Thursday, January 19, 2012

J Street and the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" Theory of Anti-Semitism

As the debate over whether "Israel-firster" is anti-Semitic language flares up again, J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami appears to have stepped in it:
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning voice on Israel issues, said he had no problem with “Israel-firster.”

“If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups “should tread lightly” when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. “Because when they do need to use that word, people won’t take you seriously,” he said.

Ouch. Ben-Ami immediately backtracked, calling "Israel-firster" a "bad choice of words" and saying it was a "conspiracy theory that American Jews have dual loyalty [which] must be refuted in the strongest possible way." (Headline notwithstanding, this is not "expanding" on his morning comments so much as it is reversing them, but still, it is welcome).

I've noted before that, my general affinity for J Street notwithstanding, one thing I do not like is their "mushiness" on anti-Semitism. They really seem either uninterested or incapable of taking a strong stand on the issue, and it is really alienating. I've written about the serious problems with the "dual loyalties" charge even on a conceptual level, but in a sense I'm even more concerned about Ben-Ami's demand that Jewish groups "tread lightly" in talking about anti-Semitism.

This returns us back into How Would You Like Me To Raise It Territory, of course. As usual, I think it is wrong to imply that most claims of anti-Semitism are done in bad faith or otherwise are instances of crying wolf. But beyond that, I think that there's a descriptive misapprehension here -- simply put, there is no reason to believe that "anti-Semitism" is taken any more seriously when groups adopt narrow definitions and raise the alarm only in extreme cases, than when the definition is broader and more encompassing. Aside from being victim-blaming, it's not like these groups find themselves aroused from their slumber even in the "clear" cases (like Gilad Atzmon). Rather, it just turns out that nothing counts as "clear", and thus nothing is ever anti-Semitic. It becomes a wholly abstract concept (and thus quite easy to oppose, since opposition never has to be anything more than a theoretical commitment).

It's Official: Republicans are One-Staters

Here's the text of the latest RNC resolution on Israel:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.

This is arguably a little vague, but between the claim that Israel is not "an occupier of the lands of others" and the call for a "united Israel under one law for all people", I really don't think it admits of any other interpretation. The Republican Party has officially entered the one-state camp. To be sure, this isn't really surprising -- the GOP's anti-Israel slant has been bursting through for some time now, with folks like Huckabee and Santorum explicitly joining the one-state camp. But now we have an official resolution that, in essence, calls for the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

In other words, with respect to Israel, voters now have a clear choice between a party which supports the perpetuation of a Jewish, democratic state, and one that wishes to see that state abolished. Not a difficult call, in my book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Con Law I Roundup

I taught my first class of Constitutional Law today (thus, as one of my colleagues put it, making me officially a "professor of constitutional law"). I think it went well -- particularly the part where we had a vibrant discussion about the merits and demerits of what they did not know to be the North Korean constitution's equivalent of a bill of rights.

* * *

In shocking, shocking news, new research shows that people aren't actually any more upset when decisions they dislike come from the courts rather than the legislature.

The tide has turned: opposing the Voting Rights Act may be the new GOP consensus position.

Buy Newt, get Palin along for the ride. What could be better?

Supreme Court blocks an Alabama execution of a man who missed an appeal deadline because, unbeknownst to him, all his attorneys had stopped representing him without telling anybody (the client, the courts, the family ... anyone at all, really). Scalia and Thomas dissented. Incidentally, the elite NYC law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell does not come off looking good in all of this.

Eugene Volokh asks a fair question, which is what critics of the "corporations have First Amendment rights" folks have to say about the actions of Google, et al, in vociferously protesting SOPA.

Massive protest by Ethiopian Jews against racism in Israel.

Wikipedia's "Corporate Pawns"

Large portions of the internet -- most notably Wikipedia -- have announced a "black out" today in protest of SOPA (the "Stop Online Piracy Act"), a proposed bill which they say would do massive damage to the basic infrastructure of a free internet, paving the way towards enhanced copyright trolling, reduced innovation, and even outright censorship. If you go to Wikipedia, you'll find that the site is mostly offline except for information about SOPA and why it needs to be stopped.

The social media driven backlash has begun to take its toll, as two former supporters of the bill (Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and John Cornyn (R-TX)) are now backing off, and momentum definitely seems to be in the corner of the anti-SOPA crowd (incidentally, the debate over SOPA really does seem to cross ideological borders -- while SOPA's main architects are Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the primary alternative to SOPA on the floor, the OPEN Act, is cosponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)).

And so we get this response from former Senator and current MPAA Chris Dodd (D-CT):
Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging.

It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.

A so-called “blackout” is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this “blackout” to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.

Ah yes, the famously "corporate" wikipedia -- especially in comparison to the well-known altruists at the MPAA. This is, to say the least, impressively tone deaf. And I can't help but comment that the design of the MPAA's blog would have look dated in 2004. Is it any wonder that they're getting their heads handed to them in the public debate?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guilty Minds

I think The Economist has got the concept of mens rea wrong:
[F]ederal law has been moving away from mens rea (“guilty mind”), a common-law tradition that suggests that a person who had no idea he was breaking a law should not be accused of doing so.

I'm no criminal law expert, but I'm pretty sure this is not the correct definition of mens rea. Mens rea doesn't ask if you knew you were breaking a law. It merely asks if you knew you were undertaking the activity that is legally proscribed.

To borrow from the example in the article, let's say it's a crime to "knowingly feed whales", and you threw some substance in the water and the whales gobbled it up. "Knowingly" is the mens rea term.* The article implies that if you didn't know it was a crime to feed the whales, you should go free. But that's not what mens rea means (indeed, it cuts against another common law tradition that has reached the point of cliche: "ignorance of the law is no excuse"). Rather, "knowingly" means that if you didn't know you were feeding whales (e.g., because you didn't realize whales were present, or you didn't realize whales would eat what you threw into the water), then you're not guilty.

* There are other mens rea standards, for example "intentionally", "recklessly", or "negligently". If there is no requirement of mens rea at all, then the crime is one of "strict liability" -- statutory rape is the most well-known example, where even an honest and reasonable belief that your sexual partner was above the age of consent will not serve as a defense.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Huntsman Ends His Presidential Campaign

Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, an otherwise intelligent man who thought that a man who held relatively reality-based policy positions and served in the Obama administration could win the Republican nomination for President, has dropped out of the race and endorsed Mitt Romney.

By my lights, it amazing just how little noise this tree is going to make as it falls. Start with the effect on Romney -- does Huntsman's endorsement matter? Nope. Romney already has the nomination all but locked up, and in any event where else are Huntsman voters going to go? At least with Romney one of the innumerable answers on the Multiple Choice Mitt scantron is going to be a sane one, which is more than you can say about Gingrich, or Santorum, or Perry.

Does it help Huntsman get an appointment? Maybe, though he can't possibly be Romney's VP -- Romney needs someone to help soothe a base that widely detests him, and Huntsman is the antithesis of red meat to the far-right. Maybe he could be Ambassador to the UN or even, possibly, Secretary of State, but the latter is a long-shot and the former is barely an upgrade over what Obama gave him, ironically enough.

Does it help Huntsman in 2016? I always said that was a much clearer shot for him, but I don't think this helps either. Given that he's spent most of the past few months savagely attacking Romney it reeks of cynicism, and Huntsman just can't seem to refrain from attacking the Republican base (I sympathize). And it's not clear why endorsing Romney helps cure any of Huntsman's shortfalls -- he's barely seen as a real Republican, and neither is Romney. If Romney loses in 2012, the cry will go up yet again that it's because a RINO was nominated, and that's an environment where Huntsman is dead in the water.

Atzmon and Friends

Apparently the Friends Seminary in New York City is inviting notorious anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon to come and have a visit again ("again" because apparently he's stopped by before).

I've hung out in left circles enough to know the standard response to such an action (organize some sort of letter-writing campaign or petition urging them to withdraw the invitation); I've also hung out in left circles enough to know such response will not be forthcoming in a case like this. But honestly, I'm okay with that. Why? Because cases like this demonstrate, to me, just how impoverished that response is to those of us victimized when bigotry of this sort is sanctioned.

Suppose that such a campaign was organized, and that Friends did change its mind. What's the result? Well, aside from the inevitable carping and crowing about how "the Zionists" (or "the Jews", since Atzmon tends to at least be more honest than many of his fellows in not abiding by the charade -- if, as Martin Luther King put it, "when you criticize Zionism, you mean Jews", then Atzmon has taken that message to heart in exactly the opposite of how it was intended) have "silenced" him, all we'd have proven is that given enough pressure and bad PR, Friends will not act in an overtly anti-Semitic manner.

But that's not what I want. I don't want Friends to be vulnerable to a pressure campaign. I want Friends to not have invited Atzmon in the first place. I want it to have never occurred to them that it was remotely acceptable for them to allow in an anti-Semitic bigot within their walls. Of course, it's too late for that now -- the key battle has already been lost. So now I want them to, on their own, come to the epiphany that such hatred is wrong, that Jews are equal and valued members of the political community, and to treat us accordingly even when nobody is watching; even when nobody seems to care. I'm not optimistic, but any other "victory" is hollow and without meaning.
If one only has protections because one devotes every spare vote, dollar, resource and minute to secure them, one can hardly be said to be an equal. Equality comes when equality is normal — so normal, that you don’ t have to be perpetually on your guard to defend it. So normal that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to try and take it away.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Afghanistan's Women's Boxing

Cool little story on Saudi TV about women's boxing in Afghanistan, including the threats they face from the Taliban and their commitment to keep going.

One young woman is looking for gold at the 2012 Olympics in London. Best of luck!