says has "little connection to the broader Maryland." Ah, it's good to be excluded from my own home state.

In any event, this post shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of Cardin over Mfume, or vice versa. As I said, I'm not informed enough on the merits of the two candidates. But I don't think George does a particularly good job of explaining why Mfume is the right man for the Democratic party. Color me unconvinced.

Justice Kennedy Speaks Out

I've made no secret that I'm a fan of Justice Kennedy. And it's important to say that, because I don't think he has many. Liberals think he's too conservative, and conservatives think he's too liberal. In actuality, I also think he's too conservative as well, but I respect his clear passion for justice that really shines through in some of his more noteworthy opinions (Lawrence, Romer, Roper, Lee). I know better than to insist on absolute conformity with my personal beliefs as a precondition for respect.

In that light, I want to commend Kennedy for speaking out on the Darfur crisis in his keynote address at the American Society of International Law conference (H/T: Melissa Waters). He also apparently spoke on issues of social justice and the abandonment of civility in discourse.
In his keynote address to the ASIL Annual Meeting today, Justice Kennedy focused on the international crime of genocide, all but calling on the world community to do something to stop the ongoing atrocities in Darfur. It was a stunning -- and I thought compelling -- speech for a sitting justice.

As reported by the AP, Kennedy stated:

"It is the duty of the world to do more than watch," he said.

Kennedy said that after the genocide in Rwanda "the world wept but little, and then went on its way."
I was struck by the tone of Kennedy's remarks, which he delivered soberly and without reference to notes. They appeared to be from the heart -- the thoughts of a man genuinely troubled by the incivility of discourse in the world, with the persistence of extreme poverty, and with erosion in the rule of law. Kennedy demonstrated that he has been deeply affected by his experiences with judicial exchanges in Europe and in his more recent role on the UN special panel promoting access to justice for the poor.

Apparently, the trend for sitting Justices who attend the conference is to speak on the role of international law in judicial opinions. Kennedy is a particular lightening rod in this controversy, so I'm sure he could have said a lot (though that also may be the reason why he largely declined to speak). But while that debate is important, I think the themes Kennedy touch on transcend an ultimately minor point of jurisprudential wrangling.

I'm rather late to the party here, because this news broke on March 31st. But reading about this makes me even more proud to call myself a Kennedy supporter. We just seem to share the same values. Even though he's far more conservative than I am, I feel confident that Justice Kennedy does not let his political ideology or personal dispositions infect his sense of what is right. That's really important to me.

A lot of my liberal friends, even when they acknowledge the good Kennedy has done in Church/State and gay rights cases, say they can't forgive him for Bush v. Gore. I'm sorry, but while I too think that case was a travesty, it's time to get over it. Kennedy is a stellar Justice and a fine citizen. He deserves our support.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Immigration Roulette

My blogfather, Joe Gandelman, points me to a great blog post on the growing immigration controversy by Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young. Young and I have clashed swords (and compliments) in the past, but she's a smart gal and a blogger I respect immensely. I kind of vaguely knew she was an immigrant, but for some reason I never really made the link between her and this debate. I say "some reason", but I think I know at least part of the reason: Cathy is White. As Michael Sean Winters reminds us, the one thing the GOP has done successfully in this debate is change the imagery of "immigrant" from "Ellis Island" to "Mexican climbing over a fence." I think that most Americans lack the imagination to conceptualize a desperate Belarussian climbing over a barrier to get into America, so those people are mentally separated out from "actual" immigrants (the bad kind).

But I digress. A key argument in this whole flap is how we deal with legal immigrants. Conservatives say that any path toward citizenship for those who entered the country illegally amounts to a "slap in the face" to those who entered legally. I think the participation of legal immigrants in the marches belies that sentiment pretty decisively. But Cathy offers moral backing to the argument:
I am a legal immigrant myself. As many of you know, I came here with my family in 1980 from the Soviet Union; at the time, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we feared persecution in our native country. (Which, actually, was not even technically accurate: the Soviet Jews coming here at the time had to fear persecution only if they wanted to openly practice Judaism -- which, for my non-religious family, was not an issue -- or if they were political dissidents.) And that is something I tremendously appreciate, but I am also aware of the fact that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to fleeing oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not "but I came here legally!" but more like, "There but for the grace of God..."

She then goes on to compare the immigration system to a lottery system--there really is no rhyme or reason to who gets a visa and who doesn't. This essential arbitrariness is what distinguishes illegal immigration from other types of crimes: unlike murder or robbery, its only illegal for some.

I have serious moral qualms about declaring a person illegal for the "crime" of living somewhere. This seems like a rather radical expansion of the concept of criminal culpability. The only comparable offense I can think of is trespassing, and I personally don't think that the proper analogy for the land built by huddled masses is to a private country club. The trespassing analogy also treats the nation as a whole--not just individual homes or businesses--as private property. The idea of a completely privatized public should scare us all. As Ambrose Bierce wrote exactly one century ago:
The right to property implies the right to exclusive use, and therefore the right to expel trespassers. Therefore, if A B and C own all the land, D E and F have no place to be born, or born as trespassers, to exist.

This may seem like a rather stretched analogy, until we remember those who want to expel the children of immigrants, born in the USA. Under this paradigm, these people would be "born as trespassers," and that label seems immoral in a very visceral sense.

The point is that, when debating this topic, the first and foremost concern has to be respect for human dignity. I remarked to a friend earlier tonight that one of the reasons I love the immigration protests is that they are finally putting human dignity back on the political table--we're finally discussing it again. I should have added that this is only a benefit if human dignity wins, and as Cathy reminds us, "anti-immigrant panic has been, again and again, responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America." Hopefully, narratives like hers can help us break the cycle.

Any Sympathy I Had Is Now Lost

I don't view the controversy over whether pharmacist can refuse to dispense Plan B and other like prescriptions because they have moral objections as cut and dry as many people do. Primarily, this is because I do generally believe that genuine conscientious objectors should get exemptions from generally applicable laws, statutes, or rules unless there is a compelling interest why they must be compelled to obey. I actually do think that forcing pharmacists to fill these prescriptions meets this burden, because often taking these pills is time-critical and other times it may be necessary for a woman's life or health. Given that you can't guarantee that another pharmacist will be on call or that another pharmacy will be nearby, I think there is a valid compelling interest that overrides individual conscience. But, as I said, that conclusion isn't a given from my perspective.

However, the surest way to lose my support on an issue like this is to take the principle to utterly absurd conclusions that appear to be far more motivated by animus against woman's health clinics than objections to abortion. For example, refusing to dispense non-abortion related prescriptions because the source was a clinic that, among other things, performs abortions (links:
Bitch, Ph.D and Prettier than Napoleon). That stretches way beyond any conceivable claim of conscience--even if I thought that the right of conscience extended to not dispensing emergency contraception, there is no way the claim goes so far as to allow the general refusal to dispense prescriptions from certain doctors or clinics who also participate in morally objectionable behavior. That stretches the logical line well past its breaking point.

I always try to give folks the benefit of the doubt in heated controversies, but honestly, sometimes y'all make it hard....

Optimific is a Word!

Every time I use "optimific" in a sentence, somebody snickers. When I ask why, they tell me that I made the word up. Sometimes they are more unsure, and just wonder if I made it up, other times, as did Mark Olsen, they just flat out accuse me of a Bushism. But these people are wrong. Optimific is a word. It's used by utilitarianism, and refers to an act which produces the absolute best possible total consequences. Run a google search--it's there.

While it's true that, when pressed, I can't find a real difference between "optimific" and "optimal," except that the former is more philosophical-sounding, the redundancy is hardly my fault. And to all of you who laughed at my "misnomer," bow your heads in shame.

That is all.

PS: It would be more ironic that Blogger spellcheck doesn't recognize "optimific" if it didn't also not recognize "blogger."

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

She Agrees With Me, She Agrees With Me Not...

Or: "Is There a Moral To This Story?"

At Carleton, we operate on a trimester system, so I only take 3 classes a term (not including any PE or music lesson type classes, like Fencing). This term, those classes are Post-Modern Political Thought, The Speaking Voice, and Foundations of Black Political Thought. Two out of those three are taught by Black professors; ironically, the one that isn't is the Black Political Thought class (whose professor is one of my favorites at the college). Two out of three professors of color is not bad, but on the flip side amidst these 3 classes there are only 4 Black students. That's a pretty awful ratio. Admidst the whole political science faculty, there are only 3 scholars of color, two of whom are temporary (I've heard our latest tenure-track hire is a scholar of color, though). And while I haven't verified this personally, rumor has it that the entire college has only one female scholar of color on the faculty. That's abysmal. But the meta-situation--too few Black professors at a college that claims to value diversity--is nothing that hasn't been said before. My odd set-up this term--two Black professors in three classes with four Black students--was what seemed rather unique.

One of those Black students is in my Foundations of Black Political Thought class (that class is actually only 4 people). She's a very nice and intelligent girl. She's also a cheerleader for the Minnesota Vikings (so much for the "cheerleader as mindless waif" stereotype!). Anyway, we were talking after class today, and she had mentioned how someone at cheerleading practice had asked her "do you prefer to be called Black or African-American?" And her response (paraphrased, obviously) was interesting to me:
I wanted to make sure my response didn't scare her off from ever asking such questions again, because I know that it's hard for a White girl to really engage in these topics, and that it took courage to ask. And I didn't want to give a 30 minute lecture of race theory based on the stuff we've been learning in this class. So I emphasized that I couldn't speak for every Black/African-American/Nigerian-American/Person of Color she'll meet, but Black is fine, although if you're going to refer to me in the third-person I'd really prefer Jill [name changed]

I like that answer. It's not a lecture, it's not scary, it deals with requisite complexities and gives the appropriate disclaimer, and ends with a reminder that she can just be Jill.

But the part about not speaking on behalf of every person of color is particularly meaningful to me, because of something I catch myself doing in the class. As I said, there are only four students, and amongst there is a slight, but noticable (to me at least) ideological split. I don't want to call it "sides," because that would wildly over-state what's going on, but Jill and I seem to agree a bit more often with each other than either of us do with the rest of the class [she's the only Black student of the four of us]. And whenever I make a comment and she says "yeah, I agree with what David said," or vice versa, she makes a comment that I find myself nodding with, I feel a little burst of pride. And I'm ambivalent about that proud sentiment. On the one hand, it feels like a vindication of the CRT reading I do, and my geniuine effort to become more educated on race issues, read and listen to minority stories, and all the other projects I've adopted over the past year or so that have greatly expanded my personal and philosophical horizons. In a certain respect, it feels like validation, that the transfer process from books and articles to personal beliefs didn't corrupt the message--I really am "getting it." On the other hand, it feels really shallow to me also. On a basic level, "hooray! The Black girl agrees with me" seems quite degrading and dehumanizing to her. And more importantly, it places way too much pressure on her--I'm generalizing a whole personal philosophical validation based on just her perspective; precisely what she told her cheerleader friend not to do. It's not that I'm forgetting that she's not the only Black person in the world (although she is the only one taking a Black Political Thought class with me right now), it's that I don't know if this personal pride feeling I'm getting can be justified based on just one person validating me. And of course, this whole thing could be entirely overwrought, and it all might just be my ego puffing up on agreement (by anyone!).

The personalization of "storytelling" and perspective-based scholarship has its advantages, but this is a major drawback. One never knows whether what you're getting is representative. In fact, it seems like a considerable portion of such work is dedicated to warning us not to treat any particular perspective as representative of a larger truth. As a result, it's near-impossible to pin down anything concrete these stories can tell else, besides perhaps increasing our empathy (which is definitely important!). There's really no way to mediate between conflicting narratives either--if one Black person tells me that Affirmative Action is critical to her personal and collective liberation, and another tells me it makes her feel like a token, how do I evaluate the two? I could just keep asking until I find a reasonable consensus, but this seems trite (and besides, a framework of evaluating the truth-value of narratives via body count is a game minorities are going to lose, simply because there are less of them). There's a vertigo here--I never know if I am getting a benefit, if there even is a benefit to be had, or if I'm even allowed to claim a benefit I think I have. This is dizzying.

Anyway, I'm not sure of that was really deep, or really meaningless, but it was really nagging on me, and now it's out there to the world. Comments appreciated.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Spirit of Selma

I've barely been able to contain my giddiness over the immigration marches. The beautiful irony of people who in America illegally all rising as one to proclaim their love for America and its values really just ties me up inside. The New York Times even is saying this might be the start of a new civil rights revolution:
Academics and political analysts say the demonstrations represent the largest effort by immigrants to influence public policy in recent memory. And the scope and size of the marches have astonished politicians on Capitol Hill as well as the churches and immigrant advocacy groups organizing the demonstrations, leading some immigrant advocates to hail what they describe as the beginnings of a new, largely Hispanic civil rights movement.

What a day that would be, if true.

Legal Fiction's Publius was at the march in DC. As he so often does, he captures my sentiments exactly, and shows just how special this event was:
The first thing that stood out today was the sheer magnitude of the crowd. The Post reported that there were hundreds of thousands of people there. I believe it. People just kept pouring in from the streets. For those who haven't seen it, the Mall is a big place. And it was packed - at least from where I was standing, which was approximately halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. [I'd like to see an aerial shot to see how far it extended between those two landmarks - anyone?]

In addition to the size, it was the nature of the demonstration that was so moving. The crowd consisted of families and children and groups of friends - all of them waving American flags and holding signs reading, "We are America," or "First-Generation American" and so on. Personally, I get annoyed with the deification of our flag, but it worked yesterday. It seemed very appropriate.

All in all, it was a positive demonstration - one rooted not in anger, but in hope and in a longing for recognition and dignity (the latter being the theoretical foundations of democracy promotion). These people were appealing not to base anger or resentment, but to our better angels. In the face of reality - the faces of the excited, hopeful families before you - Mickey Kaus and Michelle Malkin's nativistic rantings just sort of float away.

I won't pretend like I'm not at least partially please at the discomfort Republicans are facing at this pushback. The right has drawn on this playbook--exploiting American fear and mistrust of a minority group--one too many times for my tastes, and it's about time they got their just desserts. But honestly, this isn't about politics for me. Families who want a better life, who want to vote in a country where that vote means something, who want nothing more than to be a citizen of our nation, who want their children to have real opportunity in life: this is what our country is at it's best. I'm just thrilled that we have hundreds of thousands of people--legally here or not--willing to march in the streets and remind us of that fact. Status under the law notwithstanding, they're already Americans in my eyes.

Monday, April 10, 2006

"Unnecessary at this time"

What. The fuck. I don't swear too often. But reading about the latest "plan" for NATO to intevene in Darfur provoked an exception. Kevin Drum has the scoop. Here's the relevant excerpt:
The proposal, which still faces uncertain approval within NATO because of concerns that it could be a distraction from operations in Afghanistan, falls well short of more aggressive measures that some have advocated, such as sending ground combat troops or providing air patrols to protect peacekeepers and prevent the bombing of villages. These options have been ruled out as unnecessary at this time, an administration official said.

And for the record, I do pretty much agree with Drum that this isn't really Bush's fault. The US has been pretty awful on Darfur, but Europe makes us look like altruistic saints. Even still, I think that if Bush spent half the political capital he devoted to such lovely catastrophes like Social Security privatization, he could push a Darfur intervention through the resistance. So I'm letting him entirely off the hook. And oh yeah, no amount of domestic or international resistance justifies crap like this.

Dean's World has the same thought I do. On the other hand Daimnation thinks that an intervention would "just make matters worse" (with 400,000 deaths already, I'm skeptical) and frets that such an intervention wouldn't come with the consent of the Sudanese government (admittedly, genocideers tend not consent to forces trying to stop their slaughter). However much my heart may "bleed", I can guarantee you it's spilling less blood than the Janjaweed are on a daily basis as they sow terror throughout the region.

Waving the Flag

Is it just me, or has the more recent coverage of the immigration protests emphasized the amount of American flag-waving, and de-emphasized the amount of foreign flag-waving? I don't know if this is due to media bias, or immigrant advocates shifting their strategy in the face of a hostile first-reaction to the presence of foreign flags at their rallies, or correction of over-coverage of foreign flags at those original rallies. But it seems like something worth pointing out. My guess is mostly on #2, as evidenced by this excerpt from an NYT story:
In Atlanta, a sea of demonstrators, most of them dressed in the white T-shirts that have become emblematic of the immigrant rights marches, moved along a two-mile route, with marchers carrying signs about their rights and the competing bills in Congress. Most of the marchers carried American flags, as the word has gone out to demonstrators over the last few weeks over the Internet and flyers that they needed to show more willingness to assimilate, although some carried flags from their home countries of Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua.

In any event, I love these protests. It's such a beautiful pushback against those who'd use fear and prejudice to try and morph "person trying to live the American dream" into "criminal and possible terrorist." I think most minority groups are like J.R.R. Tolkein's Ents: difficult to arouse from slumber, but whose power is unstoppable when riled up. If immigrant rights constitute a "magic mirror" into how America really views racial minorities (i.e., how we'd treat them if it weren't for pesky civil rights laws and constitutional amendments), then the immigrant rallies hold an important lesson for those politicians who've made a career out of exploiting White America's continuing legacy of racial mistrust. You push too hard, and they'll push back. Tread lightly.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Go Alex!

As the week begins, can I just offer my good wishes to Alex Doonesbury, as she gets her college admission decisions? Sure, rooting for a comic strip character may seem a little odd, but the genius of Trudeau is that all of his characters seem just a bit more real to me.

PS: To my actual real life friends who are hearing from colleges, good luck to you too. Except the two who already got admitted to Carleton. I hope you get rejected everywhere else.