Saturday, January 27, 2007

Racism, Marty Peretz and Anti-Semitism

Marty Peretz is the owner of The New Republic, my personal sourcebook for political news and commentary. Oddly enough, I feel like Peretz is somewhat out of step with his own magazine, being considerably more conservative than nearly all of his writers. The type of material you'd read from Peretz differs sharply from that of Jonathan Chait, Michelle Cottle, or even Peter Beinart.

Peretz is currently being bandied about the blogosphere (Yglesias starts the firing, more on that below) for making supposedly racist comments about the Arab world. Since I am an admitted cheerleader for TNR, I feel obligated to weigh in on Peretz (if not this particular aspect of the controversy).

Peretz has always struck me as more of a tragic figure than anything else. My understanding is that he played a major role bankrolling the new left in the 1960s, until they took a nasty anti-Israel (and often, anti-Semitic) turn. Peretz felt justifiably betrayed, and his subsequent career to this point has been one large response to that moment in his life. As a result, his writings on the Arab world, while sometimes worthwhile, are more often quite grating, and in my opinion do crossover into outright malice or racism. It's not a sentiment I see reflected in TNR proper by the flagship writers, but it is still unfortunate that it should be associated with the magazine (I like Ezra Klein's riff on this). And it should be called out more often. I've been able to mentally split Peretz from the rest of TNR, but I'm not sure if that's a tenable move in the long-run, for myself or for the magazine at large.

So, that's my thoughts on Peretz. But there is at least one other charge that's come up that I feel the need to address. Unfogged:
Yglesias deserves a ton of credit for taking on Peretz and people who are quick to charge anti-Semitism. Only a smart, tough Jew could have done it, and Yglesias has been up to the task. Not only do spurious charges of anti-Semitism stifle debate and devalue the charge, but they also give cover to real anti-Semites, who use the spuriousness to accuse Jews of dastardly sophistry.

To which Kevin Drum adds: "Right."

That particular claim came up, not in addressing anything Peretz did, but rather another TNR writer who deigned to criticize Wesley Clark for saying, regarding war with Iran:
"You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers."

Yglesias defended Clark from charges of anti-Semitism, and was so lauded by Unfogged for his contribution.

I was a Clark supporter in 2004, and would still consider supporting him in '08, but I think there is a very strong prima facia case for labeling that quote "anti-Semitic," if only for the veiled "New York money people" reference. That strikes me as the rough equivalent of saying Black pressure on an issue comes from "the ghetto preacher" set. Calling Jews "New York money people" has a long and sordid tradition in this country. Rhetoric matters in these cases.

But even if we're going to say the issue is up in the air, I'm very disturbed by Unfogged's rhetoric here, and the manner in which an otherwise sane liberal (Drum) jumped to affirm it. Because the argument he made is, not just similar to, but exactly the same argument conservatives use to dismiss claims of racism from the Black community. It's virtually verbatim. Allow me to rewrite:
[Thomas Sowell] deserves a ton of credit for taking on [Sharpton] and people who are quick to charge [racism] Only a smart, tough [African-American] could have done it, and [Sowell] has been up to the task. Not only do spurious charges of [racism] stifle debate and devalue the charge, but they also give cover to real [racists], who use the spuriousness to accuse [Blacks] of dastardly sophistry.

Sound familiar? It's a well-developed pattern. Critique minority group for being ever too quick to pull the [race/anti-Semitism] card. Trot out selected member of the minority group to denigrate the charge. Assure oneself that, by doing so, you're the one who is really contributing to the fight against [racism/anti-Semitism], while the [Black/Jewish] critics are actually responsible for increasing its salience. It's a fundamentally dishonest move, and liberals normally know better than to treat it seriously.

Aside from the fact that Yglesias should be a bit concerned he gets to play a Jewish Clarence Thomas in this little skit, liberals at large should be worried when they start pulling from this playbook. It's not that every single charge of anti-Semitism by the Jewish community at large has to be accepted on face. But liberals are rightly incensed when conservatives reflexively reject (and then applaud their bravery in rejecting!) any Black claim of racism that doesn't come from the "right" people. It shows a fundamental inability to grapple with racism in general and the concerns of the Black community specifically. When people start applying that same standard to Jews, liberals should show equal concern--not gleefully jump in and participate.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Violent Revolution

The US, if you may recall, was founded via a violent revolution by the people against the ruling government. "Treason never doth succeed, for when it does, none dare call it treason." Perhaps, and perhaps our sole definition of what constitutes a "just" revolution is a revolution that it a) occurred and b) succeeded. But in theory, at least, we should be able to construct a theoretical account about just rebellion--when would violent resistance to the ruling regime, up to and including overthrowing the government, be considered just?

I ask the question generally, but I have a specific case in mind. Specifically, a full-scale revolt by American Blacks against the United States in the 19th century. This never actually happened, but there are smaller-scale examples. We tend to be appalled by Nat Turner's slave revolt, because it killed innocents. Which it did--but not all of them. Nat Turner gave the orders to kill every White person he found--probably unjust, but perhaps understandable in his situation--and this ended up including many women and children, and probably some male non-slave owners as well. But what if the slave revolt restricted itself to a) members of the authority (soldiers, policemen, etc.) and b) adult slaveholders? Is there any moral standard by which we can condemn a slave killing his master or mistress, much less do so while still upholding the idea that American colonists could justly revolt over a 3-pence tax hike without representation? How about a full-fledged revolt, complete with guerilla warfare and marching on capitals and all the other sundries of war as conducted in the 19th century.

I think the case in favor of the justifiability (not necessarily the wisdom) of armed revolution by Blacks can plausibly extend at least to the civil rights era (though I myself would push the date back to the apex of Jim Crow in the 1920s or 30s). Certainly, my intuition is that any argument which justifies the American Revolution in 1776 could not at the same time foreclose a total Black slave rebellion in 1856. But I'm curious, because I don't think we really grapple with this scenario when talking about the evils of racism or slavery. It's not just that they were evil. It's that they were evil to such an intense degree that they would have made it perfectly justifiable for their victims to violently overthrow the government of the United States and end the American experiment entirely.

No? Why not?

Black Empowerment in Baltimore

Via Blackprof, the inspiring story of the Algebra Project, by which some inner-city Baltimore teens are fighting the school board--indeed, challenging its very legitimacy, in order to get the money and support they are due under state law.

I obviously would prefer if such radical action were not required. But when the state shows itself so persistently non-responsive to its constituents needs, the people have every right so speak out. And nothing makes me happier than seeing the teens of Baltimore recapture the radical tradition that has been one of the few avenues for racial reform in America.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Them Crazy Atheists

That's funny, because I always thought that obsessive devotion to slavery was what led to civil war.


The Washington Post reports that former President Jimmy Carter apologized for one of the most controversial passages of his new book on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In particular, some students [in the audience at Carter's talk at Brandeis University] challenged Carter on a sentence that has brought him much grief. On Page 213 of his book, Carter wrote: "It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel."

This sentence, the students noted, suggests that suicide bombings are a tactic of war, to be suspended only when peace is achieved. Carter agreed -- and apologized -- and said this sentence was a great mistake on his part.

"The sentence was worded in an absolutely improper and stupid way," Carter said. "I apologize to you and to everyone here . . . it was a mistake on my part."

The apology came during his heavily publicized visit to Brandeis University, a historically Jewish college outside of Boston. There had been previous questions over whether Carter would attend, centering around whether Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz could debate him. The compromise was that Dershowitz would not debate, but would be allowed to give a rebuttal after Carter had left.

More important than the apology, though, to my ears, is the fact that this is the first time I have heard Carter acknowledge the validity and substance of his critics. Up until now, it has been tirade after tirade about how the media isn't giving him a fair shake, how about everyone is too intimidated to say what they really think, and other polemics in that vein. This is a welcome change in tenor, and hopefully a sign that Carter is finally coming to grips with the fact that many fair-minded and knowledgeable people from across the political spectrum have legitimate problems with his work. As Dershowitz ended up saying in his rebuttal, "If Carter had written a book more like his comments, I do not believe there would have been so much controversy."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Experience Machine

The topic of "experience" has been the only major valid (i.e., the Madrassa smear doesn't count) strike against Obama's Presidential prospects that's been raised thus far. I'm not saying it's the only one, just the big one that is floating around currently. It's a legitimate concern, but Sandy Levinson asks--just how well has "experience" correlated to executive performance?
Let me suggest the following question: Who among our 43 presidents have been the most "experienced" in terms of the resumes they brought with them to the Oval Office? And, concomitantly, who have been the most "inexperienced"? My own answers to the first question, in chronological order, would be James Madison (former member of Congress, secretary of state, not to mention constitutional drafter and co-author of the Federalist); John Quincy Adams (former member of Congress, ambassador, secretary of state); James Buchanan (governor, senator, Secretary of State); Richard Nixon (Former member of both House and Senate, vice president); and George H.W. Bush (U.S. ambassador to U.N., China, head of CIA, vice president). The most inexperienced have included Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Eclectic list. What about evaluations? Among the "experienced" Presidents, we had some successful ones (Madison, Adams), some failures (Buchanan, Nixon), and some utterly forgettable ones (Bush Sr.). Among the "inexperienced" set, we also had some successful ones (Lincoln, Roosevelt), some failures (Harding, Carter), at least one with a mixed resume (Wilson), and several forgettable ones (Fillmore, Pierce). I'm going to dodge the obvious fight and say that history is still out on Clinton and W. Bush.

So it seems that experience does not play that much of a role in giving us our best or worst Presidents. Levinson argues that this shows that
The office is truly sui generis, and success requires a combination of intelligence and judgment as much, if not more, than it requires a resume that includes holding certain jobs.

On the question of pure intellect, Obama is arguably at the top of the field, 2008 and even historically. On judgment, it may be too early to tell, but I've liked his instincts thus far. Of course, if the office is truly truly sui generis, then it may be that there is no way to really predict, prior to the fact, who will make a good President and who will not. But Obama deserves the same chance as everyone else to earn our faith and gain our trust.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Israel in NATO?

The Jerusalem Post has an article up claiming that Israel is going to try and push for entry into NATO. Intriguing prospect, to be sure, albeit one I highly doubt will go anywhere. But assuming it's viable, what is the upshot?

From the perspective of my own political commitments, it's certainly tempting at first glance. Putting Israel in NATO would tighten its links to the western security establishment considerably. And the Israeli military would add a surprising amount of punch to NATO forces. It has more tanks than France or Germany, a lot of on the ground experience (obviously), probably the most experience in what basically amounts to counter-insurgency warfare in the world, and all-in-all has a unique background regarding terrorism that stacks quite well given that anti-terrorism operations likely is where NATO will evolve in the near future (along with peacekeeping).
Meanwhile Monday, in an exclusive interview, former Spanish prime minister Jos Mar a Aznar told the Post that "Israel needs to join NATO as soon as possible."

According to Aznar, the Iranian threat serves as "an excellent occasion to enforce [Israeli] deterrence by making Israel a member of NATO."

The former Spanish leader and current president of the FAES Spanish think tank said that if Israel became a member of NATO, "the perception in Iran would change, knowing that it's not only Israel [they are dealing with], but all of NATO."

Aznar said that NATO needed to change its focus to counter the growing threat of global terrorism.

"The threat today is terror and we need to restructure NATO to deal with this threat," he said.

That being said, there are serious problems. For one, as the article notes, most NATO countries do not want to be locked into a strategic alliance with a country embroiled in so many tense (to say the least) situations with its neighbors. For two, it would obviously strain relations between the NATO bloc and the Islamic world. Unfortunate, and possibly worth biting, but still a real concern. The third issue, however, which I think might be overlooked, is how Israel's contribution to NATO might be severely circumscribed by geopolitical realities. The article questions whether Israel will want to contribute troops to foreign peacekeeping operations. That, by which I mean Israeli willingness, I don't see as a major problem. The issue is that many of the locations for peacekeeping won't be willing to accept Israeli contributions. Putting Israeli troops in a peacekeeping force in Darfur, for example, would be a colossal PR disaster and would immediately be seized upon by the government (who, if you recall, already blames the Jews) and would make the job that much tougher. There are plenty of areas in which an Israeli contribution, though materially useful, would be diplomatically suicidal, and that I feel would create a serious strain on the alliance.

So in all, I lean against formally inducting Israel into NATO (obviously, I feel that NATO bloc countries should defend Israel against Iranian and other aggression). What do y'all think?

UPDATE: IR Prof. Seth Weinburger's post raises some interesting points as well, and offers a solid response to at least one of the points I made (that Israel won't be able to effectively participate in peacekeeping operations). He notes that, by and large, the US doesn't either, and that doesn't appear to be problematic. Point well taken, although Israel's mere presence in the alliance offers opportunities for folks like the Sudanese government to tar the whole endeavor as a Zionist Plot (not that much is stopping them anyway).

The First Amendment Does Not Require Applause and Candy

Last week, I blogged about a complaint sent to the Justice Department regarding activities by the "Jewish Lobby" that were perceived as anti-Muslim. Professor Volokh noted that nearly all the activities cited in the brief were constitutionally protected speech, and thus the Justice Department would have no jurisdiction to enjoin the "Jewish Lobby" even if it wanted to.

The author of the brief wrote an email to Volokh, effectively protesting that Jews don't show equal regard for the 1st amendment when the subject is Holocaust denial or "wiping Israel off the map." Indeed, she avers, when that speech is uttered, Jews are quick to label the interlocutor "anti-Semite"!

It's a spectacularly stupid argument, and Volokh dispatches of it neatly. First of all, he notes, by and large the Jewish establishment has spoken out against legal censorship of anti-Semitic views, citing to such prominent Jewish figures like Alan Dershowitz and Nadine Strossen, as well as non-Jews like, well, himself. This is free speech, like it or not, and for all the mythical power of the "Jewish Lobby" one thing it has not tried to do is criminalize criticisms (or even outright slurs) against Israel, Jews, or Judaism.

However, we most certainly do call people who deny the Holocaust or praise Hitler "anti-Semites." And why shouldn't we? What, precisely, should my reaction be to such comments aside from round condemnation and social ostracism? As Volokh notes, this is precisely the suggested liberal response to distasteful or hateful speech--legal protection, but social condemnation against the speaker. Indeed, I'm really not sure what my other options are here, besides ignoring the speech on the ground that it doesn't matter (which flies in the face of the entire liberal justification for avoiding censorship, that "bad" speech should be aggressively met on the battlefield with competing ideas), or applaud the speech and express my support, which, begging all my neo-Nazi reader's pardon, will happen when Hell freezes over.

There are arguments to be made about why the 1st amendment shouldn't be read to cover "hate speech." But those arguments are best made by people who at least understand the basic liberal position that one can (and should) criticize certain opinions vociferously while still not supporting their legal prohibition.

Funny Pages

I just received and quickly devoured The Book of Ratings. Basically, TBoR takes a topic (say, breakfast cereal), trots out five or so examples, gives a brief evaluation, and then gives each a grade, from A+ to F (he's only given one "F" though--Scrappy Doo). It's delightfully amazing. There's an online version too, which you should only read if you have seven hours of spare time and no shame at giggling like a toddler with gas.

Anyway, aside from missionizing for one of my favorite humor sources (it's so rare Jews get to evangelize, so I try to seize the opportunity whenever I can), I wanted to make a note about two different forms of humor, and whether other people have a preference between them. On the one hand, you have "I was thinking the exact same thing!" Example: Garlic on pizza is infinitely recursive, there is no amount of garlic you can add such that more garlic wouldn't make it better. On the other hand, you have "I never thought of it that way before!" Example: Objectively speaking, The Wizard of Oz should have turned into cinema's first slasher flick the moment the Tin Man realized he had an ax and Dorothy had a heart.

I personally like both. Is anything revealed here, other than that I have a twisted personality?