Thursday, July 02, 2015

Quote of the Day: What's in a Name?

From Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza (1936):
"What's in a name?" Anthony went on. "The answer is, practically everything, if the name's a good one. Freedom's a marvelous name. That's why you're so anxious to make use of it. You think that, if you call imprisonment true freedom, people will be attracted to the prison. And the worst of it is you're quite right."
Quoted in Charles Leslie Stevenson, Persuasive Definitions, 47 Mind 331, 335 (1938).

Hijacking History

Shorter Sean Hannity:
There once was a time when the Confederate Flag stood for something honorable, like treason in defense of slavery. But now it's been hijacked by racist white supremacists! In conclusion, Black people are the real racists, because of rap.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Trump Card

As many of you know, there are a lot of people running for President on the Republican side. So many, that the first GOP presidential debate will not be able to feature them all. Only the top 10 candidates -- as measured by a composite of several national polls -- will make it in. So who's looking like they'll make that elite list? According to a recent CNN poll, the top 10 are (in order):
1. Jeb Bush
2. Donald Trump
3. Mike Huckabee
4(t). Ben Carson
4(t). Rand Paul
6(6). Marco Rubio
6(t). Scott Walker
8. Rick Perry
9(t). Chris Christie
9(t). Ted Cruz
9(t). Rick Santorum
On the outside looking in (but still within striking distance of the bottom tier) are Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, and John Kasich.

Personally, I just adore learning that Donald Trump has 4x the support of Ted Cruz. Live by the crazy sword, die by the crazy sword. And how humiliating must it be for Bobby Jindal that he can't make even make it onto the big stage but Ben Carson can?

Oh, it's going to be a fun primary, I can tell.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Obergefell Solidifies the Nascent Alliance Between Obama and the Boko Haram! I am not a Crank!

I stated a few days ago my belief that Obergefell will be a Lawrence and not a Roe. By that I mean that I believe Obergefell effectively signals the end of gay marriage being a significant site of social controversy in the United States -- we will see a few months of sputtered opposition (ranging in tone from "impotent fury" to "half-hearted identity performance"), and then it will just be accepted.

But we still have time to enjoy the death rattles. Check, for example, the Federalist's 15-point argument against gay marriage. There are a lot of lovely entries: Gay marriage leads to human trafficking, gay marriage leads to licensing parents, gay marriage "promises a monolithic society of conformity" (what?), but by far my favorite has to be lucky #13:
The United States is already punishing countries and threatening to cut off aid if they don’t accept the LGBT agenda. This is especially true of developing countries, in which the whole idea is foreign to over 95 percent of the population. According to a report by Rep. Steve Stockman, corroborated by a Pentagon official, the administration held back critical intelligence from Nigeria which would have aided in locating girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The new National Security Strategy recently released by the White House makes clear that the LGBT agenda is a global agenda. And it looks a lot like cultural imperialism of the worst kind.
I hope we've all learned a valuable lesson about listening to Steve Stockman. Anyway, it's off to wave a Boko Haram ISIS dildo-covered flag at a pride parade!

Executions and Their Alternatives

This past March, I commented on the Eighth Circuit's en banc decision in Zink v. Lombardi, which rejected a challenge to Missouri's execution protocol. My particular focus was on a strange statement offered by the dissent which said that, if the death penalty is constitutional in the abstract, it follows that there must be some form of execution which is constitutional as well. This, to me, clearly did not hold -- it is perfectly plausible to say that while the Constitution has no objection to capital punishment as such, it still must be the case that any particular form of execution must satisfy the demands of the Eighth Amendment -- and perhaps none will do so.

Of course, leave it to the Supreme Court to take an obvious truth and turn it on its head. Today, in Glossip v. Gross, the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. In doing so, it made one fateful and indefensible holding: the Court decided that a prisoner cannot solely show that the method of execution is excruciatingly painful, barbarous, even tantamount to torture. He must show it is all of those things compared to a "known and available alternative method of execution." In other words, just like the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court declares that there must be a legal form of execution (not just in theory, but "known and available" to the executing state). And as a consequence, the baseline for "cruel and unusual punishment" rests against the characteristics of the next-best alternative. If, as it turns out, all the methods seem to be brutal and inhumane in their application -- well, the Supreme Court just legalized torture.

There is irony here. For all of Justice Scalia's bleating in King v. Burwell about how the Supreme Court "is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites," that complaint would be far more appropriate if leveled here. The whole reason this "known and available alternatives" argument was an issue was because social movement actors have made it exceptionally difficult for states to access most varieties of execution drugs. If social circumstances dictate that otherwise lawful executions can't be carried out in a fashion concordant with constitutional demands, that would seem to be that (I explored a far more ambitious version of this hypothetical in my "perfect poison" story). But of course, that didn't satisfy the author of the Glossip opinion -- who complained at oral argument that this would represent a capitulation to the death penalty opponents' "guerrilla war" against capital punishment. So the doctrine stands in all of its cruel and unadorned glory: executions must be allowed. If that means subjecting human beings to "the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake,"* so be it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Seventy Years Later

Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. It's easy to imagine just how horrific that was at the time. People also can understand how it might have had effects in the immediate aftermath. But it is hard to process just how extensive the impact really was. So maybe this headline gives a clue Global Jewish Population Nears Pre-Holocaust Level.

Seventy years later, we're almost back to where we were before Hitler's rise. Almost. Not there yet. That's how destructive the Holocaust was to the Jewish people.

History Will Be Heard

It's an interesting fact about history that nobody cares about process. If, say, the Constitution supplanted the Articles of Confederation while completely ignoring the latter's provision that it could only be amended via unanimous consent, that fact is lost on pretty much everyone. Likewise the "ratification" of the Reconstruction Amendments by southern states -- done at gunpoint following the civil war -- or for that matter the technical question about whether states had a right to secede from the union in the first place. There were many reputable legalistic critics of Brown v. Board when it came down in 1954, but today the importance of abolishing legal segregation completely overshadows any question over whether the decision was "technically" correct. This isn't to say that results are all that matters -- it is a good thing that we pay attention to process. We do care about it, and we're right to care about it. But it is a concern that fades very quickly once the decision has been made. For all the energy it takes up at the time, attention to process is not something that makes it into our historical memories.

It's interesting to think about this in terms of today's 5-4 decision striking down gay marriage bans. The dissenters -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito -- all have perfectly cohesive legalistic arguments on their side (though I'm ultimately not persuaded by any of them). But I am curious how they think history will view them. After the Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Onion declared "Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito Suddenly Realize They Will Be Villains In Oscar-Winning Movie One Day." That's almost certainly true. Obergefell, I predict, will be a Lawrence and not a Roe. Public opposition to same-sex marriage will rapidly disappear, and in another generation this decision will be seen as an obvious forward step for the cause of justice; the dissenters clearly retrograde and in the wrong. And I think each of the dissenters know that, and thus know that history will not treat them kindly. They are staring history down.

I say this neither as a form of condemnation nor laudation. It's just an interesting question. Is that a conscious choice? Are they okay with the sacrifice? What is it that motivates them to make it, knowing that there is no vindication waiting for them at the end? It is one thing, after all, to stand against society secure in the knowledge that "history will be heard." It is another to do so while knowing that history, too, will pile on yet further; consigning even the exculpatory reasons for your dissent to obscurity and irrelevancy.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The GOP's Helpy Selfie

My old debate friend turned Republican pollster rising star Kristen Soltis Anderson has a new book out: The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up). Soltis' speciality as a pollster is trying to connect the GOP with younger voters (Soltis is only a few years older than me), and this looks to be her book-length manifesto on the subject. I haven't read it, but according to her Facebook I can get a decent idea of her proposals from this review. And if that's anything to judge by (and of course, the standard disclaimer here is that some or all of these objections may be addressed in the book itself), the GOP may have problems in the coming years.

It would be unfair to Kristen to say that her proposals for attracting millennial votes is for the GOP to become more liberal. Most of the issues she identifies have unclear or mixed ideological valences (gay marriage is the notable and conceded exception). The problem, though, is that in many of the cases Anderson identifies it is far from certain that Republicans will be more likely to jump aboard her policy prescriptions than Democrats. Many of them, as the reviewer notes, "feel like sensible ideas that many politicians, not just Republicans, can get behind." That's a problem, since presumably to win over currently left-leaning voters they need to differentiate themselves from Democrats. For example, Soltis cites pervasive overregulation as an area where Republicans can win the allegiance of urban voters. A good example might be the recent Texas bill which removes licensing requirements for traditional African hairbraiders. That law was shepherded through the legislature by a Republican and signed by a Republican Governor. But it also passed the Texas House unanimously -- it doesn't differentiate Republicans and Democrats. Matt Yglesias, for example, has long made the progressive case for reducing licensing requirements as an anti-poverty measure. There's a perfectly cohesive conservative rationale for adopting Soltis' proposal here, but then, that's a perfectly cohesive liberal one too.

The other problem I see relates to the cultural bonds that, under my understanding of political psychology, do far more to channel our policy opinions than does any sort of comprehensive abstract political theory. Far more than any unified worldview, being liberal or conservative is often about liking certain types of people (and favoring laws which aid them) and disliking other types of people (and trying to contain or suppress them). For example, conservatives like farmers ("backbone of America"), rural and white suburban/exurban residents ("real Americans"), gun owners ("patriots"), and business owners ("captains of industry"). They dislike racial minorities ("the real racists"), immigrants ("taking our jobs!"), urban dwellers ("latte-sipping elitists"), and the poor ("takers"). Liberals run close to the reverse: they like racial minorities ("heirs to MLK"), immigrants ("pursuing the American dream"), urban dwellers ("urbane, sophisticated"), and the poor ("hard-working Americans"). They dislike rural folk ("hicks"), gun owners ("NRA nuts"), and big business owners ("robber barons"). If we take a topic like "deregulation", it isn't really the case that Republicans favor it and Democrats oppose it. Republicans are happy to regulate the hell out of food stamps, for example. Democrats favor other sorts of regulations (those which fall primarily on the heads of big businesses or gun owners). Ditto government intervention in the economy - conservatives are perfectly happy to do so to give preference to income earned through capital gains versus that earned through labor, or to subsidize corporations that they have favorable feelings towards.

The problem for Kristen's analysis is that these cultural affinities (or disaffinities) seem to run in the wrong direction for many of her proposals. I think Republicans can absolutely get behind Uber, but what are their feelings towards increased mass transit? There's a visceral aversion there, that really isn't accounted for based on policy. Likewise for going "soft on crime", particularly when tho community in question consists of poorer African-Americans. It's not that they can't adopt these positions, it just will require a lot more cognitive effort than I think it would take for liberals (who are more predisposed to favor these policies).

Basically, if I were a liberal strategist seeking to counter Kristen's book, my advice would be simple: don't be an idiot. You can try to regulate Uber's employment practices (urban folk like Subway and Target too, but we like them to pay their workers respectable wages), but don't ban it outright. Be attentive to the changing tides on crime and be willing to decriminalize low-level drug offenses and reduce overpolicing and "war on the poor" policies. Invest in walkable urban areas and mass transit options. These are all doable objectives; there is no reason why Democrats should ever find themselves out-flanked by Republicans on these issues.

Now to be sure, I hope that Republicans take Kristen's advice -- not because it is bad advice, but because most of her ideas sound like good ideas that will make America better, and I'd rather more people support them rather than fewer. But as a strategy for winning over millennials, I'm not convinced -- not because they're bad ideas, but because they're ideas that won't make the GOP a distinctively better choice than the Democratic party.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Van Hollen and Edwards Go To Baltimore

With the retirement of longtime legend Barbara Mikulski (D), Maryland is facing a true rarity: a competitive Senate race. Well, competitive on the Democratic primary side, and right now it pits Montgomery County-based Rep. Chris Van Hollen against her Prince George's County counterpart Rep. Donna Edwards. Since both represent the DC suburbs, both are looking to reach out into the other big MD Democratic hotspot -- Baltimore (incidentally, the elephant in the room for this race continues to be whether Baltimore-area Rep. Elijah Cummings will jump in. But so far it looks like the answer will be no). But reports seem to be that Van Hollen is making more inroads.

This doesn't really surprise me. Chris Van Hollen is an extraordinary campaigner -- he came to office with an upset win over a Kennedy in a Democratic primary, followed by knocking off a popular 8-term Republican incumbent in a GOP wave year (2002). Edwards, for her part, rose to prominence by primarying out ex-Rep. Albert Wynn -- which, while not nothing, is less impressive given that Wynn was basically an uninspired party boss type and way out of line with the views of his very liberal district. Since then, Edwards has maintained a relatively prickly relationship with a lot of her constituents and various powers-that-be. Van Hollen, by contrast, is well-liked amongst his colleagues and has experience and connections from his successful tenure as head of the DCCC.

Edwards' main strategy has been to present herself as the progressive hero in the race. But while her lefty-bona fides are strong, Van Hollen is certainly no blue dog either, and I think it will be tough to substantially outflank him from the left. Given that, and given Van Hollen's superior skills as a politician and fundraiser, I think that he'll be the decided favorite to win the primary.

Also, while we're on the subject of Maryland, best wishes to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who was recently diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of cancer. Here's hoping for a speedy recovery.

Onward to France!

A Spanish town whose name translates to "Camp Kill Jews" has elected to make a change.
Instead, the town’s new name, Castrillo Mota de Judios, translates to “Jews’ Hill Camp,” which was actually the town’s old name before it was changed in 1627 to “Camp Kill Jews.”
I have to say I appreciate the history behind this. Also "Jews' Hill Camp" sounds like a location I'd find in Skyrim.

With momentum now on our side, perhaps we can persuade the French hamlet of "Death to Jews" to change its name as well.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The JVP's Untenable Position

I must say, I find this twitter conversation between a (probably*) non-Jewish anti-Zionist and a Jewish Voice for Peace supporter darkly amusing. Basically, the non-Jew is unhappy with the JVP's decision to disassociate from Alison Weir (incidentally, JVP has finally released a public statement to this effect). His Jewish JVP-affiliated interlocutor protests that "JVP is making huge progress in changing the conversation and making it OK to criticize Zionism." The non-Jew, though, sees the Weir disavowal as part of a larger pattern of "gatekeeping, pulling the rug from under people, turning priorities to suit Jewish interests..." To this, the Jewish participant lamely replies that he "understand[s]" why JVP now refuses to work with Weir and that "I've met many Jews in JVP. None of them have some ulterior motive" (as opposed to other Jews?).

What makes this conversation amusing is that it shows the fundamentally untenable position the JVP finds itself in whenever it disagrees with its non-Jewish ideological cohorts. Like most minority organizations vis-a-vis surrounding majority actors, the JVP as a Jewish group is generally accepted by its non-Jewish "allies" only as far as it remains in agreement with them, and no further. This, in itself, does not distinguish them from any other Jewish organization, whose non-Jewish friends also turn with a vengeance whenever the Jewish parties suggest that their behavior may be inappropriate.

Now, the typical move for any minority organization in this position is to argue for a degree of deference or at least tolerance for the decisions of the minority group as part of a commitment to pluralism and respect for group autonomy. Anybody, after all, can like a group when it agrees with you -- the true test is what happens when the group wants to go a different route or offers a dissident voice. And these concerns are only amplified when the subject is oppressive conduct specifically directed at the group in question. Ideally, a true ally would seriously and charitably consider the possibility that their position is inconsistent with their proffered egalitarian commitments, including making a due accounting for the possibility of implicit and structural biases which may initially make such a conclusion seem preposterous or outrageous. After all -- to return yet again to the Christine Littleton well -- equal treatment of minorities starts "with the very radical act of taking [us] seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us."

But the JVP can't make that argument. It can't make it because, of course, demanding as a general principle that people take seriously Jewish political appraisals and accord them due consideration as part of our commitment to pluralism and autonomy means demanding as a general principle that people treat Zionism that way, because most Jews are Zionist. The last thing the JVP wants -- or is in any position to credibly assert given that they routinely argue that mainstream Jewish institutions are untrustworthy, opportunistic, paranoid or delusional -- is to promote the sentiment that we should believe "what [Jews] say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us."

That avenue being closed off, the JVP must instead make a plea for special treatment. They're the good Jews -- those rare and special few who should be exempted from the (wholly reasonable and salutary) general rule that Jews are generally irrational, delusional, and/or sociopathic. In effect, this is an appeal to "respectability politics". The JVP cites its long history as not just Israel-critics but also (to quote their statement) a group which "know[s] full well that the Israel lobby uses false and misleading accusations of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israeli policies" and which has "called out that tactic time and time again and stood in defense of those who have been wrongly maligned with this accusation", and demands that it be rewarded for its good behavior.

In their defense, it's understandable why the JVP might expect to receive such special dispensation. The folks they are appealing to often do trot them out as being the rare Jews you can trust; indeed, their status as Jews-who-criticize-other-Jews gives them superstanding and enhanced credibility. But superstanding is a fickle thing -- it lasts only as long as the critic remains critical. Superstanding only applies as against the JVP's fellow Jews; it does not come with any general grant of authority or deference. It is unsurprising that once the JVP tried to draw upon the "credibility" they earned as ideological fellow-travelers to take a position not favored by their non-Jewish allies, they'd find that the well of goodwill suddenly went dry. Superstanding isn't a signal of egalitarian attitudes, its simply the nod of approval when Jews behave in accordance to non-Jewish wishes. When push comes to shove -- that is, when we return to the key case of differentiation and dissent -- there remains no room for Jews to step out of line. Which is why I argued that respectability politics is a doomed strategy.

Because they fail to actually acknowledge anti-Semitism as a serious and systematic problem -- indeed, because they encourage it insofar as they promote the general sentiment that Jews normally can't be trusted -- the JVP falls into a trap of its own devise. It cannot actually advocate against epistemic anti-Semitism because that would require giving credence to the bulk of the Jewish community which adopts positions they wish to see delegitimized. But having helped normalize Jewish status as epistemically unreliable, they find their pleas for a special exception (in recognition of their respectable selves) will fall on deaf ears. It turns out that, in actuality, "good behavior" doesn't in any way diminish the perceived entitlement non-Jews have to dictate Jewish behavior.

That's all I have to say about the JVP. The only thing I want to address before closing is the conclusion some right-wingers draw from this analysis: that because efforts to end the occupation and craft a solution that respects the democratic and self-determination rights of Jews and Palestinians alike won't end anti-Semitism, we shouldn't do it. If the JVP's "respectability politics" position is delusional, then this retort is just pathetic. It snivels that Jew's shouldn't make decisions of our own accord, but solely based on what reaction it draws from others. This is nonsense, and peculiarly at odds with the entire point of Zionism as a project of Jewish self-determination -- the historically near-unprecedented ability of Jews to make decisions about ourselves for our own reasons, rather than with an eye towards averting the next massacre.
I don't support Palestinian equality and national aspirations because I think being nice to Palestinians will make people like Jews more. I do it because, well, the whole point of being an autonomous agent is that we get to make the choices, and I want to choose to do the right thing. People who say that we can't create a Palestinian state because of this or that thing Palestinians do or refuse to do drive me nuts: what's the point of Zionism if Jews are going to sit on their hands and complain while waiting for someone else give us permission to make a decision? ,,,, As the black nationalist saying goes: "do for self."
The JVP's position is untenable because it can neither unequivocally oppose anti-Semitism (by demanding that Jewish voices -- all Jewish voices -- be given credence when speaking on Jewish experience) nor can it exempt itself from the system of anti-Semitism (discrediting Jewish perspectives where they differ from those of non-Jews) it tacitly endorses. But for the rest of us, the fact that "criticizing Israel" won't end anti-Semitism is not a relevant objection. We should pursue a just solution for Jews and Palestinians not because of what we expect to gain from it out of others. We should do it for self.

* "Probably" because at one point he asks "What makes you assume I have no Jewish heritage?" But elsewhere he refers to Jews as an external group (literally invoking "I have Jewish friends") and he never actually says he is Jewish. So the whole bit just screams "troll".