Friday, August 04, 2017

Arbitrary Candidate Disqualifications are Arbitrary

I've staked out a rather unique position in the last few contested Democratic primaries, in that -- while having a preferred candidate -- I've strongly felt that many of the front-running contenders would make fine elected officials and I'd happily support the lot of them. This, of course, puts me in a decided-minority particularly in our post-2016 world which still sees the Democratic world divided between "neoliberal Shillary" and "Bernie was a traitor". And by all accounts, as we approach 2020, we're in for the same set of shenanigans.

Hence my endorsement of Scott Lemieux's views on "arbitrary dealbreakers" when assessing potential 2020 presidential candidates. It is perfectly fine to have a preference for one candidate over another, and it's perfectly fine to fairly call out a candidate for having weaknesses. If you think that Kamela Harris' record on criminal justice issues as California Attorney General was weak, it's entirely fair game to point that out. But what you can't legitimately do is come up with a hodgepodge of supposedly dispositive "standards" which fade into and out of existence as befits your preferred love or hate of a particular politician, or which decides that only weaknesses count. If Harris' weaknesses on criminal justice matters are your "dealbreaker", then you have to give due credit to Cory Booker for being strong at the issue -- to turn around on him and say "but Wall Street!" defines ad hoc (see also: it's more outrageous that Clinton supported the 1994 crime bill than that Sanders voted for it).

I'm not sure it's intentional that the candidates most frequently subjected to get this sort impossible purity test seem to be women and minorities (Harris, Booker, Deval Patrick, are mentioned in this post, and I've also seen it applied to Kirsten Gillibrand and, of course, Hillary Clinton), but it perhaps isn't quite coincidental either. In any event, I will continue to oppose it (no doubt in vain) for the next three years. As the 2020 field develops, there will be perfectly adequate grounds to favor certain candidates and discount others. But the desire to preemptively exclude everyone (or everyone but one anointed saint) as insufficiently pure is poisonous.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Flagging Principles

Some of you may have seen the story of a Conservative Jewish day camp which hosted a group of Palestinian youth from "Kids4Peace" and, as a gesture of welcome, hoisted a Palestinian flag alongside its usual American and Israeli flags. Right-wing Jews reportedly went ballistic (though I've seen little evidence any of them are affiliated with the camp or its campers), and the camp -- to its great shame -- apologized.

That the camp apologized rather than stand behind what ought to be a completely uncontroversial display of hospitality and welcoming is, of course, disgraceful. It's perhaps noteworthy that -- until this screed hit my inbox this morning -- the only commentary I'd seen from the Jewish press was dismay that the camp did apologize (e.g., here and here). Perhaps that generates some hope that, in the feature, the camp will model more of a backbone and not kowtow to the frothing right fringe. We could also talk, as several people have, about the sheer irony of throwing a fit about showing a Palestinian flag within a shouting distance of the Dyke March ban of Israeli (or "Israeli") flags. It's always nice to see just how fast some people reveal their ever-so-deeply-felt principles to be tickets good for this ride only.

But for me, the real thing to concentrate on is the tremendous bad faith of the conservative objectors in terms of what they purportedly expect out of Palestinians. Their argument is that it is wrong to raise a Palestinian flag insofar as Palestinians refuse to accept Jewish equality or relate to Jews on any basis but hate. The problem being, of course, that the flag was hoisted precisely to greet a contingent of Palestinian youth who were committed to doing just the opposite -- coming to a Jewish space in the spirit of friendship, equality, and respect.

In essence, the conservative demand of Palestinians is "you don't deserve acceptance until you start treating Jews with decency, respect, tolerance, and love, and if you do all of those things go fuck yourselves anyway."

It's grotesque and it's embarrassing. And it's a shonda that it carried the day.

UPDATE: I happen to know, from painful experience, that authors do not choose the headlines for their columns. So I really, really hope that whichever editor titled this piece "In raising the Palestinian flag, Jewish camp disrupts a safe space for Zionism" was making a sly jab at conservatives who proudly ride their high horse about the horror of "safe spaces" right up until the sight of red-white-and-green sends them into panicked whimpers about the existential threat to Jewish self-determination.

Honestly, if your Zionism is so weak that the mere presence of a Palestinian flag leaves you dazed and shaken, maybe it's time for you to take a break and leave the struggle to those of us with a bit more moxie.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

I Have Some Terrible News About What Law Schools Do

A prominent clinic at the University of North Carolina law school looks likely to be functionally shuttered after a committee of the UNC Board of Governors voted to bar it from representing any future clients. The Center for Civil Rights, which enjoyed the strong backing of campus leaders, had drawn the ire of conservative forces in the state when it took cases in contentious environmental, land use, and racial segregation controversies.

This is a huge blow to academic freedom, as it is beyond evident that the center is being attacked because of its perceived politics. But the attempts to justify the decision in neutral or even pedagogical terms is, if anything, even more pathetic. Here's how one official justified his vote:
[Marty] Kotis, a real-estate developer and UNC-CH alumnus, indicated that he thinks lawsuits in general are a waste of money and that people should look for other ways to resolve conflicts. Putting the center out of the business of representing clients is “simply about reducing the amount of litigation out there,” he said.
Marty, I have some terrible news for you regarding what law schools train aspiring lawyers to do.

Another official -- this one a lawyer -- took almost the precise opposite stance of every boomer-complaint about impractical law schools and their Ivory  Tower cloud-headedness to say that law schools should offer no clinical practice whatsoever. "A law school is one thing; a law firm is another thing," he said, and then suggested that the only role of the former is to aid students in coming "to a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots behind each case and the cultural implications they have." Speaking as someone very much on the theory side of the theory/practice legal spectrum, I nonetheless am stunned to see such a full-throated dismissal of the practice side of legal training from a practitioner.

While there remains another vote to be taken, most observers expect that the end of the Center for Civil Rights' days representing clients is nigh. That's a major blow to UNC's law school -- not just because it is losing a well-regarded clinical center, but because it emphasizes the entire school's vulnerability to political piques from well-connected outsiders. A law school -- a university -- cannot function as it is meant to in such a case.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

'Cause You Know That You're Toxic

Google has a new gadget that tries to gauge how "toxic" a given comment is. It has a lot of learning to do. "Dogs are animals" is rated at 87% likely to perceived as toxic. "Muslims control the world", by contrast, clocks in at 30%. "Nazis are evil" gets a whopping 98%, while "Nazis are great" gets only 66%.

I found out about this little toy from Liel Leibovitz, who claims it has a particular problem with Jews. Based on my fiddling around, it seems to have a problem with everyone, but he's not wrong that its performance re: the Tribe leaves a lot to be desired. "Zionists control the world" gets only an 18% rating, and if you change it to "Zios" that drops to 1% (I guess Google doesn't know it's a slur either). "Jews run Hollywood" falls in at 27%. On the other hand, "I hate Jews" gets a perfect 100% score, so there's that.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Liel column without some hysterical allegations about how this is really the fault of the New York Times, rather than the predictable (and not-unique-to-Jews) set of kinks in a new machine-learning device. But the best part of Liel's column is when he takes issue with the term "toxic" itself:
The very term itself, toxicity, should’ve been enough of a giveaway: the only groups that talk about toxicity—see under: toxic masculinity—are those on the regressive left who creepily apply the metaphors of physical harm to censor speech not celebrate or promote it. No words are toxic, but the idea that we now have an algorithm replicating, amplifying, and automatizing the bigotry of the anti-Jewish left may very well be.
Interesting hypothesis, Liel-of-July-2017! I wonder what Liel-of-June-2017 has to say on that?
If the Times really wants to correct the record, it would follow up by taking a hard look at why it made the mistake in the first place. That is, it would examine the knee-jerk assumptions and overheated language that have crept into both its opinion and its news pages lately, both of which regularly offer space not just to legitimate newsgathering about Trump’s very real misdeeds and the rank incompetence of his administration, but also to wild-eyed conspiracy theories in which the Kremlin or some other malign foreign entity controls the White House. These theories are toxic nonsense, cooked up by political operatives who use social media and the press to attain political ends through means that are inherently extra-constitutional and undemocratic—and that have been quietly and systematically debunked, sometimes by the paper’s own reporting.
[...] 
Now, with the shooting at the GOP baseball practice in Virginia, the same toxic logic comes home.
And here too: "This sort of bigoted nonsense is toxic to all Americans, but it’s particularly hazardous to Jews, whose suffering is too often explained away these days as an acceptable byproduct of excessive power and influence." Or here: "Like Israeli lefties—but not, say, like the toxic creeps who rant about Israel in the anthropology departments of large American universities or the anti-Semites who pack the British Labour Party—Waldman and Chabon believe that Israel is in dire need of saving from what will ultimately be its downfall."

But maybe Liel-of-June-2017 is an outlier. Where does Liel-of-March-2017 come down?
It didn’t take long for me to learn the same lesson Chris does in the movie, namely that the point of this new strain of toxic liberalism isn’t really to help victims of racism or anti-Semitism or any other sort of discrimination; rather, it’s to reconfigure the identities of white people so that they may go on and enjoy the same exact comforts to which they’re accustomed.
 One can keep going. And going and going and going.

Sometimes I think the job of editors is to save writers from embarrassing themselves this way -- surely, it would not be too hard (and it was not too hard) to figure out if Liel had repeatedly used the term "toxic" a mere month before claiming that nobody but the "regressive left" did so. But perhaps here the right move was to give him enough rope to hang himself with. If he can't keep track of his own shibboleths and no-no words, nobody else should do it for him.