Friday, October 07, 2011

Children of the Corn

Everybody around here is sniffly and stuffy -- myself included. Apparently, it's not a virus. Rather, it's the ongoing corn harvest, which supposedly sets off allergies left and right. Including, it seems mine -- worse even than I had in Minnesota (where I believe my New Student Week group was worried I would actually keel over and die while working in St. Paul).

Now, I'm allergic to many things. Some of them (grass, cats) I've even managed to nail down. Mostly, it's a mystery when my eyes suddenly start running water or my skin breaks out in hives. But I'm pretty sure I'm not allergic to corn. I mean, I eat corn all the time. Corn syrup is in literally 85% of the food I eat. How could a corn harvest set off an allergic reaction.

Oh whatever. At least it will be over in ... a month? It takes a month to harvest all the corn.

God damnit. I miss Chicago.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

RIP Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell -- civil rights warrior, pathbreaking law professor, founder of critical race theory, and tireless advocate for justice, has passed away at age 80.

I never met Derrick Bell. I had the opportunity once when he came to speak at Carleton, but I was going out of town. I remember pulling aside my roommate -- a Math major with zero interest in politics, law, race, or anything primarily expressed via words -- handing him my copy of And We Are Not Saved, and informing him that he was going to Professor Bell's talk and he was getting my book autographed. Which my (quite saintly) roommate proceeded to do, and I still have that book on my desk to this day.

Bell was a model to generations of students. He accomplished more in one lifetime than the average person could hope to do in three. I was introduced to him as an academic writer -- progenitor of "interest-convergence theory" and CRT founder -- but it is worth remembering that academia was really Bell's second career. He started off as an in-the-trenches warrior in the fight for civil rights, leading the NAACP in dozens of successful anti-segregation suits in the Jim Crow south. After a brief stint at the University of Southern California, Bell became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard. He eventually left Harvard in protest of their failure to hire a Black woman. The claim, as always, was that they couldn't find a "qualified" one. How they said that with a straight face to Bell -- who graduated from the decidedly non-elite University of Pittsburgh law school and proceeded to become one of the most influential scholars of the last quarter century -- is beyond me.

Rest in peace, professor. Be assured that your legacy lives on.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Who Gave Steve King a Magic Lamp?

Ah, Steve King. The Republican from Iowa has graced the pages of my blog at several points as among the dumbest members of Congress -- defending the "mendacity" of Republican leaders, worrying that women will never have babies if we allow them access to birth control, and referring to America as a nation of slackers. And today, we get a new entry: pining for a return to 19th century voting rules, where only propertied (White) men could vote. You think I'm exaggerating:
“[T]here was a time in American history when you had to be a male property owner in order to vote. The reason for that was, because they wanted the people who voted — that set the public policy, that decided on the taxes and the spending — to have some skin in the game."

King was making a "skin in the game" argument, and we'll put aside my general objections to that argument. I'm not 100% convinced that the only reason voting was restricted to white male property owners was that they, unlike the rest of the population, had "skin in the game". Call me a skeptic if you like.

But if the goal is to see America return to pre-Voting Rights Act electoral rules, King may be getting his wish. Check out this story from Tennessee, where a 96-year old Black woman who was able to vote during Jim Crow is facing disenfranchisement due to the state's draconian new voter ID requirement. The woman actually has a photo ID, just not one that counts under the law. So she went to get one that would qualify, but showing the clerk her (a) rent receipt, (b) lease copy, (c) voter registration card and (d) birth certificate wasn't enough to satisfy the clerk and get the card.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Rape and the Man on the Street

You know, I like the Harry's Place blog, but for whatever reason they are consistently terrible on the topic of rape. Today, HP co-blogger Libby T calls out as "hate speech" the following passage from Cath Elliot:
[R]apists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it. (Emphasis added by Libby)

Libby claims that Elliot is saying that all men are rapists-in-the-closet -- awaiting only the right opportunity. This, to me, is a misreading so egregious one wonders if it is willful.

The italicized portion of Elliot's quote references the empirically true claim that rapists are not demographically different from the population at large. In our heads, we have a vision of the rapist as this sort of sociopathic, damaged person with wild eyes and unkempt hair. But that isn't the case. The fact is there is little distinguishing him from the average person on the street (other than, of course, that he's a rapist). This is the case with most other "moral monsters" -- the banality of evil, so to speak. This doesn't mean that most men secretly harbor a desire to rape. What it does mean is that those men who do rape do so not because they scarred, diseased, or otherwise marked off from the general population in any noticeable way. The explanation for their conduct has to come from elsewhere.

This leads to Elliot's bigger point. The advantage of reframing the image of the rapist into one of this deviant soul is that it absolves the community of any responsibility for creating what is sometimes called by feminists "rape culture". Instead, under this view, rapists rape because they are pure evildoers so committed to malice that they will overcome society's strongest taboos and proscriptions to satisfy their depravity.

What Elliot is arguing, though, is that many rapists lack the sense that they are doing anything wrong in the first place. They think that the dominant sexual ethos of our society in fact sanctions their behavior (compare my post on Jewish extremist violence from earlier today) -- and this belief, of course, runs stronger when we remember that most rapes are not of the archetypical "stranger in a dark alley" variety. Armed with a belief that "no means yes" or pushing away is just playing "hard to get", they think that they are engaging in normal, uncontroversial social action. They might recognize the existence of some technical or formal bar against rape, but probably don't conceive of themselves as violating it. And in terms of social stigma, they are quite confident that nobody will stand in their way. They see themselves, at worst, as ordinary men in extraordinary situations (if they even see themselves as wrongdoers at all).

None of this implies most men think this way. That isn't the problem. The problem is that the minority of men who do think this way are not being informed that their behavior is intolerable. Rather, the message (e.g., from the rape jokes that are Elliot's target) is that they're a hilarious, endearing embodiment of mainstream masculinity.

"We Call Them Terrorists", Part II

A "price tag" attack by suspected Jewish extremists on an Israeli mosque has drawn condemnation from across the Israeli political spectrum. As well it should -- it is a despicable act that is an insult to Judaism as much as it is vicious to Muslims.

But the fact remains, the attack happened. And it is not a one-off: the "price tag" campaign is just that -- a campaign, promoted by extremist Jews who have decided "there are no innocents" and view the entire Muslim world as their targets. Jewish Hamasniks, in other words. And, like Hamas, they view themselves as authentic representatives of the faith and of their people. So the question is how to disabuse them of that notion.

A few years back, I wrote in defense of hate crimes laws that the perpetrators of anti-gay violence are morally indistinguishable from terrorists. Both are attacking not just to harm the particular victim, but also to send a message of hate to the group the victims are a part of (Jews, Muslims, Americans, or what have you). And part of the reason we have anti-terrorism laws is our recognition that this motivation is particularly malign and dangerous, and needs to be countered in the most forceful way possible.

In that post, I also talked about another reason why hate crimes laws are important: preventing the perpetrators from believing, even post-incarceration, that they were really speaking for the silent anti-gay majority. I drew the analogy to lynch cases, where, even if the perpetrators were prosecuted (and that was rare enough),
nothing was done to breakdown the notion that the motivation, too, was immoral. In such a context, it is so important to be very explicit in sending the opposing message. The South needed to be told--in the clearest possible way--that not only was murder wrong, but that the entire desire to force Black Americans into submission was reprehensible and rejected by the broader community.

Crafting special legislation for that problem (the ban on lynching that failed so many times in Congress) was such a signal.

So returning to Israel. It is clear that the extremists who enact "price tag" policies are willing to go to jail. That, indeed, is something they're proud of -- something they say with strength. But what if, instead of just calling them criminals (which they are), Israeli political leaders also called them terrorists?

It's a perfectly apt descriptor: surely, if a Palestinian set fire to a Jewish synagogue with the stated desire for vengeance against Israel's Palestine policy, nobody would hesitate to append the label. But in Israel, "terrorist" has a particular moral weight -- it represents the crystalline distillation of the threats and perils Israel and Israelis face on a daily basis. It is the emblem of all it means to be "against Israel". One can go to jail and still be a civil disobedient, boldly defending the silent Israeli majority via one's courageous acts of arson. It is difficult to maintain that sense of communal backing when the community has given you the label terrorist.

UPDATE: I see the "terror" label has in fact started to come out amongst Israeli institutions: the Shin Bet referred to it as "Jewish terror", and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar also called the attack an act of "terrorism".

Monday, October 03, 2011

Herman Cain and the Legacy of Booker T. Washington

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a characteristically excellent post on Herman Cain and ill-conceived comparisons to Booker T. Washington. The claim is that Washington, unlike more "protest" modeled Black leaders, emphasized a program of self-uplift which is absent amongst dependency-minded Black leaders today. That's descriptively so wrong on every level as to be insulting, but Coates also observes that Washington's defining characteristic was that he was a leader in the Black community. "He built a black institution, that educated black people, and took his message to black audience. In short, Washington was a legitimate organic black conservative, rooted in the black community, propelled forth by his relationship to that community."

Cain, on the other hand, targets his message not to Blacks but to White populists largely hostile to Blacks. Coates thus draws a different analogy, to one William Hannibal Thomas, who once wrote the following:
The negro not only lacks a fair degree of intuitive knowledge, but so dense is his understanding that he blindly follows weird fantasies and hideous phantoms. So great is his predilection in this direction, that he appears incapable of understanding the difference between evidence and assertion, proof and surmise. These facts warrant the conclusion that negro intelligence is both superficial and delusive, because, though such people excel in recollections of a concrete object, their retentive memories do not enable them to make any valuable deductions, either from the object itself, or from their familiar experience with it.

Thomas (who fought for the Union in the Civil War and was wounded in combat) had great appeal to White populists at the turn of the century, but his support within the Black community was virtually nil even as Washington was at his apex. The problem isn't that there is no Washingtonian tradition in the Black community (if anything, it is found more in quasi-nationalists like Rev. Jeremiah Wright). The problem is that Black people don't like to be lectured out by "leaders" whose only connection to the Black community writ large is to harangue them.