Friday, May 21, 2010

Colt 45

I saw a truck drive by advertising Colt 45 malt liquor. On the side, in big letters, was the tagline "Works Every Time!"

That's a rather baffling slogan, isn't it? I could understand "refreshing every time", or "delicious every time". But in what sense, other than getting you drunk, does malt liquor "work"?

Colt 45: For when you absolutely, positively, need to get smashed.

Teaching Israel

Phoebe's whole post on how to interest liberal Jews in Israel is good, but I particularly endorse part II:
Place Zionism into a postcolonial-studies framework. Young, liberal, educated American Jews who hear "Israel" and "colonialism" assume what's meant is that Israel is a colonial entity. We need to get everyone to read Memmi, and to think of Israel as a state that came out of oppression, that's flawed in all the ways one expects of such states, but that's surprisingly successful, considering. No, the right-wing friends-of-Israel won't like this. But if young Jews had a better understanding of Zionism as a liberation movement for a people who'd been faulted for centuries for not having a land of their own ("Go back to Palestine" was a cry yelled at Diaspora Jews, after all), a movement that couldn't possibly have emerged in response to the Holocaust because it began well before, then perhaps the necessity of Israel as a Jewish state would become a starting point. How to best and most ethically protect Israel - and how to criticize its current actions that some read as colonialist but that I'd choose to criticize with other language for reasons I won't get into here - could then be discussed from a place where the country's very existence isn't up for debate by those who don't quite get where it came from in the first place.

This is a class I'd love to teach, though unfortunately I'm completely unqualified to do it (but somebody I know is getting her Ph.D. in French and French Studies with an emphasis on French/Jewish relations....). So I'll have to settle for owing Phoebe a huge debt for introducing me to Memmi in the first place.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Unthinkable Retort

I noted the other day how pleased I was by Jon Chait's largely positive response to Peter Beinart's trechant critique of the American Jewish Establishment's perspective on Israel and young Jews (my original reaction to the piece). Consequently, like Mr. Chait, I was honestly surprised at the vitriole Beinart directed towards Chait's post.

Beinart's accusation towards Chait is that he isn't angry enough, for "there is only one decent response to these truths: fury. If you're not angry, you're either not paying attention or you don't care...." I have to admit that I am not in the camp of those who think what the Middle East conflict needs is more anger, and the contributions of those who think anger is the right emotion to "build on" have rarely been positive, in my view. It is very weird to me that Chait is getting a negative reaction for essentially agreeing with Beinart's main points.

What it is most symptomatic of, I think, is this idea that any disagreement with any criticism of Israel or Israel's supporters -- even if only partial, even if expressed in perfectly temperate tones -- is necessarily some sort of wild-eyed, pro-Likud, senseless screed aimed at suppressing any and all debate. That Chait, a supporter of Beinart, got met with this reaction almost reflexively is deeply worrisome to me, and does not bode well for the success of the project Beinart claims he wants to start.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Eventually, I Have To Start Studying, Roundup

But not today. Incidentally, I wrote the following on my Facebook wall: "I'm not registering a prediction, but it would not surprise me if Specter votes against confirming Kagan."

* * *

It never occurred to me that Susan B. Anthony might not have been anti-abortion, or have actually been the model prototype of a modern conservative "feminist". Like Yglesias, I just had chalked it up to changing politics.

Rand Paul's civil liberties positions aren't really what they're cracked up to be.

Manuel Miranda, a key player in conservative organizations focusing on judicial nominations, thinks Kagan's Jewish background proves she's actually a socialist.

Nate Campbell, another one of my favorite fighters who is likely reaching the end of his career, was very classy in this statement after his thorough drubbing at the hands of Victor Ortiz.

If you're interested in how implicit bias plays into anti-discrimination law, this Faculty Lounge, in addition to being interesting in its own right, links to a slew of prominent articles on the subject.

The Tea Party is finally breaking one of the bedrock rules of American politics: In internal GOP matters, the house always (used to) win.

Michael Steele favorably cites Malcolm X. I have no problem with that -- I think there is a lot of affinity between Black Conservative ideology and Malcolm's work -- but I'm not sure how many White Republicans agree with me (Incidentally, it's Malcolm's birthday today).

CNN has an interesting report on Cuba's "Decree 217", which forbids migration to Havana from Cuba's rural, poorer, and Blacker regions. Havana residents without proper papers are not legally allowed to live in the city, and face deportation if caught.

Home Demolitions

What is it about housing permits in the Middle East?
Hamas police wielding clubs beat and pushed residents out of dozens of homes in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Sunday before knocking the buildings down with bulldozers, residents said.

Gaza's militant Hamas rulers said the homes were built illegally on government land. Newly homeless residents were furious over Palestinians on bulldozers razing Palestinian homes.

For years, Palestinians have criticized Israel for destroying houses, mostly because they were built without permits issued by the military. Now, Rafah residents complained, their own government, run by the Islamic militant Hamas that seized power in Gaza in July 2007, has done the same.
Residents said between 30 and 40 homes were torn down, ranging from concrete structures to tin shacks. They did not know how many people were affected. Hamas officials did not allow reporters into the area until the demolition was over.

Residents said more demolitions in the area were expected Monday.

Even if they are allowed to rebuild, Israel does not allow most building materials into the territory it has blockaded since Hamas seized power. The newly homeless residents are unlikely to be able to afford the steep black market prices for concrete, steel and wood. Some of the families cannot afford rent.

Rafah's mayor, Issa Nashar, promised alternative housing. Gaza's housing minister Yousef al-Mansi said he had no information about such housing.

The cynic in me -- and when it comes to the Middle East, the cynic is a very large part of me -- doesn't really know what the downside of this is for Hamas. The ensuing misery of these men and women only helps buttress its PR war against Israel -- indeed, a significant part of Hamas' governing philosophy has been strategically exposing their denizens to danger and deprivation so as to make Israel look bad. The theoretical downsides are (1) that it hurts these Palestinian men and women, and (2) that it discredits Hamas and weakens its grip on the population and global opinion. The first I hardly think the Hamas government considers to be a particularly salient harm at all, and the second is less of a big deal than one might think -- international cameras won't make the distinction, and while the displaced men and women know who to blame, their political influence is negligible particularly given Hamas' concentration of force and willingness to deploy it against its own population.

The Latest Terrorist Attack

A pipe bomb went off in a Jacksonville mosque where about 60 people were praying. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and the FBI has found remnants of the bomb in service of its investigation.

As Matt Yglesias notes, it is quite puzzling why this terrorist attack -- which actually involved a bomb going off -- isn't getting the attention other attempted assaults on Americans by violent extremists do.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Dems Big Night

Jon Chait is right. Tonight was an excellent night for Democrats. We held the PA-12 (special election to fill John Murtha's seat) -- not too shabby, given that the district was the only one in the country to vote for Kerry in 2004 but McCain in 2008. Joe Sestak is, I think, a more formidable opponent for Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Bill Halter pushed Blanche Lincoln to a run-off, which I believe he'll win -- it's a push as to whether this helps or hurts (not so hot) Democratic chances to retain the seat (Halter isn't an incumbent, which is good, but he's also quite liberal for Arkansas), but in a coin-flip environment I'd prefer the more liberal of two options. Finally, the Kentucky race ended up exactly as one would want it, with AG Jack Conway pulling the Democratic nod to face Tea Partier Rand Paul -- by far the most favorable match-up possible in the Bluegrass State.

So yeah. Good night.

Quote of the Confirmation Day

Michael Kinsley:
Now that the sex lives of Supreme Court justices have become grist for commentators, we are finally free to discuss a question formerly only whispered about in the shadows: Why does Justice Antonin Scalia, by common consent the leading intellectual force on the Court, have nine children? Is this normal? Or should I say "normal," as some people choose to define it? Can he represent the views of ordinary Americans when he practices such a minority lifestyle? After all, having nine children is far more unusual in this country than, say, being a lesbian.
Speculation is already rampant about why Scalia chose nine children over a more conventional lifestyle. Is he a sex maniac? That suspicion naturally arises. But perhaps once he started, he just never got around to stopping. Or maybe he just likes children. In recent days, Scalia’s friends have rushed to his defense, going out of their way to portray him as a model of sexual restraint. "Every Friday a bunch of us used to go down to this bar to pick up women," one of his college roommates recalls. "We’d always ask Nino if he wanted to join us, but he always said he was too busy studying. Frankly, we thought he was gay."

Inquiring minds want to know.

Why Now?

I'm not sure how I feel about Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) resigning after admitting an affair today. The fact that Souder is an abstinence-only crusader adds some irony, the fact that he shot a video promoting abstinence with his mistress adds yet more. But while I am pleased that for once a Republican actually has to leave politics due to sexual shenanigans (a Democratic affair, Bill Clinton excepted, seems to be death-on-sight), how is it that Souder has to resign while Senator David Vitter (R-LA) is still around?

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Unthinkable Reaction

Earlier today, Balloon Juice's DougJ wrote incredulously:
Presumably, the attacks will come, but I’m very surprised that there has been no mention yet at The New Republic or The Weekly Standard of Peter Beinart’s excellent, brutal anti-AIPAC/TNR/Weekly Standard piece from the New York Review of Books.

Beinart is a former TNR editor, as well as a big Iraq War pimp, so perhaps that inoculates him from the full 5,000-word Wieseltier treatment, but it’s been over 24 hours and no one has called him a self-hating appeaser of Islamofascism yet. What gives?

At the same time, Joe Klein wrote:
I would hope that the leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League etc etc would read it and think about it carefully, and that it forces those who have refused to debate these issues--how unJewish!--to start a real dialogue.

But I'm sure that it's only a matter of hours before someone calls Beinart anti-Israel or a self-hating Jew. How sad.

Jeffrey Goldberg quite appropriately responds:
Come on, Joe! There is real debate all the time in the Jewish community, even within the ADL! I've been to national meetings of the ADL when actual debate broke out! I belong to the biggest and most established Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C., and one of beloved rabbis is a leader of the hard-left group Rabbis for Human Rights, and you know what? No one cares. Liberal critics of Israel and the organized Jewish community are going to have to let go of this particular meme. (Please see my post on a related subject, the taboo that won't shut up.) We live in an age when cartoonists -- cartoonists! -- are threatened with death for drawing pictures of the Muslim prophet, and yet an unseemly amount of space on the Interwebs is given over to condemning Abe Foxman for writing hostile press releases. It is not an act of bravery -- physical bravery, spiritual bravery, intellectual bravery -- to criticize Israel, not ever, and certainly not today.

By the way, I just asked Peter Beinart if he's been called an Israel-hater or a self-hater today. His response: "Actually no one has. It's been the biggest shock -- and happiest one -- of the piece. I don't think my grandmother has read it yet, though."

Of course, there are some rabid supporters of Israel's furthest right flank who have, in so many words, made that precise charge. But I think it is fair to say that Maggie's Farm ("Beinhart's 'liberal Zionism' is difficult to distinguish from that of ultra-left Jews who bash Israel or demur to the bashers and apologize for Obama’s dangerous domestic and foreign inanities."), William Jacobson ("Essays like yours, and those of the Medias Matters crowd, simply are viewed as small victories for those who seek the destruction of Israel."), and Phillip Klein ("[A]ll liberal Jews want to do is to pin the blame on Israel's efforts to defend itself, and engage in the magical thinking that more Jewish concessions will create peace and security. By doing so, they are helping the enemies of the Jews who are intent on finishing the job that Hitler started.") are not exactly AIPAC or the AJC. They do not represent or drive opinion in either the Jewish community writ large, or in its most prominent institutions. They are marginal, well, cranks.

And as for TNR -- the entity whose response was assuredly going to be a 5,000 word hit job? Well, Jon Chait has the first response up, and ... it's positive. "[A] call to arms to the American Jewish leadership that needs to be heeded." The essay is laudatory because "somebody needs to grab the American Jewish leadership by the lapels and shake some sense into it." Does he have quibbles? Of course he does, and those quibbles are well worth reading -- particularly the part where he notes that criticizing someone's critique of Israel is no more "silencing" of "criticism of Israel" than a piece like Beinart's is "silencing" of support of Israel. But his piece is obviously one of someone who thinks Beinart's essay is onto something very important, one that deserves to spread and lauded and trumpeted. Hardly the reaction we were told to expect. But maybe that's because we were somewhat overconfident in our presuppositions about what the pro-Israel community thinks. Perhaps we'll know better next time (UPDATE: Hell, even the Orthodox Union -- who of all people had the most right to be upset with Beinart's piece, given that he does cast Orthodox Jews as somewhat of a bogeyman -- are praising the article, or at least lauding it for getting a discussion going).

See my prior commentary on Beinart's essay here.

SCOTUS Rules Life Sentences for Juvenile (Non-Homicide?) Offenders Unconstitutional

The case was Graham v. Florida, the WaPo blurb is here. The ruling was a somewhat fractured 5-4 (Roberts, who would have been the sixth vote, concurred in the judgment with regards to this defendant, but did not agree that there should be a categorical constitutional bar). And meanwhile, Justice Stevens, going out in a hail of glory, let loose with this concurrence:
Society changes. Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time; unless we are to abandon the moral commitment embodied in the Eighth Amendment , proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete.

While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old, the Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved since 1980. They will never stop doing so.

A fitting send-off to a stellar career by Justice Stevens.

A Fighting Faith, Redux

Peter Beinart has an extremely important, extremely provocative, and extremely necessary piece out in the New York Review of Books, entitled The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. It argues, more or less, that most American Jewish organizations have been unsuccessful either in cultivating any sense of connection between young, (relatively) secular American Jews and Israel. Moreover, their approach to "pro-Israel" politics does not do justice to the liberal Zionist tradition, further turning off young Jews and exacerbating a generational and sectarian divide within the Jewish community on the proper stance towards Israel. The result is that the territory of "pro-Israel" is, more and more, becoming the province of the growing Orthodox right-wing youth and, more importantly right-wing Christian evangelicals (what Matt Yglesias terms to the "post-Jewish pro-Israel movement". This shift is happening at the exact same time as Israel's own youth cultural has taken a decided rightward shift. For those of us who think demographic realities and approaching binationalism represent an existential threat to Jewish existence, this is a grave prescription indeed.

Beinart is mostly right. There are quibbles -- there are always quibbles (I think he overstates the degree to which the behavior of American Jewish institutions is motivated by "illiberalism" versus a sort of paralysis in the face of the siren's call of Evangelical support). But the quibbles don't obviate the major point, which is that liberal Zionism -- and with it, the Jewish Zionist dream, are in a state of crisis, and the current guard of American Jewish leaders is not responding appropriately. They've forgotten, first and foremost, who they represent.

Beinart's most powerful points are about the poisonous influence of the Israeli religious far-right, and its growing influence in American orthodox quarters. Most American Jews, of course, still are Conservative or Reform. I'm Conservative not because I'm not motivated enough to be Orthodox, I'm Conservative because I fundamentally think we have a more comprehensive, more compelling, more engaging, more authentic, richer, deeper, and more meaningful conception of what Judaism means. Yet in its public persona my denomination has rarely managed to come up with a coherent self-identity beyond "Jews too lazy to be Orthodox". No wonder we're not considered real Jews amongst the Israeli religious authorities! I wouldn't respect me either, if that were my outlook. You want to know why young Jews don't affiliate with mainstream Jewish organizations anymore? Perhaps its because they don't want to have their Judaism defined by those who -- on the key issue of Jewish concern of the age -- write policy with two eyes on Evangelical Protestants.

It's past time that American Jewish groups begin representing their constituents, and that means taking a hard line on folks who would exclude us from the canon. It also means vigorously promoting our own view of what it means to be Jewish. I'm on the record as saying certain extreme proponents of settler violence and anti-Palestinian racism (I'm talking here of folks who are publicly in favor of exterminating Palestinians, or folks who say "You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic" as justification for permanently barring Arabs from voting in Israel) should be excommunicated from the faith, and I think the Rabbinical authorities of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism should begin that process forthwith. If non-Orthodox Judaism is to emerge from its current decrepit state, it will need to take bold steps like this -- to show it is a "fighting faith" (to use an older phrase of Beinart's). I think we should defend our positions on abortion, and gay rights, and anti-racism, and religious liberty, as Jewish virtues, not just liberal ones. I think we should come to our policy positions with eye on what we want and what we need, not what John Hagee or Sarah Palin do. Fundamentally, the Zionist dream was about achieving democratic autonomy for the Jewish people. It's a faint autonomy if -- still -- we take marching orders from our Christian "superiors".

Israel Matzav, responding from the right, already recognizes these battle lines. He sneers at what he considers to be the faux-Judaism of young liberal Jews (indeed, he claims -- without support -- that many of them aren't Jewish at all "under Jewish", by which I take it he means Orthodox Jewish, "law"), and forthrightly declares that he'd prefer the support of the Evangelical Christian community over that of the bulk of American Jews. And, as Spencer Ackerman correctly notes, liberal Jews can't expect anybody but liberal Jews to care whether Israel stays a liberal, Jewish state. Illiberal Jews won't care if it remains liberal, non-Jews won't care if it remains Jewish. It's on us -- we can't rely on other people to do our dirty work for us.

The time has come for liberal Jewry to flex its muscle once again -- to stop taking its cues from the Orthodox right (or, needless to say given my past work, the fringe left) and stand up for our own values. If we think the dream of liberal Zionism is important, then it's up to us to preserve it. There is nobody else.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Automatic Self-Defense

Last year, a young, unarmed Black man was shot in his own driveway by a White police officer who thought he was stealing his own car. The shooting occurred in the mostly White suburb of Bellaire; the officer claimed self-defense, believing that the youth was going to pull a gun on him. This past week, the officer was found not guilty of all charges, apparently finding that the shooting was justified.

The Field Negro links this up to the O.J. Simpson verdict, arguing that Simpson's acquittal wasn't due to some asinine belief that Simpson was innocent, but simply the applied knowledge of Black jurors who knew what standards of evidence exist when White folks kill Black people, and believed justice should be colorblind. I remember also reading reports that the Black community celebrated the Simpson verdict not because they saw an innocent man going free, but because a guilty man was. It's not so macabre -- we live in a society whose criminal justice system is predicated on letting the guilty go free. That's what innocent until proven guilty means. That's what it means to believe that it "better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer." For a long time, that principle was a luxury reserved only for White folks. The Simpson verdict was a rare extension of colorblind justice. If you think the verdict was unjust, then you have to think it's unjust systematically -- not only when it causes criminals of a particular race to get off.

Nonetheless, I think the better comparison to this verdict is not the Simpson trial, but rather something like the "Subway Vigilante" case or Rodney King, and its racial inversions, such as the Chai Vang case. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written quite eloquently on this subject. White fears of Black-on-White violence are essentially an automatic self-defense acquittal at this stage (every time I read the facts of People v. Goetz, I get chills at how one could acquit -- especially the shooting of Cabey). No person of color is afforded this sort of luxury.

Several years ago, I wrote about the experience of young Black men being profiled because they "fit the description". As one man put it "Yeah. Young black male. I always 'fit the description.'" I wrote then:
I've never been stopped "on the street" by a cop. But I do remember one time when I was a teenager playing "hide and go seek in the dark" by my house. I was crouching behind a leaf pile in my front yard, wearing a dark hoodie, when a cop pulls up behind me. It could not have possibly looked more like a stakeout, and I knew it. So I stood up and heartily waved at the cop, who looked at me for a moment, then kept driving. There is no way in hell he would have just kept driving if I was Black.

Forget "kept driving", as this case demonstrates, I could have been shot.* If "young Black male" always "fits the description", "young Black male" also always means "valid self-defense claim". And that's another way of forfeiting certain, less-valued sorts of lives.

(I also highly recommend Jody Armour's Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America).

* I remember telling this story (quite shaken up) to my mother, who assured me that even if the cop had stopped me, all that would have happened is that my parents would have come out, verified that I lived in the house, and that would have been that. The facts of the Bellaire case put a rather sinister twist on that account -- Mr. Tolan's mother coming out was the proximate cause of the shooting (there was an "altercation" -- the family says the cop shoved the mom into a wall -- and when Tolan raised his head to ask what was going on, that was the movement that the officer took as a threat to his life).

Good Ibish Blogging

Hussein Ibish has a very good post up that simultaneously upbraids a really ridiculous post by Phyllis Chesler, and gives an interesting exogesis of Islamic holy texts that really should be required reading for all those who subscribe to the view that Islam is somehow an inherently violent religion. A snippet on the latter point:
Green was asking me about faith and violence in the context of Islamist extremists, and I said I didn't care for the phrase "religion of peace" which she mentioned, because all religions are social texts determined by the interpretations of their followers and all major religions had historically proven amenable to legitimating both peaceful and aggressive intentions. Green disputed this, saying that the Bible contains a narrative in which the relatively more violent, militaristic Old Testament texts can be reinterpreted in light of the New Testament texts in order to create a peaceful ethos, but that no such narrative existed in the Koran. "Or does it?" she asked me.

I noted first of all that while Green is absolutely right about the way many Christians have interpreted the chronology of scripture composition to allow more peaceful texts to condition the interpretation of more violent ones in the Bible, historically that hasn't stopped many Christians and Christian societies from behaving in an extremely violent manner, frequently in the name of God. However, I also pointed out that Muslims too have a narrative, which Green was clearly unaware of, that allows for the same kind of interpretation of more violent passages of the Koran in the context of more peaceful ones. I pointed out that the Koran was revealed over a period of historical time and that Muslims are well aware of and have discussed in detail throughout their history the understanding that most of the aggressive and militant passages had to do with the period in which the early Muslims are said to have been persecuted by pagan tribes. It is therefore possible, and indeed common, to find Muslim scholars interpreting the more militant texts in the context of more peace-oriented ones, in a manner that is indeed analogous to the way many Christians interpret the more militant Old Testament texts in the context of the more peace-oriented New Testament ones. Indeed, this process of contrapuntal interpretation is supported by the several passages of the Koran itself, including Surah 2:106. This is an absolutely accurate explanation of an important element of Muslim religious thinking that Green was unaware of and was suggesting doesn't exist, and it was important to correct her misapprehension. What I was "really saying" was, of course, that there is a strong basis in Islamic theology and doctrine for interpreting more violent texts in the context of more peaceful ones just as there is in Christianity. It's as simple as that. And it's true.

I'd also note that -- if doing something as radical as replacing the Old Testament with the New is what it takes to sanitize an otherwise "violent" faith, then Jews are in seriously trouble (who's surprised to see Christian-oriented thinkers utterly neglect to consider how Jews are affected by their analysis? Not me!), since our faith ensconced in the "Old Testament" whose rejection is apparently the saving grace (pun intended) for Christianity. Of course, Jews too have reinterpreted our holy texts via Talmudic expansion and other means, to emphasize peaceful behavior and minimize violence. So unless you want to say Judaism is an inherently warlike religion, then one has to give Islam the same opportunity for spiritual adaptation as we have.

Relatedly, Ignoblus has a good post on Ibish's good post on Paul Berman's good book (well, I haven't actually read the book, but it's gotten pretty positive feedback from what I've heard) The Flight of the Intellectuals.