Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Indictment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dominating Anti-Semitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

VGHS: A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Suppression of All ... Assent?

The Israeli Knesset is moving forward with a bill that would ban the free distribution of the daily Israel Hayom newspaper (the paper wouldn't be outlawed, it would just have to charge money).

Oh, I'm sure the folks talking about Israeli society suppressing all dissent will have a field day about this. Except ... they seem oddly quiet. Why is that?

Ah yes: Because the paper is owned by prominent right-wing mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson and is seen as basically a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. That doesn't really fit the narrative, now does it? The narrative it does fit is a broader fracturing of Bibi's coalition -- from both right-ward and left-ward challengers.

Now, a few caveats. Needless to say, I'm no Bibi fan, and as for Sheldon Adelson, well, I basically saw him as a toxin in the Jewish community even before his outrageous dismissal of Israel's democratic character. And there is something weird about talking about "censorship" when the putative target is a prominent supporter of the incumbent administration. I also don't know how this law fits into broader free speech norms in Israel or other important elements of legal or cultural context that factor into the law.

Even still, I do admit some sense of discomfort at the prospect of limiting media distribution -- even when it's from a repulsive figure like Adelson. And more to the point -- since when has "not knowing important elements of legal or cultural context" ever stopped anyone from hopping aboard the "Israel is fascism defined" train? I think it's fair to say that's not what's causing this yawning silence.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In Praise of the Grinch

The Montgomery County Public School system -- of which I am a proud graduate -- recently decided to stop including religious labels for days off from school. So instead of Christmas Break, we have Winter Break; instead of getting Yom Kippur off, it's just "no school." The decision was made following requests from Muslim students and parents who wanted one of their holidays to be recognized equivalent to how Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, etc., were. Originally, the plan was apparently just to strip the Jewish holidays of their identification, an amendment instead removed all such religious designations.

I must be the only person outside the school board itself who agrees with this decision. Everybody is unhappy. Conservatives are blaring with their usual war on Christmas schtick. Jezebel blares out a headline "School District Removes Christmas From Calendar to Spite Muslims."

I've long been dismissive of people whose faiths requires government-sponsored training wheels to remain viable. It is one thing when we're talking about genuine religious accommodations -- something I still support even as Hobby Lobby did terrible damage to the concept -- that take away material barriers to one's religious observance. It's another thing entirely to act as if your faith will wilt away unless some official government body gives it appropriate symbolic representation.

Hence, I take a very different conclusion from what Eugene Kontorovich calls "the Menorah Principle" -- that once one minority religious group gets equal religious recognition on par with that enjoyed by the majority faith, all will want it. It is alienating for some religious groups -- but not one's own -- to be given public and official recognition. And I agree that this demonstrates the unworkability of this form of pluralism; it would be impossible to provide actual "equal" recognition to every single faith group in the immensely diverse United States. Kontorovich says that therefore "the only obvious place to draw [the line] is at Christianity." I say that this demonstrates that government is a body particularly ill-suited to "recognizing" religion, and should get out of the game.

The Board justified its decision on the grounds that the days it gives off aren't meant to affirm any particular religious observance, but rather are reflective of days where lots of students and staff are absent anyway. Montgomery County has a disproportionate number of Jewish students who miss school on the high holidays. Perhaps more importantly, they have a high number of Jewish teachers who also miss school, such that the district couldn't effectively staff its classrooms if it didn't declare a holiday that day. That's an entirely reasonable basis for deciding when to close schools. It also in no way requires that the district officially declare that it is closing for "Yom Kippur" (or "Christmas", or whatever).

MCPS isn't "intensifying the contradictions" of religious pluralism, it's resolving them. They made the right call here, and I genuinely fail to see the basis for the backlash they're experiencing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Moral Credentialing and Supreme Court Decisions

Noah Feldman has a Bloomberg column up provcatively titled "Obamacare May Die So Gay Marriage Survives". The idea behind it is that conservatives on the Supreme Court will -- unconsciously -- trade a "liberal" result in the seemingly-inevitable gay marriage appeal for a "conservative" vote in the latest Obamacare case. The basic idea is that by producing a high-profile liberal decision (in the gay marriage context), the conservatives can safely deliver a major conservative ruling without sacrificing its legitimacy, or the Justices' own conceptions of themselves as neutral arbiters whose decisions are governed by law rather than politics.

Dale Carpenter is not amused by this line of inquiry.
One can fully accept that political allegiances and the Supreme Court’s own desire to preserve the perception of its legitimacy, which is itself a form of politics, can influence its decisions. But Feldman’s approach calls on us to examine the deep and hidden psychological motivations of the Justices–which he agrees they would deny publicly and privately–without even considering whether there are perfectly reasonable and defensible legal grounds for the way they may rule in a particular case.
I am sympathetic to Carpenter's concerns. But I think some of them may be, if not dispelled, at least allayed if we look into the psychological literature which seems to underlie Feldman's argument (Feldman does not cite this literature, which probably doesn't help matters).

The phenomenon Feldman describes, to my eyes, seems most similar to the idea of "moral credentialing." I discuss this concept a bit in Sticky Slopes, but the basic idea is pretty simple: People have a strong self-conception of themselves as fair-minded and egalitarian; values which genuinely matter to them. But they also are motivated, often subconsciously, to act in unequal and unfair manners (e.g., racial or sexual favoritism). The first element often acts to check the second; when evaluating job applicants, for example, favoring a man over a woman would threaten the egalitarian self-concept. However, if a person has had the opportunity to demonstrate their egalitarian bona fides, that act provides a "credit" which allows them to engage in discrimination without threatening their self-image. Call it the "how can I be racist, I donate to inner-city charities!" effect. Having a salient egalitarian act one can point to makes it harder for observers (or the self) to infer that one makes biased decisions; paradoxically, this makes people more likely to indulge in precisely that sort of bias.

One can easily apply this same logic to judges, who have private "political" motivations regarding case outcomes that exist alongside a genuine commitment to fair and neutral arbitration that rejects the validity of relying on such preferences. For this reason, judges are undoubtedly quite sensitive when their legal rulings "just happen" to match their policy preferences -- it raises the specter that their decisions are actually motivated by politics rather than law. An easy way to dispel those fears is to point to another case which doesn't fit that mold. "If I were the sort of judge who voted on political grounds, how do you explain my vote in X v. Y?" Having this credit, the judge can effectively discount the possibility that he or she is influenced by such political concerns -- and accordingly will be less like to check against the subtle impact such desires have on his or her reasoning. I'll admit to having a similar suspicion regarding the latest health care case, albeit linked not to a gay marriage ruling but to Chief Justice Roberts' vote in the original Obamacare decision. That vote provides the Chief with a "credit" demonstrating that his votes on this subject are law-based rather than motivated by any antipathy to the Affordable Care Act or Obama administration. Consequently, it would be much harder to assert that a subsequent vote against the federal subsidies is motivated by bias -- after all; if he was the sort of judge that would be swayed by such concerns, why wouldn't he have simply struck down the law tout court?

Returning to Carpenter's objections, he complains that Feldman does not account for entirely legitimate, law-based reasons one might vote "conservative" in the health care case and "liberal" in the gay marriage cases. But moral credentialing, like all forms of motivated cognition, operates in the space of ambiguity -- it wouldn't work unless there were credible neutral reasons supporting one's (politically) preferred outcome. No moral credit of racial egalitarianism will enable one to justify hiring a drunk White high school dropout over a Black valedictorian. Rather, moral credentialing comes into play when there are facially legitimate reasons for a variety of different actions: a job opening sought by both a qualified White and Black candidate, for instance, where one could legitimately make a case for either. And so it is with law: whatever credit one receives for crossing "party lines" on a high-profile case -- demonstrating one's neutrality as a judge -- can conceptually only be redeemed in a case where reasonable minds might differ.

It is for this reason that Carpenter is partially correct regarding another one of his arguments -- that the psychological motivation forwarded here is "non-falsifiable." He's right, at least at the level of explaining individual cases. If the male and female candidates for a job are both equally qualified -- if there is a solid, credible case for either party -- non-prejudiced decisionmakers should still hire the man roughly half of the time. Any individual decision to hire a man may be entirely neutral and unaffected by the existence of a prior "credit." Where the effects of moral credentialing start to emerge is when we aggregate cases and see that the percentage of women hired plummets amongst actors who have in their possession a salient anti-sexism credential.

And this hypothesis probably could be put to the test with respect to judicial behavior. Are judges who break with their "side" in a high-profile case more likely to indulge in seemingly partisan or political voting in the aftermath? It seems that, measured across a large number of judicial decisions, this is a hypothesis that could be confirmed or falsified. Someone should get on that.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Poor Loretta Lynch. Of course Republicans are going to try and sink her. Or people who share her name. Whatever. It's nothing personal. Does anyone think there is anyone Obama could nominate for his first open cabinet position under this Senate and have it go through smoothly? He could have put up the vengeful ghost of Robert Born and Republicans would still be baying for a scalp.

Poor Loretta Lynch. I hope she realized that she's the bait to be devoured in the hope that the monster is satiated.