Monday, April 23, 2018

Term Limited Roundup

My last class meeting is on Wednesday. After that (and grading finals), I'm free of teaching obligations for the next two (two!) years. All I have to do in that time is write a dissertation. Should be easy-peasy!

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I've been meaning to share this outstanding essay by C. Thi Nguyen on "echo chambers", and how we discount information from "the other side", for some time now. It's really, really good.

Several Labour MPs, including Luciana Berger, give heart-wrenching descriptions of the antisemitism they continue to face in British society. J.K. Rowling comes in with an assist (though the article doesn't link to her best moment).

Great conversation in Slate by several Black writers about being Black in White spaces in America. Starbucks, Waffle Houses, golf courses .....

J Street is the future of Democratic Party pro-Israel work. How do I know? Because on the one hand, Ben Cardin was welcome there, despite being a high-profile opponent of the Iran Deal and a backer of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. And on the other hand, Ben Cardin's message at J Street was basically in line with the broader progressive Zionist camp. Those who want to keep excluding J Street from the pro-Israel camp do so at their own peril.

The L.A. Times has an interesting piece on Latinos joining the Border Patrol (note: Border Patrol and ICE are distinct agencies). The Border Patrol either is now or soon will be majority Latino in personnel.

You know you're spending too much time following American antisemitism when a new story breaks about an antisemitic professor at Knox College and you're like "I bet I know who!" (my guess was "the guy who said that Michael Twitty wants 'to be everything but [his] African sel[f]' because Twitty is a Black Jew". I guessed right).

Sarah Jones interviews Michael Kimmel on deradicalization and reintegration of former White Supremacists. Also apropos: San Francisco anti-racism trainings that are for White Men only. Good example of "owning your shit" and not demanding that POCs serve as educators, or bad example of White Fragility and refusal to tolerate discomfort? You decide.

Are the Koch-brothers (the famous right-libertarian billionaires pumping money into academia and think tanks) spearheading a new insertion of paleo-con anti-Israel ideology back into the political right?

Two interesting pieces on Mizrahi Jews and the ongoing failure to fully grapple with their differentiated history vis-a-vis European/Ashkenazi Jews. The first centers on the documentary series "The Ancestral Sin", regarding how Mizrahi Jews were systematically marginalized by bigoted (largely secular) bureaucrats in Israel's early days. The second is a call for Mizrahi Jews to be given an equal seat at the table in Jewish conversations today.

Don't Take My Word For It: Listen To Natalie Portman

I have a new column in Haaretz on Natalie Portman's refusal to share a platform with Bibi Netanyahu at the Genesis Prize ceremony, while simultaneously disavowing support for BDS.

The radical, cutting, never-before-heard thesis is that "We should listen to Natalie Portman when she says that her refusal to share a platform with Bibi Netanyahu does not mean she supports BDS."

If that doesn't seem all that radical to you, you perhaps haven't encountered men on the internet when a woman expresses an opinion. Because it seems like everyone -- pro- and anti-BDS alike -- is racing to tell (Harvard-educated, deeply invested in Israel) Natalie Portman that she actually doesn't understand the content of her own political position.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nuke Jersey! (In the Best Way)

I am a big booster of nuclear power. It's probably the single issue I've moved furthest on over the past five years (from "not caring about it one way or the other" to "big booster"). The reason is simple: nuclear power (which is carbon emission-free) is an essential part of moving to deep decarbonization in the electricity sector, and deep decarbonization in the electricity sector is essential to stopping global warming.

On this score, recent (good) news out of New Jersey provides a compelling illustration. A new energy package offers subsidies that will keep nuclear power plants operational for the foreseeable future, while also supporting new renewable power resources. Why does that matter? Well, consider the alternative we're witnessing in Ohio and Pennsylvania:
[T]here are four nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania that are slated to close prematurely. Last week, the research consultancy Brattle Group released a report analyzing the impact of those retirements, which are all taking place in the PJM regional energy market. 
The results are startling. Closing those four nuclear plants would wipe out the carbon emissions benefits of all the renewable energy installed in the PJM energy market in the past 25 years
Simply replacing the lost nuclear power with renewable energy would cost $2 billion a year, and that enormous investment would not replace or prevent any fossil fuel generation.
The emphasis is mine, but read it again. In terms of carbon emission cuts, losing nuclear power is equivalent to losing 25 years worth of renewable energy installation. Without these nuclear plants, just getting back to even (not replacing any new fossil fuel plants) would cost $2 billion/year.

If the nuclear plants in New Jersey closed, the same thing would happen. New renewable installations would simply be replacing lost nuclear energy -- which means no net reduction in carbon emissions. With the nuclear plants still operating, by contrast, new renewable resources will knock out natural gas plants -- providing a genuine reduction in carbon emissions.

As the linked article concedes, the New Jersey package isn't policy optimal (a carbon pricing scheme would be best). But given politically feasible options, it isn't bad. Importantly, when states treat nuclear power as a linchpin of deep decarbonization, that's a major net win for climate policy hawks.

So kudos, New Jersey. Nuke away.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Paul Ryan's Last Call

Paul Ryan only has a limited time left on Congress. If there are amends to be made, it's time for him to make them now. Priorities that haven't been passed? Time to push them through. And so what is foremost on Paul Ryan's mind right now? What does he envision as his congressional swan song?
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) aims to pass another massive tax cut this summer, which Republicans hope will rev up the GOP base and improve the standing of Republicans at the polls
Of course. A fitting end for a man who, above all else, favored gutting social programs in order to engage in massive upward redistribution of wealth to the most affluent Americans.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When Will Republicans Turn On Trump?

The answer is "never". Or at least, never so long as they're in the majority. But I still would just bank on "never".

Of course there will be exceptions. But when it comes to the main bodies of the Republican Party -- basically, elected politicians, party officials, and of course, Fox News -- I'll stand by that answer.

Every once in awhile, someone will post about the latest development of some Trump scandal and say "this is the beginning of the end of the Trump administration". What makes it different? It varies.

  • It might be that the investigators leading the charge are unquestionably non-partisan, or even registered Republicans themselves;
  • It might be that the scandal implicates some issue area allegedly near-and-dear to the GOP base (e.g., a sex scandal turning off religious conservatives);
  • It might simply be that the findings are just too explosive to ignore.
So let me make it clear: It won't happen. There is no amount of Trump malfeasance that will cause Republicans to turn on him en masse. A murmured word of caution here, a "ill-chosen words" there, but that's it. That's the lesson of the past several years -- I have no idea where anyone gets misplaced optimism that something just has to change as things get worse.

If the investigators are Republican -- guess what? Now they're "the deep state"! If it seems to impact the GOP base's precious moral values -- forgiveness is limitless (if you think GOP conservatives actually care about family values in any context where it isn't smashing gay couples, I have a bridge to sell you). 

If it threatens basic notions of national security, electoral integrity, or core American values -- well, we're getting a crash course in just how little the Republican Party and its various apparatchiks care about those things. Which is to say -- virtually nil.

The only way this might change is if they're punished sufficiently at the ballot box (among the most disastrous consequences of the 2016 election was that it taught Republicans that limitless brinksmanship, conspiracy-peddling, and open racism would not be punished by the electorate). At which point it would be moot anyway. But I suspect even in the minority the GOP will continue backing Trump to the hilt -- investigations are witch-hunts, oversight is government propaganda, hearings are grandstanding.

Don't depend on the GOP to turn on Trump. They won't. They're his. And so right now, if you ride with the GOP, you ride with Trump.

Monday, April 16, 2018

If Only The Holocaust Weren't So Jewy

First, an employee at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam was told to stop wearing a kippah -- on the grounds that it might violate the museum's "neutrality" policy (neutrality as to what? Between having Jews and not having them?).

Then, a Quebec parliamentarian attacked a Jewish colleague for wearing (you guessed it) a kippah ... on Holocaust Remembrance Day (did you guess that part, wise guy?). The aggrieved legislator complained (I swear I'm not making this up) that it was unfair for the Jewish man to wear a kippah in session when he wasn't allowed to wear his political party's lapel pin.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

A New Environment Roundup

We're closing the political theory term with a unit on ecologism/environmentalism. In honor of that, a roundup that includes nothing on that topic whatsoever:

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C. Thi Nguyen explains how echo chambers are like cults. The problem isn't lack of competing information per se, the problem is that the echo chamber has built-in narratives for why alternative information sources aren't trustworthy and can be discounted.

Eric Ward is interviewed by Tikkun on the subject of identity politics.

We often talk about a "free speech crisis" on liberal college campuses. But there are a slew of avowedly right-wing (generally Christian) universities that barely pretend to allow for a diversity of opinions on campus.

ICE's Philadelphia office seems out of control.

Two British intellectuals (one whom served on the Chakrabarti inquiry, no less) give a history of antisemitism on the British left -- one that by no means starts with Jeremy Corbyn.

As teachers walk out in Kentucky in a push for higher wages, Governor Matt Bevin (R) blames them for exposing children to drugs, sexual assault, and violence. You'd think if teachers were that important -- not just responsible for educating youth, but also the sole bulwark against them being physically and sexually abused -- they'd be worth paying more.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Syrian Kids Are Still Good Enough To Kill For, Not Good Enough To Save

We continue to make that abundantly clear.

Military interventions in Syria are a complicated issue on which reasonable minds can disagree. But one cannot justify military strikes on Syria on the basis of the ghastly human rights atrocities being perpetrated there and then only admit less than a dozen Syrian refugees into the United States (thus far this year).

Our policies with respect to immigration and refugee rights continue to be complete and utter disgraces.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

David's Personal Top Ten Video Games

This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It is a personal list, reflecting the games that have stuck with me the most over the years. I'm not enough of a gamer to claim it is anything comprehensive, and it has a strong bias to the sorts of genres that I like. Nonetheless, I'd stack these games against any that have been made in my lifetime.

Anyway, without further adieu ....

Honorable Mentions:

Portal 2: How can a game with virtually no “dialogue” (if that means conversations between two characters) have some of the best spoken lines in all video game history? I have both the original and a capella versions of the Turret Opera on my iTunes (yes, I have “Still Alive” as well).

Railroad Tycoon II: A brilliant simulator that makes you actually feel like a turn-of-the-century robber baron (by far, the game is most fun to play when set in the late 19th century). If every man goes through his “trains!” phase, this was mine. As in real life, I am not good at playing the stock market.

Horizon: Zero Dawn: Robot dinosaurs! Incredibly, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes a core concept that sounds like word association from an over-caffeinated twelve-year boy and makes an entirely serious game about it—and it works. It works so well, in fact, that I loved it despite the fact that the plot and entire world-building background centers around my single greatest phobia (no, not that—being alive for the extinction of humanity).

10. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg: I find it odd that very few games have sought to replicate Gettysburg’s spin on an RTS—focusing combat around regiments rather than individual units and prioritizing morale over raw numbers. But the thing I like best about Gettysburg—and sadly it’s mostly unique too—is in how it concentrates on controlling territory (and terrain). Many RTS games, for me, might as well have a blank screen over 80% of the map between my base and my opponent’s base. You build up your force, and then try to swarm your opponent before he or she swarms you. But in Gettysburg, the goal of missions is not “wipe out your opposition”. It’s to capture and hold a ridge, or dig in and hold an exposed farmhouse.

My only critiques are that I want this game to be bigger. I want it to encompass dozens of map spanning the entirety of the Civil War. I want to be able memorize even more obscure Union and Confederate generals and wonder if they really were “mediocre” or if that was just a game balance decision. The random battle generator is okay, but this game screams for user-created expansions which I’ve never been able to find.

9. Crimson Skies: A pulpy fun flight simulator taking place in an alternate history 1930s where America has fractured and Zeppelin travel rules the day. The game doesn’t hesitate to lean into its concept (phrases like “broad” and “floozy” abound), and it does a great job world-building in a relatively short period of time. Somehow, I could meet an enemy “ace” for the first time in the middle of a mission and yet still feel like we had a history of epic dogfights together of which this was only the latest. Meanwhile, each of the locations the game takes you to (Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Hollywood, the Rocky Mountains, and New York City) are a blast and a half.

A sequel, High Road to Revenge, was released on Xbox and leaned a little too hard into the arcade-y elements (power-ups, automatic evasive maneuvers with the press of a button, and so on). But the original PC game was just right—planes flew exactly like how someone who knows nothing about planes thinks planes fly, which is just perfect. You felt like an ace pilot because of your skill (even though behind the hood the game is really holding your hand). Piloting a gyrocopter through half-built New York City skyscrapers, or a prototype single-engine through the Hollywood "O", is great. Doing it to evade local security, then doing a loop and turning both guns on them -- well, that's the cat's meow.

8. Mass Effect (Trilogy and Andromeda): As far as I’m concerned, the definitive space opera (even muscling out Halo). Fabulous voice acting (listening to Martin Sheen play evil Jed Bartlett is one of the great joys of my life) and memorable plot lines pair with a morality system that at least inches away from “basically decent person or utter asshole.” The universe feels genuinely alive, like there’s an ecosystem and civilization that you’re very much apart, but also moves in your absence.

I can’t really separate out the core trilogy games from one another (each sequel seemed to simultaneously step slightly forward and back), which is not I think an uncommon position. What may be more uncommon is that I think Andromeda stands right in there with the core series. Yes, it was disappointing that it took us to a brand new galaxy and only gave us two new species (while eliminating many of the more backgrounded Milky Way aliens). But I was much more disappointed that there will be no DLC or sequels to continue the story and tie up loose ends.

7. N and N++: There can’t be any serious controversy that N is the greatest Flash game ever made. While Flash demands simplicity, N is not so much simple as it is elegant. It is the perfect balance of speed and control, thoughtfulness and twitch-trigger reflexes, serene relaxation and butt-clenching tension. Once you master the floaty physics and the unique enemy styles, you will truly feel like a ninja—stripped to its core essence and deprived of all the usual but unnecessary bells and whistles. A virtually unlimited supply of levels guarantees you endless gameplay.

And so it is unsurprising that N was one of the rare flash games that made a successful jump to a full true game (in the form of N++), one that has a strong claim on being the greatest platformer ever made. The developers were wise not to disturb the basic formula: run, jump, and slide around a level, dodge obstacles and traps that will kill you instantly, reach the exit. Repeat ad infinitum. But N++ adds just a splash of additional flavors and spices into the mix. A perfect trip-trance soundtrack that sets the mood perfectly (and may single-handedly stave off keyboard-smashing frustration). A few new enemy types that deepen the game without ruining its austere grace. And perhaps most importantly, it adds a bunch of extra, semi-secret challenges (which can be used to unlock still more levels) waiting for the very best-of-best players.

Of all the games on this list, I might be in absolute terms “best” at N++ (there are a non-trivial number of levels in the game where I have a top 100 or even top 10 score on the global leaderboards). And yet there is not the slightest chance that I will ever perfect this game, or even come close to it. Nor is there any chance I will become permanently sick of it. A simple concept, executed brilliantly. The perfect N++ level is also the perfect description of the game.

6. Final Fantasy IX: The question was never whether a Final Fantasy game would make this list, only which one. I’ve long had a soft-spot for FFIX, which I feel is often overlooked inside the series (in part because even on release it seemed players were already looking ahead to the Playstation 2). Yet it’s hard to find fault in Final Fantasy IX as an emblem of a straight-forward JRPG. It has a moving story, fun gameplay, beautiful music, loads of quests to do and places to explore, a fabulous supporting cast (Vivi might be my favorite Final Fantasy character ever written), and a lead character you don’t want to punch (*cough* Final Fantasy X).

Final Fantasy IX is often described as “nostalgic”, and despite the fact that it was only the second game in the series I had ever played, I got that feeling instantly. Try listening to the soundtrack for “Frontier Village Dali” without feeling a little melancholic. You don’t even have to have played. But I recommend that you do.

For the record, my ranking of Final Fantasy games that I’ve played goes: IX, VII, XII, XV, X, XIII.

5. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood: One difficulty in judging games within a series is how to compare an earlier game which still had some rough edges but represented a quantum leap forward versus a later game which didn’t do anything super-novel but tweaked the formula to perfection. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Now, for me, this is an easy call for idiosyncratic reasons—I played AC:B before AC II, and so I experienced the former as both the perfected model and the quantum leap forward as compared to the original game. But I respect that for those who played the series in order, this is a harder call.

What should be easy for anyone is to agree that together, Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood represented the AC series reaching its full potential. Ezio continues to be the best protagonist the series has seen to date. Renaissance Italy likewise is the ideal setting for both AC’s vertical and horizontal platforming elements and its shadowy-conspiracy/secret-history plotline. As a franchise, Assassin’s Creed really launched the parkour/open-world exploration genre, and Brotherhood was the first game where every single element of what that genre could be came together. Other more recent games have been tons of fun (Black Flag and Syndicate are I think highlights), but these two games are the reason this series is so iconic.

4. Might and Magic VI: The same problem posed by AC2 versus Brotherhood emerges with Might and Magic VI and VII—except here, I did play them in order. Like the previous entry, I do think that VII ultimately improves upon the formula set out in Might and Magic VI. It’s more versatile, has more replay value, a touch more balanced (and that’s not getting into ArcoMage) … all in all, probably a better technical game.

But Might and Magic VI is for me iconic—it may well be the first RPG I’ve ever truly loved (and given the way this list is stacked in that direction, that’s saying a lot). Virtually all the things that characterize what I love in games today, it had in at least skeletal form. Open world exploration? Check: It was the first game where I felt like I was a true pathfinder—meticulously crawling over every corner of the map to find each obscure bandit’s cave and goblin fortress. To this day I still have the lay of the land in Enroth basically memorized. Overly detailed worldbuilding text to read? Absolutely: my obsessive-streak came out in reading every single artifact description, conversational option, and quest backgrounder (it is canon that Enroth, and the entire planet it resides upon, was blown up in a magical explosion—a fact I’m still resentful towards 3DO for long after it disappeared into bankruptcy). Slight genre-bending? The splash of Sci-Fi onto the fantasy setting was delightful to discover for someone who had never played any of the prior entries in the series. And some of the music—well, the White Cap theme is a thing of beauty, and on my computer “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ” is still listed as “Church Dungeon Music.”

3. Heroes of Might and Magic III: If comparing earlier, more revolutionary games against newer more polished ones presents a problem in the Assassin’s Creed and Might and Magic series, it presents no trouble at all in Heroes of Might & Magic. That’s because the third installation in the series both represented a huge jump forward from what came before and is unquestionably the best entry in the overall sequence.

Sure, some of the expansions are a bit goofy, but they still work—sharpshooters and enchanters are massively overpowered, but they’re generally used in missions that would otherwise be impossible. But the main campaign is fabulous—a surprisingly intricate and interwoven plot that bridges Might and Magic VI and VII compliments outstanding strategy gameplay. And that doesn’t even get into the acre of standalone maps provided, plus countless more available on the web thanks to a map editor so intuitive, even I can use it (I’m terrible with map editors).

As a result of all of this, Heroes III is maybe the only game on this list that can compete with N++ regarding infinite replayability. This is fortunate, because—given the fact that Heroes III was a full-budget release and was not supposed to be “simple”—it ages incredibly well. Even the graphics hold up (no need for that remastered remake—which doesn’t even include the expansions!).

2. Witcher III: As you may have noticed, this list has a strong bias towards RPGs. My preference is toward “Western” RPGs (which have a go-anywhere/do-anything exploration mentality) compared to “Japanese” RPGs (which are more linear and story-driven), but Witcher III does an incredible job of synthesizing the best of both. It has a huge open world to explore, one that feels alive and dynamic—but there is also an incredibly rich story filled with deep, well-written characters (of which Geralt—the player character—is but one).

Gameplay-wise, Witcher III really hits the perfect balance. I simultaneously felt like the biggest bad-ass in the room, but also like a single slip in concentration or bit of overconfidence and my corpse would unceremoniously end up at the bottom of whatever cave I was in. But Witcher III particularly stands out in how it subverts certain common RPG tropes. You are a hero, but you’re not particularly well-liked. You’re a powerful warrior, but you’re still ultimately treated as a pawn in larger political machinations. Your interventions do not always save the day, and sometimes don’t even make things better. If a mission starts with a villager worrying that their beloved has gone missing, nine times out of ten that person has been devoured by a monster well before you ever get there. While many games claim to place the hero in difficult moral dilemmas, Witcher III is a rare case of following through (some games might give you the choice to let a trio of witches eat a group of kids whom you recently played hide-and-seek with, but few make it so that might actually be the more moral of the options in front of you). There’s even a quest where you help a knight rescue a lady in distress from a curse, then lecture him that he’s not entitled to her romantic attention as a reward (talk about a timely intervention in the video game genre!). Over and over again, the game reinforces the message that being really powerful and doing “the right thing” isn’t enough to fix a fundamentally broken system.

Most impressive is the emotional impact that Witcher III dishes out. Sometimes this is a result of rich character development that pays off over the course of the entire game (as in “The Last Wish” quest). But sometimes it shows up in even relatively minor sidequests—the epilogue of the “Black Pearl” quest was one of the more brutal emotional gut-punches I’ve experienced in a video game. Ultimately, this was a game where one always felt like each character was a person—they were imperfect, they had their own interests, hopes, dreams, strengths and foibles, and while you were a little better with a sword and gifted with some preternatural abilities, you were still only one player in a much bigger narrative. As a result, Witcher III might well be, in my estimation, the perfect RPG.

Oh, and Gwent is ludicrously addictive. Let’s not forget that.

1. TIE Fighter: I don’t think this list has a particularly “modern” bias. Still, there’s something impressive about the number one game on this list also being the oldest by some measure. TIE Fighter originally came out in 1994, and the definitive Collector’s Edition was released in 1995. It is, to this day, one of the best games ever made. And that’s not a retrospective assessment. Star Wars: Tie Fighter holds up even played right now.

For starters, it is one of the few elements of the Star Wars universe to get the Empire right. I’m not saying that the Empire is the real protagonist of the series. I am saying that they wouldn’t view themselves as evil—as much as naming spacecraft “Executor” and “Death Star” might suggest otherwise. TIE Fighter is quite self-assured in presenting you as being a force for law and order in the galaxy, battling not just seditious rebels but pirates, smugglers, and other anarchic forces that threaten to tear civilized life apart.

Let’s start with something often overlooked in TIE Fighter: the music. It’s probably the only context that the phrase “kick-ass MIDI soundtrack” makes sense. But that’s not even the half of it. The iMuse system dynamically and seamlessly arranges the musical cues to reflect what’s going on around you in the mission—you can literally follow important mission updates (e.g., a wingman being shot down, or reinforcements arriving) simply by the way the melody shifts. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it since. To this day, the number that accompanies an incoming enemy capital ship fills me with exhilarated dread.

Gameplay-wise, TIE Fighter is almost shockingly rich. The core mission requirements are challenging, but by no means out of reach. But embedded in each level are a series of secondary and secret bonus objectives. These unlock a parallel plot of the Emperor’s Secret Order—but always present a brutal risk/reward calculus. That’s not unrelated to the fact that you’re often flying, well, TIE fighters (not noted for their durability)—but the challenge extends well beyond physical peril. TIE Fighter actually gives you an “invincibility” option if you want it, and yet even with it on some of the later missions and bonus objectives will strain every piloting skill you’ve ever developed.

Most importantly, the secret objectives usually are more involved than “blow up everything in sight.” They reward initiative and exploration. Maybe your primary mission objective is to destroy a rebel space station. But just before it goes down, you spot an escape shuttle fleeing the station. Take it out? Maybe—but maybe the occupants are VIPs best taken alive. So you switch to ion cannons and disable it for capture. Yet that extra time you just spent has given the rebels enough breathing room to summon reinforcements—now an enemy cruiser is bearing down on you. Take out its missile launchers and clear path for bombers while praying that your own Star Destroyer will arrive soon to back you up. All on the fly. All while dogfighting starfighters, dodging mines, giving your wingmen orders … it’s insanely, beautifully chaotic.

Did I mention this is all happening in 1995? 90% of games released today don’t have that kind of depth or spontaneity. In terms of playability, replayability, and just plain fun, TIE Fighter stands alone, and unchallenged.

Dennis Prager Award for the Jew Who Most Clearly Wishes To Be Christian

Dennis Prager rose to early prominence on this blog for being a Jew whose views of Judaism were remarkably Christian in orientation. It's a common-enough move on the Jewish right, which dislikes the generally progressive character of contemporary American Judaism, finds conservative Christianity's positions on a host of political and social issues more to their liking, and so retroactively decides that the Christian view of things is actually Jewish. Inevitably, the result is contusions and contortions in Jewish history and theology, as the critic almost reflexively begins adopting Christian theological frames as if they were in fact Jewish.

Anyway, here's Herb London giving a great example in the Daily Caller:
In a new book that provides a powerful theological basis for something now ritualistically called “the social justice movement,” Jewish reformers among others seized on the concept of “healing the world.” Leftists in the Jewish community call it tikkun olam or “healing of the world.” Believers assert that Jews must endeavor to make the world a place better than what we now experience. As a consequence, an overwhelming number of Jews embrace this movement and the actions that result from it as biblically mandated. However, there is one problem as Jonathan Newmann in his book To Heal The World? points out, the Bible says no such thing.
There's a couple of things you might notice about that paragraph. The first is that it's near-gibberish (what on earth is that first sentence saying?). The second is that the author he's referring to is in fact named Jonathan Neumann -- a discrepancy which made finding the book he's referring to annoying difficult.

But I want to just focus on the "one problem" passage, where he indicts the concept of tikkun olam by saying the phrase is not in the Bible. The abstract of Neumann's book makes a similar point: "This idea [of tikkun olam] has led to overwhelming Jewish participation in the social justice movement, as such actions are believed to be biblically mandated. There's only one problem: the Bible says no such thing."

And you know what? As best I can tell, they're right. The Bible never talks about tikkun olam.  However, "there is one problem" with that observation:

Treating the Bible as the be-all-end-all of theological or religious practice is a distinctively Christian way of viewing religious practice. For Jews, the Torah and Hebrew Bible are but one part of a much larger -- and equally essential -- religious tradition of interpretation, commentary, criticism, and response.

And it is that in tradition where tikkun olam finds its roots. Far from being made up by modern Jews, the phrase tikkun olam first appears in the Talmud, though it really took off as a theological concept with the Zohar (a foundational work of Jewish mystical thought written in the 13th century). It is exceedingly foreign to Judaism (but very natural to Protestant Christianity) to discount such sources as being inauthentic to the tradition or insufficient to support any sort of religious practice or obligation.

Now, to be sure, at various points in time tikkun olam has waxed and waned as a prominent feature of Jewish life. Its contemporary usage by many progressive Jews is not a down-the-line application of the term as used in the Zohar, which turn was not a copy/paste job from how the concept appeared in the Talmud. But that sort of movement is entirely normal in Judaism -- one can't indict it without also undermining a huge part of historical Jewish practice and development.

To be honest, though, I'm not that interested in the more esoteric theological debate. What's worth reemphasizing is the very basic way the claim was structured: "this isn't in the Bible, ergo, it isn't really Jewish." It's hard to find a more Christian way of framing the issue. And so, Messrs. London and Neumann, I hereby give you my first Dennis Prager Award for Jews Who Most Clearly Wish To Be Christian.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Preemptive Strikes in Antidiscrimination Law (Or: Why You Need a Union!)

Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Hales v. Casey's Marketing.

Lauren Hales was an eighteen year old employee working the graveyard shift at Casey's General Store. At 1:45 AM, a customer came in and starting making sexually suggestive comments towards her. In an attempt to avoid the man, Hales stepped outside to take a cigarette break. The man followed her, blocked the entrance to the store, and continued making sexual remarks.

Hales, who had previously been sexual assaulted, told the guy to "back off". The customer replied "what are you going to do about it?", at which point Hales extended her cigarette to ward him off. Instead, the customer stepped towards Hales, burning his arm on her cigarette in the process.

The next day, the customer complained to a Casey's manager that Hales had burned his arm. The next time Hales reported to work, a manager asked her if "anything out of the ordinary" happened on her previous shift. She forthrightly reported the cigarette incident, but said she had done it in self-defense.

Hales was then terminated.

She sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation -- and the Eighth Circuit just rejected both of those claims. The harassment claim failed because the customer's conduct wasn't "severe or pervasive" enough to constitute sexual harassment as a matter of law (the Eighth Circuit apparently hasn't decided whether a company can be held liable for harassment done by a customer, but it assumed for sake of argument that it could). The retaliation claim was rejected because it was filed too late, but apparently the district court had also indicated it should fail because Hales was not engaged in protected activity under Title VII.

Here's the thing: I'm not sure this decision is wrong as a matter of (current) law. The "severe and pervasive" threshold necessary to make out a harassment claim is extremely (I'd say ludicrously) high, and I know of no case law which addresses self-defense steps as a form of "opposing" harassment in the workplace.*

But even if the case "rightfully" lost, all that demonstrates is that antidiscrimination law -- even when "correctly" applied -- isn't sufficient to protect vulnerable workers (even from discrimination).

In fact, the structure of antidiscrimination law in many ways encourages employers like Casey's to act in precisely this fashion -- terminating employees who are the victims of sexual harassment (whether by customers or coworkers) as a "preemptive strike" before they're able to put together a legally cognizable claim of discrimination. Even if one doesn't think that antidiscrimination law should expand to create liability for a single case of customer harassment, there's surely something perverse about it allowing (or even encouraging!) a young woman to be fired because she refused to tolerate a customer harassing her.

When I read this case, it reminded me of one of the very first employment discrimination cases I read which got me hot under the collar -- Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp. In that case, Jordan -- in accordance with company policy -- reported a coworker who, while watching news coverage that two Black criminals had been arrested, exclaimed "[t]hey should put those two black monkeys in a cage with a bunch of black apes and let the apes fuck them."  His supervisor took decisive action ... against Jordan: changing his work hours to less desirable times, making derogatory comments towards Jordan, and then -- within a month of the initial complaint -- firing Jordan. Jordan sued, claiming his termination was retaliation for filing his complaint.

Title VII only protects against retaliation if you're opposing an act covered under Title VII. In Jordan, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the single racist remark Jordan reported could not alone have sufficed to create legally actionable harassment (again, not being "severe or pervasive" enough to qualify), which means he was not "opposing" covered conduct, which means that his company was not retaliating against him as a matter of law (even though, again, company policy required that Jordan file his complaint).

Jordan argued that his complaint should have been protected because it covered action that, if left unabated, would have eventually ripened into unlawful harassment. The court refused to make the extension, and the result is an obvious Catch-22: Jordan has to report conduct that is not "yet" harassment in order to obey company policy (and preserve a potential future harassment claim), but he can be retaliated against for filing the reports.

But there's a deeper problem in the incentive structure this rule creates: As soon as an employer begins to observe incipient harassing conduct that has not (yet) risen to be legally actionable, it probably should terminate the victim before a sufficient record of wrongful conduct accumulates.** If the employee is reporting the bad conduct, then so much the worse for them -- they're showing themselves to be the sorts who stand up for themselves and so may be more likely to file a discrimination complaint.

Consider how this dynamic might have played out in Hales' case. Suppose the manager knew that one instance of customer harassment of this sort against Hales would likely not be enough to create any legal liability for Casey's. But if it happened again to Hales, or multiple times, then Casey's may well be on the hook. What are the options? Well, one is to take concrete steps to protect Hales from this predatory customer (e.g., banning him from the store) and harassment more generally. But that's difficult, and maybe expensive, and it alienates a customer! So option two is just to fire Hales. If you fire her now, the legal case is nipped in the bud. Problem solved.

And make no mistake: this set of perverse incentives will fall heaviest on the most vulnerable employees. It is entirely predictable that the employees most likely to be subjected to repeat instances of sexually aggressive, harassing conduct are young, those working overnight shifts, racial minorities, gender-nonconforming, and the like (Hales met at least the first two of these). Hence, it is these employees who are most likely to be -- and be perceived as -- potential "repeat victims". And that means they are the most likely to encounter "preemptive strike" discrimination -- a form of employment discrimination that does not just avoid legal accountability, but in many ways is the product of the (exceptions to) antidiscrimination law itself.

So the obvious reform is to make clear that Title VII retaliation protections extend to cases of opposition to sexual or racial misconduct even where the practices would not themselves (yet) rise to being independently legally actionable.

But it's also the more straightforward case that what Hales really needed here was a union. It is very difficult to craft legal rules which do not create some sets of bad incentives or which a clever employer cannot game to their advantage. Given who writes laws (political elites) and who interprets them (legal elites), these unanticipated consequences are unlikely to be randomly distributed -- they will track the usual lines of social power and advantage.

Hence, what Hales really needs is someone whose job it is to be in her corner, a body which can protect her from such arbitrary employer action in the particular case even when the general law couldn't shield her. In other words, she needs a union.

* Retaliation jurisprudence generally envisions "opposition" to mean something like reporting the conduct to company officials or public authority officials. Nonetheless, I'd be inclined to say that physically resisting harassment in the workplace should qualify as "opposing" that conduct. But there remains the separate problem illuminated by the Jordan case: where the conduct "opposed" does not alone suffice to create a "severe and pervasive" hostile work environment (as it almost never will in the first instance), then no action by the employee -- whether it's filing a report or physical resisting her harasser -- would be covered under anti-retaliation protections.

** A similar dynamic sometimes emerges in the labor law context, where employees are protected insofar as they engage in "concerted action". On face, this gives employers who see the potential for emergent concerted labor action an incentive to fire the source employee before any organization can begin. But unlike in the discrimination-retaliation context, both courts and the NLRB have concluded that such "preemptive strikes" also violate labor law, even where they come before any conduct that itself would qualify as "concerted action" and even where they successfully preclude any such action from later manifesting.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

You Don't Need Hyperbole When The Truth Works Fine

International Law Professor Yuval Shany has an outstanding post working through the legal use-of-force issues surrounding the Gaza protests at the Israel/Palestine border. The reason that it's outstanding is that it takes seriously the fact that some of the protesters may be violent and may be trying to breach the border -- it isn't just people randomly waving flags. Many pro-Israel commentators have made this observation and acted as if that were that -- a dismissal made easier when pro-Palestinian voices have acted as if there was no component of armed violence in the equation at all.

Yet my instinct was that, even if there were actual attempts to cross the border or even some use of violent force (e.g., stone throwing), this wouldn't necessarily suffice to justify the use of lethal force by IDF. Shany's post explains why in detail, fully attentive to the actual security concerns faced by Israel, and that makes it far more powerful as a critique of the IDF's conduct -- conduct that seems very likely to have violated international law -- than the median post which treats those concerns as non-existent.

Of course, it may seem silly to go into a fine-grained, nuanced explanation of why IDF use-of-force practices on the Gaza border have been unlawful when Avigdor Liberman is explicitly saying that every single human being in Gaza is a valid target for lethal force.
"It has to be understood that there are no innocent [naive] people in Gaza," Liberman added. "Everyone is affiliated with Hamas, they are all paid by Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are operatives of its military wing."
The strike-out is there because Liberman claims he's been mistranslated in the use of the word tamim. But I don't think it materially alters the point he was making, which more-or-less explicitly labels the entire Gaza population as members of a hostile military force who are therefore valid targets for lethal force.

More and more, it seems that the IDF prefers calling itself "the most moral army in the world" to actually acting like "the most moral army in the world." The way you become and then stay a "moral" army is via discipline, and discipline means actually investigating and punishing potential violations of the rules of armed conflict. But Liberman refuses to even countenance an investigation -- well, unless it's of human rights groups asking that soldiers not shoot unarmed civilians across the border. A culture of impunity will yield a culture of violation -- there is nothing in the Israeli or Jewish soul that renders us immune from the general rules of human behavior.

A Tale of Two Harassers

Jill Filopovic points out the key differences between Democrats and Republicans on sexual harassment and misconduct within their ranks.

It isn't that Republicans perpetuate it and Democrats don't. Both parties have their share of wrongdoers.

The difference is that Democrats -- slowly, fitfully, imperfectly -- are beginning to hold their abusers to account. While Republicans, by and large, continue to shield the predators in their ranks (starting with the one in the Oval Office). There's a reason, Filopovic notes, why Republicans still point to Chappaquiddick and the Bill Clinton affairs -- rounding past 20 years ago at this point -- as their preferred form of whataboutery. In the more recent major cases, Democrats have been much stronger, while Republicans still prefer to protect the boys club.

We saw a great example of this recently in Colorado: A Democrat and a Republican in the state legislature were accused of sexual harassment (the former was a member of the state house, the latter of the state senate). In both cases, an independent investigator substantiated the allegation. The Democrat was expelled, after refusing calls from his own party leaders to resign. Indeed, every single Democratic member of the house voting to do so (Republicans split 16-9 in favor of expulsion).

The Republican? He enjoyed the firm support of his caucus leader, and when Democrats forced a vote on the issue, he kept his job -- with all but one Republican backing him against a motion to expel.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Toronto Prof. Accuses Prospective PhD Student of Being an Israeli Government Agent

A Jewish prospective Ph.D. student in Middle Eastern studies who was seeking informational meetings with professors at the University of Toronto was accused by one department member of being an agent of the Israeli government. The professor, who is active in BDS-linked causes, refused to even meet with the student on "ethical and academic grounds."

The accusation apparently stems from the student's prior status as a former "Hasbara Fellow", a New York-based fellowship organized by Aish HaTorah (in collaboration with Israel's foreign affairs ministry). Presumably, it's the latter connection that provides the foundation for the claim of being an "agent" -- though many governments fund many fellowships that at least partially are designed to serve the goal of public diplomacy, (usually) without their recipients being viewed as clandestine government operatives. There should be a name for the practice of taking relatively ordinary public, political, or social acts and treating them as uniquely nefarious and/or giving them scary names when Jews do them (see: "pinkwashing").*

The source is the Toronto Sun, so a grain of salt is advised (I'd love to see another newspaper pick the story up), but on face -- ugh.

* On this note, it's worth reflecting on how the word "Hasbara" -- which literally means "explanation" (albeit less in the "let me explain how a steam engine works" sense and more in the "let me explain why I'm out on the street at 3 AM, officer" sense -- frequently gets translated as "propaganda". There's something very revealing in that, no? If you're a Hebrew speaker and you try to explain your position, it is linguistically coded as propaganda. Fancy that!

Jewdas and the Good Jews

Shortly after issuing a statement committing to more vigorous opposition to antisemitism within the ranks of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn ruffled yet more feathers by attending a seder hosted by the far-left Jewish group Jewdas.

Here's the thing: I don't have an intrinsic problem with Jewdas. I've even written a nice(-ish) post about them! So I totally agree that some descriptions of them (including by some Jews) have been overwrought.

But I'm in full agreement with Keith Kahn-Harris that this was nonetheless a misstep (at best) by Corbyn, because it looks like he once again is picking-and-choosing his "good Jews" who won't challenge him and will soothe him that everything is okay. David Hirsh suggested that the seder with Jewdas functions as a sort of "reverse dog whistle" -- to people who don't know much about the Jewish community, it seems like a nice gesture; whereas the vast majority of the Jewish community in the UK experiences it as a thumb in the eye -- a very conscious decision to circumvent the Jewish mainstream to hang out with a fringe minority which already thinks he's a-okay.

But not all of the blame can be laid at Corbyn's feet. Jewdas should come in for critique too -- not because its views are in any context unacceptable, but because of what function it is serving in this context. Writes Kahn-Harris:
The irony is that Jewdas was never supposed to be a collective of good Jews. Yet that is what they are being turned into by the Corbynistas, just as Corbyn’s detractors are determined to turn them into bad Jews. It’s all depressingly familiar and very very non-radical.

These days, pretty much anyone who is accused of anti-Semitism can find a group of Jews to give them a pass. In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the apotheosis of this process, with endless “Jewsplaining” about who the real, good Jews are, the Jews to whom one should listen to about anti-Semitism. In their attempt to perform as “woke” opponents of anti-Semitism, non-Jewish Jewsplainers on the right and left are recapitulating the worst — and most self-hating — of our traits as Jews.

If Jewdas, and anyone else who thinks of themselves as a Jewish radical, is seeking something to smash, it should be this. Non-Jews need to be told to stop picking and choosing which Jews they listen to. Engaging with Jews and fighting anti-Semitism means recognizing that there will be Jews who hold positions you disagree with.

Genuine anti-racism means fighting for the rights of people you despise.

I don’t know why Jewdas invited Corbyn to their seder (and I’ve heard whispers that some of those in attendance weren’t happy about it), but I wish one of them had had the courage to do something truly revolutionary. They should have told Corbyn to get out of his comfort zone and attend a seder held by Jews whose politics he does not agree with. And instead of hosting Corbyn, Jewdas should have invited a different kind of non-Jewish politician who claims to oppose anti-Semitism, one on the right who finds the idea of leftist Jews baffling or disgusting.

That would have been truly radical.
As one journalist noted, it's especially telling how resistant Corbyn is to doing this when it comes to Jews because this instinct is his primary defense for why he was willing to meet with his "friends" in Hamas and Hezbollah. There might be some MPs for whom an evening with Jewdas might expand their horizons in a salutary fashion, but Jeremy Corbyn is almost certainly not one of them.

I can accept that Jewdas' brand of -- let's call it "irreverent" -- humor has its place in Jewish life (its infamous "Please God, smash the state of Israel" line in its Haggadah serving as a sort of exaggerated self-parody). But that doesn't mean it is an appropriate venue for a non-Jew, facing criticism for being unable to recognize antisemitism and being allegedly cold towards the Jewish community writ large, to begin his outreach. And Jewdas has an obligation here too that I don't think it fulfilled -- the sort of moves and jokes and commentaries it likes to make may well be inbounds among fellow community members, but that doesn't mean it should be inviting random outsiders to take part -- at least not without significant proof of trustworthiness and engagement with Jews that suggests their genuine allies. Insofar as Jewdas including Corbyn in this seder indicates their attempt to hechsher Corbyn along that criteria, that's a very valid thing to critique.

Someone gave the analogy to former Orthodox Jews who walk around in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods holding flyers with scantily-clad women on them, as a mocking commentary on retrograde Orthodox gender norms. I wouldn't do that myself, though I see the value in taking down a peg the obsession with regulating women's bodies in the Orthodox communities. But while I can see the case for former Orthodox Jews engaging in that sort of parodic (arguably trollish) act, I'd be infuriated if a non-Jew (particularly one in Corbyn's position) took part.

As Kahn-Harris observes, there's irony here in Jewdas taking on the role of the "good Jews". But that all relates back to the difference between how one speaks inside the community versus outside of it. When interacting with the British Jewish mainstream, Jewdas is an important outsider perspective -- giving voice to viewpoints sometimes not heard and puncturing community shibboleths. But when it steps outside of the intra-Jewish debate and wades into the broader debate Labour is having on these issues, the same statements and jokes and performances are less critical than confirmatory, less challenging than soothing, less outsider and more insider. It takes a certain intellectual and organizational adroitness to deftly switch between those two modes, and I don't think Jewdas did itself proud in the navigation.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Living in the Machinery of Death, Part II

Last year, I wrote a post about my clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Being a clerk on a federal court of appeals is one of the great honors a young lawyer can have, and one of the great honors of my life. It was a fantastic experience. I was privileged to be mentored by a fantastic judge, to gain a first-hand experience of the legal system across a wide range of cases, and to work with some outstanding colleagues whom I'm still friends with to this day.

I also said then, and will reiterate now, that if you tallied up all the cases I had a hand in during the course of my tenure of my clerkship, and judged them based on whether they effectuated justice or injustice, I'm convinced that on net they made the world a worse place.

And the reason really boils down to immigration. Our immigration docket was a relentless, sustained, unending exercise is ruining lives. That's all we were doing. And because our review was so perfunctory (it was perfunctory because the legal standards are aggressively anti-immigrant), we got  through a lot of them. I suspect that, in terms of raw numbers (though certainly not in time spent reviewing), we handled more immigration cases than any other type of case save criminal appeals (which, incidentally, also generally involved one-page affirmances of viciously overlong prison sentences).

Anyway, I bring it up again in reference to this story about Henry, a former teenage member of MS-13 who fled to America to escape the gang, ended up forcibly conscripted back into it, and so voluntarily turned himself into the police and freely gave them information essential to arresting other members of the gang. He thought in doing so he could get a fresh start, that the FBI would protect him.

Instead, he was betrayed. Once his usefulness was over, his handlers handed him over to ICE for deportation -- making no effort to hide the fact that he had informed on MS-13 (even as he was kept in a detention center with other MS-13 members), almost assuredly marking him for death at the hands of the gang either back in El Salvador or (if by some chance he is released) back home in Long Island. Sometimes I write on such stories that they're "worse than a crime, they're a blunder" (how does one expect to get people to inform on criminal gangs if the police so nakedly stab them in the back afterwards?). But here, the blunder -- real as it is -- is outweighed by the crime. Irrespective of any tactical assessment, we shouldn't lose sight of the more fundamental reality that our immigration system took a man who was by all accounts trying to do the right thing and sold him out in a way that quite foreseeably may lead to his murder. That's something we need to forthrightly acknowledge about ourselves.

Henry does not have a spotless record -- even less so than Juan Coronilla-Guerrero (whom I wrote about in my last post). But he does not deserve to die. It is not just our immigration system that may kill him. But it is by no means innocent. It is a machinery of death, and all those who touch it -- myself very much included -- have blood on our hands.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Satyagraha at the Gaza Border

Israeli government officials blamed Hamas for "provoking" a conflict and said its response was justified due to the risk of a mass attempt to breach the border.

That response is a problem. Let me explain why.

Non-combatants attempting to cross a border may be a crime, but it isn't a crime that can justify the use of lethal force. Lethal force can only be justified in cases where the target poses an imminent threat to life. Yet even under the Israeli narrative, threats of that scale were only sporadic (two of the dead Palestinians are alleged to have opened fire at IDF soldiers -- that probably warrants a lethal response -- but that leaves up to 14 who didn't). In a simplicitor case of attempted unlawful border crossing, the only lawful remedy is arrest and trial -- not bullets.

The main apologia we're seeing on that score is the claim that some (not all) of the shot Palestinians were members of terrorist groups. Even if that turns out to be the case (and that hasn't been independently corroborated yet), it'd be less of an absolution of the IDF than apologists might believe. Put aside the general thorniness of whether someone who's a member of a terrorist organization can be treated as a "combatant" even when partaking in civilian (in this case, protest) activities. I'm skeptical, but we can even stipulate that they could be. The bigger issue is that the lawfulness of the use of deadly force has to be justified based on what was actually known, or reasonably should have been known, by the shooter at the time -- and there's no evidence that the IDF soldiers were aware of the identities (let alone affiliations) of the Palestinians they were firing at in the moment. For example: If I fired into a crowd in a city street, and it just so happened that the person struck by my bullets was a member of a terrorist group, my action would still be unlawful because I had no way of knowing that fact when I opened fire. Likewise, the affiliations of those killed by IDF bullets could not in themselves legalize the decision to open fire -- that can only be justified based on specific threats to life that were reasonably perceived at the time (of which simply approaching the border is not one).

The other argument I can imagine being made is that -- in the context of a mass march on the border -- "arrest and trial" isn't a feasible response. It'd be impossible to arrest them all; the only viable means of deterrence may well be the use of lethal force. But this is a rather dangerous and hypocritical position -- the same in form as the argument that suicide bombings are justifiable because the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine means the latter can't win a traditional military conflict. The laws of war and humanitarian international law in that case say that if you can't win a conflict without suicide bombings, then you don't win the conflict (as much as it might seem unjust). They likewise say that if you can't stop non-violent attempts to cross a border without resorting to lethal force, then you don't stop the attempts (as much as that might seem unjust). In either case, the rule of law quite properly does not contain an "unless you'd lose" exception.

And this really gets to the rub of the problem. Were these protests a perfect exemplar of non-violence? Almost certainly not. But it seems equally clear that the Israeli government (and many of its defenders) wouldn't accept the legitimacy of protests of this nature even if they were. They view it as a form of cheating, precisely because it likely would succeed but-for the use of violent force that can't actually be justified. But that's an untenable position. A protest or resistance strategy doesn't become illicit on the grounds that it does work, nor because it forces Israelis to do things they'd otherwise not want to do or puts them in a position they'd otherwise not like to be in. That's not, and cannot be, the standard for what conduct by Palestinians is acceptable (it obviously isn't the standard for what Israeli actions are justifiable vis-a-vis Palestinian actors). Palestinians are allowed to come up with ways to put pressure on Israelis, and massed civil disobedience falls into that category.

Indeed, this is in many ways the power of resistance strategies of this sort -- they are difficult to counter without resorting to violence that both appears to be and juridically is excessive and unjustified under the circumstances. This is why civil rights leaders placed young activists in the path of Bull Connor's firehoses, this is the efficacy of Gandhi's satyagraha. What violence there was on the Palestinian side was a sterling example of "worse than a crime, it was a blunder," because it allows dust to fly up around this basic point. But while I don't want to as far as to say this violence was a "distraction", I do think it must not occupy the entirety or even the majority of our attention, because the Israeli response -- almost by its own admission -- wasn't keyed into the sort of violence that could warrant resort to lethal force, and because the Israeli government has no answer to what it would do if the protests really did meet the platonic ideal of satyagraha.

Friday, March 30, 2018

WPSA and Personal Troll Roundup

I presented my "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach" paper at the Western Political Science Association (intersectionality section) yesterday. It went quite well! I've now presented the paper to political theorists, to Jewish Studies folks, and to intersectionalists. If you haven't read it yet, I think it's pretty good.

But the prize for biggest professional accomplishment this week goes to the discovery that someone has created a website dedicated solely to informing the world that "David Schraub the UCLA Law Professor is a Disgusting Zionist Punk."  That's how you know you've made it. I may not have the highest quality trolls ("UCLA"?), but at least they're mine. (I can't say I recommend reading the entire screed on the website, but it's worth browsing for a few laughs).

* * *

The African Muslim immigrant who saved a dozen Jews during the 2015 terrorist attack on a Paris kosher supermarket quietly arrived at the funeral of the elderly Holocaust survivor who was stabbed and burned to death in her apartment in an antisemitic hate crime. "I want to tell the Jews of France, you are not isolated. You are not abandoned. This is your country."

Jews and Muslims in America actually agree on quite a lot! And alignment increases alongside devoutness (more devout Jews and more devout Muslims share more in common), as well as contact (the more Jews and Muslims interact with each other, the more likely they are to perceive the two faiths as being similar in nature).

A former police officer turned criminal defense attorney discusses the Stephon Clark shooting, the way police are acculturated to fear (especially fear Black men), and the way poor instructions (e.g., "show me your hands" when your hands are holding a cellphone) can place innocent people in impossible situations.

Russian airline allegedly "deports" U.S. citizens of Indian descent back to India during a layover in Moscow. Great -- another reason for Trump to love the Russians.

Jewish News (UK) publishes an interview with Jeremy Corbyn. It's rare to see a conversation this long between two parties who so evidently loathe one another (it's really, really apparent in the interview).

Harvard Hillel is hosting a "liberation seder" focusing specifically on the ongoing injustices faced by Palestinians under occupation. The organizers worked closely with Jewish groups already affiliated with Hillel to ensure that it did not run afoul of the partnership guidelines. I'm all for this -- I have mixed feelings about the guidelines, but it's important to establish decisively that they will not be applied ad hoc to prohibit any criticism of Israel that's deemed too "sharp" in character. (Harvard Hillel has actually been consistently good on this issue -- refusing to allow the guidelines to metastasize to block, say, a program which has nothing to do with BDS because one participant backs the movement).

Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Israel may face criminal charges for likening a Black child born to White parents to a "monkey."

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Two Standards of Opinion-Columnist Selection

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson, late of the National Review, has been hired by the Atlantic. This is proving controversial, possibly because he's conservative, or possibly because he compared a Black teenager to a primate and suggested women who have abortions should be hanged. Who can say?

In reality, the anxiety over Williamson's hiring is revealing a fissure in how we think opinion-column space should be distributed. We might think of two different rationales for why a magazine should publish a particular opinion columnist or column -- a reflective rationale and a legitimation rationale.

Under the reflective view, opinion columns should roughly mirror -- reflect -- the opinions that exist in the wider public around politics. We should have conservative columnists because many people are conservative, and it's important that the readership be exposed to that common view. Note that this makes no claim about whether this perspective is a good one, only that it's a common one.

Under the legitimation view, by contrast, opinion columnists should be chosen because the editors conclude that their views are affirmatively worth considering. This almost certainly falls short of requiring agreeing with the views -- I can think of many opinions I don't share but which I nonetheless think are worth wrestling with -- but it does represent some commentary on quality. Often (not always), the legitimation rationale for hiring a columnist cuts in the opposite direction from the reflective view -- as in the claim that so-and-so's perspective is one "you don't hear often" or is "novel and original" (though these are not in themselves reasons for publishing someone unless they're also paired with the ideas actually being decent. A string of gibberish isn't heard often in august editorial sections, but that doesn't mean it should be published).

One problem that's partially being illuminated by the Williamson hiring is that we're not sure what purpose we want opinion section editors to adopt. Some of the critics of Williamson's hiring note that, as a Never-Trump Republican, he's actually not reflective of conservative ideology as it's currently practiced -- wouldn't ideological diversity better be served by hiring an avowed Trump defender? But of course one can feel the anxiety in that sentence even as it's written -- do we really want the views of avid Trump supporters (Muslim ban, "shithole countries", and all) gracing more prominent media outlets? No, because we think it would legitimate them.

But if Williamson can't be defended as a reflective hire -- and a #NeverTrump Republican by definition isn't reflective (if even a fifth of American conservatives were of this ilk, Hillary Clinton wins in a landslide) -- he has to be justified based on legitimation. Yet it's really hard to justify him along that metric either. Certainly, the usual bromides about hearing "alternative points of view" won't do on their own. We need to know why "hang one quarter of American women" is the sort of keen social insight that is worthwhile on it's own right -- not simply as a "different" view but as an independently justifiable one.

So what do we want? The reflective case has one thing going for it, and that's that it would represent an honest portrayal of the state of conservative argumentation in America today -- which doesn't even carry Williamson's patina of #NeverTrump-ism. Yet going that route would have to mean consciously abandoning any legitimation justification for their publication -- and most editors don't really want to write that out of their job description. The fetishization of an objectively tiny branch of contemporary conservatism -- acting as if it is of more than trivial social influence -- is I think primarily grounded on how they let us deny what is before our eyes.

Seth Mandel suggests that one reason conservatives are skeptical of this reaction to Williamson is that -- even though some of the criticisms of him hold water in isolation -- it seems to happen to every conservative who joins a mainstream media outlet (cf. Bret Stephens). But the problem is that, given the state of conservatism today, an attempt to find a remotely representative conservative voice will start to look like an error theory: it's possible in concept to imagine a representative conservative argument worthy of legitimation, but in practice none of them will qualify. Given where conservatism's center of gravity is right now, even if you step a standard deviation off the middle of the bell-curve, you're still likely to encounter at goodly chunk of the (again, wholly mainstream) conservative pathologies -- like "execute women" (Williamson) or "science is a hoax" (Stephens).  But there's no reason -- at least once we stop grading conservatives on a curve -- why "I don't like Trump, but global warming is made up" should be thought to count as a good argument.

The sad fact is, the mean, median, and modal conservative argument in American politics today is not some deeply Burkean reflection on the need for cautious change and considered ponderings about the continuing legacy of racism coupled with healthy respect for historical American traditions. It is deep-set, gutter-level racism and xenophobia of the sort which gleefully catapults a know-nothing slur-tossing conspiracy theorist to the Oval Office and continues to enthusiastically back him to this very day. That's not fringe, that's central. We might be able to justify printing such views on the grounds that it's important to be crystal clear about what American conservatives actually believe. But if that's the rationale, there's no reason why editors should try to gussie them up to make them seem more considered and legitimate than they are on their own merits.

Hard Left Jews Are Not "We Young Jews"

There's something just ... perfect about Annie Cohen writing a column in the Forward criticizing Jews for trying to hold Jeremy Corbyn accountable for his antisemitic associations under the title "Leave Jeremy Corbyn Alone. He’s The Leader We Young Jews Have Waited For."


Because last year, Annie Cohen ran for the presidency of the UK's Union of Jewish Students (as an avowedly non-Zionist candidate) -- a delightfully democratic mechanism for determining what, exactly, "young Jews" desire.

And she came in last place. With less than 9% of the vote.

Turns out, we have pretty compelling evidence that Annie Cohen doesn't have her finger on the pulse of what "young Jews" are waiting for.

Now, to be clear, Cohen has every right to dissent from the predominant view of her generation of Jews. She's absolutely entitled to say "while most young Jews believe A, I believe B, and here's why."

But what's troubling here is the pretension of being representative -- the claim of being right in the thick of a live controversy (if not on the leading side) as opposed to sitting way out on the marginal wings.

It's part of a disturbing trend among this sort of Jewish activist -- claiming to "speak for" communities that by all objective metrics want nothing to do with them. Ben Gladstone pointed out cases in the US, David Hirsh has written similarly about the function of groups like Jewish Voice for Labour in the UK. Groups and individuals whose modus operandi is to kick up dust to deny the existence of any "consensus" in the Jewish community around issues of antisemitism, to give third parties an excuse to simply pick the "side" that better matches their pre-existing priors.

The issue isn't of moral correctness, but simply of numbers. When Cohen writes vaguely that, "of those of us who voted Labour last year, many were Jewish," that might be technically true -- but only in the same way that "many" of Trump's voters were Muslim (Trump's level of Muslim support was in fact identical to Corbyn's rate of Jewish support). It's a classic example of how to tokenize with proportions. The sleight of hand isn't in acknowledging its existence of pro-Corbyn Jews, it's in implying that they're more than an obscure fringe that could satisfy any remotely robust obligation to "engage" with Jews as a group.

So this happens all the time. But normally it's obscured -- how can we really know who speaks for young Jews, or what politics they do and don't find appealing?

It is one of the many virtues of the UJS actually having democratic elections that here we get a crystalline case: where we know just how little support someone who claims to be representing "we young Jews" has among said "young Jews." That it didn't stop her from making the claim is testament to the hubris of the movement, and how little it cares whether its pretensions of authority map onto any reality.

I'm not sure which leader "young Jews" in the UK are waiting for. But they've been pretty emphatic in saying Annie Cohen isn't it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Eighth Circuit: Go Ahead and Taze Him, Bro -- He's Mentally Ill

Today from the Eighth Circuit: "[N]o reasonable officer" would have concluded that tasering an unarmed, passive paranoid schizophrenic unsuspected of any criminal activity five times after a different police officer broke his arm because just sitting there "could have [been] interpreted" by the officer "as resistance" constitutes "excessive force."

As is always in cases like these, if this strikes you as obviously ludicrous, you really need to read up on your qualified immunity jurisprudence.

Incidentally, as the gun control debate shift in focus -- as it always tends to do -- towards "mental illness", it's worth reflecting on cases like this. The victim in this case probably did need mental health services -- his father wanted him to get evaluated after he stopped taking his medicine and began behaving erratically. His father almost certainly did not want his son to have his arm broken and be shocked into submission. But now that he's learned that's what happens when you try to get your son mental health services, he's presumably going to be far less likely to call in the future. Imagine that: Imagine that every time you had a medical emergency part of the calculus before calling 911 is asking "will the EMTs beat me up?" It isn't exactly a recipe for the ideal distribution of health care service.

The man in this case wasn't violent, but our cultural discourse increasingly is treating him like an inherent threat -- which means police officers (and all of us -- but officers are the ones empowered to use physical violence) will be more inclined to treat him as a threat, which means he's more vulnerable to having violence visited upon him when what he needed was medical assistance.

Police officers are often not trained to be front-line responders in cases like this. When we treat mental illness as a subcategory of crime control, though, this is a predictable result. I think we can have a conversation about the toxic interaction of mental illness and easily accessible firearms while recognizing that the stigmatization of those suffering from mental illness doesn't just obscure who's actually more at risk from whom; it in many ways produces these risks. And the result is that mentally ill individuals and their families -- when seeking the assistance they need to be healthy -- have to make a terrible risk calculation before they make the call.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Hold It: Now Jews Talk About Antisemitism Too Little?

I don't really want to join the pile-on that greeted Jonathan Weisman's NYT column wondering why, in his view, American Jews aren't calling out antisemitism enough. If you'd like, here's commentary from Allison Kaplan Sommer and Andrew Silow-Carroll, as well as a follow-up interview Weissman did with the Forward.

I've actually written some things which might be thought of as in alignment with Weisman's thesis, e.g., praising the ADL but calling out other Jewish groups for going soft on Steve Bannon (the terrible revelation that many Jewish orgs kept quiet specifically to avoid alienating conservative donors would also fit very well here). That said, I think the story of whether Jews are or aren't sufficiently calling out antisemitism in America and globally is a complicated story; I don't think the answer is pat

But for now, all I want to add is this: How can we write a column on this subject, where the thesis is "Jews talk too little about antisemitism", without even acknowledging the trope that Jews talk too much about antisemitism? Isn't that the more pervasive stereotype? Certainly, it isn't dead yet -- as I found out a few years ago at an academic conference:
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.... 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."
A good chunk of the comments responding to the (very good) Trayon White apology this past week also were in this vein -- "look at the Jews, crying antisemitism just because someone says the Rothschild's control the weather!"

Just like conservatives started on "colleges indoctrinate impressionable youths with obscene smut and Marxist propaganda" and skipped on over to "colleges shield snowflake youths from controversial ideas and difficult viewpoints" without seeming to miss a beat. somehow we've hopped from "Jews always talk about antisemitism" to "Jews never talk about antisemitism" without even acknowledging the shift.

As it happens, I think I more-or-less agree with Weisman in that I think Jews aren't particularly vocal about antisemitism and that we should be louder on the subject. But one of the more plausible explanations for that observation is that Jews have grown gun-shy on raising the issues for fear of supporting the omnipresent narrative that Jews are too vocal and too loud on the matter. I find it baffling -- bordering on bizarre -- that one could write a column (hopefully not a whole book!) on this subject and just skip over that stereotype entirely.