Friday, May 09, 2008

Voting Politically

Some folks have been giving Barack Obama a hard time for his claim that the court's should serve as a refuge and defender of the oppressed in America. This, the argue, is politics substituting itself for law. They gleefully point to John McCain's statement on what he's looking for in a judge -- a position that is supposedly non-ideological and apolitical. Conservative judges go where the law takes them. Liberal judges go where they want to go, law be damned.

Tragically, this position is false -- and it's a conservative judge who is pointing it out. Judge Richard Posner, one of the leading conservative jurists in America today (and possibly one of my professors at the U of Chicago) has a new book out, "How Judges Think" which pops the myth that liberal justices are more likely to vote their policy preferences than conservatives. Actually, conservative judges are statistically far more likely to do so, and not only that, the trend line for conservative judges is towards increased politically-based voting, while liberal judges actually have shown a slight decrease in their (already smaller) propensity to vote in accordance with their policy preferences.

Posner thinks the reasoning for this is that, since the Reagan administration, Republicans have relied significantly more on ideological considerations when appointing judges. Liberals, he suggests, are not as organized in demanding that their nominees be ideologically pure and committed. But Brian Tamanaha (with just a hint of snark?) suggests that maybe its just that "Democratic judicial appointees are more committed to respecting and abiding by the law (to restraining the influence of their political views)."

I don't have any problem with the presumption that courts should be defenders of the marginalized. The rights of majorities are less likely to be threatened in democracies, because they're, well, the majority, and as John Hart Ely pointed out so many years ago, majorities aren't likely to discriminate against themselves. It should be expected that the primary function of the courts will be to defend those whose interests are not likely to be defended in the democratic arena. We have for decades held to the principle that these minorities deserve special consideration by the judiciary if their equal status is society is to be maintained. Insofar as conservatives substitute their policy preferences that often counsel against protecting minorities against majorities, they are engaging in an unabashedly political project. And as for their judicial "philosophies" which "force" them into that position, as River Tam would put it, it's not part the philosophy, it's why you chose the philosophy.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Round Four

Amazingly, the Indiana 9th District is looking at the fourth consecutive battle between the same opponents, with Democratic Rep. Baron Hill defending his seat against former Rep. Mike Sodrel. Sodrel challenged Hill in 2002 but lost, but then won the re-match in 2004. Hill got his seat back in 2006 and now the race is on again 2008. It's expected to be negative -- 6 years of running against each other has created some bad blood.

I'm curious: what's the record for most consecutive cycles where the same two major party candidates faced off?

Coin Op and Cona Op

One of my friends at Carleton wrote her senior thesis on the tension between America's counter-insurgency tactics in Afghanistan, and our counter-narcotics tactics there. It was a good argument that I think deserves greater attention (I say that while I'm sure I'm not doing it full justice).

The link between the drug war and the war on terror is no mystery. Terrorists like drug money because its already an underground economy, so the transfer paths are already present in ways designed not to alert the authorities. But fighting the drug war makes allies of the terrorists and the drug producers -- the cartels, yes, but also the peasant population which grow the crops as their primary source of income.

This creates a problem. Basically, America's standard counter-insurgency operations revolve around the "winning hearts and minds" cliche. We try and stabilize regions, build institutions, increase the well-being of the locals, and help them get their goods to the market. If they like us, or even if they just are content with the status quo, the support for the insurgency withers away. Win for Team America.

Our counter-narcotics operations, by contrast, are based on eradication. We go in, and destroy the poppy crops. This means that our first exposure to many Afghan families is decimating their livelihoods, which is a problem on the whole hearts-and-minds metric. More specifically, rather than seeing Americans as a source for enhanced stability or a brighter future, locals instead rationally conclude that the only way to keep their crops safe is to insure that America or the central Afghan government doesn't get near them. That makes support for the insurgents skyrocket. And the insurgents reciprocate by protecting and promoting poppy cultivation. This dynamic has made it nearly impossible for anti-Taliban forces to crack the Taliban's hold on Southern Afghanistan, which, in addition to being their original base of support, is also a prime poppy region. The insistence on fighting the drug war in this way is making it impossible for the army -- and the Afghanistan government -- to do its job: unite the country, and stifle the insurgency.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How Much Time?

A new ad out tries to force McCain into that question pro-lifers never want to answer: if abortion should be a crime, how much time should women who have them serve? (Via)

I've yet to hear a coherent justification (at least, one that isn't nakedly paternalistic -- e.g., women are irrational creatures controlled by their emotions, so they can't be punished) for why abortion can be outlawed (as murder), but the murderers should get off scot-free. I suppose if someone doesn't think abortion is murder, but still can come up with a reason for it to barred, they could dodge out of this, but the few arguments I've heard on those lines are also pretty paternalistic (it's a serious decision, and we can't know if you're taking it seriously enough unless you're willing to prove it somehow to the state).

In any event, it's a question that McCain and his allies shouldn't be allowed to dodge. But I agree with Bean: it's a pretty new tactic (at least in mainstream argumentation), and nobody knows how new tactics will play out.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Jewish BLT

Not Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato (that'd be impossible to make Jewish -- unless you're Reform), but Black Liberation Theology!

This NYT article on the subject (H/T: PG) brought to the fore a thought I've been having for some time. Black Liberation Theology strikes me as a significantly more "Jewish", if you will, theology than it does Christian.

Now, I'll admit only a moderate knowledge of the parameters of Christian theology. But plenty of Christians I've talked to have confessed genuine trouble with identifying BLT as a "Christian" entity. They object to its particularism, that it "takes sides" (as opposed to Christ's message of universal salvation and infinite love). They think it's too political, and this-worldly, as opposed to concentrating on faith and the world-to-come.

Both of these concerns fit far more comfortable within Judaism, which is also particularistic, and also is more concerned with the state of the human world as opposed to abstract notions of faith and the afterlife. Admittedly, Orthodox Judaism often only concerns itself with "this world" on a ritualistic level, and less so with regards to universal concerns of justice. But Judaism as a whole (including Orthodox Judaism) has developed a strong social identity around the notion of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Even if, as my Judaic Studies professor at Carleton argues, Tikkun Olam historically has been only a minor element of Jewish religious practice, it's certainly risen to a dominant position today.

Moreover, the Liberation Theology mantra, "God is on the side of the oppressed", also seems to my ears to ring more Jewish than Christian. In part, this is simply historical: Jews have spent more time oppressed than (White) Christians, so obviously we're going to develop theological accounts that provide sustenance in such situations. But also, as the article notes, the God of BLT tends to be that of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament: God standing in judgment over wrongdoers, and prophets preaching Jeremiads against evil societies. I don't believe this theme is absent in the New Testament, but my understanding is that it takes on reduced significance.

In part, this affinity (brother-sufferers) has been used to explain the disproportionate presence of Jews (religious and not) in the Civil Rights movement. But BLT came to the fore with the Black Power movement -- an event which, at the very least, stressed the Black/Jewish bond. Perhaps one way to repair the rift would be for Black Liberation Theorists and their Jewish counterparts to explore connections and commonalities regarding how they view the world. Orthodox Christianity has not exactly been the most welcoming home for liberation theology. Maybe Judaism can be (and learn something about ourselves in the process).

Next Stop: Michelle

Michelle Obama enjoyed a long grace period from the national media. A smart, engaged women who has formidable accomplishments of her own wholly aside from those of her husband -- what's not to like? Well, being an outspoken Black women is always a position fraught with peril, and Michelle does not have her husband's naturally conciliatory personality. We saw her previously sterling image take a hit with the infamous comments about how her husband's candidacy represented the first time she'd been proud of America. And with a pair of articles out trying to paint her with a tar brush, I think we safely say that conservatives think Michelle Obama may be a point of vulnerability for the Obama campaign.

That doesn't mean that the attacks are just, though. The first is a projection piece by Yulal Levin at the National Review complaining that Michelle Obama articulates a sense of "bitterness" (the ultimate insult!). The warrant is that Michelle's speeches often hit on themes regarding how people no longer feel like they're in control of their destiny, that they can't make change in the world (obviously, the fulcrum to Obama's message that "yes, we can" make change). It's a pretty silly argument, that boils down to "there's no anxiety in America, because many of the people Michelle Obama is talking to are middle class or wealthy, and if there is, it's because we rock that much the harder," which I feel misreads the current sentiment of the American people by reducing the only possible source of anxiousness to money concerns. In any event, as in all arguments that flow from a perception that something is wrong with America, Michelle is being critiqued for daring to mention that all Americans might not exist in a state of ecstatic joy, all the time (how can we not? This is the greatest nation in the history of the world!).

The second is an article by equal-opportunity religion-hater Christopher Hitchens, who tries to blame Michelle for Barack's membership in Rev. Wright's church -- a membership which can only be explained by sympathy to radical Black separatist ideology. Since Barack clearly doesn't believe in separatism (nor, I'd wager, does Rev. Wright, but no matter), it must be Michelle. He spends literally one half of a paragraph providing evidence for this -- and (I'm not making this is up), that one piece of evidence consists of Michelle Obama's 1985 senior thesis (my senior thesis is online for all to see -- am I doomed?). That's it, and it's in the last paragraph. Contrast that to the two opening paragraphs, dedicated to wholly gratuitous references to Louis Farrakhan. This the best you've got? [Note: I strongly recall my argument here being made in a post at The Plank, but I can't find it. Apologies for the appropriation -- particularly if the post wasn't at The Plank and I'm effectively stealing from somewhere else. There it is! Publius from Obsidian Wings. Sorry 'bout that.].

While I'm on that last point, the discussion by PG and myself on the prospect of a Bobby Jindal VP position reminds of something. In addition to the latest go around of "is Obama a closet Muslim or a radical Christian Black separatist? Or both!?", there's been a persistent rumor fest that Obama only converted to Christianity and joined his church as a furtherance of his political ambition. Would Jindal, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity, face the same scrutiny of political motive? I mean, good luck getting elected as a Hindu Republican in Louisiana. Still, my guess is no, both because the pre-existing narrative of a 5th column (radical Hindus are trying to subvert America and Jesus!) isn't there (oddly enough, since Hinduism, as a non-monotheistic [or at least not traditionally monotheistic] religion would seem to be more theologically dangerous to Christianity), and because the arbiters of who is sufficiently close to Jesus to be allowed to participate in American democracy (i.e., the Christian right) seem to have given him the a-okay. Still, fascinating contrast.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Stand Up and Admit

Whenever Obama talks about "change" and whatnot on his campaign (which is, let's face it, every six seconds or so), I am filled with an inexplicable urge for him to adopt a new song as his campaign theme. Specifically, Marilyn Manson's "This is the New Shit".

Can you imagine? He could be going into his standard refrain:
"Are you ready for something new? Are you ready for change?" [hit the music, start head-banging] "Are you mutha%*%@ing ready? For the new shit! Stand up and admit, come on everybody! ..."

And so on. It even has call and response:
Do we get it?
Do we want it?

I don't understand why they don't pay me for this.

Jindal for VP, Part II

A few posts ago I explored the possibility of McCain selecting Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as his VP choice.

Now some liberal bloggers have tackled the issue, and they seem rather sanguine about it. Kevin Drum thinks that Jindal's youth (36) will serve to accentuate just how old McCain is (71), and Steve Benen -- in addition to that point -- wonders if the right-wing base that's uncomfortable with "difference" (read: dark people) in general will come out to vote for an Indian-American VP (once a Hindu, always a Hindu?).

Color me unconvinced. On the age issue, I guess I can see Jindal's boyishness serving to emphasize just how old McCain is. But I've always been skeptical that age will be as big a factor as some Democrats make it out to be. Maybe Democrats can make the point that the Republican ticket is lead by someone who might die tomorrow, backed up by someone with virtually no experience on the international stage. But it's hard to make that point without indicting Obama, who is more experienced than Jindal, but not by enough to immunize him from the attack. The better charge might be to simply point out that we're a heartbeat away from putting an extreme right-wing fanatic in office.

The issue of race, I think, is even less compelling. As I wrote in my last post, conservatives like big progressive shifts to come clothed in conservative garb -- it makes them less threatening. If Jindal can win statewide in Louisiana -- possibly the southern state with the worst demographics for a non-White Republican (plenty of racism combined with a Democratic Party that is still competitive in high profile elections) -- then I think he's dispelled doubts that White racism from the right will be a major strike against him.

Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: that Jindal says he doesn't want the job. But of course, what potential VP candidate says he does want it?

As Usual, It's Teh Fault of Teh Gay

Shorter FRC: The recent raid on the FLDS -- a sect which has existed for over 100 years -- shows that teh gay are destroying American civilization, and that teenagers can never be allowed to have sex. That being said, is nobody thinking of the parents in this situation? What about their rights?

The only criminals in this account are gays and horny teenagers. The only victims are the adults who rape teenagers and the parents who put their kids in this situation.

Family values, FTW!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Order Up

This is really fascinating. In putting together his seminal work, An American Dilemma (published in 1944) Gunnar Myrdal asked White southerners to list, in order of importance, what they thought American Blacks wanted most. Their response:

1. Intermarriage and sex intercourse with whites
2. Social equality and etiquette
3. Desegregation of public facilities, buses, churches, etc.
4. Political enfranchisement
5. Fair treatment in the law courts
6. Economic opportunities

Myrdal then asked Blacks the same question, and got the same answer, with one significant exception: Blacks listed them in reverse order!

From Patricia J. Williams, "On Imagining Foes, Imagining Friendship," in Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States (Jack Salzman & Cornel West, eds., Oxford: Oxford UP 1997), pp. 371-383, 374-75 (citing Calvin Hernton, "The Sexualization of Racism," in Sex and Racism in America (1988); Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944), pp. 587-88).

Blacks and Israel

In discussions of why the Black/Jewish alliance of the early 20th century began to falter in the 1970s, the question of Israel usually is at the forefront. Growing Black identification with third world anti-colonialism (which manifested itself in support of Palestine against their purported colonizer, Israel), combined with growing Jewish ambivalence to affirmative action, was a double-whammy combination that severely fractured previously deep bonds.

But both problems, while certainly real, have been overstated. Jews have demonstrated ambivalence towards affirmative action (particularly quotas, which have deep negative connotations given their history as a tool of exclusion of qualified Jewish applicants), but they still register support for it at levels higher than any other White ethnic group, and the trend lines are positive, not negative, on the topic. Blacks, for their part, do support Israel -- albeit by lower margins than Whites. Moreover, while high-profile anti-Israel statements get media attention and feed the perception of a large and growing bloc of the Black community in strident opposition to Zionism, the reality is far more complicated. Certainly, some Black leaders shifted from previous support of Zionism to staunch opposition (such as Stokely Carmichael). At the same time, others made the opposite trek, such as Jesse Jackson, who in the space of several years went from describing Zionism as a "poisonous weed" choking Judaism to hailing it as a national liberation movement. Other Black leaders, led by Bayard Rustin, formed the Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee (BASIC) -- joined by, among other notables, Clarence Mitchell, David Dinkins, and even Andrew Young, who become a poster boy for Jewish concerns over growing anti-Israel sentiment in the Black community when he met with representatives of the PLO as America's Ambassador to the United Nations in 1979.

The reality is that the view of significant Black anti-Israel sentiment is largely apocryphal, stemmed by the aforementioned high profile denunciations rather than by any strong empirical evidence. Summarizing a long history of survey data, Gary Rubin writes:
Four points stand out in this review of three decades of surveys on African American attitudes toward Israel. First, African Americans show consistent support for Israel over this entire period. Second, that support is at a lower level than that of the public at large. Third, for greater proportions of African Americans than others, this is not a very important issue: Blacks consistently outpace whites in the proportion that express no opinion on Israel-related questions. Fourth, response of African Americans are subject to the course of events; they are especially prone to express sympathy with the Palestinians as well as with Israel and to strongly back pro-peace positions. [Gary E. Rubin, "African Americans and Israel," in Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States (Jack Salzman & Cornel West, eds., Oxford: Oxford UP 1997), 357-370, 366]

Rubin also notes that the Congressional Black Caucus has "consistently and overwhelmingly favored foreign aid to Israel" (367, quoting Murray Friedman), and notes that in general Black politicians have been quite willing to "horse trade" with Jewish leaders so that each group can secure the support of the other on issues of mutual importance.

So what do we get out of this? First, Jewish concerns are not wholly off base -- Blacks, while overall supportive of Israel, are less likely to express that position than Whites. More importantly, the relative apathy on the issue Rubin notices is not neutral -- just as Blacks are hardly unconcerned with Whites who "don't care one way or the other" on questions of racial justice. When the question is basic survival and equal dignity in the arena of human affairs, apathy and indifference can feel like hostility. But all that notwithstanding, insofar as Israel remains an issue of critical importance to Jews, the Black community writ large is not our enemies, and that's important to keep in mind as groups who truly are hostile to our interests try and pry us apart.

Signal Strength

Dave Meyer has a fantastic post up on the historical practice of America using wars as a form "public relations" or "marketing" -- specifically, marketing that we as a nation are "strong" or have the "will" to impress our desires upon the rest of the world. He begins with Hannah Arendt's retrospective on the Vietnam War, and continues to show how image was always the central element of selling the Iraq War:
In the last year of her life, Hannah Arendt offered a retrospective on Vietnam; Home to Roost is printed in the Responsibility and Judgment collection published back in 2003. Her prescient insight was that the entire "not very honorable and not very rational enterprise was exclusively guided by the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed 'the mightiest power on earth.'" Eventually, the war was maintained solely "to avoid admitting defeat and to keep the image...intact."

The official obsession with image developed over time in the Vietnam era. With Iraq, it was central from the beginning. Before the war, Andy Card told Elisabeth Bumiller that "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Tom Friedman thought invading Iraq would communicate a useful "Suck. On. This." Jonah Goldberg glowingly attributed to Michael Ledeen the idea that "every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." There are countless examples, from high government officials to low pundits, of endorsements of Iraq for the message it would send, as an easy way to dispel the myth of American weakness. The Iraq war is a multi-trillion dollar public relations campaign, aimed at persuading hostile forces of our "strength."

Meyer notes that, insofar as war is used as a signal for will, it requires tremendous message discipline. But as Matt Yglesias points out, such uniformity is effectively impossible in a modern, pluralist democracy -- which is probably why Republican war supporters who are so concerned with the "message" we're sending (to al-Qaeda or Iran or France or whomever) about our "will" have so often resorted to the rhetoric of treason to describe war dissenters, or have engaged in domestic propaganda efforts of questionable veracity (not to mention ethics or legality) to try and keep the American psyche all moving in one public direction.

These are all good points, but Robert Farley, an expert on military affairs, adds that even outside the limitations imposed by American democracy, "signaling" things like "will" relies on several shaky assumptions, which often don't bear themselves out:
1. Signals are unambiguous: The meaning of our signaling is not subject to interpretation, such that different people could, based on different priors, carry away different meanings.

2. Signals always indicate what we want them to indicate: This is related to the first; if we are trying to send a signal of strength, then we send a signal of strength, not a signal of mean, stupid, crazy, etc.

3. We never develop a bad reputation, except for weakness: This is related to the first two; our effort at signaling strength doesn't have reputational costs. If we invade his country, the Other will understand us as strong, rather than as brutal, imperialistic, crusading, evil, etc.

4. No one ever considers that we might be trying to deceive through signaling: This is probably the most important. If signaling is about creating a reputation for strength, and if a reputation for strength is a positive good, then obviously there's an incentive to lie about being strong. The entire premise of signaling depends on no one noticing that we have an incentive to lie about our own strength.

5. We know our own strength: Our effort to communicate the true level of our resolve is dependent on knowing what that level is. However, the resolve of the American people to crush enemies of the American public is a value that is unknown to anyone, including our leadership. At best we're guessing, which basically means that every effort to signal is essentially deception.

This doesn't mean that American actions don't communicate messages that we should be cognizant of. But it does mean that a) we can't pretend like "strength" or "will" are the only signals we'll ever send -- even if that's what we intend to, and b) that it's probably a bad idea to launch entire foreign policy adventures based on the blurry concept of communicating American willpower.

We'll Stay Until We Can Stay In Peace

John McCain has been complaining about Democrats making hay over his "100 years in Iraq" comment. He says that they're implying he wants the war to continue for 100 years, while he claims that he's merely saying we could stay in Iraq indefinitely once peace has been achieved. Howard Dean has responded that McCain's missing the point -- Americans oppose staying in Iraq in any capacity 100 days from now, much less 100 years, and that's what gives their ads punch. This point is buttressed by the fact that the ads never use the word "war", but I'll certainly concede that the ads are playing on the ambiguity to achieve maximum effect.

But apropos the controversy, Hendrik Hertzberg, who gave the quote its (extended) context at the time it was spoken, I think nails the real problem for McCain's protestations of innocence over "100 years":
McCain's wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal—that is, the goal of not getting any more Americans killed. And once that goal is achieved, we'll stay.

This is not a plan most Americans are comfortable with. So why shouldn't the Democrats make hay out of it?

Via Josh Marshall