Saturday, January 06, 2007

Root Out

Hilzoy has the scoop on the early accomplishments by the new Democratic Congress. They just passed PAYGO rules (new spending or tax cuts has to be offset by spending cuts or tax hikes elsewhere), as well as forcing Congressmen to publicly identify the earmarks they insert into the record. Plus, now that the "100 hours" has drawn to a close, Democrats have made good on their pledge to allow more minority participation:
Yesterday, in addition to the rules affecting spending, the House adopted "civility" measures that grant Republican lawmakers more opportunities to offer their views and to participate in legislative debate than Democrats say they received under Republican control.

I think Hilzoy's conclusion hits it right:
Yes, I know about Rep. Mollohan, and I don't like it, as I have said before. But the Democrats have done more to combat corruption in two days than the Republicans have done in twelve years. The Congressional Democrats are not perfect, obviously, but I am proud of them so far.


The Days Are Just Packed

It was a busy day today.

I had two classes (my Contemporary Jewish Theology course was canceled for the day). That lasted until 3:20. I met with my philosophy professor/boss after that class, until 4:00. Here's how the day progressed from there:

4:00 - 5:00: Discussion about the Conservative Jewish ruling on homosexuality at Reynolds (Jewish Interest) House.

5:00 - 6:00: Shabbat services.

6:00 - 7:30: Dinner with the Muslim students in celebration of Eid.

7:30 - 8:45: Nap.

9:00 - 12:00: Hockey game (Carleton beats Northwestern Bible College 8-5).

12:30 - 2:30: Movie (Eurotrip--by the way, Scotty Doesn't Know is an awesome song).

2:30 - 3:30: Discussion on various themes.

The irony is that there was a massive amount of path dependency there. The only things planned on doing in that set were classes, the homosexaulity ruling meeting, and the hockey game. Everything else was just following naturally what was going on before. I couldn't just walk out of Reynolds House as the service was starting, so I stayed for that. Then I felt guilty about abandoning them for dinner, so I attended (Kabob--yum). The folks who drove me home from the hockey game (because the bus was late) were friends, so I hung out on their floor to watch the movie and discuss the discussion.

Not too interesting. But there you go.

I should also note that said Philosophy Professor, when challenged on the merits of the movie Eragon (it linked to the class discussion--don't ask), responded simply: "It has a blue dragon!"

Game, set, and match.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Paging Dennis Prager

I actually don't mean to obsess over him, and there are plenty of other people who this could apply to (e.g., Daniel Lapin, Yehuda Levin). But nevertheless, Prager is probably the highest profile example out there. And the one voted most likely to piss me the hell off.
To be authentic, Jewish theological discourse must be expressed in its own native categories, in its own distinct vocabulary, and out of its own agenda. As Samuel S. Cohen observed, "Attempts to cram Judaism into categories derived from other religions and theologies can lead only to grotesque results." 
As part of a religious minority in a predominantly Islamic or Christian culture, inevitably influenced by Western philosophical tradition, both the medieval and modern Jewish thinker becomes inevitably tempted to assimilate Judiasm into alien and even inimical philosophies and theologies. Indeed, the Jewish thinker may remain oblivious to the 'cultural conditioning' absorbed from his or her geographical environment, and may be led to articulate a theology of Judaism in a manner that does not cohere with authentic Jewish thought or with the inherent vocabulary of Jewish theological discourse. In this regard, Solomon Schechter made a distinction between assimilating and being assimilated. An organism is able to assimilate and should assimilate that which strengthens and enriches it. However, an organism is always endangered by being assimilated into that which is inimical to it, into that which distorts its very nature.
Byron Sherwin, "An Incessantly Gushing Fountain: The Nature of Jewish Theology," in Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader (Elliot N. Dorff & Louis E. Newman, eds., Oxford UP 1999).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Khalilzad To The UN?

CNN reports that Bush will next nominate Iraqi ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the post of American ambassador to the United Nations.

I'm conflicted. Khalilzad is a very strong diplomat. Indeed, he is one of the few people in this administration who still seemed to have a shot at ending the Iraq war in a manner that did not include a bloodbath or tyrannical anti-American regime. I've heard more than one (liberal) commentator express the view that Khalilzad is the last, best hope for American interests in Iraq (and many more who lament the fact that even Khalilzad, talented as he is, probably cannot do anything to save us from the mess we've created there). When my colleagues at the Carleton Progressive issued a (to my ears) knee-jerk hit piece against him, I made special care to defend him in my next column. In addition, as a Afghan-born Sunni Muslim, his symbolic value to America cannot be underestimated. In sum, he is an excellent public servant, a rare example of competence in the administration, and someone this government needs to utilize more effectively at the highest levels.

That being said, I can't help but think that he will not be able to be effective in the UN. As much as the American people have turned against the Iraq war, it pales in comparison to the level of disgust held by the denizens of Turtle Bay. I would not be surprised if Khalilzad is discounted simply by virtue of association. Not only does he deserve better than that, but America can ill afford someone who presents such an easy target for hostile interests at the global body. Rightly or wrongly, promoting our Iraq Ambassador will provide a field day towards those nations who wish to solidify the nascent anti-American bloc in the UN.

Some other reactions:

Michael Roston: "a heck of a lot better than 'losing ten floors.'"

Wizbang points to another interesting development: Khalilzad may be selected by the new UN secretary-general to be Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, a very important position. This would be a massive coup for the US.

AmericaBlog thinks the Religious Right will torpedo his nomination (which would make him the highest ranking Muslim in American government history). I'm very skeptical--Khalilzad has a lot of conservative street cred.

One in a Million

In a 2-1 decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has just upheld Indiana's voter ID law from challenge by, among others, the Democratic party. The case is Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections. Posner wrote the majority opinion, the dissent was by Judge Evans.

The competing interests in voter ID cases are relatively clear. On the one hand, it clearly imposes a burden on poor and indigent voters (who trend Democratic) that may not have a photo ID on hand. On the other hand, voter ID laws are said to be necessary to combat fraud.

The problem with that purported justification is that--despite a concerted effort to make Americans feel that voter fraud has reached epidemic levels--there is little to no evidence that it is any problem at all. As Judge Evans writes in dissent:
The fig leaf of respectability providing the motive behind this law is that it is necessary to prevent voter fraud--a person showing up at the polls pretending to be someone else. But where is the evidence of that kind of voter fraud in this record? Voting fraud is a crime (punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 in Indiana) and, at oral argument, the defenders of this law candidly acknowledged that no one--in the history of Indiana--had ever been charged with violating that law. Nationwide, a preliminary report to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has found little evidence of the type of polling-place fraud that photo ID laws seek to stop. If that's the case, where is the justification for this law? Is it wise to use a sledgehammer to hit either a real or imaginary fly on a glass coffee table? I think not.

Emphasis added. Judge Posner tries to argue that prosecutor attention may have been elsewhere, but it seems that if this was a endemic problem there at least would have been one attempted prosecution in Indiana, somewhere, at sometime.

In general, as a matter of statistics, attempting to reduce fraudulent votes (by tightening standards) will also reduce (via deterrance or rejection), the number of legitimate votes. The reverse is also true: trying to encourage more voting will likely increase fraud. But in our current state, too many votes has not been our problem. Nor, for that matter, has been too much voter fraud. As fraud gets scarcer and scarcer, the costs of enforcing rise, and returns diminish, so that new endeavors catch fewer offenders and block more legitimate voters. Voting rights expert Spencer Overton estimates that "a photo ID requirement would prevent over 1000 legitimate votes (perhaps over 10,000 legitimate votes) for every single improper vote prevented."

In a sense, this debate is a facade, because everyone knows that it's not about voter fraud as much as voter Democrats. Evans is quite clear on this, starting his opinion:
Let's not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.

Still, normally there is at least some effort to link a purely partisan move to a real-life problem. In voter ID case, the alleged concern appears have to been literally drawn out of thin air.

Via Jonathan Adler.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Back Off

Now that Keith Ellison has won "point, set, match" by revealing that it is Thomas Jefferson's Koran he'll swear in on, the little man who started this big controversy, has finally started to back down. A little. But not much. Indeed, despite an early contrite tone ("There were sentences in that column that I regret writing and that deserved criticism. I was wrong in writing them."), it is amazing just how much bluster Mr. Prager still has left in him, as he desperately tries to maintain his completely ludicrous argument that the Christian Bible is the source of all that is good and just in the world.
My entire concern has been about the Bible and Judeo-Christian values disappearing as the primary sources of moral and civic values in America. America has been uniquely good to its citizens (blacks and Indians historically excepted of course, but see below about why America abolished slavery), and this goodness has emanated overwhelmingly from the majority's belief in the Judeo-Christian values they derive from their Bible (the Hebrew Bible and New Testament).

I'm going to do my best to ignore "blacks and Indians historically excepted", as if mass murder and enslavement is some footnote we can just brush aside. Prager goes on to argue that slavery was abolished largely by the effort of those who had religious motivations for their actions. That may well be true, but it ignores the mirror image: slavery was established and maintained by those who quite quickly, readily, and easily offered up biblical justifications (indeed, mandates) for their actions. One can argue that the oppression of Native Americans was nearly exclusively justified via Christian principles (from here on out, I'll continue to use the term "Christian", because I remain utterly confused about what "Judeo-Christian" actually means beyond a token sop to religious pluralism).

Sure, Soviet Russia was viciously anti-Semitic (even with formal rules prohibiting it). On the other hand, so was the historical Catholic Church, and many Protestants--and they didn't even bother pretending to hide it. To act like Christianity--either around the world or in America specifically--has been a wellspring of pure happiness and light is simply delusional.

Prager says he is simply "worried" that, without everyone acknowledging that our rights stem from Christianity, we'll lose the freedoms we hold dear. History does not come close to suggesting that outcome. It does suggest that when we let religious dogma overwhelm our respect for others, and replace the politics of dignity with the politics of division, the lantern of liberty will flicker and die. If Prager is looking at threats to the American way, he can start by looking in the mirror.

The Loop

Ruth Marcus argues that Obama should wait until 2012 to launch his campaign for President (call me optimistic, but I think that it'll be 2016 if not 2008). To her credit, she does not simply assert that he's "too inexperienced", correctly noting that he has roughly the same amount of seasoning as John Edwards who has not had to answer questions about his age this time around (admittedly, he was pressed on it in 2004). Instead, she argues that delaying a bit would give him time to grow as a politician:
But I do think that Obama would be a better candidate, and ultimately a better president, in 2012 or 2016 than in 2008. He will have learned more -- about the world, about domestic policy, about how to maneuver successfully in Washington.

Yes, more years in the Senate offer more chances for individual votes to be deployed against him in 30-second TV ads, but they also offer the opportunity that Obama hasn't yet had: to set out and achieve legislative goals. Teaming up with Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to bring transparency to government spending through a searchable database is nice, but it's no platform for a presidential campaign.

This assumes that a) there is all that much being in the Senate can teach Mr. Obama, and b) that whatever "platform" the Senator can construct through additional years of service will be compelling enough to counteract the negative effect of those inevitable 30-second spots.

Color me skeptical. Obama's great strength as a leader is that he seems able to draw strength without resorting to the normal channels of political discourse and debate. I really don't think more time as 1 in a 100 is going to do much for him, aside from make him seem mundane. Barack Obama, for all he's done so far as "just" a Senator, strikes me as the type who would become a giant if ever was really put in the spotlight position.

Elsewhere on the Obama front, Steve Benen notes that the latest salvo in the "tar Obama" (or, more charitably, the "bring Obama down to earth") campaign is bringing up his past history of drug use. The problem is that he's never hid it--Obama was quite forthright about his history in his first book, "Dreams From My Father." It's not news when he's not hiding anything.

Admittedly, this is more legitimate terrain than the last few go-arounds, which focused on his middle name, his last name's similarity to "Osama," the size of his ears, his Muslim heritage, etc.. But it still doesn't strike me as a winner (for the GOP, anyway). Benen quotes Patrick Hynes, a right-wing blogger, saying that
I am a recovering alcoholic.... [W]e are all flawed human beings. And I think any attempt to use this issue against Obama will backfire badly, whether it is done by one of his Democrat [sic]rivals or by a Republican. Frankly, it tells me something positive about the man that he had the character to overcome his problems and can speak so freely about them now.

It is my considered opinion that we Americans are an exceedingly forgiving people. It is one of the characteristics I love most about my fellow Americans - Lord knows I've had to beg for forgiveness from time to time. Besides, picking on a candidate for his youthful indiscretions - indiscretions he has clearly put behind him - is only one notch on the sleaze meter above using a candidate's troubled family member as a campaign issue.

Nice sentiments, and I hope he's right. I think that the fact that there is no secret here will prevent the story from metastasizing, keeping it on the fringes where it belongs.

On the other hand, Paul Butler notes that American society's propensity towards "forgiveness" tends to--if not evaporate, then clearly diminish when the target is Black. Laws that overwhelmingly target Black men get changed when a highly publicized case catches a sympathetic (White) defendant in the net. I do think that Obama--so far--seems immune to these sort of racial discrepancies. One might argue that White society has accorded him "honorary White status" (interesting to discuss how and why that came about). But still, I don't know if we can count on America's characteristic forgiveness when the issue is Black men. For more on this, see his fascinating article Starr is to Clinton as Regular Prosecutors are to Blacks. 40 Boston College Law Review 705-716 (1999).

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Attack Dog

The Senate GOPers have hired a blog watchdog by the name of Jon Henke. Henke's prior position was on the campaign of outgoing Virginia Senator George Allen. Apparently, the folks at Powerline have a history with this guy. But not to worry! Their final word is:
Naturally, [Henke's] attacks on [Virginia Senator-elect Jim] Webb sat better with me than his attacks on Power Line.

Well, it's good they're letting bygones be bygones.

Henke's blog is QandO, which I have little experience with. My limited impressions, however, have been that it is reasonably fair-minded and intellectually sophisticated. We'll see if that standard can hold up in the heart of the political fire.


For those of you who are curious, here's my course schedule for the Winter term.

POSC 311: Topics in Constitutional Law (Prof. Kim Smith)
--MW 11:10 AM - 12:20 PM, F 12:00 - 1:00 PM

RELG 328: Contemporary Jewish Theology (Prof. Louis Newman)
--MW 12:30 - 1:40 PM, F 1:10 - 2:10 PM

PHIL 232: Social and Political Philosophy (Prof. Anna Moltchanova)
--MW 1:50 - 3:00 PM, F 2:20 - 3:20 PM

For those of you who don't know Carleton, that's a brutal setup. But all three professors are stellar, and all three classes are on topics I adore. So if I die, I'll die doing what I love.

Vote or Die

The Massachusetts legislature has voted to advance an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment forward. If it leaps another legislative hurdle, it would go to the voters. The vote was 62-134 (only 50 votes are needed for this particular action).

Pam Spaulding is, justifiably, furious. And she has every right to be.
She doesn't get it. She has no problem with the principle of voting on this. As I said in the comments at my pad, with the character of people like Tucker, would it have been fine with her to let "the people" vote on whether I must sit at the back of the bus or drink from a separate fountain?

Today's shenanigans are why the civil rights of a minority should never be up for a vote.

But that being the case, I have to wonder if this might be a colossal miscalculation on behalf of gay marriage opponents. They've staked a lot of their energy on the argument that democratic forces had never approved gay marriage. That got a bit of a black eye when Connecticut approved its civil unions law (not to mention the democratic mayor of San Francisco), but now they've retreated to saying that only a popular referendum is enough to prove democratic support for gay marriage. It's intellectually dishonest (and itself starting to look shaky, given Arizona's rejection of a gay marriage ban), but what of it? Any opportunity we get to cut the legs out from under these people, I have no quarrel with. And I would not be surprised if pro-equality forces could win an election fight in Massachusetts.

If they do, that would be a massive, watershed moment for the forces of equality in America. And it would be all on the heads of the radical Christian right.

I like that irony.

I Have Ridden The Mighty Moon Worm!

After a surprisingly difficult battle against the network, I have secured internet access to my room. I also ate lunch, bought my textbooks, got a new network cable, and got a new Doonesbury book. And it's only 2:15!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Fear The Norseman

I have a 5:20 flight back to Minnesota today, so this will likely be the last post I write until I get in. When you think about it, the concept of Minnesota is a bit amazing. After all, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Scandinavians were the most feared and brutal barbarians ever to sweep through Europe. Who would have possibly guessed that today they would all be in placid, cooperative social welfare states, or have moved to the upper-midwest to become the most stereotypically boring farmers imaginable? Today, Thor Olafson sounds less likely to put a sword through your chest than put an extra loaf of bread in your basket at the market. And he'll do it with a cute "Fargo" accent that has come to be known as "Minnesota nice."

I observe this because, all due respect to Samuel Huntington, civilizations change, and I think we make a serious mistake when we ossify them and pretend that any one group is hopelessly and incorrigbly backwards.

TDL reader Scott Needle's queried to me over email:
Does our society's current focus on Islamic extremists place too much emphasis on the religion? At the risk of being labeled hopelessly politically incorrect, doesn't the Arab culture itself play a vital role in this "clash of civilizations?" This thought came about largely after watching the movie "Children of Heaven," a beautiful but simultaneously disturbing inside look at Iranian society. Add in some admittedly limited personal experiences/interactions and a rudimentary knowledge of tribal Arabic history, and I began to think: is it just in the "Arab nature" to be violent, dogmatic, intolerant? It seems that the cultural aspect transcends religious conviction, though the religion is admittedly a useful tool for fanning flames and channeling the culture. We obviously can't dismiss the religion as having little significance--it's clearly tied up with the culture, however. I have yet to see this thought addressed in any major newspaper or such. The purpose would be towards a greater understanding of the conflict, especially through a historical eye. I doubt it would ultimately make a difference to our current NeoCon administration, but it could eventually help towards: (1) less blame on religion, less fostering of a modern "crusade" or "jihad", and (2) better understanding of what might work/not work to bring about true peace and progress across the region.

I understand the sentiment, and I appreciate the attempt to try and reduce anti-Islamic sentiment here in the states, but this seems strikingly close to replacing quasi-religious based classifications with quasi-race based ones, an endeavor to which we should all be leery.

First, let's be careful: Iranians aren't Arabic. They're Persian. This isn't a trivial distinction: Persians and Arabs have a long history of animosity and mistrust. Grouping them together as part of the same culture is like grouping the Spanish and the Moors together. Geography can be misleading.

But more importantly, as my above Viking Raiders allusion suggests, it's a dangerous game to try and ossify the culture of any group of people as inherent and unchangeable. I would not be surprised if every group had not had its inherent fitness questioned at one point or another. Certainly, we all recall the "scientists" that were trotted out throughout the 19th century to talk about how the inherent nature of the African was simple, primitive, alternatively savage or sambo-like, etc.. Perhaps more surprising to our readers is that this same dynamic has been applied to White people too. William J. Wilson wrote an 1860 essay entitled "What shall we do with White people," forwarding as its fundamental question: "Are they fit for self government?" The evidence, of course, was the spectacular display of imperialism, colonialism, brutality, rape, pillaging, murdering, theft, enslavement, and exploitation that characterized European behavior towards non-Whites during the era. W.E.B. Du Bois, in one of his more cynical moments, also proclaimed that the vast body of evidence suggested that such brutalism was not an aberration from the White norm, but its exemplification.

Going off Arabs specifically, we can note that--were we to take the time of the crusades as our metric point--Arab culture was considerably more "gentle" (if you will) and less prone to barbarism than its European counterparts. By and large, the defending Arab states in the crusade showed much more respect for captured prisoners and wounded enemies than did the Christian invaders. On the other side of it, one might wonder if their view of the West as a perpetually threatening, invading "crusader force" is itself premised on the mirrored viewpoint that--as history shows--it is we who cannot contain our bloodthirsty, expansionist instinct as a culture. So I might agree that the belief (on both sides) that the enemy is inherently a savage might play a role in the current conflict, but I'm highly skeptical that we have any better claim to our stereotype being true than they do. Those in glass houses and all that.

The point isn't to say that there isn't a very dangerous streak running through the Arab world right now. There is, and we need to find a way to address it. But it is falling into very old historical traps to throw up our hands and say "it's their culture! There's nothing we can do!" All groups tend to submit to this fallacy at one point, and they're always wrong.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

My resolutions for the new year (blog and non-blog related).

1) Write something that isn't published on a blog (Met).

2) Win something. Winnng must include some form of reward. Dorm poker night doesn't count (Met).

3) Take someone to the Midwinter Ball (Met).

4) Feel good about being a gangsta (Pick 'em).

5) Hate 20% less playa, 20% more game (Pick 'em).

6) Network (Met).

7) Actually do something with that BBC guy that I keep playing email tag with (hi guy!) (Met).

8) Develop as a person (Pick 'em).

9) Develop as a Halo player (Met).

10) Get a link for a top 10 blog that is not Powerline (knowing the daughters of one of the authors is an unfair advantage) (Met).

11) Ace the LSATs (Met).

12) Ace the GREs (Met).

13) Finish at least 50% of the books I start (Missed).

14) Go to a Wild game (Met -- before the end of the year but, amazingly, after I published next year's list).

15) Beat a video/computer game (Met).

16) Raise my GPA (Met).

17) Figure out a valid pronunciation for "TOETBD" (I may just say "tote") (Missed -- historical note: this stands for "Term of Endearment To Be Determined").

18) Read new blogs (Met).

19) Don't fail out of the Winter term (Met).

20) Make the new women's hockey goalie an all-star (Missed).

21) Rock the casbah (Pick 'em).

Happy new year everyone!