Saturday, July 08, 2023

Jews Against Jews Who Discriminate

This is an interesting story about a New Jersey kosher bakery who refused to bake rainbow-frosted cupcakes because the baker decided Pride-themed events violated his conception of Jewish values. This decision, in turn, has led to a furious backlash from the rest of the local Jewish community, who are livid that the baker is citing Jewish values as justification for homophobic discrimination:

Multiple rabbis have accused the baker of bigotry, and some local Jews are boycotting his shop. The area’s Jewish federation privately said it would stop buying from Mittel before publicly walking back its position. And Eshel, an advocacy group for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families, announced an “ally training” in West Orange this coming Sunday in response to the incident.


The issue blew up as other rabbis in the area learned about what happened and commented publicly.

“When we refuse basic Jewish services to members of our community who are articulating who they are, we are excluding and dividing,” wrote Robert Tobin, rabbi of the Conservative B’nai Shalom in West Orange, in a blog post on June 22. He highlighted the Conservative movement’s recent strides toward LGBTQ inclusion, and an interpretation of the Torah that holds “humans are created in the image of God with a variety of potential gender identities and with the possibility of gender fluidity.” Tobin also reportedly addressed the incident in a sermon, according to the New Jersey Jewish News.

David Vaisberg, senior rabbi at the independent Temple B’nei Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey, tweeted that he was “so disappointed” in the bakery, which is located in a strip mall next to a kosher Chinese restaurant.

“They make great baked goods but have shown themselves to be against the LGBTQ+ in canceling orders of rainbow baked goods in Pride month,” he wrote, adding that he was letting the bakery know why they had lost his business and advised followers to “please do the same.” 

This reminded me of a working paper I heard about from years back (which I don't believe has been published, unfortunately), where the author asked Jewish, Christian, and Muslim respondents to give their views regarding government accommodations for Jewish, Christian, or Muslim business owners who for religious reasons did not want to serve gay customers. The most fascinating finding, as I recall, was that Jews were least likely to support an accommodation if they were told it was a Jewish business seeking to discriminate.

At one level, that was a surprising finding -- we'd naturally expect Jews (like all other groups) to display some level of in-group bias, being more sympathetic to claims made by their coreligionists. But on another level, this result made perfect sense to me. Ask me in the abstract about whether business owners can claim a religious exemption from having to serve gay customers, and I'll generally answer no, but I'll acknowledge the important religious freedom and pluralism concerns blah blah blah. 

But if somebody asks to do that while carrying my flag and representing my people? Oh, hell no. Screw that guy. You get your ass back into line and stop embarrassing the tribe with your homophobic nonsense. And I suspect something similar is going on in this community of New Jersey Jews.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Wisconsin is a Failed State

Folks are cackling at a line-item veto Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) made which took a one-year increase to the school budget and, though some clever deletions, turned it into a four-hundred year increase. The veto goes "for the 2023-24 school year and the 2024-25 school year, add $325." The new version reads: "for 2023-2425, add $325."

Obviously, this is hilarious and, as trolling goes, it's trolling for good. And there's nothing new about this in Wisconsin either -- when I teach about the line-item veto, I show an example from former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who similarly vetoed individual bits and bobs from an enacted law to create a brand new spending program where none previously existed.

But still, it's fair to say that this is not how a functioning government should proceed.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans have blocked a proposal to require schoolchildren be vaccinated against meningitis. It's become increasingly clear that the anti-vaxx takeover of the GOP no longer has anything to do with COVID, and has become a general opposition to public health initiatives of all stripes. While this isn't Wisconsin specific, it is another instance of the state's ludicrously-gerrymandered legislature drinking fully and deeply of the waters of the death cult.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the chaos that has afflicted the Wisconsin Supreme Court in recent years. Of course, we all remember when one justice on that august court tried to choke out his esteemed colleague. More recently, members of that Court have repeatedly flirted with 2020 election denialism. One former member compared affirmative action to slavery. And while it may be the single funniest thing I've ever witnessed, having the Court's liberal faction celebrate the victory of a progressive challenger by marching into a watch party room to "it's bad bitch o'clock" also probably isn't exactly the sign of a perfectly healthy judicial body.

So yeah, Wisconsin isn't in great shape. Maybe folks should try Minnesota instead?

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Keeping Perspective on July 4th

As you may have seen, a federal judge in Louisiana has issued a sweeping injunction prohibiting all manner of communications between the Biden administration and social media companies which seek to tamp down on misinformation and conspiracies. In the first paragraph of a sprawling opinion, Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump appointee with a history of indulging the most extreme right-wing Republican theories, characterized the allegations as "arguably involv[ing] the most massive attack against free speech in United States' history."

Since it is the Fourth of July, I feel compelled to observe that we used to have in this nation laws which prohibited teaching Black people how to read. These prohibitions existed side-by-side with laws forbidding anti-slavery advocacy. I daresay that such laws represent a more "massive" assault on free speech than government efforts to convince social media outlets not to promote dangerous misinformation in the heart of a deadly pandemic (or, for that matter, seeking to persuade media outlets not to publish classified material they come to possess -- notwithstanding their clear First Amendment right to do so under the Pentagon Papers precedent. Which is to say, government tries to convince media actors not to publish things all the time, and absent actual coercion it is of no First Amendment concern).

The little King Georges who now dot the federal judiciary would do well to learn a little history (if such history can still lawfully be taught in Louisiana) and keep a sense of perspective.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Build Back Better Colleges

In the wake of last week's anti-affirmative action decision, Larry Summers wrote an editorial urging that elite colleges respond by becoming less exclusive. Grow. Admit more students. Add more programs. Invest in education.

I could not agree more. And it's something we need to do on all fronts. Yes, the Ivy Leagues should get bigger. But the great public universities in our country should also be expanded on. The University of California system is one of the great engines of economic mobility and advancement in large part because it is huge. But there has not been a new UC campus created in almost twenty years, and UC-Merced is by far the smallest undergraduate campus in the entire system. You have to go back another forty years for the most recently established UC campuses which are of a size comparable to the system average (both UC-Santa Cruz and UC-Irvine were established in 1965). Why not create a new UC in Sacramento, or in the Bakersfield or Modesto? Or hell, put one up in Redding? 

Higher education is in a weird moment where there is simultaneously an approaching demographic cliff that will obliterate demand at the bottom end of the scale even as student demand for the top schools surges to unprecedented heights. I don't have answer to the former problem. But the only way to respond to the latter is to increase capacity in "elite" institutions, and that in turn will take a massive investment in education to absorb the tidal wave of demand. 

It's not enough for colleges to exist -- we probably have enough dorm room beds already in the United States. They have to be great colleges -- colleges that are well-supported and well-endowed and well-resourced so that the students who attend can afford to go and know that they're getting an excellent education from top-level professors. Certainly, the far longer-standing crisis in graduate education means we don't lack for supply in the last category. But we also know there's a huge difference between setting up a new fly-by-night program that exists just to exist, versus actually investing in new educational opportunities. UC-Irvine Law School immediately stormed to a top-50 ranking from nothing when it was founded in 2006 because, unlike most other newly-established law schools, it boasted a level of public and private investment that showed it was serious about being a serious institution.

The problem we're experiencing is not actually one of bad minority students taking away the rightful spoils of White and/or Asian students. The problem is one of meritocracy and equalization paired with scarcity: an explosion in students applying for (and being qualified for) "elite" positions with no increase in the number of elite positions available.
Equality means that more and more people have at least nominal potential access to elite institutions, which means that it's harder for any one individual person to access these institutions, which results in a terrifying and never-ending arms race to become (and stay as) one of the elect few, which generates new inequalities in terms of who has access to the resources that allow them to win the arms race and who doesn't.

In a very basic way, it is true that "equality" is the problem here. In the old days, if you were an elite, you could be pretty confident your kids would stay elite so long as they were basically competent: with relatively few people who could or were allowed to compete for prestigious social positions, being "okay" generally was good enough. 

Once the doors are flung open, though, you're competing against everyone, and now it's off to the races. Today, we don't want to say that "only the children of elite university attendees should attend elite universities"; we want to say that every child should have an equal chance to join the Talented Tenth. But saying that means that, if you're in the top 10% right now, you're committing to the notion that your kid should only have a 10% chance of staying in your social strata, and that's a very unpleasant thought that only grows worse as the gap between the top 10% and everyone else increases. But unless your solution is "we should go back to reserving elite roles for the current incumbents", this is necessary feature of an egalitarian social sphere combined with extremely limited "elite" social roles. So if we're not going to accept going back to overt exclusion, we need to tackle the omnipresence and power of scarce "elite" roles. The only actual way to ease the sting of redistributing the pie is growing the pie. The actual, actual villain here is terrifying inequality -- the massive and growing gap between the power, influence, autonomy, and life chances of the elites versus everyone else, which makes so that not getting into Harvard feels like a death knell.

The only way to ease the sting of redistributing the pie is growing the pie. If you're panicking at the seemingly impossible task of seeing yourself or your child admitted to an elite institution, ending affirmative action will not help you. Nor, if we're being honest, will ending legacy admissions. The only thing that will make a difference is a true commitment to investing in education to such a degree that there is space for each of our outstanding youth to receive an outstanding university experience. There's no shortcut, no scapegoat that can substitute for that.

We are blessed as a nation right now to have surfeit of incredibly talented, hard-working, diligent young people who are eminently qualified to attend a great university and deserve to have that chance. The only thing standing in the way is our own willingness to pay for it.