Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Worshiping Different Gods

I have a confession to make. In the context of interfaith relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I really don't like it when people say "we worship the same God."* In part, it's because I have no idea what this statement means or how it could be verified. At what point does adding Jesus into the mix (or name your other sectarian division) mean the God has changed? No matter how you slice it, the theology in this debate seems like it is being driven by the politics (whether the politics are "we're all fellow-travelers on spaceship Earth" or "I'll be damned if I share anything in common with those evil Muslims/Christians/Jews").

But the bigger problem is that making "the same God" the trump card argument for interfaith solidarity doesn't exactly inspire much confidence in our ability to respect those religions who unquestionably worship different Gods (Hindus, for example), or those that don't worship God at all (atheists, many Buddhists). I really do wonder what Hindu-Americans think when they hear progressives make this argument as the centerpiece of their calls for religious tolerance. It must be profoundly alienating at best, deeply worrisome at worst.

The better thing to say is that it doesn't matter whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Atheists, or anyone else share a God in common or not. We're all entitled to respect, we're all entitled to be treated equally, and we all should be free to practice (or not) our faiths as we see fit. A constructed sameness of the Abrahamic faiths -- if it even is real -- is worse than unnecessary, it's deeply harmful and exclusionary.

If one does want to make an argument of this sort, I vastly prefer the Talmud's formulation, as articulated by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer
The Talmud tells us: “The righteous of all nations are worthy of immortality.” ....There are many mountain tops and all of them reach for the stars.
* Needless to say, I do not support any forms of retaliation or sanction against persons -- particularly academics -- who do make this argument.

Monday, December 28, 2015

New Year's Resolutions: 2016

It's time for everybody's favorite annual Debate Link feature: New Year's Resolutions! We begin, as we always do, by assessing our performance over the previous year.

Met: 1 (two articles? Try four articles!), 2,  4 (retitled), 7, 8, 9 (by the barest of technicalities), 12, 13, 14.

Missed: 5 (peaked at 11).

Pick 'em: 3, 6, 10, 11 (neither Jill nor I can remember if I bought any new pants).

That's a strong year! Can 2016 top it? That probably depends on how carefully I phrase the resolutions below:

(1) Win a bet on a boxing match (Met -- 95% sure, anyway).

(2) Successfully teach a course in Energy Law (Met).

(3) Take, or be scheduled to take, at least one subfield examination (Met, and solidly so).

(4) Have a dissertation committee (or have a clear idea of who will be on said committee) (Met).

(5) Submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal (Met).

(6) Read a considerable work on Mizrahi Jewish political thought (Pick 'em -- What is "major"? "What is "political thought"?).

(7) Regularly attend law school events and workshops (Pick 'em -- What is "regularly"?).

(8) Have Dismissal accepted for publication (Missed -- took me until 2019!).

(9) Attend a Sharks game with Bay Area friends (Met).

(10) Work on not assuming that, if I am unfamiliar with a person's or group's argument, they must not have one (Met -- subjective, but I really think I improved here).

(11) Work on listening to and considering arguments that I'd normally not listen to or consider (Met -- see #10).

(12) Hang or otherwise display my sports memorabilia (Missed -- a few, but not enough).

(13) Beat Witcher 3 (Met).

(14) Attend a party (Met).

(15) Do some form of stretching, yoga, or physical therapy designed to address my ludicrously tight muscles (Met -- but this will be a continuing priority).

Seems like a good set to me. Happy New Year to all, and here's to 2016!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Adventures in Conservative Safe Spaces: An Infinitely Ongoing Series

The Albuquerque Journal reports that a free speech lawsuit filed against the University of New Mexico has been dismissed. The plaintiff, a UNM student, claimed she was kicked out of class for expressing opposition to lesbianism.

Before we proceed, this case is an excellent reminder to consult your lawyer friends before having opinions on any legal developments. The article reports that the presiding Judge, the Honorable M. Christina Armijo, had initially refused to dismiss the case, but changed her mind as additional evidence demonstrated that the professor in question "offered [the student] numerous opportunities to rewrite her essay to adhere to academic standards or to take alternative academic routes to achieve her class grade."

Litigation proceeds in steps, and in the early stages judges are obliged to generally accept a plaintiff's allegations as true. Hence, when a judge "refuses to dismiss a case", all she's saying is that -- without looking at anything but what the plaintiff is asserting in her complaint -- there is judiciable case in front of her. Later, once both sides have adduced evidence through discovery, either party can move for "summary judgment", where the judge decides whether -- taking all disputed facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party -- a reasonable factfinder could rule in their favor. Again, in both of these steps the judge is obligated to simply assume (within reason) that the disputed facts are as one side or the other says they are. So denying either of these motions does not and should not imply that the facts are actually as they are stated.

While I haven't found the opinion itself, that seems to be what happened here. Initially, the court had to consider the case simply as it was presented by the student. And you can imagine how that looks: a demure, God-fearing Christian, tentatively questioning whether lesbianism was an ideal family structure. The evil hippie professor immediately screaming at her to "Get out you bigoted wench!", before snapping a cross over her knee and using her bra to light a Bible on fire as all the PC children in class laughed and laughed.

But as litigation progresses, the other side gets to present its case too.  And once the judge saw the undisputed content of the professor's contact with the student, things take on a different light. It seems that the professor's comments on the student paper contained nothing more than the normal critical feedback challenging both word choice (use "childless" rather than "barren") and critical support (urging her to back up statements that lesbianism is "perverse"). And when the student complained that viewing movies with lesbian themes was "unendurable", the professor simply told her that there would be more such films as the course progressed.

What it seems we have here is a classic case of conservatives wanting "safe spaces" in college. The student was uncomfortable with lesbian themes in a film class ("unendurable"). She didn't want her views on lesbianism (that it was "perverse") to be challenged, she was outraged that she needed to defend them critically. Of course, lots of people share this vice. But it is not clear (or perhaps all too clear) how demanding a "safe space" when you're a conservative becomes a free speech issue (whereas when liberals do it, it is of course the greatest threat to academic freedom and open expression the world has ever seen).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

ISIS Gives a Holiday Callout

In a radio message aimed at boosting his forces' morale, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants people to know he hasn't forgotten about Israel:
"The Jews think we forget about it and got distracted from it," the ISIS leader purportedly said. "No, oh Jews. We have not forgotten Palestine and never will."
Aw, he remembered us! It's the thought that counts. Anyway, somebody should forward this message to Vicki Kirby -- she'll certainly be relieved to hear it (Adrian Kaba, by contrast, might think this is just a smokescreen to throw folks off the trail).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Roundup: 12/24/15

I'm at my girlfriend's parents' house in Owatonna, Minnesota for the week. I'm tempted to duck into a Chinese restaurant tomorrow just to see who (member of the tribe or otherwise) will show up in the rural Midwest.

* * *

A federal court has struck down the provision of federal law prohibiting the registration of offensive trademarks. Most people are following this issue because it is the legal basis for stripping protection from the Washington Redskins. But this case involved an Asian-American band that sought to trademark its name, "The Slants." This nicely illustrates one of the central problems with "hate speech" regulation (broadly defined) -- it is hard (at least as a legal rule) to separate out subtle, subversive, or reclaimative usages of slurs.

Ha'aretz suggests that Arab countries are quietly reaching out to their Jewish diaspora (particularly in the United States) as a means of establishing back-channel links to Israel.

Israeli authorities have opened an investigation into the grotesque video showing Jewish wedding attendees celebrating the murder of a Palestinian child in the Duma firebombing.

Mark Graber has thoughtful comments on BDS.

Kevin Jon Heller and I had a very nice conversation about how discourse about anti-Semitism is situated inside discourse about Israel.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Uncovering Cultural Dissent

Two Muslim women, Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa, have an editorial in the Washington Post objecting to persons wearing a hijab as expressions of cultural solidarity with Muslim women. It is perhaps a sign of the times that I initially assumed the objection would be on cultural appropriation grounds. But actually, Nomani and Arafa contend that demanding women wear a hijab (and the authors also object to the term) is an unduly restrictive interpretation of the Koran promoted by conservative Muslim groups in order to repress women. The solidaristic impulses of persons partaking in "World Hijab Day" are in effect promoting as authentic a particular conservative interpretation of Islam that is oppressive to women.

I'm obviously unqualified to weigh in on the theological debates. But the column raises some difficult questions regarding the project of cultural solidarity. There seem to be two main tacks one can take. On the one hand, one can affirm the rights of the culture as it is commonly presented. The problem is that this, in effect, means reifying the power of the dominant actors within a given culture, at the expense of dissidents promoting alternative views (this was a point raised by Timothy Burke when talking about "cultural appropriation, see also Madhavi Sunder's superb article Cultural Dissent for more on this). This, of course, is what the authors are objecting to: by treating the hijab as the quintessential requirement of what Islam requires out of women, "solidaristic" women act to marginalize feminist dissidents within Islam that reject the hijab's mandatory place within the faith.

The other approach some take is to look for particular elements within a culture whose values seem to be consonant with one's own, and stand with those persons. Most western feminists in their own lives would, of course, fervently reject any demand that they wear a head scarf or otherwise obscure their bodies in a particular way. So they would express solidarity with Muslim women by expressing solidarity with those women who (like Nomani and Arafa) are struggling for similar liberation from oppressive gender norms within their own culture. The problem with this strategy is that it feels quite a bit like cherry-picking. Indeed, it's not clear how it's a form of solidarity at all: one isn't actually interested in cultural rights qua cultural rights, but is taking an external set of value preferences and hoping that the culture converts to adopt them.

There are no doubt some who read that last paragraph and thought "so what?" But one of the motivating instincts behind respecting cultures qua cultures, at least to some degree, is a justified suspicion that we lack a sufficiently thick socio-historical understanding of the relevant norms of the culture so as to be confident in our appraisals of what their particular practices really "mean". "Anything sounds bad out of context," after all, and context is often lacking when one is gazing at a distant culture from afar. Couple that with lingering attitudinal biases which can color one's appraisals of the relevant culture and there are good reasons to be appropriately cautious about one's instincts. That goes double when somebody from the culture comes up and starts saying exactly what you want to hear about it. These worries -- and they are legitimate ones; they're a large part of why I think some form of "respect for culture" is important -- are I think what prompts folks to swing sharply to the other side and adopt an uncritical solidaristic position (which I also think is ultimately harmful and untenable).

So there is a real difficulty here, and one has to be judicious between taking others as they are and a sort of blind "solidarity" which ends up being a rote ratification of pre-existing power. Culture is as it does, and I tend to reject claims that Islam "really" does or "really" doesn't require the hijab (and I view claims about what "is" authentically Jewish or American or what have you in the same way). These things are contestable and are borne out by practice. As a liberal, it is important to me that people have the right to engage in these contestations, so I think we should be appropriately skeptical of simply jumping in to affirm one side of the debate over the other. Ultimately, I think we need to respect the right of dissidents to dissent, but also need to engage with cultures as they are and not assume that they are simply being outrageous when there seems to be a divergence from our own view. Cherry-picking is what gets us "I'm not racist, Herman Cain agrees with me" or "I'm not anti-Semitic, some of my best friends are JVP", and that's not really a satisfactory response. The point is that actually respecting cultures while respecting cultural dissidents is difficult work, that requires considerable intellectual adroitness beyond that which is often admitted by the pure "solidarity" model.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Obama's "Race Card" Ploys Somehow Everywhere and Nowhere

Peter Wehner has a column today titled "Obama has Worsened Race Relations". Here are some things in that column:

  • A 2009 prediction that, if the President's poll numbers drop, "be prepared for the 'race card' to be played" coupled with an in-advance judgment that any claims of racism over the next eight years "will be ... transparently false".
  • The claim that Obama, along with Eric Holder, has "acted in ways that have divided us, stoked resentments, and heightened tensions and mistrust."
  • The claim that Obama and Holder "have repeatedly put a racial frame around incidents that have nothing to do with race."
  • The claim that Obama and Holder "have sought to exploit grievances rather than overcome them."
  • The claim that "Obama, throughout his presidency, has been a master at dividing Americans of every race and class order to advance his own political interests."
Here is something you won't find in Mr. Wehner's column:
  • Any actual examples (quotes, statements, policies, announcement -- anything) from President Obama that even supposedly demonstrates the President doing any of these things.
Fancy that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Kuwait Airways Drops NYC-London Route To Avoid Non-Discrimination Obligations

In October, I flagged an administrative decision by the Department of Transportation which concluded that Kuwait Airways refusal to board an Israeli citizen on a flight from New York to London violated the carrier's non-discrimination obligations. The airline contended that its policy was in accordance with Kuwaiti law prohibiting (on pain of hard labor) it from contracting with any Israeli, but the Department (rightly, in my view) decided that otherwise unlawful national origin discrimination does not become permissible just because it is mandated by a foreign nation.

This week, the airline announced it was ceasing its New York to London service. A challenge to the DOT decision remains pending before the D.C. Circuit, so it seems likely that Kuwait Airways will return to the route if it is allowed to resume discriminating against Israeli passengers. But for the time being, its stance is clear: If we have to board Israelis, we won't board anyone.

The Allure of the Alphas

There's a trope among a certain wing of Nice Guys cum MRA types, that describes who women are attracted to. "Sure, women say they're interested in nice, smart guys, but it's all a lie. Ever notice how all the girls hang off the meathead high school quarterback and not the class nerd? That's because women are attracted to the alphas. It's evolution, man. They just can't resist the allure of power, even when it's in the hands of a some rich idiot jock who doesn't respect them and is clearly just using them for his own ends. It's like moths to a flame. Their little lady-brains are so primitive."

And then they laugh and laugh, and attend a Donald Trump rally.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Is Shmuel Rosner Serious?

Prominent Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner has an essay up with the interesting title "Did President Rivlin just choose Obama and Roger Waters over fellow Israelis?" It's an interesting title because neither Obama nor Waters really figure into the article, nor is there any reason one should be associated with the other. Rosner's article concerns Rivlin's alleged diminishing credibility on the right due to various figures he's met here in America. The list of alleged apostasies are as follows:
In the last couple of days Rivlin is at the center of controversy because of three things he dared to do: meet President Obama and say nice things about him; refuse to dance to the Orthodox tune talking to progressive US Jews; participate in a conference (organized by Haaretz Daily) in which several controversial figures and organizations also participated.
For this, Rosner contends, Rivlin has earned the ire of "leaders and voters of Israel's right are angry, or disappointed with Rivlin for doing all these things."

The title of my post is meant in earnest: Is Rosner serious? This detailing of sins strikes me as a mockery: Look at the whiny right-wingers -- they're outraged that the President of Israel dared to be nice to the leader his country's closest ally. And he attended a conference with liberal Israeli groups! Why, he might as well join Jewish Voice for Peace! And the descriptions don't really get any better: it's a parody of highly attenuated "was in a room with someone who met with someone who's part of an organization that...." One of Rosner's sources, for example, complains that Rivlin's White House meeting was tainted by  supposed appeal to a "Reform rabbi who is a member of organizations supportive of BDS" (which Rabbi? Which organizations? How are they "supportive"? The mystery remains).

Likewise Rivlin's speech at the Haaretz conference: the speakers ranged from Samantha Power to Breaking the Silence; the latter being so horrible that Rivlin should have boycotted the event altogether.  Israeli MK Aymeh Odeh spoke as well; maybe they could have compared no platforming notes.  And if you're still wondering how Roger Waters plays into all this, well, apparently he showed up at said conference. Not as a speaker or an invitee, just a guy who attended. That sure is headline-worthy.

So in that sense, it looked like Rosner was having a bit of fun at the expense of oversensitive Israeli conservatives. But through the rest of the column, Rosner seems to be playing it straight. He says Rivlin "was too flexible in accepting the invitation to the conference", though he considers the mistake an understandable one. As a warrant, Rosner links to another of his columns where he describes Breaking the Silence as an "annoyance" and "problematic". Perhaps so, but one has to think that "other speakers are annoying" represents an alarmingly low threshold for refusing to speak at an event.

I'm really having trouble wrapping my head around the staggeringly minor set of supposed misdeeds and the seemingly genuine report that Rivlin has sacrificed his credibility. Rosner's pentultimate paragraph concludes:
The last couple of days could be the days in which he annoyed too many Israelis too much. These could be the days in which he lost his ability to explain because his explanations no longer carry much weight with certain Israelis. These could be the days in which some Israeli circles will arrive at the conclusion that the President flipped because he cares more for the cheers from abroad than for the barraging at home.
I mean, really? Really? It's hard to take that with any degree of seriousness. But maybe he's right, at least in his assessment of the tolerance levels of Israeli conservatives. But if that's so, then the Israeli right-wing needs to learn to grow a spine. Because if this is a real complaint, they have a real problem with perspective, and Israeli's position is too precarious to indulge such an abject display of pathos.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Bitter Polls with the Sweet

I've blogged before when public opinion polls out of Palestine have yielded heartening results. Due avoidance of selection bias means that I have to do the same when the polls are less positive. The latest poll data from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is just a cascade of bad news. Most Palestinians (67%) support stabbing attacks. A plurality (46%) think that armed resistance is the best way to achieve Palestinian national aspirations; that number shoots up to 60% in the absence of peace negotiations.

Perhaps most disheartening are the numbers regarding end-game solutions. Only 45% of Palestinians support a two-state solution, 54% are opposed. Lest one thinks that what is favored in the alternative is a liberal egalitarian paradise, that polls even worse: a whopping 70% oppose "a one-state solution in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equal rights," with only 29% in favor (this, at least, is consistent with the more optimistic polling I linked to several years ago, which also had "equal rights in one state" a distant third place choice behind two states for two peoples, and a one-state solution for Palestinians only).

One can dig into the data and try to extract some pearls of hope, but they're few and far between. This is really just all around bad.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Understanding Mistakes: The Odeh "Snub" of the CPMJO

Last week, a meeting between the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and Israeli Palestinian MK Ayman Odeh fell apart when the latter refused to enter offices that the CPMJO shares with the Jewish Agency. Odeh contends that the Jewish Agency is an important element of anti-Arab discrimination in Israel, and asserted that he would have been happy to meet in a different location. The CPMJO, for its part, refused to endorse what was an effective "no platforming" of one of its partner organizations. The incident marred an otherwise important and productive trip to America where Odeh connected with many prominent Jewish organizations.

I consider both parties to have made a mistake. Odeh shouldn't have refused to meet in the offices, and when he did the CPMJO should have accommodated by moving the meeting. But the mistakes are understandable ones stemming from understandable motives.

Odeh already faces pressure from some of his Arab constituents for meeting with Jewish groups at all; its possible that this would have been a bridge too far (or, less optimistically, that he needed to take a stand like this to whip up said base and show he hasn't gone soft). These are realistic concerns faced by any politician. As for the CPMJO, right now one the most serious threats to Jewish global equality are efforts to box out Jewish institutions from normal processes of public dialogue. So anything that even hints at no platforming or boycotting pushes on a very sensitive pressure point.

Ultimately, I don't think these concerns should have trumped. It's too important to take the chances to build connections and bridges when given the opportunity. And Odeh is perhaps a once-in-a-generation political leader of the Israeli Palestinian community with whom American Jews desperately need a bond. Though this was a mistake, hopefully the fact that it was an understandable mistake will not cause it to permanently sabotage future opportunities.

UPDATE: I consider this to be a positive step.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Catholicism ... WOW!

The new document, titled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” discussed at length how Christianity is rooted in Judaism. Because of this, it said, the Church is “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” 
It added, “In concrete terms this means that the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” 
Goals in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, according to the document, include “joint engagement throughout the world for justice, peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation” in a way that would make the religious contribute toward world peace. “Religious freedom guaranteed by civil authority is the prerequisite for such dialogue and peace,” it said. 
“In Jewish-Christian dialogue the situation of Christian communities in the state of Israel is of great relevance, since there — as nowhere else in the world — a Christian minority faces a Jewish majority,” the document said. “Peace in the Holy Land — lacking and constantly prayed for — plays a major role in dialogue between Jews and Christians.” 
Among other goals, the document said, were “jointly combating all manifestations of racial discrimination against Jews and all forms of anti-Semitism, which have certainly not yet been eradicated and re-emerge in different ways in various contexts.” It particularly stressed the need for “unceasing vigilance and sensitivity in the social sphere” and called for tangible joint Jewish-Catholic cooperation, such as in charitable activity to help “the poor, disadvantaged and sick.”
 Sounding the right notes for me.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Natural Interpretation, Part II

Last year, I reported on Ismo, a Dutch rapper whose lyrics included the lines "I hate those fucking Jews more than the Nazis” and “don’t shake hands with faggots.” His story was notable less for the specific lyrics than for his amazing defense that "By ‘faggots’ I didn’t mean homosexuals and by ‘Jews’ I didn’t mean all Jews" (the Jews he had in mind were the "Zionist" ones, naturally). In any event, Ismo complained bitterly about people "twisting his words" so that "I hate those fucking Jews" and "don't shake hands with faggots" somehow got misinterpreted as something prejudiced.

Anyway, apparently Ismo just was acquitted of charges of hate speech in a Dutch court, which found the lyrics to be offensive but protected as artistic expression. Anti-discrimination advocates are urging the prosecution to appeal the verdict.

Since I'm an American lawyer with the usual set of free speech commitments that identity entails, my thoughts are the following:

  • Under American rules regulating free speech, this is obviously the right outcome, as American constitutional jurisprudence does not allow the proscription of "hate speech" per se.
  • The Netherlands, like most European countries, has a considerably less speech-protective legal regime that does permit hate speech bans.
  • As a matter of policy, I generally support the American free speech position over its European competitors.
  • That said, where a country does have a legal regime akin to that of the Dutch, I want it to be enforced evenly; Jews and gays should be able to claim its protections to the same degree as anybody else.
  • I have no knowledge of the general contours of Dutch hate speech jurisprudence so as to speak to whether this case deviates from the norm.
  • Regardless of the proper legal resolution of the case, there is no question that Ismo's lyrics were homophobic and anti-Semitic and his protestations to the contrary are laughable.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) Calls on Trump To Drop Out

In a speech before the House of Representatives, GOP Representative David Jolly (R-FL) called on Donald Trump to drop out of the presidential race over his comments urging a ban on Muslims entering the United States. It won't happen of course -- a recent national poll has Trump taking a stunning 41% of GOP primary voters -- but it's a noble sentiment. And, it must be said, a bold one: Jolly is no deeply entrenched incumbent; he's running in the GOP primary right now to replace Marco Rubio in the Senate (nor can he simply return to his home district, which got a lot bluer in redistricting).

The interesting thing, of course, will be what happens if the impossible becomes reality and Trump wins the nomination. Will folks like Jolly recant their condemnations? Or will we see a genuine crackup within the elite Republican class -- many of whom (make no mistake) revile Trump?

What makes Trump such a threat to the Republican mainstream is that not only is he willing to say the quiet parts out loud, but because of his vast personal wealth (and lack of political ambitions other than the presidency) he's relatively insulated from normal pressure by party elites. So he can appeal entirely to the raw, angry id of a base that is sick of having to keep the quiet parts quiet.

Those Republicans who had previously shrugged off dog whistles in that direction as simple expedient political misdirection now may face a very stark moral choice. Jolly's speech is a bold one even now, given his current political position. But it will take courage of another magnitude to continue to forthrightly condemn Trump's bigotry if he actually wins the nomination.

Stages of Writing a Paper: A Personal Narrative

As an academic, a large part of my job is writing scholarly papers. For me, at least, I've discovered that the process tends to follow a pretty standard set of steps.

(1) "I have an interesting idea. I should turn it into a paper!"

(2) "This paper will be so easy to write! Why, I've practically written the whole thing already if you count what I've said when talking to myself in the shower!"

(3) "So this blank page needs to turn into ... fifty pages of text. That doesn't seem very doable. Maybe I need more shower-talk."

(4) [4 months later] "Okay, let's just start throwing words on a page, if only so that damn blank page one stops staring at me."

(5) "The good news is there are now many words on many pages. The bad news is that most of the words bear little connection to an overarching theme, a unified structure, or even each other."

(6) "An arbitrary deadline is approaching! Just slam out something with complete sentences in a comprehensible order and edit from there!"

(7) "Huh, this is actually looking decent. I knew I liked this idea. A couple more edits and I can really make it sparkle."


(9) "Okay, I'm happy with the content. Now it's time for my favorite part: futzing around with individual sentence structure [this is not sarcastic -- I really do love doing this]."

(10) "Alright, microedits are done. Now let's reread it as a cohesive whole."

(11) "Actually, now that I'm reading it again I hate everything about this paper. I also hate myself for taking an interesting idea and ruining it by implanting it in the body of this wretched paper. This sentiment probably has everything to do with my shortcomings as a writer and nothing to do with the fact that I've now read 94 drafts of it over the course of a year and a half."

(12) [Submit]

Saturday, December 05, 2015

FBI Releases 2014 Hate Crime Data

When it came to hate crimes, not much changed from 2013 to 2014. It still is the case that most hate crimes have a racial motivation (47% of all hate crimes); religion and sexual orientation tie for second place, being the subject of 19% of all offenses each. Of racial hate crimes most of the targets were African-American (64%).

When it comes to religious-based hate crimes, Jews continue to be the most common targets -- 58% of such attacks targeted Jews (Muslims were the second-most frequent targets at 16%). Interestingly, at least as far as the numbers go the experience of gay men parallels that of Jews almost exactly: 58% of sexual orientation based crimes target them (and again, there were essentially the same number of sexual orientation based hate crimes as there were religious crimes). So, you know, we're in it together.

There is some good news, though: hate crimes overall dipped slightly from 2013. So that's a little heartening, I guess.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

College Is/Is Not About Challenging Cherished Beliefs (Choose One)

Even five years ago, the dominant conservative complaint about American university culture was that it was too offensive. They'd seize upon some program or event they found outrageous -- typically something sex-related like the "Vagina Monologues" -- and talk about how colleges were imposing libertine corruption on our nation's youth. Or they'd pull out some class focusing on Marxism and complain about "leftist indoctrination" of radical ideas. Presentation of such views in an academic setting was, we were told, offensive to conservative and Christian students and hostile to traditional American values. Even as recently as this past summer we saw shades of this at Duke University, where conservatives complained about a freshman reading assignment of an LGBT-themed graphic novel. Such an assignment was uncomfortable and at odds with some students' Christian outlooks and, the argument went, they should not be exposed to it.

Then, seemingly without skipping a beat, the talking points did a complete 180. Now the line is that there is absolutely no right not to be "offended" in a university setting, and persons who register such complaints are whiny, coddled millennials who don't understand the point of a liberal arts education. Any concerns or protests regarding what content is and is not presented in university events, classes, and lectures pose a dire threat to free speech. Is something making you uncomfortable on campus? Good, because that's the whole point of college: it exists to challenge students and make them think critically about what they believe, not to make them comfortable and quiescent.

I write this because, well, I think Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey missed the transition memo.
Students attend college to study great thinkers and prepare for an increasingly competitive job market. They don't go to have their values and traditions sidelined and undermined. I can assure you that university offices of diversity will be subject to increased scrutiny during our upcoming legislative session.
This was in response to a non-binding university recommendation that holiday parties be non-sectarian rather than be overtly about Christmas. (And -- brief digression -- how is that Republican Jewish voter outreach going, Mr. Ramsey?).

Anyway, the clear principle being affirmed here is that the American college experience is not about undermining people's values and sidelining their traditions, unless those people are not white Christian men. In which case, we should all deeply worry about how these groups haven't inculcated the value that college is about being challenged and being uncomfortable.

Naftali Bennett's Big Ideas

Shorter Naftaili Bennett: "A demilitarized Palestinian state wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term. But a permanent arrangement whereby Palestinians are only allowed to vote on local matters and are precluded from free movement in the vast majority of the state that they are deemed a part of? That sounds like something everyone would be cool with. I am a serious and realistic thinker."

Monday, November 30, 2015

When People Say You're Brave, People Are Describing a Problem

Janet Freedman has an outstanding piece in The Forward on why the National Women’s Studies Association's BDS Vote was "over before it began" (the vote passed by a crushing 653-84 margin). It's a post that demands reading, and it is particularly hard reading given Evelyn Beck's powerful 1988 description of how Jewish women have historically been marginalized in Women's Studies. All that's old is new again, it seems. One wonders how many of the voters are familiar with Beck's article, and how many of those that are, care.

Some themes are beginning to emerge. I had known about the relative marginality of discourse on Jews in feminist circles from Beck's work and, from my own reading, in legal anti-discrimination circles. Then I find out "also anthropology." Then someone else chimes in: "also art history." One starts to notice a pattern.

Freedman also writes the following:
Following my remarks at the BDS round table, there was just one comment from the audience validating some of my points, but I received many private expressions of support and appreciation for my “courage.”  Several people told me it would be damaging to their careers to openly express opposition to the resolution.
I can personally attest to this as well, because it is something I've encountered every time I've given similar remarks in progressive academically-inclined circles. It happens in classroom settings. It happened after the UConn conference. It happened during my ill-fated stint guest-blogging at Feministe (I hadn't read those posts or comments in awhile -- I still can't bear to reread the one's on Feministe itself -- but I'm now amazed at how my reaction parallels some of the arguments regarding "safe spaces" and whatnot found in the campus protests). Invariably, someone or someones come up to me and, very quietly, thank me for saying what I said, lamenting that they don't feel comfortable doing the same, and commending me for my courage.

And if people keep telling me how brave I am for talking forthrightly about anti-Semitism, people are describing a problem. A real problem, not a ginned-up, fake, bad-faith one concocted by over-sensitive Jews always crying anti-Semitism to browbeat good people into obedience. And a problem that contemporary academia is in deep denial about.

Freedman's article also makes evident something else I've only recently come to grips with: However anti-Semitic the BDS movement is, it's never more anti-Semitic than when responding to complaints of anti-Semitism. Here's how the NWSA addressed the contention that the BDS resolution might be anti-Semitic:
"(W)hat is really anti-Semitic is the attempt to identify all Jews with a philosophy that many find abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality that Judaism enshrines."
That is nothing short of appalling. It's appalling for the reasons Freedman identifies: it divides out a few "good Jews" from the Jewish people writ large to tag the rest as "abhorrent to the traditions of social justice and universality." It's appalling for imposing an impossible standard of unanimity on an outgroup before their complaints will be addressed; as if the mere presence of disagreement warrants dismissing the community writ large. Compare
"Is urging the exclusion of the Yale student protesters from the academic community racist? What is really racist is the attempt to identify all Blacks with a movement that many find abhorrent to the traditions of free speech and academic freedom."
To call such a statement cringeworthy would be far too generous (#NotAllBlacks?). It is surely incompatible with any commitment to taking the outgroup and its concerns seriously, as equals.

But even if it weren't appalling for any of those reasons, one still must admire the gall of the NWSA in instructing Jews "what is really anti-Semitic." Thank goodness they were there to teach us! Who knows what sort of uppity ideas about "naming our own oppression" we might have come to in their absence!

The fundamental problem is what I outlined in the anthropology post: progressive academics who would recoil at expressions of alienation by many outgroups do not feel the same sense of loss when it is Jews who do the complaining. The reasons why feed into deeply-rooted anti-stereotypes about Jewish power, but Jews are not the only ones who have experienced this. Feminists learned a hard lesson when Cherrie Moraga lamented in 1981 about how dominant women "seem to feel no loss, no lack, no absence" when women of color are excluded, and how this indifference has "hurt [her] deeply". It is a lesson they still have not learned for Jews. And if they don't feel a loss when Jews feel afraid to speak to them -- indeed, if they feel aggrieved when Jews dare to speak to them -- it is unclear how, if at all, Jewish arguments can do any good at changing things.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Timothy Burke on Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Regulation

Timothy Burke has an absolutely superb blog post on the latest flare-ups about cultural appropriation and his concerns about how some student activists are unwittingly reinforcing a project of bureaucratic regulation of cultural expression. It's definitely a "read the whole thing" bit, but here's a taste:

The concepts of appropriation and ownership.... is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. 
Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.
When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”. 
And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group. 
What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression. 
One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.” 
This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses. 
It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually. 
It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.
This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.
That is, I concede, a pretty long taste. But the whole thing is nonetheless worthwhile. Timothy Burke was one of the very first bloggers I read, and for whatever reason he had kind of fallen off of my radar screen. This is a mistake on my part, and one I will hopefully remember to correct in my reading habits.

JVP Just Can't Quit Alison Weir

Hey remember that time that Jewish Voice for Peace cut ties with Alison Weir due to her anti-Semitism due to her not bothering to hide the obvious fact that the totally-not-anti-Semitic positions she shares with the JVP are also widely-beloved by neo-Nazis? Well, that lasted all of six months.

Who could have predicted!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump: United in Grievance

The claim that Bernie Sanders is the left-wing equivalent of Donald Trump has always been absurd. The real parallel is newly-minted UK Labor chief Jeremy Corbyn. Like Trump, Corbyn appeals to a really nasty id deep inside their party's base, who are delighted that someone is finally saying aloud the extremist things they've thought for years but have not dared say until recently. And like Trump, Corbyn's base is driven by a sense of grievance and victimization, allowing him to defy predictions that he'd fade once the media took their more fringe-y (or outright vicious) positions and placed a spotlight on them. Indeed, such attention is an aid rather than a hindrancethe media pointing out Corbyn's extremism only fuels his supporters' sense that its them against the evil powers-that-be. Which pretty much has been the story of Trump's campaign, when you think about it: the media just assuming the fever would eventually break, and being ever-more dumbfounded when it doesn't.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

At the Margin of the Margin

Zachary Braiterman has an interesting post providing some historical context to the recent vote by the American Anthropological Association favoring a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Anthropology, as a discipline, has had a troubled history when encountering Jews -- "troubled," here, being a nice way of saying "they don't really like to encounter Jews." This doesn't surprise me, not because I have a particular familiarity with anthropology as a discipline (on the one hand, my partner did graduate work in anthropology which gives me a favorable disposition; on the other hand, anthropology ranks very highly on my list of 'disciplines which produce absolutely wretched academic writing.'), but because it fits with the general erasure of Jewish experience from large swaths of the humanities and social sciences.

Braiterman links to an extraordinary article by Marcy Brink-Danan which goes into more detail.* The founding figures of modern anthropology included a strong Jewish contingent, but paradoxically this did not lead to sustained interest in studying Jewish culture for two main reasons. First, because the primary late-19th/20th century strategy for combating anti-Semitism was to stress Jewish similarity and assimilation into mainstream culture, Jews seemed to offer little to study that differed from the majority. Second, continued currents of anti-Semitism dissuaded many Jewish academics from pursuing identifiably "Jewish" topics, for fear of being typecast, pigeon-holed, or worse. The result is that Jewishness occupied an intellectual "no-mans land", where it was not accepted as a true outgroup (either by insiders devoted to that project or, later, minority scholars seeking to change the conversation from below) while also not being incorporated inside the dominant narratives.

This basic narrative is one I have observed in quite a few other disciplines (Evelyn Beck compellingly documented it in women's studies, for example). Jews occupy a space that is, if not entirely unique, then certainly unfamiliar in the public imaginary.  They are at the margins of the margins; the outgroup that's in. Thought of as too mainstream to be studied as an outgroup, Jews are likewise too differentiated to have their experiences adequately captured by the ubiquitous majoritarian discourses that more critical commentators claim to be interested in undermining. This is buttressed by the more classic anti-Semitic trope of Jewish hyperpower: it's hard to conceptualize Jews as a "real" outgroup because the idea that Jews are super-privileged, world-dominating figures is deeply woven into the public conceptualization of Jewishness. The old anti-Semitism and the new work in perfect harmony. And so anthropologists (and others) don't see the need to encounter Jewish specificity because they assume that Jews are anti-discrimination winners -- they've already "made it" and the discipline can accordingly move on to look at the "real" victims (of which Jews by definition are not). Jewish voices are assumed to have been already heard -- if not overheard -- even in spaces when they actually have been largely silenced.

One upshot of this outlook is that Jews occupy a peculiarly vulnerable space on the left (the also are vulnerable from the right for other reasons). The left project is intensely concerned with normative change, but is deeply skeptical of its ability to do so in a non-oppressive, non-imperial way across cultures. The natural inclination, then, is to engage in self-critique -- but of course, such criticism runs the risk of undermining very real privileges that progressives in the west enjoy and take for granted. Enter the Jews. They are the outgroup you're allowed to target because they're not "really" an outgroup; even though the tactics employed against them only work because of their marginal status. Jews are marginal like other outgroups (though not necessarily in the same way as other outgroups), can be dominated like other outgroups, but they lack the standing to assert claims as an outgroup (demanding, for example, degrees of deference or heightened protection or acknowledgment of difference) that the left is, in other contexts, willing to recognize. It's a move of projection -- Israel is the bad us

The boycott campaign, for example, depends precisely on a massive asymmtery of power even as it self-constructs as resistance to power (Jewish power -- Jews are inherently powerful, after all -- but also "our power", since the Jews are simply a transplanted and slightly quirky iteration of "us"). It leverages anti-Semitic domination even in the course of denying it (in the process of denying Jewish specificity altogether). A counter-boycott by Israeli academic groups of American anthropologists, for example, would have less than no impact -- materially, it's limited by the raw fact that there just aren't that many Israelis, and symbolically it lacks any real punch because hearing less from those overbearing, superprivileged Jews is a feature rather than a bug. This is why a boycott of Israel "works" in a way that a boycott of, say, Chinese universities wouldn't; in addition to simply being in a better position to fight back, if Chinese voices expressed a sense of alienation or disregard then American academics would experience that as a meaningful loss in a way that they don't when it comes to the Jews. What "loss" is there, when Jews already (we're told) have their stories woven into the dominant narratives we hear every day?

All of this reminds me of how one British writer reasoned through his particular emphasis on Israeli human rights violations as compared to those of other nations; since it (obviously) wasn't anti-Semitism (it never is), he settled on the sense that Israel was basically "an English county planted on the Mediterranean shores." Having erased Jewish differentiation entirely, targeting Israel becomes not the delicate project of assailing an embattled other, but the noble and virtuous project of self-critique. As I put it: "It's all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body."

* "Anthropological Perspectives on Judaism: A Comparative Review," Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 674–688,

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Anthropologist Boycott and National Origin Discrimination

The question of whether anti-Israel boycotts violate American anti-discrimination laws (prohibiting, among other things, discrimination on basis of national origin) is an interesting one that is surprisingly underexplored. We're starting to see a little bit of it in the administrative ruling that Kuwaiti Airways discriminated against an Israeli passenger by refusing to board her on a flight to London, and of course American anti-boycott laws and regulations continue to lurk in the background.

Much of the debate is a specific manifestation of a much broader problem lying at the intersection of freedom of association and anti-discrimination norms. This has long been a vexing problem for liberal anti-discrimination theorists: how can we force someone to associate with (contract with, work alongside) someone that they do not want to? In this case, if an academic does not want to collaborate with one of her fellows (or a particular institution), isn't that their free choice? But what if the decision is taken on basis of a protected characteristic like race, religion, or national origin? Still, it seems profoundly illiberal (and probably unenforceable) to force them to engage in collaborations that they do not wish to do. Yet one could level that same objection to the application of anti-discrimination laws in any context -- and people have done just that. Compare Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984) (freedom of association rights of Jaycees were not violated by enforcement of an anti-discrimination law requiring that they admit female members) with Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000) (freedom of association rights of the boy scouts were violated by enforcement of an anti-discrimination provision requiring that they cease discriminating against gays).

The hard case, it seems, is one where we're talking about individualized collaborations with a given other. The easy case, by contrast, is in everyday commercial dealings: "I will not sell to you on basis of your race/gender/national origin", where such sales are otherwise made generally available. And on that note, I want to flag a provision of the pro-boycott resolution passed overwhelmingly by the American Anthropological Association last night (the resolution passes on the question to the full AAA membership):
Israeli universities would not be allowed to purchase access to a database of anthropology journals maintained by the AAA.
Whether or not the boycott generally runs afoul of American anti-discrimination law, this particular clause, at first glance, seems to do so openly and obviously. I could be wrong about this, but it seems entirely open and shut -- the free association claims in this context are pretty weak, and it just is an open admission that a given class of potential customers defined on basis of nationality will be excluded from access to a given commercial service offered by the AAA.

I'm sure the inevitable litigation will be a joy to behold.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Generosity for Thee....

Jonathan Haidt has a post in the Heterodox Academy arguing, in response to student protests at Yale and other colleges, for "generosity of spirit." This is how he characterizes this virtue:
Philosophers often advocate what they call “the principle of charity.” It means that in any discussion we interpret others people’s statements in the way that makes their argument strongest, not weakest. We give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than trying to twist their words to support the ugliest possible implications.
I don't have any intrinsic objection to this. In fact, I rather like generosity of spirit in this respect. I think we should try to encounter other people on their strongest terms, and that we shouldn't reduce conversation into a search for bad motives.

But I do have to ask if this is a virtue Haidt embodies when it comes to his "others." For when Haidt talks about the current generation of students and the grievances they air, he does not seem particularly generous. They are presented as spoiled millennial brats, perpetually making mountains out of molehills, incapable of grasping basic concepts regarding freedom of speech, willfully ignorant of what "real" oppression is, unable to handle any dissonance to their worldview penetrating their perfectly serene and coddled "safe spaces", and so far removed from  civilized modes of reasoning that they've created an entirely new "culture of victimhood" to inhabit. Is this "generosity of spirit"? Is this an genuine effort to "make[] their argument strongest, not weakest"?

We can push further to see a more fundamental problem in Haidt's outlook: it comes with an implied "unless the argument is about racism, sexism, or other like -isms" exception. These arguments are viewed as inherently violative of a "principle of charity"; simply by invoking them one steps outside the boundaries of "generosity of spirit" and therefore forfeits the right to receive due consideration. This is what allows such claims to be responded to in ways that, on the face of it, in no way can be harmonized with principles of charity. I tried to make this point in my Playing with Cards article:
The bad faith charge [leveled against discrimination claimants] ... is precisely an allegation that the claimant is engaging in a deceptive, malicious, and opportunistic game designed to browbeat her interlocutor into agreement. And contrary to the respondents’ allegation, this same sin is not (or at least not necessarily) fairly attributed to those who claim discrimination. A claim of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism need not come attached to any assertion of insincerity or bad faith. This is because the contours of discrimination are not exhausted by the intentions of the speaker. It is a perfectly valid discursive request to interrogate potential injustices lurking within positions honestly taken and passionately felt. To reduce such inquiry to a mere search for hidden motivations is to dramatically circumscribe justice-talk generally.
Were Haidt serious about applying his generosity of spirit principle evenhandedly, I think he'd arrive at a very different descriptor of what is motivating the student protesters at various campuses. It would concede the possibility that the students are responding to genuine, not overwrought, feelings of alienation and discrimination. It would acknowledge the possibility that they had in fact grappled with the standard academic arguments in the relevant areas, and that perhaps they had endeavored to articulate their concerns within the standard deliberative language and had been stymied. It would not race to the conclusion that they were only acting the way they were because they were sociopathic or sadistic; that they enjoyed heaping angst on others for its own sake or that they are presenting their claims in this particular way because they are too unsophisticated to do so in any other way.

None of this, it bears noting, requires endorsing any or all of the actual stylistic or substantive choices the protesters are making. Indeed, there are quite a few of them I have serious problems with -- I have deep skepticism about the some of the rhetoric surrounding free speech, and as a rule I don't like political discourse taking the form of surrounding a target and screaming at them. This is a tough line to walk: it's what I tried to get at in my Yale reconsideration post. The defect of my original post was not that I failed to endorse particular tactics or conclusions of the Yale protesters, it's that I jumped from "I don't endorse particular tactics or conclusions of the Yale protesters" to "they must have arrived at those conclusions because they're intellectually sloppy." The generosity of spirit, which I tried to embody in the follow-up, would be to explain why I had reservations regarding their positions without relying on an uncharitable assumption that they were simply bad at reasoning for disagreeing with me.

Now, one could charge me with that old paradox of "tolerating the intolerant": I'm saying we must give the student protesters the benefit of charitable interpretation even as they allegedly display no such generosity towards the targets of their investigation. I say "allegedly" because I do not think such ungenerousness is present in all cases; as the quote from my article suggests I think it is quite possible to argue that a given belief or practice is oppressive without suggesting that the holder of it is being dishonest or unthinking in adopting it, and I think frequently the claim that such arguments constitute a personal attack is in fact a defensive move designed to remove such claims from the ambit of legitimate discussion deserving reasoned responses. But certainly, I agree that some of the claims do seem to evince a lack of charity, so no more on that.

Yet even here, note how one-sided the complaint is. After all, the argument of the protesters is identical in structure: "why," they ask, "should we have to 'tolerate' the intolerance of persons making racist remarks or employing crude racial caricatures?" There, of course, the response is to say that liberalism demands that we defeat their bad claims with good ones, and moreover, that we assume that their bad claims aren't simply a matter of irredeemably defective souls but perhaps come from good intentions and good places that can be reasoned with. So it seems a similar degree of "tolerance" should be extended to those students who are, at least some of the time in my view, making bad arguments -- the response shouldn't be to intone portentously about how kids these days don't understand the importance of free dialogue (much less to scream about how maybe they'd like things better in North Korea). Here, too, we could say that bad claims should be met with good claims, even as free speech allows them to make bad claims (as my former professor Geoff Stone rightly observes, it is a bedrock principle of free speech that even arguments demanding the curtailment or abolition of free speech are nonetheless protected by free speech, so long as they stay in the realm of arguments).

Again, it's not that I don't like generosity of spirit or interpreting with charity. I think they're both good values, and I think they're underappreciated values. But they are values whose absence is very easy to see in our adversaries but difficult to recognize in ourselves. I certainly wish that many of the students in question showed more charity towards their interlocutors; but that same principle advises that I should assume that maybe the reasons they're not being so generous in spirit is more complicated than raw defects in character.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Israeli Court Affirms Transgender Woman's Request To Be Cremated

The Forward reports on an interesting and heartening case out of Israel involving a transgender woman's request to be cremated. Cremation is generally prohibited under traditional Jewish law (a prohibition which predates, but was emotionally strengthened by, the Holocaust), but for a variety of reasons some secular or Reform Jews prefer it to a traditional burial. Among them was a transgender woman who requested in her will that she be cremated because she was worried that in a traditional burial her status as a woman would not be honored by her family. As if it to vindicate those fears, the woman's mother sued contending that her "son" was "undergoing a deep mental crisis and was not capable of drawing up a will."

A Jerusalem court, however, rejected the mother's suit and allowed the woman to cremated according to her wishes. This of course seems morally correct and important both as an affirmation of transperson's rights of self-identity as well as a rejection of the notion that such self-identity is simply a "mental crisis."

May her memory be a blessing.

UPDATE: The Israeli Supreme Court just affirmed the lower court decision.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Trading a Vice for a Virtue: A Reconsideration

The post I wrote earlier this week on the Yale controversy has gotten a decent amount of positive feedback. And while I'm grateful, I also am a bit surprised, because -- oddly enough -- I didn't really like that post. I wasn't comfortable with it when I wrote it, I hesitated greatly before publishing it, and I continue to have misgivings about it now. It's not exactly that the takeaways were wrong, but I wasn't satisfied with how I expressed them and there was some hiding of the ball -- even from myself -- on what was motivating me to focus on what I did. And while I imagine some will think that I received some blowback or critical response that is provoking this reconsideration, I can honestly say there was none (though perhaps one would have been deserved). This was internally-motivated, and hopefully gets across better what I want to think about on the subject.

I've noticed in all the (good) articles on this subject, there's a fair bit of "to-be-sure"ing going on, whereby the writer critical of the student protests acknowledges, "to be sure", that racial harassment is a very bad thing when it happens, or the writer defending the protests agrees, "to be sure", that it is inappropriate to call for "muscle" to evict a media photographer. Given these overlapping "to-be-sures", one could wonder what all the fuss is about -- but it's clear the question is on emphasis: is the important issue ingrained racist practices at many of our colleges and universities (with suppression of dissident views a real but side issue), or is the important issue incurious and intolerant millennials (with ongoing racial harassment a real but side issue)? Clearly there is a problem of caring equally here. But on reflection, it's unclear why I should have taken the focus that I did (incurious millennials, while to-be-sureing racial inequities).

One of the arguments I did try to make with some level of clarity was that this entire discussion is ill-served when it is grouped-in as a question of free speech. Kate Manne and Jason Stanley have a very thoughtful article on this point that I largely agree with* noting that for the most part "free speech" is being used opportunistically to privilege particular speech-instances while condemning others that are structurally identical. The Yale controversy, after all, essentially broke down as follows:

  1. Yale administrators say that one shouldn't (not mandate that one can't) wear ethnically offensive Halloween costumes (because that's part of being respectful of one's peers on a diverse campus);
  2. A Yale dorm master says that they shouldn't have sent that email (because one shouldn't need administrators to make such recommendations and in any event a little bit of offense is not the worst thing in the world);
  3. Yale students say that the dorm master shouldn't have made that argument (they find the argument risible, beneath the standards of good argumentation, or not in keeping with the master's mission).
  4. Various commentators say that the students shouldn't  have condemned the dorm master for writing the email (they should be tougher, they should be open to diverse views, etc.).
All of this is speech and counter-speech, structurally identical to one another. And moreover, I've been quite consistent in arguing that it is a legitimate move (from both a "counterspeech" perspective and a good citizen perspective) to argue that certain arguments should not be made (the "academic legitimacy" argument), though I've also implied that I think one should be very judicious in making such claims -- there should be a very wide gap between "claims I think are wrong" and "claims I think should be explicitly discouraged from being considered in the deliberative space". My contention was essentially that the Yale students made that gap too small -- and while I still think I'm right about that, there are some serious shortcomings in how I framed it. 

For starters, believing that the Yale students drew the line incorrectly does not necessarily suggest that they simply lacked curiosity about an alternative view -- indeed, it seems overwhelmingly likely that they have thought about this issue plenty and were just tired about having to retread plowed ground again. Potentially, such retreading is nonetheless necessary -- but failure to do so is at least a distinguishable vice from a lack of curiosity. And to the extent I implied that there was a more general failure of curiosity at work here, that seems on reflection difficult to infer as well given that I acknowledged that this email almost certainly did not occur in isolation but rather was the straw that broke the camels back (and of course individual straws look insignificant). On this score, Kevin Drum got it exactly right when he said that "fixating on a single incident like this is as silly as trying to figure out why all those European countries really cared so much about Archduke Ferdinand." Finally, you'll note that this concern about having a strong default in favor of considering arguments qua arguments did not come into play in my assessment of the master's email vis-a-vis the Yale administration email. Why wasn't I also rattled by the idea, forwarded by the master, that it was a bad (not impermissible, but bad) deliberative step for the administration to proffer its ideas regarding what one should (but was not obliged) to do? It's not that there aren't arguments to be had on this score, and I think the master raises a legitimate point when she asks why the students lack confidence in their internal ability to create tolerant norms but do have confidence in the administration's capacity for doing so, but those are significantly more complicated points that seem not to explain the disparate treatment between arguments that structurally adopt the same pose.

So that's the reassessment. But I also think it might be valuable, for me at least, to try to unpack what was going on in my head that was driving my thinking on the matter, the focus that I took and the conclusions that I arrived at. The basic argument -- which I still think is right, though more on why in a moment -- is that while it is certainly not a free speech violation to argue that certain other arguments should not (not cannot, but should not) be made or taken seriously, we should be exceptionally judicious in taking such stands. It's not that they're never warranted (an obvious example is a claim that the earth is flat -- I don't want to ban the view, but I do think it shouldn't be taken seriously. "Black people are scum" would be another), but we should be exceedingly cautious and default strongly in favor of at least listening to arguments and disagreeing with them on their merits.

The salience of that position, for me at that time, came out of a post I didn't write -- one about the objections by some progressives to having Bibi Netanyahu present at CAP. This, of course, occurred in the broader context of efforts to boycott -- or otherwise refuse to listen to -- Israelis more generally, and to me exhibited a true lack of curiosity that was deeply disturbing. There was no chance, after all, that Netanyahu would be (as one blogger put it) "feted like the Queen of England and subjected to no challenging questions." And since I am no fan of Netanyahu, I very much liked the idea that he would be subjected to challenging questions. But it seemed to me that the objections to him speaking were predicated less on the prospect that he'd say something outrageous in response than that he'd say something that was not so clearly off-base -- those who wanted not to listen were afraid that he'd give them something that seemed to warrant being listened to, and thus disturb the much more comfortable presumption that any decision he makes or any position he takes is based on such obviously atrocious arguments that they need not even be considered. More broadly, effort to disinvite him exists as part of a larger cultural moment whereby the very legitimacy of (most) Jews' perspectives -- the idea that this entire outlook can be casually dismissed as having no value, deceptive when it isn't oppressive, distracting when it isn't made in bad faith altogether -- that is deeply worrying to me and really does negatively impact my ability to proceed with confidence in deliberative spaces.

In short, I was in a place where I was keenly attuned to the very real equality risks that can emerge when people try to assert the illegitimacy of given perspectives. As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 

But the bigger issue is this: I'd like to say that I take the position that I do -- a strong default in favor of accepting arguments into the deliberative space and against preemptively screening off even those I passionately dislike -- for  "neutral" reasons (respect for pluralism, the importance of experimentation, epistemic humility, whatever). But if I'm being honest, I think a large part of my position flows from my awareness that the check these activists wish to write is one that I'm not entitled to cash. The principle that we should (through social if not de jure pressure) seek to tamp down on speech that alienates people or makes them feel unsafe or disrespected is not one I'm allowed to invoke; indeed, it doesn't seem to occur to people that I'm the sort of person who ever could invoke it

One Yale graduate student (I lost the link) wrote an open letter to the dorm masters which presented his perspective on how white privilege and the perspective of persons of color should have played into this debate. Included in his argument was a pretty strong claim that only the oppressed can truly know the nature of their own experience and thereby they deserve deference when making such assertions. And then turning to the "free speech" claim, he asked the master where their free speech commitment was when Steven Salaita was denied his position at Illinois.

Had that question been directed to me, of course, I could have responded that I was quite explicit in declaring Salaita's academic freedom had been violated. But what I really wanted to say was that Steven Salaita is not your standard-bearer; Steven Salaita is your victim. What, exactly, do you think the Illinois decision was except an assessment that in deriding the legitimacy of anti-Semitism allegations as being worthy of concern (he said he took them with "bemused indifference"), in comparing Zionists to vermin or a pox ("scabies"), in celebrating violence against Jews and wishing more to fall upon them, he was making the space unsafe for Jews on campus? I could lob right back -- where was your epistemic humility about your ability to understand their outlook and what they've gone through? Where was your concern about respecting oppressed peoples' right to name their own experience when you erased their stated concern about anti-Semitism and substituted in a supposed inability to tolerate criticism of Israel? It doesn't even ring a bell. 

Now it's not the case that everyone is a hypocrite here. As I mentioned, despite absolutely believing that Salaita's tweets were anti-Semitic, I still thought his academic freedom was violated -- for me, the free speech issue trumped. And I had a wonderful train ride last year with a colleague who is both far more harsh in her assessment of Israel than I am and more favorably disposed to the "safe space" concept than I am, and she took the exact opposite view: She thought that Salaita's tweets raised serious questions about his ability to foster a safe and inclusive space in his classroom, and therefore was not convinced that the administrators were necessarily unjustified in revoking his appointment. Thus we had the strange experience of the Zionist defending Salaita's academic freedom rights and the anti-Zionist suggesting that maybe the administration had a point in keeping him off campus.

Still, that I think is the exception and not the rule. I have an admittedly deep-seated suspicion of the argumentative line be taken here, and I think it results primarily from the fact that I don't think I'd be allowed to access it. And in this, I'm reminded of Patricia Williams' defense of formal legal rights as against the challenge of Critical Legal Studies professors who'd prefer more informal norms of relations. Williams liked rights not because they were ideal, but because she couldn't count on informal communal norms to be inclusive of her. The thin, threadbare, dispassionate, anemic rights-talk still gave her at least a bare foothold for asserting claims; the rich, casual, everyday modes of informal discourse often times would just casually and informally exclude her. And so it is with my instincts of discourse -- my preference to let as much as possible be admitted to the space of arguments that demand reasoned responses does not come from a belief that most arguments are worthwhile, it comes from a lack of confidence in the institutions -- be they college administrators or public legislators or, unfortunately, idealistic campus activists -- that are tasked with deciding what is drawn in and what is drawn out.

* I have to observe, though, that there is in fact no "hate speech" exception in First Amendment doctrine. This is a widespread misconception, and while I'm not sure from where it derives, it is unfortunate that it was forwarded here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Illinois and Salaita Settle

The University of Illinois and Steven Salaita have settled their dispute over the former's "unhiring" of the latter, with Salaita to be paid over $800,000 in damages and attorneys fees. Since this looks to be the conclusion of the saga, I'll take the opportunity to one last time state my position: Yes, I think Salaita made anti-Semitic tweets, yes, I think his academic freedom was violated, no, clause "a" and clause "b" should not have anything to do with one another. Academic freedom includes the right to make anti-Semitic (or racist, or sexist, or whatever) statements; Salaita should not have been effectively stripped of his position for doing so; and he was entitled to (and I'm glad he received) a significant cash payout given that he detrimentally relied on Illinois' failure to adhere to basic academic freedom standards.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXII: High Tuition

College is expensive, and growing more so. Tuition prices seem to trend ever-upward, with no end in sight. Causes are no doubt complex: Bloated administrations, increasingly ritzy amenities, proliferation of niche and trendy centers and programs ... oh, and if CUNY's SJP chapter is to be believed, "Zionist administrators":

Jews ruining higher education -- it's not just a law school thing any more!

Look, it's not that Zionist mind-control indoctrination rays are cheap -- they're not. But they're the only reason why the Elders of Zion even allow there to be an Engineering Department. So really, folks should be thanking us.

Academic Incuriousity: Not Just a Liberal Problem

Apropos my last post on the Yale flare-up, Max Fisher has a good post at Vox about a similar free speech/safe-space type controversy at William & Mary a few years ago that didn't get anywhere near the attention that Yale's did. Part of the reason, Fisher suggests, is that it was conservatives doing the crying -- crying that a foot-and-a-half tall cross was taken down from a public building, and crying that an allegedly offensive art show played on campus. The result was ultimately the ouster of the college's President.

I remember that controversy well, and I remember that it certainly didn't have the cultural resonance of the contemporary "PC-liberals hate free speech" issues we're talking about today. Indeed, my first thought when reading the recent fusillade of articles denouncing liberal oversensitivity on campus was to marvel at how conservative writers had managed to shift from "campuses are brainwashing students with evil dirty sexy offensive anti-American propaganda that should be banned" to "whiny liberals don't understand that college shouldn't be comfortable" without skipping a beat.

Like Fisher, this is not an apologia for liberal students being similarly close-minded. As I observed in my last post, what we're seeing is not a uniquely liberal vice, but rather a convergence on a bad equilibrium whereby everybody has the right to be epistemically incurious and close-minded (as opposed to just the dominant groups). That's bad, but it's not a specifically liberal bad. It's a far more pervasive and more dangerous problem precisely because it is a vice that now everyone seems to feel entitled to (even as they are appalled to see it exercised by others).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trading a Virtue for a Vice at Yale

I'm currently reading Jose Medina's truly outstanding book The Epistemology of Resistance. I'm only through the first chapter, but one of Medina's core arguments is that the social position of privilege can (does not always, but can) lead to certain epistemic vices -- for example, close-mindedness or overconfidence. Privileged persons who do not often experience others challenging their views (or, when such challenges do emerge, are assured by other societal actors that these challenges are inconsequential) may be hampered in their ability to self-reflect and think critically about the merits of their own position. Since nothing forces them to engage in such (potentially distressing) behavior, they may simply abstain from it, preferring to bask in the comfortable security of "knowing" that they've got it all figured out. And accordingly, Medina argues, persons under conditions of oppression can (do not always, but can) exhibit certain epistemic virtues -- they may be more open-minded or curious about the world and positions not their own, simply because they have to be. They are not in a position where they can simply not listen to the views of others, they often have to grapple with and be fluent with perspectives and experiences that are different from their own.

Medina is no fundamentalist: he obviously does not think we must be radically open-minded and uncertain towards any and all beliefs we might hold (a position that would lead to epistemic anarchy, if not outright paralysis). Nor is he essentialist: he believes that plenty of oppressed persons can display the vice and plenty of privileged persons the virtue, and he clearly hopes that all of us will strive to do a little less of the former and a little more of the latter. But I worry that we're beginning to see the opposite. Instead of encouraging more virtue -- asking people to emulate the particular epistemic virtues of curiosity often fostered by oppression -- people are asserting a right to the vice. They want the power not to listen, they want to not have to think discomforting thoughts. The equilibrium seems to fall exactly where we don't want it to be.

In a sense, this is unsurprising. Virtues are very often no fun to live out -- that's if anything a cliche --and the virtue of epistemic curiosity is no different. It is uncomfortable and disorienting for one's worldview to constantly be under threat, to never be quite sure if one's views (including passionately-held ones) are on target, to always have to encounter and reckon with voices and perspectives that seem radically alien from one's own. How much nicer is it to occupy that space of privilege -- to not have to endure such challenges, to be secure in one's correctness, to be surrounded by fellow-travelers in solidarity. The virtue is not recognized as a virtue but is recognized as a burden; the vice is not recognized as a vice but is recognized as a comfort.

The recent controversy over Yale students protesting over a college assistant "master's" email critical of administration-promoted suggestions regarding proper Halloween costumes (the master suggested that students should not need or desire the administration providing such "guidance" because they should be able to come to good conclusions on their own; and if in certain circumstances they came to bad conclusions that would not be the end of the world) seems to resonate with this concern. The usual caveats apply: this incident did not occur in isolation, there is a long history of college students making poor choices (itself not the worst thing in the world), no social movement can be perfect all the time, and so on. But nonetheless, the conduct of the students -- surrounding the master and verbally abusing him, seemingly enraged that he might have a different view from theirs, finding it outrageous that one might think his arguments are "worth listening to" (I'm actually less concerned with calls that he resign from his post as master than with the verbal confrontation, oddly enough) -- seemed to be about trading the virtue for the vice. The email in question may be wrong, but it did not seem to be outrageously so, the sort of statement that was so obviously out-of-bounds as to warrant exile from the realm of legitimate discourse. It did not exhibit the markers that should have rendered a lack of curiosity (indeed, a sense of offense towards the idea that one might be curious towards them) about its claims a virtuous stance to take.

So what is going on here? Well, obviously a lot is, and again it is clear that this email alone was not really the critical factor in triggering this outburst. Nonetheless, I think it is possible to understand why these students seemed to frame their claims in terms of their right not to listen. Though Yale students come from a variety of backgrounds and many continue to face significant degrees of oppression (on and off campus), all have at least some privilege simply by virtue of being Yale students. And having tasted that privilege -- experienced how good it feels to just be instinctively, reflexively validated -- it's no wonder that they want more of it. If virtues are stereotypically a burden, vices are often a blast. And there is no reason to suspect that people -- when given a naked choice between living out the virtue or living out the vice -- will typically select the former. In many circumstances, epistemic virtue (like any other) must be inculcated.

Certainly, it is fair to say that it is probably ideal for both camps to move closer to other -- more epistemic confidence for oppressed persons, more epistemic humility from privileged ones -- but that leaves the question of where in the middle the two will meet. People who argue that the claim of marginalized persons to access this place of epistemic security are only demanding what the majority has long possessed aren't wrong -- somebody (I forget who) observed that the conservative freakout over Starbucks' red cups is nothing but a safe-space-style demand that their preferred worldview continue to be the unchallenged default -- but they do overlook that this majority-possessed space is not a virtuous one. The risk is what people will seek out is somewhere that's more on the vice side of the ledger, and that is not a desirable (nor, I'd argue, a sustainable) place to be. Not every college movement that seeks to alter the dialogic norms of the community does this, but some of them do, and the Yale case seems to be closer to a pursuit of the vice than the virtue.

Now, I think in many cases the problem here is misidentified as a "free speech" problem, when often it isn't: it's counterspeech. I've tried to delineate the difference in my posts on academic freedom vs. academic legitimacy (see the latest for links), and while arguably that doesn't apply in the Yale case (where one could plausibly maintain there was intimidation at play), often times people complain about "censorship" when in reality all that's going on is people expressing a contrary  message. The idea that certain ideas should not be socially accepted (so long as social disapprobation is all that's at stake) is entirely consistent with free speech rights. When students say (and do no more than say, though perhaps say quite loudly) "I don't want to listen to this argument" or "I don't think this speaker belongs on our campus", the potential vice in play (and it isn't always a vice) is not censorship, it's a lack of curiosity. This problem -- if it is one (and I think it is one) -- should be addressed on its own terms. And the solution -- whatever it is -- will need to balance the genuine need for bolstering the epistemic confidence of outgroups who are often mistrusted, while preserving the virtues of curiosity and open-mindedness that epitomize an ideal deliberative space.

UPDATE: Please see the follow-up I wrote to this post, which reconsiders some of the critical points and provides additional context.