Monday, December 29, 2014

Northwestern Law Professor's Home Defaced

On Twitter, Northwestern Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich states that he was among the victims of a string of incidents where anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on Chicagoland garages.

Eugene writes often on the intersection of international law and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our politics are not identical, but I've always found his analysis to be thought-provoking. I hope he and his family are feeling safe, and that the offenders are identified and brought to justice.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Riding Up and Down the "Criticism" Ladder

Discourse about discourse about Israel -- a play in four acts.

ACT I: PENN STUDENTS: Mr. Hedges, you write about the Middle East! We would love to have you speak at our conference on peace in the region.

ACT II: MR. HEDGES: Israel and ISIS are historical "mirrors."

ACT III: PENN STUDENTS: Mr. Hedges, we no longer think you'd be a great speaker at a conference on peace in the Middle East.

ACT IV: MR. HEDGES: Man, anytime someone suggests Israel should withdraw to '67 borders they are mercilessly silenced by the all-powerful Israel lobby.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Cognitive Inequality and the Internet

Kevin Drum offers a theory that the internet drives increases of cognitive inequality. Put simply, "the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter." (the post was from 2012, but I came across it today). Basically, his point is that the internet makes available a massive glut of information -- accurate and inaccurate -- to the everyday population. If you know how to put in proper searches and have decent source-appraisal and critical-reasoning skills, you can become much, much smarter. If you lack these attributes, by contrast, you'll be a lot dumber.

This theory makes some sense to me, but I'm also interested in how it lines up with some of the motivated cognition research I've become increasingly interested in. An important part of that research is that we selectively interpret the information we receive -- and the information sources we pursue -- so that they are in harmony with our preexisting beliefs. So liberals avoid or discredit Fox, and conservatives do the same to MSNBC. And the thing is, it is very hard to disentangle that sort of motivated reasoning from critical appraisal. If I scroll over a link, see it's going to Breitbart, and say "pssh, obviously I don't need to read that tripe," am I wisely ignoring an incredible source, or am I avoiding information that might disrupt my carefully crafted belief structure? The answer is almost certainly some of each; but how much of each is difficult to determine. Indeed, how do I know that Breitbart lacks credibility? For the most part, it's because (a) a large quantity of sources within my epistemological network say it is and (b) from experience I know that their statements clash pretty consistently with my ideological priors. How is that different from motivated cognition? And we can run this in reverse, of course (witness the worries about "epistemic closure" on the right, or take it even further afield -- how do I know to dismiss conspiracy theories? I never landed on the moon; ultimately, I'm making a decision that NASA and like sources are more credible than based on surprisingly thin gruel.

Ultimately, as depressing as Drum's hypothesis seems to be, I want to believe it is right because it indicates that education and knowledge can nudge us in the right direction of being better thinkers. But people are notoriously difficult to persuade, even when they're wrong. It is possible that the internet doesn't so much further cognitive inequality as it furthers cognitive divergence -- sending each of us down a personalized rabbit hole of groupthink and confirmation bias wherein every thought we think (right or wrong) can find a network of supporting architecture immunizing it from effective critique.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Jews Lose": The UK Case

I have periodically remarked upon the "Jews lose" attribute of American free exercise doctrine -- namely, that across the entire history of the First Amendment (1789 - present), Jews have never won a free exercise (or RFRA) case in front of the United States Supreme Court. Indeed, religious minorities in general fare exceptionally poorly when presenting such claims before the highest court in the land. The only cases I can think of where a non-Christian claimant has successfully won a religious accommodation claim before the high court are Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006), and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993) (the Santeria religion in Hialeah fuses elements of Christianity with native African and Caribbean religions). For the most part, though, Jews (and other religious minorities) lose.

I'm less familiar with the contours and history of anti-discrimination law in the UK. Still, I was surprised (and, on reflection, am surprised that I was surprised) to find out that Jews have never won a reported discrimination (race relations) case against non-Jewish defendants in the history of the United Kingdom (at least dating from the inception of modern anti-discrimination law). The only successful discrimination prosecution by a Jewish plaintiff was a "Jew-on-Jew" case in 2009 (concerning matrilineal Jewish lineage as an admissions requirement for a Jewish school). The linked book is Didi Herman's An Unfortunate Coincidence: Jews, Jewishness, and English Law, which looks absolutely fascinating -- unfortunately, I've only been able to get a taste of it through google books' limited preview (this review by Martin Lockshin provides a decent summary). Herman argues that not only do Jews consistently lose in UK courts, but the court when dealing directly with Jews treat both the people and the community with disdain bordering on outright antipathy. Anyone familiar with the Ronnie Fraser ruling is intimately familiar with the form.

One interesting element I was able to glean from the bits I read, however, is that the generally shabby treatment of British Jews in the courts is not just unrecognized by British society; they pretty much assume the opposite. Protection of Jews is viewed as a model through which other groups also can make claims; so one sees arguments of the form "we protect Jews, so why not also protect Sikhs, or Muslims, in the same [assumed to be robust] way?" Protections for other groups are expanded on the presumption that they're getting the same thing as Jews, when in reality those decisions seem to be considerably more expansive than what Jews actually receive. I obviously favor giving both Muslims and Sikhs robust anti-discrimination protection. But the actual practice here is problematic -- it operates under a presumption that Jews represent an anti-discrimination "have" that is unexamined and apparently unfounded. It is axiomatic that Jews are protected -- perhaps too much so, perhaps we are too quick to indulge them when they "cry anti-Semitism". Viewing Jews as the quintessential protected group, courts that in fact consistently deny Jews protection at the level of particular cases see themselves as breaking from the script, rather than repeating a continuous and damaging pattern.

New Year's Resolutions: 2015

Bender: Isn't it time you gave up all hope of ever improving yourself in any way?

Fry: I know I should but I just can't.

Another year, another iteration of my New Year's Resolutions. As always, we first review how I did over the previous year:

Met: 1, 4, 5, 7, 8 (I was having trouble confirming if I read all of any of the academic books I perused this year, but then I remembered the pulp Star Wars fiction I read on the plane ride to Berkeley. Count it!), 10, 11, 12, 13

Missed: 6 (that's on you guys), 9.

Pick 'em: 2, 3, 14 (I'm looking forward to it right up until about August, where things get very hazy).

Again, not bad! Better than I'd have expected, frankly. I think I do a good job picking resolutions I'm likely to meet. With respect to #3, I don't know if I'm being too harsh or too charitable vis-a-vis my knowledge of Indian law and energy law.

But ever forward we go! What are the goals for next year?

(1) Publish, or have accepted for publication, two articles (I'm feeling ambitious).

(2) Have a solid plan for remaining in academia for the foreseeable future.

(3) Keep in touch with academic persons (not counting my advisors or former colleagues).

(4) Finish a complete draft of Dismissing Discrimination.

(5) Get a "ShoStreak" of at least 15.

(6) Make a "move towards the basket" in terms of starting a book project.

(7) Eat at a steakhouse in the Bay Area.

(8) Successfully integrate the updates to my Constitutional Law course.

(9) Attend (or be scheduled to attend) an academic conference.

(10) Take steps towards building a community of scholars interested in anti-Semitism issues.

(11) Get more pants that fit.

(12) Find a new (as in not-watched-by-us, not necessarily currently airing) television show to watch.

(13) Have positive interactions with a supermajority of the Public Law workshop attendees.

(14) Have a (medical) check-up.

Well, I think that's a good set. Wish me luck, and a happy new year to all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The State Supreme Court Pipeline

Noting several recent appointees to the California Supreme Court who seem like potential future SCOTUS nomineees, Orin Kerr asks why we don't see this more often -- "this" being the use of a state supreme court as a farm system for the highest courts. The appeal of the route makes some sense -- it provides valuable judicial experience while not being hamstrung by Senate gridlock.

One good explanation, which Kerr floats, is that many state court positions are elected rather than appointed. I have two more:

(1) Not all state supreme courts are created equal. It seems to me that nominating a judge from the California Supreme Court would be viewed qualitatively differently than nominating someone from the North Dakota Supreme Court. The high courts of larger states probably would be seen as sufficiently prominent so as to render their justices credible nominees. It might not wholly be a function of size -- certain state high courts have outsized reputations for quality whereas other states ... lag ... but I don't think that every state high court would be considered suitable. Kerr gives the example of David Souter, who spent most of his judicial career in the New Hampshire state court system, but recall that he was first appointed to the First Circuit before being elevated to the Supreme Court. My understanding is that the former appointment was done because of a sense that it would be faintly ridiculous to pull someone from a tiny northeastern state and place him on the highest court in the land. And while his tenure on the First Circuit was brief, it does seem to be the case that even a quick stop on an appellate court is considered sufficient to wash away any "viability" doubts (see also: John Roberts).

(2) For the state court pipeline to work, a lot of pieces need to fall into place at once. Basically, you need a superstar candidate who lives in a viable state that has (at the very least) an ideologically-amenable governor who either personally harbors near-term presidential ambitions or is willing to carry water for someone else who does. The example of David Stras in Minnesota is a good one, but also demonstrates how the stars have to align -- if Stras had been on the University of Illinois faculty instead of the University of Minnesota, or T-Paw had not been elected governor of what remains a blue-leaning state, then that route is closed off. The federal system is much more flexible -- if one really wants to nominate someone, there will probably be a vacancy on the relevant circuit court or the D.C. Circuit, or a district court in a pinch, no matter what state they reside in. And there's no agency problem because the person looking to seed the field already is President.

Of course, it could be argued that (a) every governor imagines themselves to be President one day and (b) if Stras isn't around, they'd just pick someone else. But my sense is that only a few true superstars are thought of as SCOTUS candidates before they ever get into a relatively high-profile judicial role. It's probably not the case that Minnesota had infinite David Stras-calibur candidates for a future SCOTUS nomination waiting in the wings. Rather, I suspect that at any given point there are a handful of Stras types out there waiting in the wings, who may or may not reside in states that have the right combination of factors to make a state court appointment a viable waystation to the Supreme Court. Outside those few cases, our thoughts on viable SCOTUS personnel tend to focus on folks who already are sitting on a major court. Sometimes, like Stras or Goodwin Liu, they get lucky. But for the most part, the federal system just offers more opportunities and a tighter nexus to put someone in the Supreme Court conversation.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

From Individuals to Institutions and Back Again

The "execution-style" killing of two NYPD police officers, apparently in retaliation for the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, has shaken up the emergent conversation about police violence. And reasonably so -- after all, it was a shockingly brutal slaying by someone who claimed to be acting under the same banner as that motivating the protesters from Ferguson to New York. And so perhaps it is unsurprising that we fall into familiar patterns, with the protester groups denouncing the killing and labeling it an isolated incident and police unions responding Mayor De Blasio and the protester community has blood on its hands.

In some ways, this conversation is very familiar, but in others it is quite different. We have not seen, to my knowledge, any serious efforts to dig up dirt on the slain NYPD officers -- use-of-force complaints or litigation records. Nor have we seen much in the way of deflecting the motives of the shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley. While Brinsley had posted messages on instagram indicating a desire to kill cops, he also shot his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier that day and later killed himself. One could argue that he wasn't the paradigm case of a calculating, rational actor, but rather a disturbed man with possible mental issues. But we haven't talked about that either.

This is not a complaint. This is a compliment. At the individual level, the relevant point of analysis is that two public servants were brutally murdered on the street, and that's horrifying. At the individual level, this is not the time for apologias for the shooter or insinuations that the victims deserved their fates. The way we're talking about this case, on the individual level, is how it should be. It's how it should be for all persons who are killed without justification.

At the institutional level, things grow more complicated. A very proper moral asymmetry, at the individual level, can't work when we try to situate this shooting as part of a broader social problem. The police union's hypothesis -- that these killings are attributable to efforts by the Mayor and other agitators to rile up community sentiment against the police -- is a hypothesis; specifically, it is a hypothesis about what caused the degradation in the relationship between the community and the police. It is not the only hypothesis on that score. At the institutional level, it is just valid (and far more likely) that it is police behavior that is the source of this mistrust and rage. The people aren't being whipped up by demagogues to feel thoughts not their own. This is organic.

This hypothesis doesn't justify, in any way, the shooting. To be crystal clear: even if it is the case that unjustifiable police behavior caused the sense of rage that contributed to this shooting, it would not mean that the shooting was justified. Normative and structural explanations are not the same thing; the move from individuals to institutions alters, among other things, what counts as victim-blaming. One can leverage our rightful aversion to victim-blaming to ends both good and ill; using it to close off important angles of inquiry falls into the latter camp. Realistically, the individual wrongdoer isn't necessarily going to have much bearing on how institutions should alter their behavior.

In any event, obviously there is a disjuncture here, between a populace that views itself as being preyed on by those paid to protect them, and a police force that thinks the community doesn't understand the realities of being a police officer. It's been said before, but it should be said again: Being a police officer is hard. It's hard for the very obvious reason that it requires the officers to put themselves in peril and to commit (in the words of a police chief I worked with back when I was practicing) "to run towards the danger." But that undersells the difficulty considerably, because part of a police officer's job is to do all that while still being trusted by their community. Being a cop would no doubt be easier -- albeit not easy -- if one could make arrests and conduct patrols without having to care about how one was perceived by the neighborhood. But that's not the way it works. If the people don't view the police as being on their side, then the police are doing a bad job no matter how many arrests they make or what the crime stats say. A community that feels constantly terrorized by their local police department is not being effectively policed even if the murder rate has flatlined.

Are people sometimes unfair in their appraisals? Sure they are. But "solely engaging with fair, high-minded people" isn't really part of a cop's job description either. The population is what it is; the burden is on the police to act in accordance with how the community wants the police to act.

Fixing this problem isn't about finding bad apples or folks with malign motives. When people say the problem isn't with a few bad cops, they're not (or at least shouldn't be) saying "because its about a lot of bad cops." They're saying that the search for bad cops -- in the sense of persons who deliberately and consciously abuse their authority -- is a misguided one. Those people exist, but they don't exhaust the problem, because the problem goes beyond finding some stereotypical Bull Connor types. Good people, who think they're doing good, can still be bad cops to the extent that the system of policing doesn't view its perception within the community as one of its metrics for success. That a person fails at their job doesn't make them a bad person, but neither does them not being a bad person mean they're a success. Being trusted by their community shouldn't be some bonus goal attained by the very best police departments. It is their job, as much of their job as putting away bad guys. If the community doesn't trust the police, then the police are failing at their most fundamental duty. It's as simple as that.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Reason for the Season

At a Menorah lighting in Springfield, Massachusetts, a local city councilor has a message:
“Jesus is the reason for the season."

“I thought it added something to the service, it didn’t take away,” [Bud] Williams, who is not Jewish, told on Tuesday night.
Williams went on to say that his message was not meant to be one of "dominance".

I almost can't be mad, because, let's face it, Jesus is the "reason for the season." As it stands, a goodly portion of secular Jews are in some ways more invested in not celebrating Christmas than they are in celebrating the Chanukah (or any other Jewish holiday). I know of a great many Jews who have long since ceased setting foot inside a synagogue, but who take great pride in grabbing Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. We certainly have Jesus to thank for that. More importantly, Chanukah, as every good Jew knows, is a minor holiday that received a battlefield promotion because we needed something to compete with Christmas. If it wasn't for Christmas, Jews wouldn't care (much) about the Festival of Lights.

Then again, as any good historian knows, the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is due to its resonance with various pagan winter festivals. So in reality, the reason for the season is Roman celebrations of the Winter Solstice.

Power Story

The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of Samantha Power, currently America's ambassador to the United Nations. As a longstanding SP admirer, it makes for a good read. Incidentally, browsing through that last link resurrected this gem, wherein Frank Gaffney predicted that Obama was gearing up to invade Israel. I must have slept through that one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ranking Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed is one of my favorite video game series of all time. It is probably the only series which I constantly preorder, I believe starting from Revalations. I've also played all the console games except Liberation and Rogue (the latter I want to get, but I already switched from a 360 to an Xbox One and it's hard to motivate myself to revert [Update: I've now played Rogue and would slot it in as the #4 game on this list, between Revelations and Black Flag]). In any event, those titles won't be on the list. But that still gives us seven games to rank in order. And who doesn't love ranking?

Enough with the preface! Let's begin:

7. Assassin's Creed: Unity

I thought very hard about whether I'm underrating this because I'm playing (and being frustrated by) it right now. But I honestly don't think I am. What clinched Unity's bottom ranking for me is that I largely haven't experienced all the technical glitches that plagued the game's release, and I still have found it inordinately annoying (in fact, the technical glitches worked to my benefit -- Ubisoft promised all of us Season Pass holders a free copy of Far Cry 4 as penance! Advantage, David). First of all, the multiplatform elements (computer, iPhone, etc.) are nothing short of infuriating. They're not fun, they break immersion, basically, they turn what was normally a nice set of mini-game diversions into a giant chore. And if we restrict ourselves to the game proper? Major problems there too.

A lot of basic gameplay mechanics seem to have been eliminated -- what happened to the "whistle" function? And what's there often doesn't seem to work: I gather I'm supposed to attract guards by having them see me and provoking them to give chase, but that basically never works (particularly if you want to stay in stealth). The "cover" system is a disaster under the best of circumstances -- the percentage of cases where "press A to enter cover" has actually succeeded in doing so is well under 50 -- but it borders on farcical once you find out that you can't round a corner while hiding. You need to get up, wander around aimlessly in plain site for awhile, probably accidentally hide behind the same corner you started in at least once ... it's jaw-dropping. And while I feel like I've said this for every AC game, I could swear that the controls are stickier and less responsive this time around.

To be sure, it isn't all bad. Arno is an average protagonist -- worse than Ezio or Edward, better than Altair or the wretched Connor. I genuinely enjoy the Helix Rift mini-games. Also, I recognize that -- as someone who never plays multiplayer -- Unity may not appeal to my style of gaming (and I do appreciate that they allow the co-op missions to be done single player, so I don't feel like I'm missing out just because I lack gamer friends). But even some of Unity's supposed strengths don't work for me. A lot has been said about the incredible detail that was put into Paris and, in particular, the sheer number of NPCs wandering (or rioting) throughout the city that makes it feel alive. And while I can appreciate that on an aesthetic level, on a gameplay level the main function of all those crowds is to make it really annoying to get from place to place. This is compounded by the decision to have certain common classes of enemy always recognize you, so you're always one step away from being dragged into a fight. And the combat is a drag: I mocked Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor as "Assassin's Earth: Shadow of Arkham", but Unity only wished it had that games' combat system. In particular, the sharpshooters are wildly overpowered; often times it seems my combat choices are "be sniped while engaging in a sword fight" or "be sniped while running away."

Of all the games in the series, this one might be the only one I've affirmatively not enjoyed. And that makes it the easy choice to place on the bottom of the list.

6. Assassin's Creed

This was a very tough game to rank. Objectively speaking, the original Assassin's Creed had a lot of problems. An unlikeable protagonist. Repetitive mission design. Repetitive level design. You get the idea. If you had me play the original Assassin's Creed and Unity right now, I'd probably enjoy Unity more. There's just so much development we've become accustomed to in this series that the original game lacked. There's a reason it's been described as "proof of concept."

But what a concept it was. When Assassin's Creed came out, there was nothing like it. It was a true open-world, go-anywhere-do-anything game like nothing I'd ever seen. And the way it was located in this neat alternative-history-cum=sci-fi setting was awesome. In a sense, there isn't much to say about Assassin's Creed because it just set the stage for its successors to outshine it. Which they did -- but still, what a stage it was.

5. Assassin's Creed 3

We all knew that Ezio couldn't last forever, but what a comedown from him to Connor. AC3 had a lot of potential, and I give it credit for genuinely trying to be new. The frontier-forest setting didn't really work for me -- it felt empty instead of open (what's the big difference between one tree and another?). Like the space in between the towns in the original game, I didn't really get the purpose of the AC3 frontier. And the oh-so-trendy crafting dynamic was wildly overdone. The American Revolution setting didn't live up to its potential, but that's more the fault of the surrounding elements -- I still think it was a good setting for the game. One problem with moving the series to the colonies is that 18th century America lacked the grand, sweeping architecture of Renaissance Europe. For a series so dependent on verticality and exploration of crumbling churches, this was a dramatic shift and one I personally didn't like.

There's one thing that saves AC3 from falling further down the list, and that was its introduction of naval combat. That was a blast, and forgives a lot of sins. It's no accident that the sequel was naval-focused, nor is it any accident that the sequel was brilliant. In a sense, Assassin's Creed 3 was a lot like the original: a lot of innovation (and an obnoxious protagonist) that maybe didn't work perfectly on its own merits, but definitely shone a path towards something great.

4. Assassin's Creed 2: Revelations

As far as I'm concerned, the top 3 and bottom 3 Assassin's Creed games are indisputable, which means it is likewise indisputable that Revalations is very obviously in the middle. The only one of the Ezio games which was not great, which is to say, it was still very good. People who were complaining about how the series had lost its edge in Revelations got a bitter shock when AC3 came out. In any event, I liked this game. It provided a satisfying resolution to Ezio's story arc (and he remains the only protagonist in the series I actually cared about). The gameplay was not particularly innovative, but since it was based off the near-perfect system developed in AC2 and Brotherhood who cares? We got an early warning of Ubisoft's trend-obsession with that wretched tower defense minigame, which was really the only truly foul note in the game, and Constantinople was clearly inferior to Italy as a setting. But other than that, it was pretty straightforward: fun protagonist, fun story, fun gameplay = fun game.

3. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

This was Ubisoft learning from its mistakes (and its triumphs). It took the best element of its predecessor (the naval combat) and made a whole game out of it. It also remembered that we don't want whining brooders as our protagonist and instead gave us Captain Jack Sparrow Edward Kenway, who was a lot of fun. Certainly, Black Flag was the most different AC game to come out across the series' history. The naval orientation was like nothing that came before, and it became immediately clear that yes it could support an entire game. The game took full advantage of its shipboard dynamics and really made them work beautifully. Building up my pirate fleet was a great joy, as was storming forts. I actually felt like a sea captain. Oh, and I should also say that the modern-era story in Black Flag Was arguably the strongest yet in the series.

Because so much of the open Caribbean map was water and small islands, the game's cities did sometimes feel a little small. That didn't really impact my enjoyment, but it did certainly cabin the gameplay a bit (and Black Flag was noticeably weaker when it did take you ashore). But still, pirate ship! Cannon fire! Ghost ships! If only I could have gotten my crew to stop singing those damn shanties....

2. Assassin's Creed 2 and 1. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

I don't put these two together out of laziness. I think these two are obviously the pinnacle of the series, but I have an irreparable bias. The debate over whether AC2 or Brotherhood is better is primarily philosophical, depending on whether you favor the game that introduced all the best elements of the series and demonstrated how wonderfully they could work, or the sequel which tweaked, fine-tuned, and sanded down what few rough edges remained to produce a truly perfect (albeit by necessity less original) experience. My problem is that I played Brotherhood before AC2, meaning that for me Brotherhood was the best of both worlds: it was novel and innovative while also being fully rounded and improved. So for me, it's obviously the best of the series. If I had played them in order, would I still think so? I don't know -- I go back and forth between Might & Magic VI and VII along precisely these lines.

So I'll just group them together as the clear one/two. Ezio was a great protagonist; he was suave and funny and didn't take himself too seriously. Really, he ranks as one of my favorites across any video game series. The gameplay was well-nigh perfect, combining puzzle/exploration in crumbling ruins with stealth/combat to brilliant effect. The alternative history shone, helped along by great antagonists in the form of the Borgias. Really, these games are what sold me (and, I dare say, the world) that this was a series that had staying power. I've yet to meet anyone who did not think these games were amongst the best they've ever played.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Because We Can

I'm a big proponent of D.C. statehood, in part because I'm a local but mostly as part of a larger commitment to ensuring that all American citizens on American territory have the same democratic and self-governance rights as any one else. Washington's unique position, unfortunately, makes it a particularly tempting target for meddling congresscritters who have objections to how the city's denizens want to run their own affairs. The latest skirmish in this never-ending debate is over marijuana, where a contingent of Republicans wants to block a recent decriminalization law passed in the District:
The situation leaves Republicans in an awkward position — not only contradicting their long-standing philosophical views that the federal government shouldn't meddle in local affairs....
Hey, hey, Politico. This is a serious issue. No need for mockery.

That being said, it is incredible that these GOPers feel no need to even play lip-service to the ideal. Here's Maryland Rep. Andy Harris:
“That’s the way the Constitution was written,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said in an interview Wednesday. “If they don’t like that oversight, move outside of the federal district to one of the 50 states that is not covered by the jurisdiction of Congress as a whole.”
Haha! Being able to control local politics is a privilege for other people. Way to show 'em, Andy! Who else is adopting the "because we can!" line?
“They may have a say, but not the complete say,” argued Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, referring to voters in D.C.
Conservative Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, said this when asked about reining in D.C. pot laws: “It’s a constitutional responsibility.”

“Washington, D.C. has a lot to offer,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “Recreational marijuana shouldn't be one of them.”

“Congress oversees the D.C. spending, and that was an item that we felt was appropriate,” said Rogers, whose Eastern Kentucky district has had its own problems with prescription drug abuse over the years.

Asked about interfering on a matter enacted by a huge majority of voters, Rogers said: “I’ll refer to my previous answer.”
To be sure, other congressional Republicans (e.g., Rand Paul, Dana Rohrabacher) The thing about principles is that they aren't worth much if you only adhere to them when you have to. If you actually believe in them, then you follow them even when given the option not. For example, I don't refrain from murdering folks because there are laws forbidding it -- I actually genuinely believe in the principle that murder is wrong. As for Andy Harris, well, I wouldn't plan a trip to Yellowstone with him is all I'm saying.

UPDATE: DC residents have begun flooding Rep. Harris' phones. And while some of them are complaining about the marijuana business, others have just accepted Rep. Harris' stewardship and want him to fix other things. You know, trash, parking tickets -- the sort of local issues that apparently can't be left to folks not living in one of the 50 states. I have to say, this is by far my favorite mode of DC political protest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Deeply Rooted Response

One of my current projects involves exploring the "race card" response to claims of racial injustice. A large part of why that interests me is because it seems to the retort of choice when faced with any -- and I mean any -- allegation that racism might be an issue. Consider the conservative response to President Obama's statement that "deeply rooted" in America. That's a statement that seems banal, bordering on trivial. It doesn't call any specific person racist. It doesn't attack his political opponents as racist. It just acknowledges, in a vague, general way, that racism is significant problem in America and it won't be solved in a day.

And a good portion of the right went ballistic.

"Playing the race card more overtly than ever before" screams Breitbart.

"How many ways can he insult Americans?" demands the American Thinker.

"So much for that post racial America promise," sneers Gateway Pundit, linking to a speech where the President, um, promised no such thing.

In theory, the "race card" complaint should be reserved for situations where a claim of racism is so patently incredible that the only reason one could bring it up is as a distraction. I'm skeptical that, even on those terms, the "race card" response is ever appropriate because I'm skeptical of our pre-discursive intuitions regarding what sorts of racism claims strike as credible or not. But this response illustrates that the issue is not with particular claims, it's with there being a claim at all. Folks like Breitbart complain about the "race card" almost as a matter of reflex; it's the response of first resort no matter what type of claim is being made here. If it can deployed in as innocuous a case as the one at hand -- a general, even platitudinous acknowledgment of the ongoing power of racism -- there's no circumstance where it won't be deployed.

Monday, December 08, 2014


On Twitter, "Independent Journalist" Rania Khalek mocks a Jewish college student as "paranoid" for fretting about "tropes about Jewish privilege and domination." After all, who could object to innocent graffiti alleging that "Jewish men run the CIA", or Marx's identification of capitalists as "inwardly circumcised Jews", or the claim that "All Jews run Wall Street. They take over all of the banks. It pisses me off." The real problem, Khalek says, is that we don't discuss the ways in which Jews enjoy "Jewish privilege" (apparently something distinct from the privilege some Jews may enjoy as White, male, heterosexual, etc.).

So to oblige her, I've trying to promote a #JewishPrivilege hashtag (the associated photos are not my own, though they do make wonderful illustrations). Entries include:

* "People think I can summon tsunamis w/my mind #JewishPrivilege"

* "I have the #JewishPrivilege of being only the *2nd* most common victim (per capita) of hate crimes in the US."

* "I have the #JewishPrivilege of being blamed for any global calamity. Seriously: ANY calamity."

* "My mere presence can make even the most committed leftist forget what 'intersectionality' is. #JewishPrivilege"

* "Maybe my #JewishPrivilege is the ability to tirelessly explain the 'buffer theory' of anti-Semitism."

Feel free to add in your own contributions of all the reasons why being a Jew in the world is the cat's meow.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Things People Blame the Jews For: Volume I REDUX!

The very first entry in the "Things People Blame the Jews For" series was the Fukushima disaster. If I recall correctly, the original entrant suggested that Jews had sabotaged the nuclear power plant. But Richard Koshimizu has stepped up -- his claim is that Jews caused the tsunami itself. A right-wing Japanese newspaper issued an apology for advertising these books in its pages.

How, I wonder, were we even supposed to be able to set off a tsunami. I mean, while it is true that the Elders are holding Aquaman in an undisclosed location, it is for his own safety. It is libel, sir, to say we'd ever use his powers for evil.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Requiem for a TNR Dream

When Chris Hughes bought a majority share of The New Republic two years ago, I tolkd folks to "count me as a supporter." This may not have been one of my best decisions.

I haven't been a regular reader at TNR for awhile now -- Jonathan Chait was my must-read author and he's moved over to NY Mag. But I am a regular irregular reader, if that makes sense, and so I do feel invested in its success. My own relationship with The New Republic echoes that of many of the folks I've been reading over the past few days. As a high school debater I found it lively, engaging, and unpredictable -- all qualities I aspired to myself. It certainly was a "formative influence" on me -- for good and for ill (I can certainly attribute my pronounced hawkish tendencies that persisted through most of my college years to the magazine). And at least some of my blogging style -- most notably how I title my pieces -- was very consciously modeled off of my TNR reading. While I don't exactly identify with it, I can't help but give a nod to how Michael Lerner described his college-age self (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "I was a New Republic reader -- I saw through a lot of bullshit, but I didn't really have any interest in the broader structures of power and domination in the world."

Aside from being comfortably ensconced within the mainstream liberal tradition, TNR's most notable quality was its contrarian streak. This was a blessing and a curse. At its best, the magazine challenged its readers to take unexpected and controversial ideas seriously, and created a forum for debate and argumentation that was unrivaled anywhere. At its worst, it elevated genuinely mediocre ideas to a prominent platform with a smug grin about how it was "provocative". The magazine often took great glee in poking its own coalition; so much so that it sometimes didn't matter whether the poke was justified.

Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, The New Republic appears to be in a state of chaos following a mass exodus of upper-level staff and contributors. The instigating event appears to be the departure of well-respected editor Franklin Foer, who was replaced by former Gawker chieftain Gabriel Snyder. That Foer heard about his replacement through external sources added insult to injury (though it did allow him to announce his resignation rather than being fired). Longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier joined Foer in exiting, and soon a majority of TNR's upper-echelons (and a large quantity of their contributing editors) jumped ship as well.

My first reaction to this was that everybody seemed to be overreacting. To be sure, my first exposure to the breaking story was in Gawker's nyah-nyah post "White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine." Aside from the obvious partisanship, this seemed more than a bit cherry-picked (did Julia Ioffe, Hillary Kelly, Rachel Morris, Judith Shulevitz, Anne Applebaum, Ruth Franklin, Sacha Scoblic, Helen Vendler, and Jennifer Homans all get sex-change operations?). But my next thought, of course, was what could possibly be such a big deal as to be prompting this torrent of "RIPs" for the magazine? Everybody seemed to be overreacting. I like Franklin Foer well enough (I've never met him, but How Soccer Explains the World is an enjoyable read), but editors come and go. How we moved from "a leadership shake-up" to "the death of an American institution" eluded me.

The other half of this story appears to be boiled-over discontent at the way Hughes and his minions have been running the company -- basically a blizzard of nonsensical biz school jargon and tech-speak that evinced a conscious disrespect for the magazine's tradition and the value of genuine long-form journalism generally. The nightmare was that Hughes was going to try to convert TNR into a Buzzfeed lookalike with content reduced to a blizzard of attention-grabby but contentless niblets. That the magazine's new CEO reportedly complained that he got bored if he had to read more than 500 words in an article is certainly enough to give any TNR loyalist an aneyurism.

I want to be hopeful. After all, despite its rep Buzzfeed (and Gawker) have actually been moving towards interesting long-form journalism of the sort TNR long exemplified. There seems to be a convergence in the industry, and TNR might be well positioned to exploit that convergence. Yet some epistemic humility on my part is in order. I'm not a member of the media industry, and I don't have any inside information on the magazine. The people who do? Are panicking, and fleeing the magazine in droves. When two-thirds of your masthead cuts ties in the space of a few days, that's a genuine red flag. And it's not clear if TNR's rump staff will be able to right ship.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Another Kid is Alright

This is a killer letter in the Baltimore Jewish Times by Amna Farooqi, talking about Jewish organizations' attempts to connect to millenials without respecting millenials.
One of the more engaging programs at the GA was a plenary panel featuring journalists I admire: Jeffrey Goldberg, Aluf Benn, Steven Linde and Linda Scherzer. As the conversation drifted from the media’s coverage of the war this summer to support for Israel, Benn pointed out that American liberals, especially young people, still traditionally support Israel but are growing more critical of the occupation.

Scherzer responded with: “Do you think young people just don’t get it?” With its deep condescension toward me and my peers, that moment revealed a major flaw in the American Jewish community’s approach to young people. The JFNA, like the rest of the community, knows that it has a problem engaging with us. It was frequently discussed at the GA. But the nature of those conversations actually epitomized the problems they purported to solve.

The panel “Doing Jewish in College and Beyond: Effective Ways to Engage Young Jews” had not a single student or young person on the panel. In fact, several of the students who asked questions were told that their views were “parochial” and only representative of a tiny, insignificant minority.

The program “Generation #Hashtag” highlighted statistics about the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses, even as the students on the panel itself insisted that they didn’t feel unsafe or insecure as Jews.

The fact is, millennials are not staying away because their local federation’s Facebook page is not attractive enough; they are staying away because when they want to talk about their beliefs and goals, they are often condescended to or ignored. Assuming that by understanding Facebook and Twitter they can understand how millennials think, the organizers of the conference displayed how out of touch they really are with young people. I attended the GA because I feel a personal investment in Israel, Zionism and the American Jewish community. I’m a Pakistani-American Muslim, so I’ll forgive you if you find that confusing.
Needless to say, I disagree with the anti-Semitism stuff (I'm a millenial and I do feel these concerns quite acutely). But Farooqi is absolutely right that the first step in engaging with a group is taking the group seriously. A Jewish community which doesn't respect its younger generation can't be surprised if the younger generation doesn't respect it back.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XIII: Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton has received some very threatening messages lately. I still am not 100% sure why anyone cares about Paris Hilton at all (having never wrapped my head around the circular "she's a celebrity because she's a celebrity" bit), but unfortunately it seems like such abuse is par for the course for any person (particularly any woman) in the public eye. These threats, in particular, center around Hilton's Jewish identity:
“I know ur Jew family gives nothing” and “KILL JEWS FOR FUN” are among the threats that have been left on the Instagram account of Hilton and her father, Rick, TMZ reported Tuesday. The man also has threatened to kill and rape Paris Hilton.
Those are pretty sick. But I have news for the writer:

Paris Hilton is not Jewish. Nor is her family. Indeed, I'd struggle to find a more non-Jewish name than "Hilton" this side of "Christianson". I'm assuming the mistake came when someone just assumed any wealthy family supposedly degrading American morals was, of course, Jewish. Since that makes a ton of sense.

But whatever. Welcome to the club, Paris Hilton. I hope you enjoy your stay (and of course, I hope the cops find the schmuck who threatened you).

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Total Request Live: Young v. UPS

A lawyer friend of mine requested that I blog on Young v. UPS, set for argument before the Supreme Court tomorrow. Young involves a suit by a UPS employee who was denied accommodations during the course of her pregnancy. I told her I didn't know if I had much to say on the case, and besides -- it's the Supreme Court hearing a case about a pregnant, working-class woman. I'm sure it will be fine.

Nonetheless, like a fading radio station I'm so excited to actually get a request that I'm going to play it out.

Young's suit relies on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) which, as the name implies, bars discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." If you're thinking that it's nice that the United States has such a law -- don't: the reason we have a specific law barring pregnancy discrimination is because the Supreme Court was adamantly insistent that pregnancy discrimination obviously was not a form of sex discrimination. That my students' jaws invariably hit the floor when I tell them that is an excellent illustration of why limiting "discrimination" to behaviors which favor all of group X at the expense of all of group Y doesn't really capture our full intuitions regarding the meaning of the term.

In any event, the PDA superseded these opinions and instead defined "because of sex" to include pregnancy and related conditions. The PDA does not specifically provide for accommodation of pregnant employees. What it does do is require equal treatment of pregnant employees and others "similar in their ability or inability to work." Young's argument is that UPS does accommodate some employees who are unable to work their normal job functions, through the Collective Bargaining Agreement and in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By refusing to accommodate her as well, UPS is treating her pregnancy differently from other statuses which affect one's "ability or inability to work." And that, in turn, violates the PDA.

My friend is particularly concerned about a negative ruling in Young because of its perverse effects on working-class women (namely, the ease at which it allows subtraction of the "working" part). What better way to ensure more children are born into perilous economic circumstances than by knocking one of their parents off the job rolls? In terms of concrete effect on vulnerable women, she told me, this might be a bigger deal than Hobby Lobby.

The main cause for worry, though, is that this is a pregnancy case. And as noted above, the Supreme Court has been remarkably hostile to recognizing the interests of pregnant women. The initial ruling that "pregnancy discrimination" was not "sex discrimination", after all, was in contravention to every appellate court in the country which had considered the question. One reason Young may not be getting the attention Hobby Lobby did is precisely because the former is so explicitly blue-collar -- attorneys and accountants don't typically need to be relieved from hard physical labor during their pregnancies, and to the extent they do need certain accommodations their employers are far more likely to grant them without a fuss. But another possible reason is that the legal community perhaps never internalized the idea that it could expect the courts to provide for robust pregnancy protections. Since we never really believed that we "had" them, there's less of a sense that we're "losing" them. That's in contrast to Hobby Lobby, where it felt like a great progressive victory was taken away from us. It's simple loss-aversion.

Of course, my cynicism may be unwarranted here. It's not every day, after all, that you get the Concerned Women for America lining up on the same side as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Judicial skepticism aside, protecting pregnant women tends to unite a pretty wide range of political constituencies -- including historic adversaries on gender issues. It presents the social left plus the social right standing shoulder to shoulder against big businesses. Again, what could possibly go wrong?

Getting Out of the Neighborhood

Mychal Denzel Smith has an interesting post up on Salon regarding Black folks who get rich chastising "bad" Blacks. Smith contends that this whole concept relies on a myth that the paradigmatic "hood" Black person doesn't want to see his friends succeed -- that Black people will do everything they can to hold other Blacks back. In reality, Smith says, these communities often rally around their rising stars and try to protect them.

I wasn't expecting to like this piece as much as I did. When I hear the Chris Rock line and others like it, I immediately think of the persistent trope from White people about how Black people don't care about themselves and the only time they rouse themselves up is when they can blame White folks for all their problems. And I've always thought that was ridiculous -- listen to the Black community and you'll find plenty of people who are quite invested in an intra-Black conversation regarding what they need to do, themselves, to better their lives and improve their standing. One need not agree with every element of this conversation to recognize that it's happening. It's amusing to me that the White folks most confident that this internal Black conversation isn't happening are usually those least plugged in to what African-Americans talk about amongst themselves. Maybe the reason you haven't heard these talks is because you're not the intended audience (that's the point, isn't it)?

Obviously, from this framework a key element is who one's audience is. There is a significant distinction between a Black speaker urging his compatriots that they need to change their behavior and a Black speaker telling eager White audiences about how shiftless, irressponsible, and diseased Black people are. It's possible that one point of difference between myself and Smith is that despite his cross-over appeal I never saw Rock's primary audience, in that bit, as White people -- I did not feel licensed to draw a distinction between Black people and [n-words].

This, in a sense, is the difference between "respectability politics" and "do for self." The former suggests that if only minorities play nice and behave themselves, prejudice will go away and they'll succeed. "Respectability politics" is oriented to the dominant group. "Do for self" might urge very similar behavioral changes, but it harbors no illusions that these practices will cure bigotry. The reason to do them is "for self" -- to simply be better. It's inward-oriented. Racism exists and will continue to exist, so what do you do in a world where racism is a constant? Perhaps how one views Chris Rock is a function of which conversation you think he's most contributing to. And given his popularity amongst White audiences, I can't deny Smith has a point.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rate That Apology! Part 2: Elizabeth Lauten

We're back with one of The Debate Link's favorite games, "Rate that Apology!" People sometimes say terrible things on the internet; later on, they often issue apologies. These range from the meaninglessly formulaic ("I apologize if anyone was offended. I don't have a racist bone in my body.") to the genuinely heartfelt to those which actually manage to make the original offense worse. I'm interested in how people apologize for a lot of reasons. Optimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward and not replicating past wrongs. Pessimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward while finding new ways to reinstantiate past wrongs.

In any event, today's entry comes from Elizabeth Lauten, a staffer for Tennessee Congressman Stephen Fincher. Some of you may have seen an image set of the Obama daughters at the annual Thanksigiving turkey pardon. They were, shall we say, not invested in the proceedings. And most people saw the pictures and chuckled at how even the First Daughters are still, at root, teenagers who think their dad does lame things and resent being stuck at boring and hokey public functions.

Lauten, however, thought the Obama daughters needed to show "a little class" and should try dressing "like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar." This would have been a, dare I say, classless response even if they Obama girls had been doing anything remotely out of the ordinary for two teenage girls. It's especially bizarre here given that Lauten is the only person I've seen who saw those pictures and had that particular set of thoughts.

Of course, Lauten soon apologized, and that is the subject of our post (the original wrong is relevant in terms of judging the apology, but remember it's the latter that is the focus of the series):
I reacted to an article and quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly how hurtful my words were. Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart. Furthermore, I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.
It's perhaps worth pausing here to say what I look for in an apology. First, I want to see the person actually take responsibility for the wrong. This means none of that "if you were offended" non-sense, and certainly no complaining that one was manipulating into saying terrible things because grrrrObama!/I'm just so passionate about this issue/I'm the victim of trolling. Second, I'm suspicious of elements that seem to make it about you, the wrongdoer. This is not the time for you to talk about how wonderful you are; it certainly isn't the time to get on a soapbox about how you're really right about the core issue and just happened to express yourself poorly. Third, I don't want to hear about how the statement "doesn't at all reflect [you]." Clearly, it does -- at least somewhat. That's why you said it. If you don't like that element of self, then you should think about how you got to this place and what needs to change so you do too. Finally, one element that's typically impossible to judge at this stage but is of course worth noting is the follow-through. Anyone can say (or read off a PR-prepared card) a decent apology. It's another thing to see if it actually translates into meaningful behavioral change going forward.

Back to Lauten. She actually has a bunch of good things going for her. She does seem to accept that these words really were wrong and hurtful (not just in the ears of certain oversensitive beholders). And I like the "pledge to learn and grow" line too. That indicates that Lauten concedes that the fact that she wrote this indicates some bad thought process or malign attitudes on her part that need to be changed; that this can't be dismissed as some completely anomalous blip. Unfortunately, that passage stands in tension with "these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart," but at least we have that tension in the first place -- more often apologies take it as a given that obviously this wasn't the real them, so who needs introspection. Also on the potential "con" side is the "after many hours of prayer" bit, which to me seems to border precipitously on "making it about [Lauten]", but that might be a cultural bias on my part.

All in all, not bad. I'd have liked a clearer concession that this statement did say something about Lauten that she now realizes she needs to change, but that element is by far the rarest one you see in public apologies so there is a limit to how much I can mark down.

Grade: 6.5/10.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Indictment

Anytime a legal issue significantly enters the non-legal eye -- whether we're talking about the health care law or the decision whether to indict Michael Brown -- most lawyers I know wince at least a little bit. When did 25 million people suddenly earn their J.D.s? There is a decided tension between three premises that seem to be somewhat widely shared amongst non-lawyers but are not universally compatible:
(1) Law is not simply an extension of our political or moral preferences; indeed, it is bad for legal decisionmakers to make decisions based on what they feel is "right" rather than what the law demands;

(2) Law is a technical subject requiring at least some specialized knowledge; while everyday citizens may be able to reason morally or politically as well as anyone else, one needs to know law specifically to reliably come to correct legal outcomes; and

(3) Non-lawyers can validly critique legal decisions as legal decisions (more than "if this is the law, then the law is unjust")
Yet even as I feel this twinge a little bit in the wake of the Michael Brown non-indictment, I feel it less than I do normally. In part, perhaps, this is because it was a grand jury decision -- grand jurors aren't lawyers either, after all. And moreover, it is correct that this case is a serious aberration from the norm whereby Grand Juries will "indict a ham sandwich." And even adjusting for the special case of police shootings -- which are almost never challenged in a criminal context at all -- there are some special reasons to be concerned here. I don't know if I'll go so far as to say the prosecutor threw the case, but from a lawyer's perspective let's just say that there were some tactical choices he made that were not exactly consistent with a zealous desire to have this case go to trial. There is a lingering suspicion that the prosecutor here really didn't want to prosecute but wanted to foist the blame off on someone else, so he presented his case before the grand jury in a way that made it far, far less likely to result in an indictment than the normal case.

What makes the non-indictment so upsetting -- even more so than, say, the George Zimmerman verdict -- is the message it seems to send about what is and isn't a plausible narrative in our society. Technically speaking, an non-indictment is not a finding an innocence -- a guilty person could nonetheless (validly) be non-indicted simply because the evidence we're able to access is insufficient to justify moving the case forward. Functionally speaking, a non-indictment decision suggests that the grand jury thought it was implausible that Darren Wilson was guilty. In a stylized but very real sense, what an indictment is is a decision about whether to continue a conversation forward -- whether or not the proposition "Darren Wilson is culpable in the murder of Michael Brown" is sufficiently plausible such that it is worth spending our time on. To answer that question "no" is revealing and worrying, and it should be. Whether or not we are sure to a "moral certainty" that Wilson is guilty, it seems difficult to be so confident at this stage that he is not guilty that we can justly neglect to look into it further.

But even as there is very justifiable and warranted outrage over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, in some sense, there has been a very successful indictment in the sense I am talking about above. The belief in communities of color that the police are just another local gang, that they are not there to and cannot be relied upon to protect their children but actually are another source of threat to their children, is nothing new. And it is interesting to me that, as old as this sentiment is, right now we really do seem to be seeing some genuine national recognition of it -- recognition of the real and genuine vulnerability people of color feel; that they can be killed with impunity and that the people tasked with protecting them are instead too often pulling the trigger.

This is such a difficult concept to grasp for White people, for whom it is not even a luxury but bedrock that if something scary happens to you, you call the police and they'll protect you. The idea of "overpolicing" is almost impossible to grasp -- who wouldn't want more cops on the beat? Who wouldn't want to feel safer? I have myself an idiosyncratic fear of authority figures (people who can "get me in trouble"), which probably stems from some traumatic event that occurred in my childhood, and that includes police officers. But even for me, having this fear -- when I saw something scary in Hyde Park (what looked like a violent street abduction a half-block ahead of me at midnight), I called the cops without any hesitation and felt better -- safer -- when they arrived. It is virtually inconceivable to many Whites this idea of not having access to that sense of security; indeed, to experience its opposite.

But at this moment, that message is starting to get through as at least plausible. At least something worth talking about. We have, maybe, successfully indicted the practices of policing that have oppressed communities of color for so long. I don't want to overstate things -- there are plenty of people for whom the Darren Wilson decision is proof that the thug kid got what he deserved -- but I think even for some Whites out there ambivalent about this precise legal question, there is recognition that the broader issue is a live one worth talking about. The conversation is finally being seen as a valid one in ways that even a few years ago it wasn't. Maybe that's not a lot. But it is something.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dominating Anti-Semitism

This past weekend, I attended the "Dominating Speech" workshop at the University of Connecticut. It was, in many respects, my first conference of this type -- I had presented as the sole guest at a weekly workshop, and at massive conferences where I was on one panel of a thousand, but this was the first where everyone was there for all the invited papers both presenting and giving feedback. It was an amazing experience (and not just because it was hosted by -- I am not making this up -- a group calling itself "the Injustice League"). Moreover, as (with the exception of one keynoter) the only non-philosopher in attendance, I felt welcomed and valued in the perspective that I brought to the table. Obviously, standing outside the main discipline, there were some papers that spoke to me more than others. But I felt like I learned a lot, and when I asked questions it at least seemed like people found them to be useful and helpful (hopefully!). I felt fantastic, even giddy, as I left Hartford Sunday night.

What follows is not a "but". In many ways it is more of a "because". My experiences with regard to my talk (which I'll get into in a second) instantiated and clarified a lot of what I have long found problematic about how people in academic circles think and talk about anti-Semitism. But (okay, there is a but), it did so in a way that surprised -- even shocked -- me in its sense of affirmation and engagement. The conversation we had on this subject was one that, in many ways, I had lost faith in our capacity to have. And that was precisely because it was with people who really did seem to buy into what I consider to be the problem.

My talk was titled Playing with Cards: Discrimination Claims and the Charge of Bad Faith. The prototypical example I give of this "bad faith" retort is "you're just playing the race card!" That response, to a person claiming some form of racial discrimination or injustice, is an assertion that the charge is so patently ridiculous, so obviously incredible, that the claimant either knows or should have known that it is groundless. The "card" language is evocative, suggesting a "game" one is playing for tactical advantage, rather than any honest effort to explore an issue. The main function of the bad faith response, I argue, is to enable such claims to be dismissed prior to any substantive inquiry (and I explain in more detail how this works and why it's wrong) .

Other than the "race card", I give a variety of examples of this phenomenon in the contexts of racism, sexism, and (crucially) anti-Semitism. This is an advised decision on my part -- it matters to me a great deal that anti-Semitism not be viewed as a fundamentally separate enterprise from other forms of oppression. And generally, it is: The type of robust theorizing and incredible work one sees in feminist and ethnic studies literature on sexism and racism as systems of oppression is almost entirely absent in the context of anti-Semitism. Judaic Studies has largely been excluded from the pantheon of "area studies", and the experience of Jews is not generally studied as an ongoing case of systematic oppression of others. The Holocaust gets in, of course, but in this narrative it comes off as an inexplicable, almost random fit of violence that fades almost as suddenly as it emerged. Context and continuity are both absent. And while I am forever grateful to the Critical Race Theory literature for finally giving me a language to express these feelings I was having about my own experience as a Jew, it is by all rights incredible that there was nothing more directly on-point. When one thinks about who is doing work on anti-Semitism at the level of sophistication, insight, and seriousness that one finds regularly in other -isms literature, who do you have? David Hirsh, Stephen Feldman, Yours in Struggle, the parts of Albert Memmi nobody reads ... it starts to get thin very quickly.

And this is a very big problem. One of the more important contributions the authors working specifically in feminism or critical race theory or queer studies have made is showing that it isn't enough to have a general notion of oppression as a bad thing. Anti-oppression analysis must be historically-grounded and situated with respect to specific histories and instantiations of particular oppressions. Oppression manifests differently for different groups; if we only have in our mind (for example) Blacks in America as a our model, we may find it difficult to see how another group is oppressed when it seems to lack the familiar markers. With respect to Jews, it can be very difficult to understand a Jewish narrative of oppression if one doesn't know about the "buffer" theory of anti-Semitism (Jews are given relatively prominent places in public life so they will be targeted for public ire in the event of unpopular policies). Part of being Jewish in America is that there are, relatively speaking, a lot of Jewish Senators. Another part of being Jewish in America is that I've yet to attend a synagogue on holiday services that wasn't surrounded by armed guards -- and they weren't there to direct traffic. And things are even worse than that if you're a Jew in Paris, and even worse than that if you're one of the very, very few remaining Jews in Yemen (~60,000 Jews lived there in 1948, less than 100 today).

Jewish accounts of diaspora and dispersal, and at the same time unity and nationhood across an incredibly long period of time, matter. Recognizing the specific histories of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews (those descended proximately from persons in Spain, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia) matters (and the Ashkenazi Jewish community shoulders much of the blame here). Knowing that, for all our "integration" into mainstream American life, Jews face the second highest rate, per capita, of hate crimes of any group in the country (behind only gays and lesbians), matters. When we talk about Jews and lack this attunement, we will make mistakes. When we talk about Jews and deny that we even need to be so attuned, we will commit a wrong.

So I include examples of anti-Semitism to emphasize that this is a form of domination that needs to be taken seriously on par with other forms of oppression: Anti-Semitism is dominating. And I know when I include it in my presentation I am poking the bear -- though which bear I'm poking depends on my audience. There are groups I could speak to that would nod along whole-heartedly when I talk about anti-Semitism, but think it silly or ridiculous that racism is treated similarly. But in this forum and in this context, I had a pretty good idea about the nature of the beast.

I have to say, though, that as the conference proceeded (my presentation was towards the end) I was pleasantly surprised at how much anti-Semitism was discussed. Nazi propaganda was used as an example of dehumanizationn. When "slurs" were discussed, "kike" was a regular example. When people were grasping for another example of an oppressed groups, Jews regularly made an appearance -- particularly if two were need for illustration ("suppose a Black man starts screaming at a Jew on the subway ...."). I thought that maybe, maybe, it wouldn't be seen as weird or provocative to talk about anti-Semitism as if it was just like other forms of oppression. And so I gave my presentation, with its examples of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, and called for questions.

The entire Q&A focused on (and challenged) my inclusion of anti-Semitism as an example of the phenomenon.

Now I want to make a few things clear here. Right now I'm talking almost exclusively about anti-Semitism. But my presentation, and my paper, is not so lop-sided. I don't actually think, on a pure content basis, I spent any more time talking about anti-Semitism than I did about racism or sexism. But it was clear that my talk was received and experienced as an anti-Semitism talk. As a theme, Anti-Semitism dominated, or was seen as dominating, my presentation. That's partially on me -- as I said, part of my goal is to emphasize anti-Semitism's parity with other forms of oppression -- but I don't think it's entirely so.

One of the other presenters had a paper that I've been liking more and more as I've been turning it over in my head about "talking loudly." After her presentation, I said to her (and I'm putting these words in my mouth only because I'm not 100% sure she agrees with my spin, and I don't want to misrepresent her own view) that what counts as "loud" will be defined against a norm of the dominant group -- they define normal volume, and styles or content that deviates from that norm will come off as jarring and discordant. Domination often causes people "to mistake the sound of their own voice for silence."

In the context of progressive conversations about injustice, anti-Semitism is loud. It is jarring, it is dissonant. It stands out. Some time after my presentation concluded, the subject of Jews came up as an example again and someone remarked that "well we already had a lot of Jew-stuff in the last talk." It wasn't said with any malice or sneer whatsoever, and I didn't take it that way. But it just emphasizes that my talk -- which wasn't actually predominantly about Jews and anti-Semitism -- became dominated by that concept. And that's a function of the strangeness of having any substantial focus on anti-Semitism in these contexts. There were talks that were entirely about sexist slurs, but nobody would have said at their conclusion "that was a lot of gender-stuff!"

Indeed, I think this gets to another quality of how we misperceive the role and prevalence of discrimination talk in our society generally. One of the examples I used in my paper was the A.J. Delgado/Matthew Hale line that "[Rape] is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent." Part of this is about supposed false claims. But another part is about supposedly easy claims, this idea that any true instance of rape will undoubtedly be reported. Why wouldn't it -- it's so easy! This denial that underreporting could even be a thing is also wrong; there are many, many reasons why people will be reticent to claim they've been raped, or abused, or discriminated against. People believe that the problem is we talk about rape constantly, too much. In reality, the problem is that we talk about it too infrequently -- it just feels like a lot because of what we take to be the "neutral" backdrop.

Many of the people who asked questions were absolutely convinced that anti-Semitism discourse is a ubiquitous feature of public debate -- it is this constant deafening drone that drowns out everything else. Anti-Semitism, they feel, dominates other important conversations. And this presumption is so ingrained that we see it even when it obviously isn't there. One questioner asked me about how "AIPAC uses anti-Semitism" (folks at the conference will remember this moment because I actually started bouncing up and down in anticipation). But go to AIPAC's webpage -- they almost never talk about anti-Semitism. It's not part of their playbook. And yet -- and apologies for generalizing here -- my guess is that everyone in the room thought that was a perfectly sensible question -- "what about the AIPAC case?" As a society, it is so deeply ingrained in our heads that Jews of that type are constantly yammering about anti-Semitism that even when they don't it still is part of what we collectively "know" about them. When it comes to oppressed groups, what we think we know about them -- what we are very confident we know about them -- often diverges quite significantly from what is actually true about them.

A similar theme can be seen in the Steven Salaita case. I've made my position on that matter generally clear -- yes his tweets were anti-Semitic, no he shouldn't have been unhired -- so I don't want to delve into those details. But there is a very good reason that I decided to check to see what the major American Jewish institutions were saying about that controversy. And the answer was: nothing. They weren't talking about it at all. This fact, of course, did nothing to dampen the sense amongst Salaita's supporters that his un-hiring was yet another case of the organized Jewish community maliciously deploying anti-Semitism in unjust ways. And on similar grounds, it's notable to me just how hesitant the University was to associate what Salaita tweeted with anti-Semitism -- instead relying on (what to me felt like) mealy-mouthed murmurings about "civility" and "respect." And I have to agree with Salaita's backers here: that's bullshit. If Salaita had been tweeting this stuff about the Los Angeles Dodgers, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Yet the University did not, and there was no way that it would, justify its decision by saying "Steven Salaita's tweets were anti-Semitic, and there is no space for that on our campus." They rely on the "civility" rationale because they know that openly claiming anti-Semitism is immediately discrediting in academic circles.

The folks questioning me seemed to think that the debate we were having was whether anti-Semitism is raised too often or just the right amount. But I don't think anti-Semitism is talked about the right amount; I think we talk about far too infrequently, including in discussions over Israel. I'll throw a bone here and say that one area that's badly missing significant anti-Semitism talk is in the role right-wing Christian organizations play in constructing what it means to be pro-Israel -- if there ever was a time to dust off Churchill's warning about riding a hungry tiger, this is it -- but that's not the only case. I think anti-Semitism should be frontloaded anytime we're talking about Jewish institutions, and most of the time it isn't. For all we have convinced ourselves that it is easy to cry anti-Semitism, that Jews don't have qualms about doing so when it's false let alone when it's real, the reality is far different. Pretty much all the Jews I know, especially those left-of-center (which is to say, most Jews), are keenly aware of the costs of anti-Semitism talk -- that each time they try to raise the subject (no matter the context or validity), they are feeding into this narrative of "there they go again."

I promise get into the content of these questions in a moment, but I also want to emphasize something else. All three of the questions I received were from Jews, and I believe all anti-Zionist Jews. All were respectful and constructive (though certainly pointed). And after Q&A, all three them made a point to come up to me and very effusively praise my talk and say how much they enjoyed it. I don't know whether they did so because I was a Philosophy-outsider and they thought perhaps not accustomed to this style of questioning (I attended the University of Chicago Law School, I have plenty of experience with academia-as-blood-sport), or if I came off as particularly flustered (I wasn't, but I do have a sort of manic energy that often reads that way). But regardless, I absolutely believe in their sincerity and the gesture was not unappreciated. And our further conversations at the pub and on the train ride out from Hartford -- which were very illuminating and constructive -- gave me a ton of material to work with in terms of strengthening my thesis and argument. These suggestions, I want to stress, were not "this would be a great paper were it not for the Jew-stuff" -- they were actually quite keyed to making the Jew-stuff better.

When I said at the top that this experience restored my faith in the possibility of a conversation that I had begun to worry was impossible, this is what I meant. It is no revelation to say that conversations between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews about the nature of anti-Semitism often do not end well. But this one went very well from start to finish. I don't know if I changed anyone's minds -- when the first question opened with "I've actually written about how anti-Semitism is inappropriately used to silence criticism of Israel", I didn't expect him to close with "but you've made me see the error of my ways, accept my humble apologies." But the way the conversation proceeded made believe that maybe, at the edges, these thoughts really could be admitted into the realm of valid discourse. That the conversation could at least begin.

As stated above, the main pushback on my presentation was on the inclusion of anti-Semitism, and specifically a challenge to whether it was validly analogized to other extant oppressions. In a sense, I found this darkly amusing -- we had after all been using Jews as an example of a dominated group throughout the conference, albeit in a very abstract way, and nobody had batted an eyelash. It wasn't until the concept was deployed with some serious practical bite -- challenging actual practices people might actually want to engage in (nobody in the room, I'm sure, wanted to call Jews' "kikes" again) -- that suddenly it became problematic to acknowledge Jews' dominated status.

This resistance seemed to stem from a sense that "anti-Semitism" was dominating in yet another way -- that it really does get used to distract or shunt aside other more important conversations and thus preserves unjust domination. One questioner suggested that anti-Semitism was, comparatively speaking, not that important when "bombs were falling on Gaza" (what about when Gaza is "merely" occupied? Under blockade? Or when there are settlements in the West Bank?). Complaining about anti-Semitism is akin to crying "what about the menz!" Another spoke passionately about her experience being called a "self-hating" Jew and how alienated she was from counter-anti-Semitism discourse which she felt specifically targeted and demeaned her.

I don't want to give the short shrift to the real problem being raised here. The upshot of my argument with respect to the "bad faith" retort is basically that one shouldn't do it; that one should always take the claim seriously and give it serious analysis. One particularly cogent objection to this is that it doesn't account for the guy who says "men are the real oppressed group today!" Technically, that's a claim of structural oppression and under my theory we have to seriously engage with it, even though all we really want to do is roll our eyes and walk away. The suggestion, then, was that this should be restricted to claims by groups which really are oppressed. Then the debate over Jews becomes an empirical one -- are they more like Blacks or more like men? -- which can be separated out from the issue I'm describing. My problem with that suggestion, though, is that oppressive ideologies and prejudices also play powerful roles in constructing who we consider oppressed. This stands out with particular clarity for Jews, whose oppression has regularly taken the form precisely of allegations that they are an all-powerful world-dominating cabal. As my friend Phoebe Maltz Bovy put it, "Anti-Semites weren't - aren't - just people who think they're better than Jews. They're people who think they're being oppressed by Jews." Within this narrative of anti-Semitism, the idea of Jews as oppressed will be seen as patently, obviously ludicrous -- they are if anything the paradigmatic oppressor. Trusting people's pre-discussion intuitions on whether Jews are oppressed is not, I think, going to go all that well. And this empirical debate over "are Jews oppressed" will never kick off if the claim can legitimately be brushed aside as clearly absurd -- if the "bad faith" response is accepted as a response when the group "obviously" isn't oppressed.

One possible solution is simply to swallow it -- yes, we need to take even the "men are oppressed" claim seriously, because at least as a threshold issue it's just that important to make sure we're duly attentive to all possible oppressions and we shouldn't have any real confidence in our pre-figured notions about who is oppressed and who isn't. I might actually be less unhappy with this result than most of my peers seem to be. In part, this is because I really am skeptical of our ability to ex ante identify oppressed groups with confidence; I think we're far more likely to have false negatives than false positives. And in part I suspect this stems from my legal background, where to some extent we really do have to just accept our duty to investigate whatever claim walks in the courthouse door. As much as I recognize that we have limited discursive resources, at the same time any remotely useful practice of moral deliberation is going to require us to have to walk and chew gum at the same time. When people act as if thinking two thoughts at once is one to many, that begins to sound less like preserving scarce deliberative resources and more like there are certain thoughts they'd rather not risk thinking.

A second solution, which in some ways might be better but perhaps does not completely solve the problem, is to limit the obligation to claims by historically oppressed groups. I actually switched to this language at one point in my Q&A and was later congratulated for my savvy "rhetorical move" -- "historical oppression" instead of "present oppression." But I think this actually could work as a limiting principle. On the one hand, the verifiable and accepted existence of historical oppression at the very least demonstrates that such oppression is a live possibility that is worth looking into. And on the other hand, a lot of the bad faith response in this context accepts the reality of the historical oppression, it just denies its continuation ("racism was bad, but now it's over"). The empirical debate over the status of Jews, after all, is less "are they oppressed" and more "are they still oppressed", and that seems to be qualitatively different from the case of men.

I concluded my talk by explaining why I believed the "bad faith" charge is "dominating speech" in a very literal sense: it takes an important claim, one which should occupy our attention as citizens concerned about fairness and equality, and removes it from the realm of legitimate conversation. The bad faith response dominates speech about discrimination. In some sense, this effort to squeeze in anti-Semitism talk as a valid entrant into this larger discourse is about whether anti-Semitism, specifically, can be so dominated. The historical exclusion of Judaic Studies from the broader currents of oppression-discourse -- work that has been so powerful and so influential and done so much good in the world -- is the norm, and efforts to resist this domination remain at the margins. The people I was in conversation with perhaps didn't agree that this was a problem or that it should change. But they did engage with me honestly, substantively, and productively on this question. They were at least willing to discuss whether they should be willing to discuss anti-Semitism. Put that way it seems like a very small victory. But I was, as I said, quite giddy about it. It meant quite a lot.

One common theme the philosophers at the conference kept remarking on was how outsiders often misinterpret how philosophers speak about one another. Spending pages upon pages detailing all the areas where one thinks your partner is wrong or false is high praise. And I hope this missive is read in that light, because that is the light that I mean it. The best conferences and the best academic events cause us to have a clearer idea about the thoughts and problems that motivate us. And this conference -- every aspect of it -- made more cogent and choate thoughts I have been exploring for quite some time. That is something I value very deeply, and I am exceedingly grateful to have had this opportunity. As much as I've already gone on there's even more that I'd like to say -- about, for example, the status of dissident Jews (like my interlocutors) who disagree with the general Jewish perspective on the state of Jews in the world and who often feel mistreated or abused as a result. This is another area I've been thinking a lot about and plan to pursue in more detail in the future. What it boils down to is this: Every person I met with and every person I spoke with is someone whom I hope to remain in conversation with in the years to come. These are the types of conversations that need to be had, and I am exceptionally thankful to have had this one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VGHS: A Review

The series finale of Video Game High School came out this week. I've watched every episode of all three seasons, and enjoyed them all. But with the series' conclusion, I've been thinking about it as a comprehensive whole. Would I recommend it? If you're a fan of video games, absolutely. If you're not ... maybe. It is an interesting show in a lot of ways, in that it is considerably better than its constituent elements.

Let's start with something quite obvious, though. VGHS is a web series, and viewing it as vehicle primarily distributed through YouTube, it is incredible. The production values are TV-quality -- low-grade, camp TV, but still. I could write a review of VGHS taking all of that into account, and it would be gushing. But I don't get the sense that VGHS wants to be judged as King of the Little League. I'm treating it as a television show because I think that's the league it wants to play in. In a sense, the highest compliment I can pay VGHS is that I never felt the need to grade it on a curve.

Okay, that being said, let's start with the plot. It's nothing special -- indeed, in some ways it is entirely unoriginal. Other than the arc I just completed, and the overarching "boy meets girl" thing across the entire series, I don't know if I remember any of the specific happenstances in any of the episodes. With the semi-exception of one late-Season 3 entry, none of them had any serious ambition or tried to break new ground (and that one episode, incidentally, was a rare instance where one of the weaker cast members really managed to shine).

The acting is much the same. Of the core main cast, only Johanna Braddy (Jenny Matrix) could be characterized as a good actress. This makes sense, as she's the only one who has a serious acting career (I nearly flipped out when she made an appearance on Shameless). Ellary Porterfield (Ki Swan) is decent, but Josh Blaylock (BrianD), Jimmy Wong (Ted Wong), and Brian Firenzi (The Law) are mediocre at best. Blaylock plays leading man Brian as every sad-sack semi-unpopular-but-not-dweebish high school kid that starred in a 90s teen movie (he even kind of looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Ten Things I Hate About You), and adds nothing to the archetype. Jimmy Wong is awkward and wooden as Ted, and only the former is arguably part of his character. And Firenzi plays an maniacal jerk who lacks any of the qualities which make maniacal jerks interesting.

The supporting cast often was better. Sometimes that's because they were able to get a bunch of high-profile actors to make appearances, ranging from brief (Joel McHale as the President) to substantial (Cynthia Watros got main cast billing as Jenny Matrix's mother/coach). But even some of the more obscure names shone -- the breakout character of the series, for me, was Harley Morenstein as VGHS Dean Ernie Calhoun. Morenstein's prior claim to fame was the YouTube series Epic Meal Time, but every one of his appearances was a thing of beauty.

The excellent supporting cast also points to one of VGHS' greatest strengths and missed opportunities. It does a very good job of building its world. One caught glimpses of a whole bunch of characters and cliques and back stories attending the high school, all of which held great promise as vehicles for storytelling. The best shows that have this element -- think Parks and Rec or Community -- do a great job of exploring their environs: one understands that their main cast truly inhabits a larger world whose denizens themselves are rounded individuals with their own interests, talents, and personal desires. VGHS had the superstructure to pull something like that off, but it never quite got there -- when we did venture out and meet some of the other students, too often they felt like 2-D cardboard cutouts who existed to serve the main plot. Indeed, my desire to explore more of VGHS' internal workings was part of the reason why the Napalm High story arc fell somewhat flat for me -- it drew the focus away from the core of the show and instead cast the lens on an external player whose place in the overall ecosystem was never fully made clear.

All of this sounds pretty negative, and I said at the top that I really did enjoy the show. Why? VGHS -- a good but not great show -- reminds me a lot of a good but not great video game. The best video games are serious enterprises -- they believe that there is deeper meaning to their work and invite their players to explore that meaning in a robust, even literary, fashion. But there are plenty of perfectly decent games that abjure that type of seriousness in favor of just placing you in an interesting environment and letting you have fun. And that's what VGHS does. It presents an interesting world-concept -- where video games are serious business of the kind that could support an entire network of academies -- and just lets its characters play around inside. As serious as the characters take video games, the show doesn't take itself seriously at all. And for all of the cliched teen-angst romance that drives much of the plot, this is fundamentally a happy show. People do cool things! They play games! They get live inside those games! We can see that they're getting to have fun, and so we have fun with them.

I wrote a review of a restaurant the other day, a hole-in-the-wall place in Oakland that we stopped in for breakfast when the place we were actually trying to eat at had a 1 hour wait. The food was good but nothing special -- objectively, a 3/5. But the place was infused with an incredible happy energy. The owner -- a 55 year old Korean woman -- greeted every customer with a fist bump (not optional) and everybody there just seemed to be cheerfully munching on classic greasy diner fare. We loved it. We loved the feeling. So I gave it four stars instead of three, because isn't just getting to feel happy worth a star?

VGHS doesn't have the best acting, or the most innovative plot. It doesn't do everything it could have with the world it created. But is a happy show, and it makes you happy watching it. That's worth quite a bit, in my book.