Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama's Mideast Speech -- a Followup

Ron Kampeas has a roundup of various Jewish groups' reactions to Obama's speech, which, as one might expect, range quite broadly. I do think it's important to push back against the notion that Obama outraged the Jewish or pro-Israel community -- as Kampeas notes, stalwarts like the ADL and the AJC were quite effusive in their praise of President Obama, and Abe Foxman came out hard against the claim by Mitt Romney and other Republicans that President Obama somehow "threw Israel under the bus."

Meanwhile, the dust being kicked up over 1967 frankly baffles me. I guess I'm not surprised at Netanyahu's intransigence, as Bibi lacks any coherent normative commitments beyond his short-term political interests -- exactly the sort of leadership trait Israel needs right now. Having Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister during a crisis for Israel offers historians a wonderful glimpse into how the United States would have managed the Civil War if James Buchanan had remained President. But basically anyone with a pulse already knew that 1967 borders, with swaps, would serve as the basis for any future agreement.

I'm not entirely sure what other basis for borders there could be -- I'm assuming whatever extra territory Bibi thinks he'll get by not "basing" a Palestinian state on 1967 lines he's not planning to compensate by ceding Israeli territory elsewhere, but the acreage of the land in question isn't large enough substantially deviate from 1967 and create an economically viable Palestinian state. In particular, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's statement calling 1967 lines "Auschwitz borders" is horrifically insensitive and trivializing to Holocaust victims, and they deserve to be raked over the coals for it. Meanwhile, as Jon Chait observes, the main existential threat to Israel for the foreseeable future isn't Jordanian tank columns rolling in, but rather not being able to extract themselves from an occupation that threatens to eviscerate their civil society and render the Zionist dream of a Jewish, democratic homeland a distant memory.

And that leads me to my final point. Jeffrey Goldberg sardonically asks why Republicans are misreading Obama's speech, a speech which, by any objective metric, should have been seen as "pro-Israel in a red-meat I-heart-Israel, damn-Hamas, Iran-can-go-to-hell, Israel is the eternal Jewish state sort of way." Goldberg, of course, recognizes that the question answers itself -- Republicans are mischaracterizing the speech because Obama was the one who gave it, and because they see a political advantage in trying to cast the hitherto centrist consensus that existed with respect to the resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict as an attack on Western Civilization.

For years, there has been a tacit agreement with respect to the pro-Israel community -- that while we might disagree about what policies are best for ensuring Israel's long-term viability, security, and liberalism, everyone coming from a genuine position of respect for the state of Israel and its legitimacy as homeland of the Jewish people would be accepted as part of the community. That doesn't include everyone, or every Jew -- there are those who oppose Israel's existence as a Jewish state, and they've always been ostracized (which I don't really mind). But the Zionist, pro-Israel community has always been a big tent, including groups like the modern ZOA, that don't even support a two-state solution, as well as more leftward, Peace Now types.

The conservative response to J Street's emergence has broken that agreement -- they haven't just disagreed with it with respect to policy, but they have engaged in a systematic campaign to declare it intrinsically "anti-Israel", anti-Zionist, and hostile to Israel's very existence. But if those are the new rules -- that a group or person shouldn't be pro-Israel if one honestly believes their policy prescriptions are bad for Israel's future survival -- then I see no reason to concede that folks like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Allen West are pro-Israel in any meaningful sense. The policies they lay out place Israel in mortal peril -- possible the gravest danger Israel has faced since 1973. And what's more, I don't think they care all that much about Israel. Yes, obviously, Mitt Romney would think it a bad thing if Israel disappeared tomorrow. But he'd view it as bad because it would represent some sort of lost Western fortress -- an instrumental failure, not something that effects him personally. It doesn't make his life any worse if Israel ceases to be the fulfillment of the Zionist liberal democratic dream. It makes my life worse, and it obviously makes the Israelis' lives worse. But for Mitt? Israel's little more than a symbol, and an expendable one at that.

Again, if the litmus test is a subjective self-assessment of thinking that one's acting in Israel's best interests, then Mitt Romney is precisely as pro-Israel as Barack Obama is. But if we're going to make this a substantive test -- what policies are best for ensuring Israel's continued survival as a Jewish democratic nation -- he fails utterly. And if he wants to start playing on that field, I'm happy to meet him there.

Talk Turing To Me, Baby

Clive Thompson discusses the Turing Test with an AIM sex bot. Good times.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama's Mideast Speech

The buzz on this speech has already been fluctuated wildly, from "he won't say anything new" to "he's going to make an exceptionally bold and ambition statement on resolving the conflict."

I don't know which intuition is right, but the latter is obviously more fun to speculate over. So what do I want to hear?

1) Clear assertion of the right of Palestinians to a state, based on 1967 borders. There will be landswaps, and there should be landswaps, but the basic right of Palestinian statehood has to be acknowledged.

2) Clear statement that the establishment of a Palestinian state is in Israel's clear, existential interest. Palestinian statehood isn't a "favor", nor is it just idealistic posturing. It's a necessary condition to Israel's continued safety and security as a Jewish, democratic state.

3) Clear affirmation of Israel's right to defend itself and live inside secure borders. This is boilerplate at this point, but obviously remains important.

4) Clear rejection of the right of return. Rightly or wrongly, a speech that forwards points #1 and even #2 will be seized upon by rightist elements as "proof" that Obama is "anti-Israel". That's ridiculous, but it's reality. Observing that the right of return is a non-starter, and that at the end of the day not everyone is going to be able to live in the precise patch land they want to, is a good hedge against this. It's a known negotiation red-line, everyone knows that a final deal won't include it, something that is objectively hostile to final resolution of the conflict, and something that pro-Israel folks care about passionately. Compensation for refugees, yes, absolutely, but no right of return.

5) A call on both parties to hit the negotiating table. Both sides bear their share of the blame on this. The Palestinians got a 10 month settlement freeze, and spent much of that time dicking around rather than attempting to make any progress. On the other hand, that freeze was pretty anomalous for a Netanyahu administration that, by and large, is abjectly incompetent at best (with coalition members who are best described as fascistic). Whatever -- the point is that the only way things happen is if people sit down at a table and commit to banging an agreement out. Enough is enough.

How many of these points do you think Obama will hit? Fingers crossed for a good speech.

UPDATE: Four out of five, by my count. Obama specifically punted on refugees (as well as Jerusalem), but the functional replacement w/r/t my political analysis was his call for a demilitarized Palestinian state. I continue to be a little perplexed at why this is supposed to be so appealing. I want Palestine to have a monopoly of violence in its borders. The alternative isn't "no weapons in Palestine", but rather something like Hezbollah setting up shop with the actual government too weak to stop them (just like in Lebanon). But again -- whatever helps make a deal....

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Knesset Moves To Recognize Armenian Genocide

The Jerusalem Post reports that a Knesset bill officially recognizing Turkey's genocide of Armenians is moving forward. Historically, bills of this nature have stalled because of the importance of maintaining Israel's friendly relationship with Turkey. But now, with the two countries' ties at a historic nadir, that concern apparently has fallen off.

There was a similar reversal last year in the US Congress, where the House Foreign Relations Committee passed am Armenian genocide resolution, after years of seeing it narrowly fail. Jewish groups had historically been, at best, tepid with respect to the resolution, in part to assuage Turkey (which made it very clear that it would retaliate against Israel if Jewish groups didn't toe the line). As Turkey began to turn more aggressively against Israel that year, though, that leverage went away, and a major barrier to the resolution's passage disappeared with it.

Then and now, one can debate how much of this is "a diplomatic shot at Turkey draped in self-righteous clothing" versus "doing the right thing now that Turkey has already spent its leverage which had hitherto prevented it." Obviously, the latter is more noble than the former. But regardless, the important thing is that the victims be commemorated.

And as for Turkey, my message remains the same as its ever been: Grow up. Lot's of countries have horrible things in their history. It's true of the US, it's true of Israel, it's true of China -- it's probably true of every country -- and it's true of Turkey. Turkey has plenty of contemporary problems to deal with (e.g., it's Prime Minister threatening to expel its remaining Armenian population), but part of maturing as a nation is learning to deal with your past.*

* Which, incidentally, is part of why Israel's recent flurry of "anti-Naqba" legislation is so distressing.

Quote of the Day

From my Feminist Philosophy readings:
Edward Said's Orientalism has fathered a received wisdom in colonial studies that has proved to be as narrow and frozen in its scope as it has been powerful in its impact. It proceeds from a conviction in the totalising nature of a western power knowledge that gives to the entire Oreint a single image with absolute efficacy. Writings of the Subaltern Studies pundits of a group of feminists, largely located in the first world academia, have come to identify the structures of colonial knowledge as the originary moment for all possible kinds of power and disciplinary formations, since, going by Said, Orientalism alone reserves for itself the whole range of hegemonic capabilities. This unproblematic and entirely non=historicised "transfer of power" to structures of colonial knowledge has three major consequences; it constructs a necessarily monolithic, non-stratified colonised subject who is, moreover, entirely powerless, and entirely without an effective and operative history of his/her own. The only history that s/he is capable of generating is necessarily a derivative one. As a result, the colonised subject is absolved of all complicity and culpability in the makings of the structures of exploitation in the last two hundred years of our history. The only culpability lies in the surrender to colonial knowledge. As a result, the lone political agenda for a historiography of this period shrinks to the contestation of colonial knowledge since all power supposedly flows from this single source. Each and every kind of contestation, by the same token, is taken to be equally valid. Today, with a triumphalist growth of aggressively communist and/or fundamentalistic [identity]-politics in our country, such a position comes close to indigenism and acquires a near-Fascistic potential in its authoritarian insistence on the purity of indigenous epistemological and autological conditions.

It has weird implications for the feminist agenda as well. The assumption that colonialism has wiped out all past histories of patriarchal domination, replacing them neatly and exclusively with western forms of gender relations, has naturally led on to an identification of patriarchy in modern India with the project of liberal reform alone. While liberalism is made to stand in for the only vehicle of patriarchal ideology since it is complicit with western knowledge, its opponents--the revivalists, the orthodoxy--are vested with a rebellious, even emancipatory agenda, since they refused colonisation of the domestic ideology. And since colonised knowledge is regarded as the exclusive source of all power, anything that contests it is supposed to have an emancipatory possibility for the women. By easy degrees, then, we reach the position that while opposition to widow immolation was complicit with colonial silencing of non-colonised voices and, consequently, was an exercise of power, the practice of widow-immolation itself was a contestatory act outside the realm of power relations since it was not sanctioned by colonisation. In a country where people will still gather in lakhs to watch and celebrate the burning of a teen-aged girl as sati, such cultural studies are heavy with grim political implications.

Tanika Sarka, Rhetoric against the Age of Consent: Resisting Colonial Reason and Death of a Child-Wife, Economic and Political Weekly (September 4, 1993), p. 1869.

Professor Sarkar is an Indian historian (currently teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University). The piece is on how this harsh binary between empowered colonial discourse, and resisting "traditional" ones, ended up masking and suppressing an indigenous political and social resistance to certain oppressive practices (here, child brides). While Orientalism certainly flattens out the cultures it gazes upon (so that "India", as a whole, supports marrying off children), defenders of the orthodox status quo are easily able to pivot off "anti-colonialism" to do the same thing -- casting their preexisting intellectual and social opponents as agents of the empire, complicit in its evil, while their behavior -- far from representing an internally-contested expression of proper cultural norms -- is "resistance", and thus not the proper subject of critique.

I don't repost this quote because I think this is something "all feminists" or "all people opposed to colonialism" do (the fact that Professor Sarkar wrote the article, and that it was assigned in a Feminist Philosophy class, gives lie to that notion anyway). But I do think Professor Sarkar is responding to a real dynamic that has real consequences in terms of how we understand securing human rights across diverse, plural societies.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Okay, One More Thing

Our lovely anonymous friend is complaining that there are "personal attacks" on him on this blog, which he proclaims are the reason for his defiance of the banning. Since he (a) hasn't linked to them and (b) is, um, anonymous, I have no way of verifying what those posts are or what their content is. I can't commit to taking any action with respect to those posts until I know what they are.

My email address is listed in the comments policy. Let me know what posts are so offensive as to grate you so, and I'll see what I can do.

Comments Moderation Back On

See, this is why I can't go anywhere nice. A bunch of comments deleted as violations of policy (specifically, combinations of numbers 1/1.5, 2, 3/3.5, and 5). So moderation comes back on. Sorry for the inconvenience to the people who have been behaving themselves. As to the folks whose comments were deleted, I refer you to Comment Policy #1 for an explanation.

I may have to require a sign-in, if only so I don't accidentally delete valid comments under a misplaced suspicion that they are actually written by a cloaked banned commenter. I have to think on that for awhile.

UPDATE: Moderation lifted.

Workshop Roundup

Come to law school for the makeup class, stay for the workshop (actually going to the makeup class is apparently optional).

* * *

Former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman takes the bold (for a GOPer) stance that climate change is real and scientists are worth listening to -- except for the part where we do something about it. Oh well, baby steps.

Newt Gingrich's poll tests -- too extreme even for Rep. Allen West (R-FL).

Cornel West flips out at Barack Obama. Melissa Harris-Perry has the best response. My favorite part was West's outrage that a hotel bellhop could get tickets to Obama's inauguration, but he couldn't. Outrageous!

Ex-Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) declares John McCain knows nothing about torture, McCain's office responds with "who?"

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has a manifesto in the New York Times. Rebecca Lessee lets fly at it, but while I think a lot of her points are well-taken (and Abbas' misleading omissions and use of the passive-voice are aggravating), I'm beginning to come around to the notion that centering the Israel/Palestine discussion around endless sniping over narratives is probably not all that useful (though I continue to hope that respect for each others' stories is the "end game").

Hamas interviews one of the protesters at the Jordanian/Israel border. She misses the good old days when her father "massacred the Jews" of Hebron (she's 92 and originally from Hebron, so she's speaking from experience regarding the 1929 pogrom). Meanwhile, a Hamas official is licking his lips over the opportunity to wipe the Jews out.

Jocks for Equality

Man, how can you not love Charles Barkley? His recent statements regarding gay men in sports are fantastic:
Also weary of the perception that a majority of straight male athletes are intensely homophobic, Barkley said gay players pose no problem, adding, “Man, we need to outlaw guys who suck at sports.”

“I really like ESPN,” Barkley added. “They do a great job. But like once every two or three months, they bring all these people on there, and they tell me how me and my team are going to respond to a gay guy.

“First of all, every player has played with gay guys. It bothers me when I hear these reporters and jocks get on TV and say, ‘Oh, no guy can come out in a team sport. These guys would go crazy.’ First of all, quit telling me what I think. I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play.”
And now Barkley, who played as masculine as any 6-foot-4 power forward in the history of playground or pro hoops, uttering the words, “It didn’t bother me,” saying he knew he had gay teammates.

“Any professional athlete who gets on TV or radio and says he never played with a gay guy is a stone-freakin’ idiot,” Barkley said. “I would even say the same thing in college. Every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.

Barkley’s message: Don’t worry. Deal with it.

“They’re not going to do anything in the locker room,” he said. “Doesn’t work like that.”

Barkley added that he wished Welts, whom he knows well because he lives in Phoenix, the best in the fallout from his public revelation. He also explained his stance and feelings about the issue.

“First of all, society discriminates against gay people,” Barkley said. “They always try to make it like jocks discriminate against gay people. I’ve been a big proponent of gay marriage for a long time, because as a black person, I can’t be in for any form of discrimination at all.”

Talk about straight talk.

Meanwhile, if I had to pick the hockey player most likely to be at the fore for marriage equality, Rangers thug Sean Avery wouldn't top the list. But way to prove me wrong. And honestly, I should know better -- I was always tickled to note that the enforcer on my high school hockey team was arguably the smartest, most thoughtful member of it -- he ended up attending the London School of Economics. So there you go.

Making it Worse on Yourself

Wisconsin Scott Walker (R), showing that his astounding lack of empathy does not extend only to the working class, is attempting to withdraw his defense of a state law permitting same-sex couples hospital visitation rights, on the grounds that it contravenes a state constitutional ordinance barring same-sex marriage, as well as "legal status[es] identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals."

Obviously, there is a parallel to the federal Department of Justice declining to defend the Defense of Marriage Act on their belief that it violates the federal constitution. Procedurally speaking, I don't have strong thoughts on when, if ever, it is appropriate for the executive to not defend a duly-enacted law. But that debate does not obviate the substantive difference between seeking to affirm the equal human rights of all Americans, and trying to denigrate and destroy those families Scott Walker thinks are comprised of second-class citizens. I also find it notable the way conservatives seamlessly pivot between noting that marriage isn't a prerequisite for such things as hospital visitation rights (to demonstrate that there is no rights-violation from the marriage proscription), while simultaneously fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent gay couples from enjoying those privileges. It's rather dizzying.

In any event, if I were a judge hearing this argument, I'd be sorely tempted to invoke the doctrine of constitutional avoidance to reject Governor Walker's position. The doctrine of constitutional avoidance basically counsels courts to interpret ambiguous statutory (or here, state constitutional) provisions in ways that "avoid" causing constitutional problems (notably, this doctrine does not require that the Court affirmatively state that the "problematic" interpretation necessarily would be unconstitutional, only that it raises a significant specter of constitutional controversy). The more bans on gay marriage impinge on specified, concrete rights and privileges of gay couples, the harder it is to maintain that they don't constitute a prima facia equal protection violation. I think that the text of the Wisconsin amendment is, at best, ambiguous as applied to hospital visitation privileges, so it seems like a prime candidate for avoidance. And, of course, phrasing the ruling as an exercise in avoidance helps build precedent for what should be clear -- the linkage between bans on gay marriage, and restrictions of the rights of homosexual couples, raises real equal protection concerns.

IDA ...HO? HoT? TH?

Peter Tatchell is promoting this year's International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia as an opportunity to pressure Commonwealth countries (Tatchell is British) to drop their regressive and often brutal anti-gay laws. This is obviously timely, what with Uganda's "kill the gays" bill back on tap. But all I can think of is Tatchell's acronym: IDAHO. International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Shouldn't it be IDAHoT? Or IDAHT? Or you're all hung up on pronounceability, switch "homophobia" and "transphobia": IDATH. Yes, it means you no longer evoke America's 43rd state, but trust me, it's less evocative than you think.

New Rule Roundup

Not eating lunch today was a mistake.

* * *

In the wake of the NHL barring Detroit Red Wings fans from throwing Octopuses onto the ice after goals, Down Goes Brown offers up some other new hockey rules.

Obviously this legal interpretation isn't going anywhere, but still amusing: Florida accidentally outlaws sex. Kind of like how Texas accidentally barred marriage.

TNC on how all Black people are scary Black people.

Interesting documentary on an Israeli doctor working to save the life of a Palestinian child in the midst of Cast Lead. Apparently it is getting rave reviews.

Hamas is willing to accept a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, but will never recognize Israel, because that would imply giving up the right to a Palestinian state ... beyond 1967 borders.

I do approve of Tolkien permanently transforming elves from midgets to lithe giants.

Monday, May 16, 2011

SPME Taps Out

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East is a group that, by all appearances, has laudable intentions: speaking up against the BDS movement and in favor of genuine engagement and peace between all parties in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it looks like there is much less than meets the eye.

My suspicions were originally raised by this review essay they published, which inaccurately labeled J Street and J Call as supporters of the BDS campaign and appeared to lament the "consensus among Israeli intellectuals in favor of a Palestinian state." But I assumed that it was a one-off, not an officially sanctioned position.

Unfortunately, it looks like the group really is going out of its way to pander to the right. They just released a letter urging CUNY to reverse-its-reversal regarding the honorary award to playwright Tony Kushner. One does not have to agree with Kushner to find this difficult to swallow -- particularly given SPME's anti-boycott focus on academic freedom. One also has to note the naked dishonesty of calling Kushner a BDS advocate -- a position he has repeatedly rejected (and whose rejection has become well-known in the wake of this controversy). And I was so excited at how "the system worked".

Worse, SPME also makes a specific point to defend instigating trustee Steve Wiesenfeld -- he who labeled Palestinians "not human", which is perhaps the clearest evidence to date that their concern is not about creating the conditions of mutual respect required for peace, but simply provincial partisanship on behalf of putatively "pro-Israel" speakers. Just as Kushner deserves criticism for his positions on Israel (and he does), Wiesenfeld deserves everything that's come his way as well. Creating space for peace in the middle east means undermining all those who demean the worth and dignity of others -- whether the speakers identify as "left" or "right", "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestinian".

It is all deeply unfortunate. The center I occupy is holding fine, but it is always frustrating when one finds out someone you thought might make for a suitable ally -- isn't one. Tragically, SPME has come out on the wrong side of this issue -- and done so in a way that seriously damages their credibility as a true force for peace and reconciliation.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ignorance is the Best Disinfectant

Kevin Drum points to Boston Globe story casting doubt on whether disclosure of conflicts-of-interest is a useful check against abuses.

Basically, researchers ran a study where one set of people was asked to make an appraisal (say, the value of a house), and another was designated experts to assist them in their appraisal. When the experts were given a conflict of interest (being paid more based on how high the appraisers valued the house), they gave inferior advice. Big surprise. But when the experts were forced to disclose their conflict, they gave even worse advice. And, the appraisers were more likely to listen to the conflicted-experts, because they didn't want to seem untrusting after the appraiser disclosed their conflict. So massive failure all around.

This reminds me of a similar story regarding a law mandating transparency in corporate executive compensation. It was passed during one of those scandals over how ridiculous corporate salaries were, and the idea was "we'll shame them into bringing their compensation practices down to earth." Well, all that happened was now all the companies knew what their competitors were paying, and all the companies below the median immediately hiked their salaries to match the market. And those above median? Well, they thought they were just rewarding good work, and wanted to maintain their edge at attracting talent -- so they jacked up their compensation too. Yay, bidding war!