Saturday, June 06, 2015

Interviewing My Friends: Michelle Deeter

Michelle Deeter and I met at Carleton College, where she was a member of the class of 2009 and earned a degree in International Relations. At Carleton she was a member of the Exit 69 a capella group, wowing the campus with some truly killer pipes and singing the definitive version of “Put Your Records On”. After graduation she lived in China and later received a Masters in Translation and Interpreting from Newcastle University. She then became a professional Chinese translator. Michelle’s first translated book, Beijing, Beijing, was published this past March. She now lives in Manchester, England.

[See other entries in the series here]

Me: Let's start with the basic bio -- where were you born and raised?

Michelle:  I was born and raised in California. Neither of my parents are from California though, so we spent a lot of summer visiting my family in Indiana (on my dad's side) and my family in Germany (on my mom's side). I have one younger brother, and we get along really well. We played Legos as kids for hours on end.

Me: What was your Lego style of choice?

Michelle:  We had these flat tile type things that had green "grass" on the edges and streets, so you could put them in a loop or whatever and build a whole town. We liked to make restaurants and houses and stuff for the town.

Me:  I was about to ask "do they have Legos in Europe", but of course they do -- it's a Danish company, isn't it? Typical American chauvinism.

 Michelle:  Yeah they have Lego stores here like they have Disney stores in the U.S. I have been to both the Legoland in Billund and the one in Carlsbad, CA, I am proud to say.

 Me:  What about the one in Minneapolis?

Michelle:  I haven't been to that one, sadly. Have you?

Me:  Yes -- it was basically my first stop when I came out to Carleton. The Mall of America is a surprisingly fun place.

Michelle:  I would agree! And even though shopping can seem really shallow, a good friend of mine said you can learn a lot about a country by looking at how they shop. Especially supermarkets.

Me:  I've never shopped abroad, but I hear American supermarkets blow people's minds.

Michelle:  Yeah and I have reverse culture shock or something because they blow my minds now. So many different jams and jellies! So many different EVERYTHING.

Me:  So I've been doing some research in preparation for resuming the interview, and in particular, listening to your rendition of "Put Your Records On", which for me is the definitive version of the song. When did you get into singing?

Michelle:  I always loved singing but never did it competitively. When I was about nine or ten I sang with the school choir and I also went to German School on Saturdays where we had to sing too

Me:  When did you decide to join a Carleton a capella group? We're no St. Olaf [our neighboring school with a famous music program], but those are still pretty serious.

 Michelle:  My Dad bought me a CD of the Knightingales, and I thought that their a cappella was so amazing that I signed myself up for a few singing lessons and then just prayed that loving singing plus a background in piano would be enough to get me into one of the groups at Carleton.

Me:  What was it like to get a big solo performance?

Michelle:  Nerve wracking. I like blending in a cappella, so basically making my voice not noticeable. But it is kind of cool, I had so many supportive friends so when I had a solo in my freshman year. I think half of the front row was filled with my buddies eager to cheer me on. That makes it all worthwhile.

Me:  I remember watching you perform "Put Your Records On" and thinking "Man, for a tiny person she has some booming pipes."

Michelle:  Haha you must have mistaken me for Maia [Rodriguez]. I distinctly remember Aaron Kaufman telling me I had to sing as loud as I could and make sure that Maia didn't steal my song at the end. Although I guess when I'm excited I can get pretty loud.

That group [Exit 69] was pretty amazing--Aaron and Hannah [Button-Harrison] still do gigs, and David Lonoff had such a deep understanding of music theory.

My first year I just lived in awe of them and then I started contributing.

Me:  Now speaking of "tiny girl with the big pipes," I have to ask: Were you always the shortest girl in class?
Or was there a time in your life where you towered over your fellow first graders?

Michelle:  Always the shortest girl in class, definitely. I remember lining up by height for pictures and being right at the front.

Me:  At what point in your life did you realize "well, this is as high as I go?"

Michelle:  Pretty early. My mom made jokes that the doctor told us neither of her kids would be tall because both my dad and my mom are relatively short.

But I don't know I must have read a bunch of stories about tiny children being awesome (think Matilda) and mice being warriors (the Redwall series) so I never thought it was something to be bummed about.

Me:  It sounds like you were pretty well-travelled even as a kid. Was that normal in your neighborhood -- were folks pretty cosmopolitan, or were you the worldly and sophisticated one in class growing up?

Michelle:  Yeah I guess [it was pretty cosmopolitan]. I remember growing up with a lot of kids that spoke different languages at home--Chinese, Farsi, Korean--and that just seemed normal. I've always been proud of being half German. I think the Germans have great public transit and great environmental policies, so I am glad to be able to say I'm German.

Me:  I'm actually a quarter German myself ("Schraub"), though I don't have any family there anymore.

Michelle:  Have you visited any parts of Germany?

Me:  No. My grandparents were of the "never visit Germany, never buy a German car" generation of Jews. I don't think my parents were quite that dogmatic, but they had no interest in ever going. We did hit Denmark and Poland (among other places) in my one trip to Europe.

Michelle:  Oh I see. Well it's always there and you can visit by yourself whenever you feel like it. And I'm happy to play tour guide if I'm free.

Me:  I've heard nothing but good things about it from those who have visited, so I might take you up on that. I'm guessing you speak German, then? How many languages do you speak?

Michelle:  I speak English, Chinese, German and French. My Chinese is better than my German now because I use Chinese every day. My French is super rusty but I can watch a film and know what's happening most of the time. 

I definitely think languages follow the principle of "use it or lose it" so I have to work really hard to keep my Chinese up. But with the internet I can listen to Chinese radio, read a bunch of articles, or ask friends for help when I have questions.

Me:  I have an incredible admiration for people who can speak multiple languages -- I was a failed Spanish student in high school and a failed Hebrew student in college. When did you start learning French and Chinese (I assume you learned German from childhood)?

Michelle:  Yes I learned German at home, with my mom (and my dad, who speaks pretty amazing German considering he started in high school). My mom believed that it would be good for me to learn a language "from the textbook" instead of just getting language credit for German. She said if I chose French (instead of Spanish, the only other option at the time) she would let me go to France and stay with a family that she knew there. And that was enough for me to pick French!

It has come in handy a few times. I did an internship in Geneva, which is the French speaking part of Switzerland, and I could read all the signs and take yoga classes taught by a French instructor.

But now that I work using languages, I'm hyper aware of the actual proficiency you need to reach to use it in a business environment versus using it as a tourist. So I would never apply to a job in Paris, because I can't write a nice business email in French. 

Me:  When did you start learning Chinese?

Michelle:  I started at Carleton. The summer before I arrived at Carleton, my dad and I were looking at classes and I almost went with Japanese, just for a lark. But I thought that Chinese would be more useful (based on some advice given to me by someone working in the State Department) and then I fell in love after one lesson. It was a great beginner lesson taught by Mark Hansell, so who wouldn't want to learn Chinese after that?

Me:  Well, me, because I would fail at it miserably. But I'm glad it worked out for you! It's amazing that you're so proficient -- basically, a professional Chinese speaker -- starting so late in the game. The stereotype is that you should learn it at age 3 or whatever to really get it natural.

Michelle:  Yeah, and I understand where people get that idea. Apparently in Switzerland you're supposed to start learning how to ski when you're 3 otherwise you'll never get it right.

The reality is, is that apart from learning how to copy sounds, adults are really great learners compared to kids. They have a lot of experience, they can understand complex grammar and learn rules and exceptions to rules...and they can even tell a teacher exactly what is confusing them.

I guess for anybody who is thinking of studying languages or doesn't know what to do with their life, I highly recommend living abroad for a year and seeing what happens. It's more common in the UK and Australia (students take a gap year between high school and college) and it might result in a lot of fooling around but it might help someone realize their real passion.

So if you are desperate to get a perfect accent, you need to learn the language early. But if you want to master a language, all you need is to put in the time. That's my philosophy.

That being said, I get that some people feel like they can never learn a language no matter how hard they try. So it's not that everyone can follow the same formula for learning a language and then get the same result. I sometimes get really shy about my language abilities, because some people will say "I've been learning language x for ten years, and I can't speak it as well as you speak Chinese!"

It's hard to pinpoint why that person hasn't reached a certain level even though they really wanted it. So I give them three or four answers and hope that it makes them feel better.

Me:  I think you can be justly proud. I mean, you have a book out! Which is an excellent segue -- how did you get into the translation game?

Michelle:  Mostly through volunteering. I think translation is kind of like solving a puzzle, especially with Chinese because it uses a completely different writing system and grammar conventions and everything. So when I can create an English version that means just about the same thing, I get an immense feeling of achievement.

I'm motivated by a curiosity so I always take on new jobs that sound interesting. I did subtitling for a kung fu film last year, tried some patent translation (hardest thing of my life) and dabbled in some contract stuff as well. It's all rewarding in different ways.

Me:  So tell me about your book! What is it, what is it about, how did you come to be its translator?

Michelle:  The book [Beijing, Beijing] is semi-autobiographical, written by a guy who used to study medicine in Beijing and later became a consultant and finally became an author.

In a way he reminds me of the typical American freshman college student--likes to party, likes to eat as much food as possible for as cheap as possible, and can't get the right girl at the right time.

Yet there were all these things that are just quintessentially Chinese, from the snacks to the architecture to the special little idioms sprinkled everywhere. So when you read the book you feel like you're in China, but it's easy to relate to him or at least kind of know what he's going through.

Me:  I imagine one of the more difficult parts of translation is when you're dealing with idioms and other very culturally-specific points of knowledge. How do you approach getting those parts across to an Anglophone audience?

Michelle:  My basic approach was using my family and friends as guinea pigs. So I would sit and think about if a certain phrase or cultural phenomena would make sense to your average American reader, and then test it out on my family, and then tweak accordingly.

For example, there were all these place names, and for almost all of them I used pinyin, so you can't tell the meaning of the name but it's systematic. Google Maps does this for almost all of Beijing, so that meant that it was kind of a standard.

But then there are these special alleys in Beijing called hutong. They don't have them in Southern China, and they're quite special. The editor said I wasn't allowed to use footnotes (because it's fiction, you want to get swept away in the story!) so I had to start with alleys, or hutong in the first mention of it, and then hope that the reader remembered what a hutong  was for the rest of the book.

Character names are the hardest. All of the character names were nicknames or had some joke involved, and it's generally accepted that humor is hard to translate.

At the end of the day, I think my friend's advice was the most helpful: don't underestimate the reader, and don't over-explain for them. If they want more info they'll find it on Wikipedia.

Me:  Did you get to do a book launch party? Were there any fancy soirees?

Michelle:  Unfortunately no. The publisher is based in the US and they didn't have the money to fly me out. But in future that might happen with other books. Fingers crossed!

The other thing you  have to consider is that translated fiction doesn't normally get best-seller status. One exception is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But generally the translations serve a very tiny niche audience.

Me: [You went directly from Carleton to China, and then directly from China to England]. What brought you to England originally? I assume there are other masters programs in translation work?

Michelle:  Yeah I almost went to the Monterrey Institute in California, which would be close to my parents and very well regarded. Then Newcastle ended up being slightly cheaper and more interesting. Also the program is really highly regarded.

Although if I had gone to Monterrey I would have enjoyed more delicious Mexican food and taken advantage of a really good career center designed for translator types. Newcastle was not quite as helpful because they were busy helping undergraduates, finance people, law students, etc.

Ultimately I have no regrets, but it is one of those decisions where I went to a really odd place to learn just because I heard the teaching was top-notch. Just like Carleton!

Me:  Did you have any intention of staying in England long-haul?

Michelle:  I guess when I first applied I thought I would go straight back to China and work with better qualifications. At that point I had a Chinese boyfriend, and my mom seemed resigned to the fact that her daughter would live on the other side of the world

That all changed when I met Fred (my boyfriend) in Geneva. He's very international, likes languages, and is a great person to be with. So I thought it would be a good idea to change course completely and see what living in England was life, mostly to make sure our relationship stayed strong.

Basically I'm keeping my options open, and I am likely to stay in the UK for the next five to ten years. But I might move too.

Me:  What do you think childhood Michelle would say if she found out she would be a professional translator when she grew up?

Michelle:  I think she would be over the moon.

When I was a kid I said I wanted to do something "international" which doesn't really mean anything
But now that's exactly what I'm abroad, working with people from different countries, and using my language skills

The other way to put it, as my friend said is "I want to live in as many countries as I can before I settle down." So far I have three! And that feels pretty awesome.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Left Storms To Victory in the World Zionist Congress Elections

The World Zionist Congress is an umbrella group of world Jewry that has a significant say in various elements of Israeli affairs. Its membership is divided into three groups -- an Israeli delegation, an American delegation, and a "rest of the world" delegation. The American election just concluded, and progressives stormed to a sweeping victory. ARZA, representing Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, received 40% of the vote and 56 out of 145 seats on its own, dwarfing second-place finisher Mercaz (25 seats -- and Mercaz also probably will lean left-of-center).

The slate I voted for -- Hatikvah, which represents groups like Ameinu and J Street -- finished fifth with eight seats. Not only does this represent a 3 seat gain from the last election, but it also beats out their arch-nemesis ZOA. The Zionist Organization of America, which attempted to kick Hatikvah off the ballot, garnered only seven seats (a one seat loss).

Not all the parties running for seats have clear ideological identities. But the progressive caucus will have at least 65 seats (ARZA, Hatikvah, and the Greens), and arguably 90 seats if you count Mercaz. The hawk-conservatives will have a measly 18 (ZOA, Herat, and the American Forum for Israel), though I suspect that the religious Zionist caucus (24 seats) will align with them as well. The remaining parties, including Zionist Spring, the Sephardi-oriented Ohavei Zion, and the Alliance of New Zionist Vision have less clear ideological orientations, and together earned 13 seats.

The full results are here. This is a striking demonstration of the mindset of contemporary American Jewry and a decisive rejection of the idea that Jews have shifted right in thinking about Israel. Most Jews remain committed to a progressive vision of Israeli society centered around equality (both between Jews and non-Jews and within the Jewish denominations) and a two-state solution respecting the national aspirations of both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Groups like ZOA may bark loud, but they lack a true robust constituency within the Jewish community -- which is not surprising, given the overwhelmingly liberal bent of American Jews writ large. Hopefully, this election will stand out not just for the policies that result from it, but for the message it sends about who American Jews are and how we relate to pro-Israel advocacy.

NAACP v. Alabama Comes to Brazil

Citing a freedom of information request by local pro-Palestinian groups, a Brazilian dean is seeking to compile a list of all Israelis on his campus. His distributed flyer seeks "urgent dispatch of information on the possible presence of Israeli students or teachers". Jewish groups on campus have condemned the request as "a clearly discriminatory measure, done by a high-ranking official in the federal education system, and it should be dealt with the severity it merits." They contend it was incitement to illegal racial, ethnic, and/or national origin discrimination. My immediate thought was that, if the Dean gets in his list, will he wave it dramatically while declaring how "he has in his hand ...."?

That said, I have, obviously, no knowledge regarding the scope of Brazil's freedom of information rules or its relevant understanding of anti-discrimination law. I am struck nonetheless by its similarity to the landmark American case of NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958). That case involved the state of Alabama, in the course of a legal dispute with the NAACP, seeking to compel the latter to produce its membership lists inside the state. The NAACP refused, claiming that the request would hamper its freedom of association rights.

NAACP was a scenario where abstract principles foundered on the reef of a concrete case. In the abstract, disclosure of information doesn't seem to be particularly scary (for example, much of campaign finance reform centers around requiring various groups and candidates to disclose their donors). But everyone knows why Alabama in 1958 wanted a list of local NAACP members, and those reasons were not salutary. The disclosure demand was part and parcel of a larger campaign of intimidation and suppression, and often violence, directed against civil rights activists in the state. And so the Court wrote:
It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as the forms of governmental action in the cases above were thought likely to produce upon the particular constitutional rights there involved. This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one's associations. When referring to the varied forms of governmental action which might interfere with freedom of assembly, it said in American Communications Assn. v. Douds: "A requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands, for example, is obviously of this nature." Compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs is of the same order. Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.
The Court also addressed the counterargument that any violence or intimidation that ensued from its order would not be on their heads, but rather on the "private" citizens whose behavior obviously could not be attributed to the state:
It is not sufficient to answer, as the State does here, that whatever repressive effect compulsory disclosure of names of petitioner's members may have upon participation by Alabama citizens in petitioner's activities follows not from state action but from private community pressures. The crucial factor is the interplay of governmental and private action, for it is only after the initial exertion of state power represented by the production order that private action takes hold.
This is essentially the same case wherein public and private action intersect in pursuit of intimidation. "Freedom of information" is a laudable goal, but in this context it is incompatible with associational rights of marginalized minorities at significant risk of public and private harassment -- which, like in NAACP, everybody knows is the real goal of the request.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

We're Number Three! We're Number Three!

A recent poll of Saudi Arabians found that Israel ranking third in a list of the country's "main enemy", behind Iran (53%) and ISIS (22%). Israel followed with 18%.

It has long been hypothesized that a detente between Israel and the Arab world might emerge primarily from a shared interest in containing Iran. That said, Robert Farley is not wrong in explaining why this hasn't happened yet: there at least three middle eastern nations (Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey) with defense budgets that dwarf that of Iran. Nonetheless, this has been a known diplomatic point-of-entry for years, and this poll suggests that everyday Saudis, though certainly not warm towards Israel, at least perceive Iran to be the greater security threat.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Not To Brag....

But Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog and Kulanu MK/former U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren have both taken pretty much the same line I did last week in linking Israel's settlement policy to getting a better Iran deal.
Michael Oren, a lawmaker with the center-right Kulanu party and Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said a day after Obama’s remarks on Israeli television — that Israel should freeze settlement building outside settlement blocs near the West Bank border. He also called on Israel to more actively demonstrate its desire for peace.

“The ball is in our court,” Oren, whose party is part of Israel’s governing coalition, said at a meeting Wednesday of the Knesset Caucus for Israel-U.S. Relations. “We must show we favor peace even in the absence of a Palestinian partner. We must show that we’re at the table even when the opposite seat is empty, and that we’ll work actively toward a permanent agreement.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Zionist Union, told Israel’s Army Radio that a friendlier posture toward the United States would also help Israel combat Iran’s nuclear program.

“The Iranian issue is a major national challenge, but in order to fight it, to ensure Israel’s standing among the nations … we need to speak with the administration and conduct intimate dialogue. Not humiliate it,” Herzog said Wednesday, according to the Times of Israel.
Incidentally, I have to say I've been pleased with the notes Oren has hit since switching to politics. He certainly seems well aware of how immensely dangerous it is for Israel if in American politics it is perceived as a conservative issue. And to my eyes he joins a long line of conservative Israeli politicians who, after spending some time in government, have realized that the current path is unsustainable.

Zionist Bounds

Sheldon Adelson is organizing an anti-BDS campaign, drawing in the usual big names from the middle and right of the Jewish community (while naturally excluding the left). Now, we can ask ourselves "is Sheldon Adelson really the best person to combat BDS?" But there is a bigger problem here that Ali Gharib raises quite fairly: this team-up is more than a little hypocritical coming from groups like the ADL, JFNA, and Hillel which have long held out a two-state commitment as the litmus test for what "pro-Israel" means:
Take the Anti-Defamation League, for example. In its backgrounder on the BDS movement, ADL offers some “key points to make against BDS campaigns.” Among them: “The global BDS movement, as clearly stated on its website, does not support a two-state solution and the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.” (Individuals and groups that support BDS — even those who support one-state themselves — insist that the movement as an organized force takes no position on the one- or two-state solution, pointing to the participation in the BDS movement of many pro-two-state Palestinian groups.)

But if opponents of a two-state solution are the enemy, what is a group like the ADL doing palling around with Sheldon Adelson?

Adelson, The Forward reported on Monday, is hosting a secretive summit of Jewish organizations aimed at combating the BDS movement on American campuses. The ADL is one of the groups attending. But Adelson’s record on two-states is just as clear as that of BDS advocates like Ali Abunimah or Omar Barghouti — except, instead of calling for a democratic state, the single state Adelson wants would be one where millions of Palestinians live under Israeli control but are denied the right to vote.

Remember that Washington conference where, in November 2014, Adelson said, “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state… Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what”? Still not convinced? Recall his constant warnings that the two-state solution would be “ suicide or “a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people

The ADL is not alone in the apparent hypocrisy of seeking out Adelson hospitality and largesse. Other groups participating in the anti-BDS summit, too, oppose BDS because some of its leaders advocate a one-state solution. (“BDS advocates routinely oppose a two-state solution,” wrote Jerry Silverman, head of the Jewish Federations of North America, in an op-ed last year .) Some of these groups, like Hillel, are participating in the summit despite their own ban on partnerships with groups or individuals who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.”
This is a recurrent problem for mainstream Jewish groups who want there to be boundaries on what "pro-Israel" means. Now, I have no problem with boundaries. I don't think anyone actually wants a free-for-all; we all accept that there should be certain positions which just lie outside the borders of the communal Jewish conversation, and I think "opposition to a two-state solution" is a perfectly reasonable line to be drawn. The problem, though, is that it has to be consistently drawn. It cannot be the case that one-statism is beyond the pale when asserted by a leftist Jew (or Palestinian, for that matter) but a-okay when promoted by the Jewish right. More broadly, pro-Israel can't only have a leftward boundary.

The choice is clear -- you either let all the one-staters in or none of them. I vote none, because I think one-statism is genuinely dangerous no matter who is proposing it. One can disagree with me on that front, of course. But if you're going to do it, one cannot distinguish between its leftward and rightward variants. They're two sides of the same coin, and groups like the ADL lose credibility every time the grant special dispensation to right-wing Jewish voices espousing positions that are supposedly beyond the pale.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

In Defense of Law Reviews

As I get ready to take the plunge into graduate-level political theory, I've had to start thinking a little more about peer review. Peer review is, of course, what most academics consider to be the sin qua non of academic publishing; if it is not peer reviewed, then it might be utter gibberish for all we know. Law professors have a bit of an inferiority complex on this issue, as we have a unique publication process that does not include peer review. And peer review isn't the only difference between the disciplines: law articles are notoriously lengthy, notoriously footnoted, and notoriously go through a frenetic multiple-submission/expedite process to find their eventual home.

Recently I've been getting a little more exposure to the peer review process -- through a refereed conference (and follow-up journal special issue) and by developing contacts with professors in other disciplines who, just like law professors, love to gripe about the shortfalls and pitfalls of their own publication process. I've also had the opportunity to read more peer-reviewed articles -- primarily in political theory, public philosophy, and psychology -- and compare them to what I typically find in a law review. And the more I think about it, the more I think the law review system -- which is viewed with incredulity by essentially every non-law professor I've ever described it to (and by many law folks too) has a lot to say for itself.

Let's list what I take to be the key distinguishing characteristics between legal academic publishing versus the general norms:
  • Most law articles are selected by second- and third-year law students on various law journals. They are usually not blinded. My understanding is that sometimes upper-level graduate students can serve as peer-reviewers, but mostly the reviewers are other professors in at least a related field studying a blinded manuscript. 
  • Law reviews are much longer than peer reviewed articles. A "short" law review piece (~20,000 words) would be considered quite long in most other disciplines. Law review articles also have a tremendous amount of footnotes.
  • Law articles are typically accepted or rejected "as is". Rejections come without any comment or feedback. Peer review offers a continuum of responses (accept, conditional accept, revise and resubmit, reject), and authors receive the reviewer comments.
  • It is customary for draft law articles to circulate on sites like SSRN even before they're submitted for publication. This is a shakier proposition in other disciplines, as some peer-reviewed journals will outright refuse to consider a piece that has been "published" on such an online repository.
  • Other disciplines submit articles to one journal at a time; moving on to the next one only after a piece is finally rejected at the journal it's currently in front of. Law review articles are submitted to multiple (often upwards of one hundred) journals at once. They move through the selection process via "expediting" -- the initial offer to publish (and deadline for decision) is forwarded to all the higher ranked journals, who then race to make their own decision. If a higher-ranked journal decides to make an offer, the process continues. Repeat until the deadline expires or no higher-ranked journal remains to expedite.
  • Related to the above, law articles have a much faster turnaround from submission to acceptance.
So which of these is better? In my view, the goal of an effective publication process should be (a) to produce good articles, both in terms of making novel and effective contributions to their field and in terms of being informative and helpful for other members of the academy, and (b) to place articles roughly according to their merit -- that is, the best articles should be in the top journals, the pretty good articles should be in a pretty good journal, and so on.

On these fronts, I think law reviews perform alright. In terms of overall quality, I'd first observe that I see little difference in the strength of the articles published in the top half or so law reviews versus those published in a typical peer-reviewed context. The fact that there are so many law journals does mean that one starts to see some real iffy contributions towards the bottom of the chain (though to be fair, I've seen some utter dreck in the peer-reviewed world too). But the offerings of reputable law journals are I think every bit as strong as those of equivalent peer reviewed outlets.

I also think the internal distribution of articles is more or less on point. An article published in Harvard or Yale or California or Chicago strikes me as being as likely to make a big interdisciplinary splash as those in the flagship journals of other disciplines. And outside of that, I feel like most articles I read feel roughly rightly-placed vis-a-vis their merits. I know with respect to my own work that I've generally been pretty content with where my pieces have ended up -- sometimes I think an article underplaced a little, sometimes overplaced a little, but never wildly off-kilter with how I perceived its overall merit.

That law reviews actually do a pretty decent job selecting for quality may be surprising, given the lack of peer review. People often comment on how terrible it must be for untrained law students to hold so much sway. But the thing is most people undergoing peer review don't seem to have a ton of confidence in peer reviewers either. They're replete with horror stories about articles badly butchered or barely read at all. Basically, it sounds to me like most folks undergoing peer review are repeatedly rolling the dice until they get a reviewer who is generally sympathetic to their aims and committed to giving their piece due consideration.

Of course, that broadly describes law reviews too -- we all know that many of our submissions are barely skimmed or are rejected for reasons that, if articulated, would make us want to scream. In other words, both peer review and law review submissions require two things: the piece has to be up-to-snuff quality wise for the selected venue, and then you also have to get lucky and have it be read by the right type of reviewer.

And this is where law reviews' multiple submissions scheme is really good. As much as we like to agonize over it, I think it's fair to say that journals fall into broad "buckets" of prestige within which they're relatively interchangeable. There are exceptionally good journals (Yale, Harvard, Chicago, California, etc.), very good journals (Minnesota, BU, BC, GW, Notre Dame, etc.), quite good journals (Arizona, Florida, George Mason, Georgia, etc.), and so on. I imagine the same is true in other disciplines. And most of us, if we're being honest, have a decent idea of where our articles deserve to be in that pantheon. Now, let's say that in each "bucket" there is one journal that has that lucky confluence of a good reviewer who will give your piece its due. If you're submitting sequentially, it might take up to ten tries before you hit that jackpot (and that assumes you haven't lost faith about how good your piece is). But with multiple submissions, it doesn't matter if nine of the ten relevant journals reject your piece without reading it; you only need the one offer. Placing the piece in front of every journal at once means you get to pull the slot lever of every machine. The multiple submission process may be frenetic, and it certainly isn't perfect, but I believe it does a faster and more efficient job of matching articles to their proper academic homes.

Finally, I'll forward a proposition that I think will be quite controversial but I'm willing to defend: the structure of legal publishing produces better articles. The jabs against law review articles are that they're long and excessively footnoted. The former doesn't bother me at all; I just view legal articles as replacements for the books we don't write. The latter is probably a sop to the student editors who are not, of course, experts in the field. But that's a good thing too: one great thing about legal scholarship is that it is generally relatively accessible to novices. If I'm trying to learn about a new area of law, I can pick up pretty much any article in the field and will be greeted with a buffet of relevant sources and explanations that make it easy to quickly pick up the basics of what they're talking about. This is very different from other disciplines, where if you don't come in with a pretty healthy grounding to start you'll be utterly lost within four pages. I think this is attributable to the fact that while other academics write for one audience -- fellow specialists in their subfield -- legal academics write for two. We do write for a subcommunity of specialists, but we also write for the intellectually curious amateur, a/k/a, the law review editor. And I think keeping that second audience in mind produces scholarship that is more lucid, more practical, more cogent, and ultimately more meritorious than that which is found elsewhere.

Now, none of this is to say that peer review lacks for benefits. But some of these (like blind review of manuscripts) could be easily incorporated into the law review process. And others (like reviewer comments) probably cannot be, but are easily replaced by the norm of pre-publication distribution of SSRN drafts and other like ways of soliciting feedback on papers before, during, and after the publication process.

Law professors often lack doctorates, and so we sometimes feel like step-children to the "real" academy. But I think we should buck up. I think the state of legal scholarship is actually quite strong. It produces quality articles, and sorts those articles in rough accord with their merit, and it channels scholarly writing in a direction that I think is more accessible and effective than that which prevails elsewhere in the academy. Our bizarre, idiosyncratic, unique system of publication is actually something we can be quite proud of.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

JVP Disassociates from Alison Weir

I first came across Alison Weir in 2009, when she was asserting that Jews really did ritually murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rites. Unsurprisingly, this was pretty much the last time I paid attention to Weir, as this sort of obvious anti-Semitic crackpottery doesn't really hold much interest.

But others disagree, such as the far-left "Jewish Voice for Peace" organization. I've paid more attention to JVP, because I'm quite interested in their Herman Cain-type role in the structure of discourse between Jewish and non-Jewish actors. To wit, JVP's main function in that discourse is not to persuade Jews, but rather to say things that non-Jews really love to hear from Jewish mouths. Derrick Bell's notion of superstanding springs to mind.

I digress. JVP had previously worked with Weir, but now they have reportedly informed Alison Weir that those days are over, citing her association with various hateful and bigoted groups. I say "reportedly" because tracking down direct sources on this is surprisingly difficult to find. One blogger has what appears to be the original letter by JVP, and Weir has responded to it on her Facebook page, so she apparently thinks it is genuine, but the whole thing is a little murkier than I'd like.

In any event, assuming everything is as stated, I have a few thoughts. Obviously, it's good in some sense that JVP has (finally) decided to cut ties with a bigot like Weir. Even if it was six years after she came out in defense of the blood libel. But what's interesting about their statement of disapproval is that they don't actually object to anything Weir has said (again, not even the blood libel bit, which is a gimme!). There would seem to be plenty to choose from, but JVP is distressingly silent on that point. Their objection is rather wholly associational: Weir has "chosen repeatedly to associate [her]self with people who advocate for racism." They cite a variety of far-right White supremacist sorts whom Weir has appeared with, or been promoted by.

Now to be sure, it is troubling for anyone to knowingly appear on neo-Nazi or White supremacist radio shows, and that is worthy of condemnation. But it is more than a little odd that this is the sole focus of JVP's attack. Shorn of any indicator that JVP finds anything objectionable in Weir's own statements, it seems that their main problem is that Weir makes it embarrassingly clear that their shared ideology -- the essentially indistinguishable perspective of Alison Weir and Jewish Voice for Peace -- has significant resonance with and appeal for neo-Nazis. That far-left/far-right synergy has always been soft-pedaled by groups like the JVP, and their problem is that Weir won't play ball.

To be clear, JVP had two decent options here. It could explicitly note and condemn specific views by Weir that make her such an appealing figure for neo-Nazis. That would put daylight between themselves and their positions and those which carry the endorsement of the David Dukes and Gilad Atzmons of the world. Or if they really don't have any substantive objections to anything Weir has written, then they could show some introspection and inquire as to why their shared ideology gains such a receptive audience amongst the reactionary far-right.

But the tactic they've chosen does neither. It's a head-in-the-sand approach that condemns Weir for not keeping up the ruse. They're not upset that Weir articulates anti-Semitic beliefs. They're upset that Weir reveals that the brand of anti-Israel activism they jointly espouse is one that is happily embraced by, and seen as an instantiation of the values of, reactionaries and neo-Nazis the world over.

Assassin's Creed: Rogue Review

Last night, I beat Assassin's Creed: Rogue. As an entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise, it's above-average (literally -- I'd slot it into my overall rankings at #4, ahead of Revelations but behind Black Flag. Obviously, it's the best entry in the franchise from this past year (ugh, Unity). It's far less glitchy, the controls are smoother, it didn't eliminate the "whistle" functionality (wtf, Unity?). But what really impressed me most was that, even though Rogue was in some ways an afterthought on a last-gen console (it's for the XBox 360 and PS3, not their successors), it in many ways tried to do a bunch of genuinely new things for the series that I think were all successes.

Rogue is set in between Assassin's Creed 3 and 4, right in the middle of the French and Indian War. Most reviews I've read have focused on the game "bridging" those two stories, which honestly I did not think it did a fantastic job of. More interesting was that this is the first game to really unabashedly put you through it from the perspective of the Templars. And the game hit exactly the right pitch here. In true Tie Fighter fashion, the Templars don't see themselves as the bad guys. From their vantage, the Templars are a force for order and peace against the violent chaos of the assassins. The main protagonist moves from the Assassins to the Templars for morally understandable reasons, but the game quite properly never leaves the gray area by presenting the Assassins as irredeemably corrupt monsters. By game's end, I wasn't convinced the Templars were the good guys of the series -- but I didn't view them as cartoon villains either.

Gameplay-wise, Rogue is mostly like Black Flag with its sailing around and piracy (excuse me, "privateering"). That's still fun, though maybe a little less so than it used to be. The main innovations Rogue offers are mostly on the land, and both make sense given the Templar-side focus of the game. The first is the "stalking" mechanism, borrowed from the multiplayer of previous games. Basically, scattered throughout the world are assassin's lurking in their usual spots (hay bales, vegetation, ledges) looking to ambush you. As you get closer to them, whispers start to pick up and you have to start searching to see if you can spot them before they spot you. It's a great way to make you feel hunted without making running through the world a chore (again, looking at you Unity). And there's no greater sense of accomplishment than spotting an assassin ready to pounce, quietly sneaking up the scaffolding behind her, and slitting her throat before she knows you're there.

The second interception is a clever play on the standard-issue assassination missions from games past. Of course, you're not an assassin now, so what's your new job? Intercepting assassinations. You get a target to protect and have to hunt down several assassins (usually about a half-dozen or so) before they take out your man. Again, it lends itself to a great, secret-service style energy as you frantically scan the crowd looking for that guy whose leaning against the wall just a bit too casually -- get him before he gets your man.

All that said, the game certainly isn't perfect. Most of it's drawbacks can be boiled down to its relatively small length. That means that the inevitable "turn on your friends" narrative doesn't pack the emotional punch it should, because you barely had a chance to interact with those guys in the first place. It also means that you never have to visit most of the relatively expansive world (comprised of three regions: New York, the North Atlantic, and the Hudson River Valley). I'm a natural explorer in these games, so I tended to travel around on my own initiative to gather collectibles. But it's true that the game will never take you to most of its places on its own -- even on side quests (of which there are relatively few).

The biggest disappointment, really, is that Rogue didn't get the time and attention it deserved. Rogue had the potential for true greatness, but was stuck in Unity's shadow and so didn't get to spread its wings as wide as it should have. Given the disaster that was Unity, this is a major disappointment. It makes you wonder what could have been.