Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

Time to go have a few drinks and ring in the New Year. Happiness and health to all of you, whoever you are, wherever you are. Try to get a kiss tonight. Cheers.

"you can't think this"

Existentialism, though ultimately a philosophy that disarms us and leaves us less sure than when we encounter it, has armed me with certain tools that I find invaluable in discussing politics. My number one existentialism professor was one of the wisest people I've ever met, and she had an almost startling understanding of bullshit arguments and the way people shield themselves from the logical consequences of their thoughts and their world. I remember one student from a class who was a real Objectivist, smart, did the reading, but as you can imagine was deeply, deeply resistant to the material. He was engaged, and very critical, which made him very valuable in class; but there were waters he simply refused to tread. You would ask him about certain consequences of modernity or his moral system, and he would just dash helter skelter away from providing an actual answer. He didn't think he was doing it, he just did it, and I imagine it was because the consequences would be a bit too hard to bear. After class one day, another student and I were talking to the professor, and the other student said that she found our Objectivist classmate very smart. And my beloved professor said "Oh, yes. He's very well defended." Perfect.

Several of my commenters, in my recent posts about Israel, have taken a particularly nonconstructive tack-- the old "you don't really care about this" dodge. In this little maneuver, you assert that a person making a moral claim can't possible actually care about the people who he or she is trying, rhetorically, to defend from the immorality in question. Like most "you don't really feel the way you say you feel" claims, it's non falsifiable, and resistant to evidentiary examination. It also rests on what I feel is a fundamentally false notion of what morality entails. Having emotional content towards the victims of what I see as immoral action is irrelevant to the question of whether or not they deserve a cessation to the immoral behavior. Feeling sorry for people who have been wronged is a facet of morality, but it is not the heart of morality, and is unnecessary for advising moral action. Right?

Bad faith, mauvais foi, is when we deny our agency in the world because the emotional, moral or philosophical consequences of that agency are too difficult to deal with. We can't live with the fact that we have chosen or must choose, so we deny that there is any choice at all to make. This is what some of my critics in the comments are doing. Because I have made a moral claim about the world, and they don't like the consequences of either my position on that claim or merely the fact that there is a moral claim to be made at all, they must deny my right to make a claim at all. Rather than confronting my position, they attempt to undercut the basis from which I argue at all. So Phil Primeau challenges my sincerity-- because, apparently, not having people I actually care about as individuals in the conflict means I can't "really" care about them-- and Roque Nuevo challenges my opinion as mere mourning, mere emotionality. Both start from the premise that I have no ground with which to argue.

This is, I'm afraid, natural. This is a terrible and demoralizing conflict that has resisted every attempt at a happy solution, full of bloodshed and emotion. Actually confronting it outside of some sort of white hat, black hat framework is a depressed and depressing activity. But confront it we must, as we are members of a democracy, and ultimately the things that our done with our money and our munitions, under the umbrella of our diplomatic shielding, are a part of our responsibility. When people say not "you are wrong"-- I get lots of those, and no doubt, I may well be"-- but instead, "you cannot argue this, you have no standing, this can't be countenanced, it must be cast out of the discussion", they are in bad faith. The fact that I insist that these questions have moral salience means that the questions are extended to them, and that, I take it, is unacceptable. So "you are insincere, you don't think this, you can't feel this."

Again, my great teacher is instructive. At a conference once, someone said something that I felt was distinctly uncharitable about her and her views. I asked her about. She smiled and said "Don't worry about it. I feel little diminished." That's how I feel now. When you attempt to subvert my standing to argue rather than attempting to better my argument, it doesn't do anything to make me question my position, only your dedication to our project.
Shmuel Rosner:
No reasonable, moderately compassionate human being can ignore the suffering of Gazans under Israeli attacks. But such is the tricky nature of modern warfare: How do we measure proportionality without reducing the concept to an impossibly pedantic tit-for-tat? (How would it work? For every rocket launched into an Israeli town, Israel would retaliate by launching a similar rocket? And even then, how could we achieve proportionality without making sure that Palestinians in Gaza have the same alarm systems and comparably effective shelters?) How do we measure "success" in a situation where no side is likely to bring real closure to a volatile situation?
I am having a hard time coming up with what, exactly, I think Israel should do, in the specific and limited situation facing them now. I know what the long term solution should be, in my view, but regarding the rocket attacks, I have little to say at the moment. Such a thing is, I'm sorry to say, unacceptable in the context of my moral certitude that the killing of innocents must stop. The best I can offer in the face of my failure is my lame assurance to you that I am struggling. My harshest critic ever was in a private email sent to me by someone I respect; as she said, "You are right to struggle; you are wrong to imagine that struggling is enough." She was right then, and she's right now, but I have nothing better to tell you.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

collateral damage



(Photo by Uriel Sinai from Getty Images, found at nytimes.com)

This is the funeral of Irit Shitrit, killed this past Monday by a Hamas rocket. She died for no reason; she was murdered, horribly, inexcusably. Those who killed her are monsters and traitors to the cause of their own people. Her family is left to deal with the grief and the rage of her senseless and horrid killing.



(Photo by Khalil Hamra for the Associated Press, found at nytimes.com)

This is the family of four year old Haya Hamdan, who along with her sister Lama was killed by an Israeli missile during the recent Israeli assualt. It has long been the tactic of those who support such killings to suggest that, perhaps, the person killed really was secretly working with Hamas, and who can tell, with terrorists. I assume it is safe to say, though, that four year old girls are beyond suspicion. She and her sister now find themselves, I am sorry to say, beyond everything.

What is the difference between these two families? There are many, of course. For our purposes, I'm afraid, the salient fact that one family lives under the blanket of a friendly state government, while the other lives within a powerless and impoverished quasi-state that, while it has never been an enemy to the United States, has the bad luck of being made up of Arabs and Muslims in a time when America has great antipathy indeed for Arabs and Muslims. Another difference is that there are many times more dead Palestinians like Hamdan and her sister than there are dead Israelis like Shitrit. People often talk about this lack of proportion or symmetry in the violence that is inflicted against Palestinian or Israeli. Sometimes I take part in it; I imagine I will again. I find, though, that it becomes a morally deadening experience. Is Irit Shitrit's death somehow less terrible because she has less company in her countrymen? No. Each death is a moment of profound sadness, and, yes, I believe each is a crime. I don't believe that killing people with airstrikes is somehow more proper or right than killing them with rockets, and I will no longer labor under the pretense that intentionality is a handkerchief with which any nation can wipe away the stain of its crimes.

Those broader questions of the conflict, though, have been debated by many smarter and more committed than I am. The difference I am interested in is far smaller, far more academic. There is another simple difference: the death of Irit Shitrit and those like her have been mourned in almost every blog post and op/ed and commentary I have read on the situation. That's how it should be. I could not operate within a public conversation that has no room for mourning those killed in the terrible conflicts our world seems intent on heaping on us day after day. I wouldn't want to. But, I find, there is much less mourning of Haya and Lama Hamdan. I don't know; maybe I'm not reading in the right places. I read a lot, and I'm not seeing it. I'm not seeing it from, say, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor at the Atlantic, or Joe Carter, editor at Culture11. (Carter has now written two long blog posts, ostensibly about the killing of innocent Palestinians, where he manages to avoid actually talking about dead Palestinians, which requires some rather amazing argumentative magic.) These are just two examples; I could point to columnists and bloggers all around who feel no particular need to say "Haya Hamdan did not deserve to die." To be clear, and to be fair, many take the time to make some sort of strangled aside in that direction. But usually, that point is parenthetical, and generally incompatible with their principle argument: that what Israel is doing, when it drops bombs that destroy communities and kill innocent people, is morally sound.

That is the difference that interests me. That is the disproportionality that has been haunting me. About the injustice and horror of the murder of people like Irit Shitrit, I see only unanimity. About the injustice and horror of the murder of people like Haya Hamdan, I find, in corner after corner of the Internet, a sad silence.

There are those who will tell me that, by denying Israel the right to aggressively hunt down and kill the villains responsible for the murder of innocent Israelis, I am in effect justifying the deaths of Israelis to come. I find that a rather quease-inducing moral rabbit hole to begin with. More important, that assertion is dependent on the notion that this sort of "taking the gloves off" will work to prevent more terrorist attacks. Does anyone really believe that? Anyone at all? Israel has had the gloves off more times than I can count in my own short memory. Never has that seemed to have the effect that the supporters of such actions continue to claim it will have. That's the thing, about collateral damage. You kill enough innocent people, and it radicalizes their families, until one day, little boys who saw their tiny sisters killed by missiles from above grow up to shoot rockets of their own. That's not to justify that action at all. When that little boy is grown up, and he shoots that rocket, he is making a decision, and that decision is a terrible crime for which I reserve nothing but my greatest censure. But whatever I think about how it happens, it happens. Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

What bothers me most, in all of this, are those like Carter and Goldberg who proclaim their assent to this campaign, and justify the collateral damage that is the inevitable consequence of Israel's actions, but who hold the other shoe floating in the air: they never tell you that they agree with the killing of innocent children. They will never say "It is just for Haya Hamdan to die." But that is the only logical conclusion of their belief that this action is correct. When Jeffrey Goldberg-- quoting our President-elect, the man from hope himself, Barack Obama-- says he would do anything to stop rockets from attacking his country, what he means, what must be included if his words have any meaning, is "I will support the killing of innocent children." Does he say it? Does Carter? Do any of them? Of course not. They never do. I don't expect them to lead every argument with an acknowledgment of what, exactly, the consequences of their arguments are. I don't expect them to focus intently on it. But to make their arguments without saying what they really mean is nothing else than moral cowardice.

I know this with a certainty that I feel in my heart and my bones: if you support this assault, and justify its collateral damage, but will not come out and state the actual logical conclusion of what you are saying-- that you justify the killing of innocent Palestinian children-- then you are an intellectual coward, in the most damning and complete sense. If you justify the attack and its collateral damage you justify the consequences. So all of you, have the courage to stand for what you mean. Have the basic integrity to stand behind what you are saying. Look me in my face, so to speak, and tell me about the justice of another dead Palestinian child.

Hardy

I'm very pleased to see that Slate has run a poem by Thomas Hardy, "The Darkling Thrush", with a brief introduction by Robert Pinsky today. Hardy, though better known for his novels, is one of my favorite poets of any era. I count his "The Convergence of the Twain" as among my four or five favorite poems of all time. Joseph Brodsky argued in his introduction to The Essential Hardy that part of Hardy's poetic MO was to hide his artistry in poems that seem at first glance to be pleasure-resistant; he doesn't have the cadence of Yeats, the ferocity of Frost, or the simple astonishing weirdness of Stevens's virtuosity. What he does have is some of the smartest poetry you'll ever read, and he's one of the few that I know of who can pull off overt philosophizing without effort sounding a wrong note.

Not to say that he doesn't have simpler pleasures. He has some wonderful lines, maybe the most cutting of which is "The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/ alive enough to have the strength to die." That's a brutal, vicious line, and perfect; Hardy well knew that great poetry, like great song lyrics, are needed much more for love gone wrong than for love gone right. "The Convergence of the Twain"'s stanza "And as the smart ship grew/In stature, grace and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too" is a line that's packed with tons of consequence; I find it says in 15 syllables what WS Merwin takes a whole poem to say in "On the Anniversary of My Death". And for something a little snappier, there's the atheists favorite: "After two thousand years of Mass/We got as far as poisoned gas."

Incidentally, if you can find a copy of The Essential Hardy, Brodsky's introductory essay, and particularly his line by line explication of "Convergence", is the single piece of writing about poetry I most wish I could have written myself. I've lent it out to a lot of people to demonstrate just how meaningful and smart a poetry explication can be, in the hands of a great teacher.

what if the choice is unions or government?

One of the reasons I tend to be surprised by the level of anti-union sentiment among economic conservatives is that I see unionism as a natural, and private, alternative to the kind of regulatory and social services creep that conservatives dislike.

I understand that, in a perfect world for economic conservatives, there would be neither unions nor many workplace regulations nor the kind of social programs that liberals favor. It seems to me, though, that after a rather demoralizing series of electoral losses, it perhaps is not the time for triumphalism among economic conservatives. I know these things can turn on a dime. But to me the most salient and important aspect of the various election postmortems was the sense in which Americans have had enough of bootstrapping rhetoric. The congressional elections, I feel, are actually a more telling and important indicator of the national mood than the presidential election, and to me, the most obvious message sent was that Americans were looking for more from government. I'm not good on predictions, but it does seem to me that this is part of a long national shift in the way we view government, not a fickle and brief burst of political anger. Republican politicians now sound like moderate Dems from even 10 or 12 years ago; they seem to know that appeals to gumption or can-doism simply aren't cutting it anymore.

If you're an economic conservative, of course, you should be unhappy about the seeming likelihood of increased government intervention and government spending. Universal health care, of one form or another, looks more likely than not, for the first time in my lifetime. That's the perfect example of a service that, for complicated reasons, is not being provided by the shibboleth of the free market. Americans, feeling the effects of that, turn to government to provide health care. The consequences of such a thing, the wisdom of it, what it says about our evolving national character-- all are open questions, and they have been debated endlessly. What seems clear to me, though, is that this is what is happening. For a conservative, that notion that needs not filled by the market should be provided by government is frightening. I can't argue, though, that this is not a notion that has entered the public consciousness. But what if there was an alternative, another way to at once provide the necessary social and regulatory structures that working Americans need, without turning to government?

To me, that alternative is unions. Say whatever you want about unions-- that they're inefficient, that they're slow to evolve, that they are an affront to free market principles-- they are private entities. They are not wings of the government. And they are a way for working Americans to get a hold of the kind of social guarantees that they are demanding without turning to the coercive legal force of government. Are unions coercive? Sure, in a sense. But they're no more coercive than any other contractual obligation, and surely no more coercive than the coercion of being employed. There's a strange meme around that, while the unions can take or leave whatever the management puts out there, the managements of companies, such as the Detroit automakers, are forced to sign contracts, while unions could walk away from them with no negative consequences, free to go and work in, I don't know, the land of Honah Lee. Yes, not being able to hire anyone to work at your business is a detriment to any corporation. Not being able to have a job and feed your family is a detriment to any worker. Workers and business need each other; unions are the vehicle of workers to leverage that need, just as incorporation is a vehicle for business. It's a mark of our strange national conversation that at a time when corporate power is as entrenched and politically connected as it ever has been, and unions as small and beleaguered as they have been since the dawn of the American labor movement, so many talk about the big, powerful unions and the supposedly meek and retiring corporations.

Whatever else is true, it's the case that the coercion of unions is dwarfed by the coercive power of the government. More and more often, the same services and regulations that have been fought for by the American labor movement-- a movement celebrated around the world, by the way, if not here-- have become codified into law. Many people have decreed that unions are no longer necessary because the law has come to provide the things unions were started to ensure-- a system for capping working hours or for better compensating for hours beyond a certain point, safety and environmental regulations for providing for the health of workers, unemployment and severance benefits, retirement packages, and it seems likely in the near future, health insurance. This has always seemed strange to me, to punish unions for their own success. But it is true that many of the services brought to us by unions have found their way into law. Is this a victory, though? Certainly not for a conservative. Rather than the result of an agreement between workers and employers, these things are now decreed by government. People love to point out the gradual erosion of the number of union workers in the United States. They fail to point out that the benefits of unions have been replaced by government intervention.

This isn't a happy change for conservatives. However coercive or impure the negotiations between business and union, they are negotiations, and there is at the heart of them principles of economic freedom. When law is made to supersede those kinds of arrangements, any notion of bargaining and deal-making are lost. That's not a big problem for me, I guess, but if you're a libertarian, it should be for you. Things change. I suppose it is possible that we will regress to a society less likely to provide certain benefits and regulations that workers demand. But that seems completely out of the character of the national mood, and contrary to recent political history, or the movement of American political history as a whole. Now just doesn't seem like the time for economic conservative triumphalism, with no allowances for the guarantees workers want at all. Sticking to that line seems to me to be a way for economic conservatives to consign themselves to irrelevancy. If these kinds of demands are going to be provided, isn't it for better for conservatives that they be provided by unions instead of by government fiat?

It just seems to me that an awful lot of conservatives are cheering the slow destruction of American unions while a vast architecture of government regulation and social programs is being built in their place, which conservatives should like much less. It's odd to me.

Rod on Detroit/Wall Street

Rod, who I've been uncharitable to lately, takes the time to link to my questioning why there's been so much more virtual ink spilled, and so much more visceral anger, over the Big Three bailout compared to the financial bailouts. He proposes
It occurred to me that one reason many ordinary people feel more viscerally hostile toward the auto bailout than over the far, far more consequential financial sector bailout is because what the banks do remains largely abstract to most folks -- but the annoying fact that your American-built car is semi-crappy is something many, many of us are familiar with. Therefore, the disproportionate outrage may not be rational, but is certainly understandable, if you follow me.
That makes sense to me. Also, one of his commenters says "All of this misses the whole point of either bailout. We didn't bailout Wall Street because we felt sorry for billionaire CEO's. We did it because letting Lehman Brothers fail caused a lot of hurt to the whole country. " And fair enough. But my point wasn't about the wisdom of bailing out one or the other, but about how we talk about both bailouts, and, perhaps, about what that says about our national psychology. How we talk about things is a clue to how we decide what, exactly, is proper policy.

Monday, December 29, 2008

questions of extremism

Valued commenter ED Kain, of Indiepundit fame, counsels that I should check myself a bit when it comes to this post. Let me tell you how I feel.

I have a tendency to rhetorical maximalism that is nothing else than a character flaw. I'm working on it. I am perhaps overzealous in the prosecution of my arguments. But I don't back down from anything I said in that post, and this is why I think that examining the context in which those who oppose the hardline regarding Israel operate is so important: while I may be extreme in my language, I think my side's ideas, what we advocate (rather than how I express it) is remarkably moderate in comparison to the consensus position of Israel hawks. (As opposed to Israeli hawks.)

Ultimately, this is an impossible conversation to have in some ways, because you can never really pin down who, exactly, is an extremist in any given debate. Extremism is a relative quality. It seems to me, though, that the side that is consider extreme and the side that is considered mainstream are exactly opposite. As ED points out, there are not actual holistic camps on either side that have signed any affinity statements or endorsed any particular set of beliefs, so this is necessarily general. But I find that there are no real anti-Israel extremists in what I would consider the mainstream, national conversation. The number of people who advocate or justify the killing of Israeli innocents by Hamas or other Palestinian terrorists are nonexistent in the ranks of the mainstream media, cable news, major blogs, or partisan politics. You simply will not find any. And, indeed, even in supposedly extremist political circles-- circles in which I am fairly well traveled-- I find such things vanishingly rare. "Chomskyite", after all, is used casually to refer to the most radical leftist extremism. But Chomsky himself, and his true devotees, have been adamant in denying any legitimacy in terrorist attacks against Israel.

That's as it should be; advocating terrorism against Israel is unthinkable, and is rightly disqualifying of mainstream status. What is lamentable, to me and others like me, is that there is no similar consensus about even the need to minimize Palestinian casualties. Whether or not the acts of the terrorists in Palestine justify killing Palestinian civilians is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether the situation in the territories justifies killing innocent Israelis is a settled question on my side, and the answer is no. Whether the Palestinians deserve either a state of their own or citizenship in Israel is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether Israel should exist and be defended is a settled question on my side, and the answer is yes. Whether the Palestinians deserve peace or prosperity at all is a matter of controversy in the mainstream; whether the Israelis deserve peace and prosperity I find to be a settled question on my side, and the answer is yes. Hell, whether or not there is such a thing as a Palestinian has only become a settled question in the mainstream in recent years.

Again, these are generalizations, and I just could be way off base. It may be that there are many people out there in the national conversation calling for continued rocketing of Israel, in the mainstream press, on mainstream blogs. If there are, I've been remarkably blind to those arguments. It seems to me, from my perspective, that on basic questions of human rights and democracy, my side respects those of Israelis, while the other side has no consensus at all concerning the basic human rights of Palestinians.

Consider the examples of Norman Finkelstein and Marty Peretz. Finkelstein has said many smart things and many lamentable things. I agree with Finkelstein on many issues, and then he says things that truly make me question his moral compass. Is Finkelstein so radical that he deserves to be written out of the respectable conversation? I don't know; I'm not a very good arbiter of those things. Certainly, I don't want my own name associated with his. What I do know is that he has been written out of respectable conversation. Many people who are principled opponents of the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have written Finkelstein and others like him off, because they don't want to take the risk of guilt by association. Again, I'm not one to say if that's right or wrong. But it happens.

Marty Peretz, meanwhile, reamins the controlling force behind one of the three or four most influential and important political magazines in the country. He remains a higly quoted and highly read figure. His blog is linked to by mainstream blogs and online magazines. He is a firmly establishment figure. He is also a vulgar and hateful man. The fact that he is a virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigot is, really, very hard to dispute. Many people have proposed the game of substituting "Jews" for "Arabs" in the work of Peretz and trying to imagine the outcry. Certainly, if I spoke about Jews the way Peretz speaks about Arabs, I think many of you would never return to this blog, and you would be right not to. But Peretz, though he's become a clownish figure, and is certainly seen on the extreme end, has not been meaningfully marginalized the way that someone like Norman Finkelstein has been. To me, that seems like a discrepancy, and it's the kind that I see in a lot of places in this discussion.

My opinions on extremism and fairness are largely a product of my own opinions, I recognize that. I find though that the most important aspects of this discussion-- the basic assumption that both sides deserve peace and prosperity-- is unevenly held, depending on who you are talking about, Palestinian or Israeli. I feel like that has to have some salience to a discussion of extremism. Ultimately, the important question is not who is more extreme but rather who is advocating what, and which is best for everyone concerned. I feel that the best and most moral outcome for all is an autonomous state of Palestine, and for a cessation of asymmetrical violence on the Palestinian people. Whether or not I am right about what is best or moral for Israel and for Palestine is an open question. Perhaps time will tell.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ta-Nehisi Coates becomes the latest to engage in the absurd conflation of a political action group like CAP and a magazine like the Atlantic. Clearly, this is an example of the anxiety of influence. Coates--who I've always thought was brought up to the majors at the Atlantic a little too early-- is a bright guy, and a smart blogger. But he's being unfair to Yglesias and to CAP, which is interesting, because it seems to me that no blogger shows through as an influence in Coates's writing more than Matt. Somebody page Dr. Freud....

Update: Sigh. Two emails have prompted me to point out that I'm kidding here, mostly. sheesh.

Illegitimate "pro-Israel" arguments: a compendium

As Israel has again been the focus of criticism for killing innocent people, there has been the usual outpouring of bad logic, accusations of anti-Semitism, and misleading or outright dishonest claims. I decided to come up with a list of the common tropes involved in this discussion, and some ready rebuttals.

It's long been my experience that people are most aggressive when they feel the most defensive; so, here. It's a sad fact of the debate that the aggressive hawks have co-opted the term "pro-Israel"; I am, myself, on the pro-Israel side. I simply don't think that it benefits Israel practically or as an ethical nation to continue a campaign of near-constant violence and aggression, or to continue to enact harsh measures against a group of people who are the living definition of "dispossessed". I look forward to a time when "pro-Israel" is no longer code for the most savage militarism and apologetics for wanton violence, and instead comes to mean those who like me want Israel to be as safe, prosperous and moral a country as it can be.

1. Frivolous Accusations of Anti-Semitism
Accusations of anti-Semitism, of course, flow from the extremist hawks like water. Whenever Israel becomes the subject of any criticism, for any reason, in any context or discussion, from any quarter, someone will allege anti-Semitism. The thinking, I guess, is that Israel is the home of the Jews, and so criticizing Israel means you're "really" criticizing Jews, and criticizing Jews must be anti-Semitism. In America accusations of anti-Semitism are a panacea for whatever ails those who consider themselves the pro-Israel hardline; it has become their impenetrable shield. Accusations of bigotry are the nuclear bomb of American discourse. They don't merely defeat the opposition but remove them from the conversation entirely. This is a pretty neat trick, in political debate. All that principled opponents of Israeli behavior can do is point out again that Israel is a political, governmental entity, and that it must therefore be subject to criticism when appropriate. We can assert our continued support for the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people. And we can say-- all we can do is say-- that, in fact, we harbor no anti-Jewish animus.

As time has gone on, the accusations of anti-Semitism have grown more sophisticated, more sly. So people are less often simply told they must hate Jews because they criticize Israel, and more often told that they "give aid and comfort" to anti-Semites with their opinions. We are told we are "anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent". Rhetorical questions and asides abound-- "who but an anti-Semite!" There is one purpose and one effect, to silence those who would criticize Israel, with the one charge that is more powerful than any other criticism in American life: that you are a hateful bigot.

2. Appeals to Relative Morality
This is a common trope in foreign policy discussions of all types, and is often used to defend the actions of the United States, as well. In this argument, suddenly the relative merits of Israel compared to various bad actors is completely dispositive of Israel's character. So we are regaled with the fact that Israel has superior moral nature to Hamas, the Syrian regime, the Iranian theocracy, Hezbollah.... These assertions are no doubt true. They are also sublimely irrelevant to the central question: are Israel's actions in the world moral? Children on a playground know that the response "He did something worse" is no excuse for bad actions. Whether or not one country is more moral than another is no answer to the basic questions of the morality of their actions; and saying "Israel is better than Hamas" is truly damning with faint praise. Enlightened democracies are supposed to be better actors than terrorist organizations and rogue states. Being better than various bad actors, meanwhile, does nothing for the victims of aggression against civilians. The fact that Israeli victims of vile terrorism call out for justice does not silence the similar need for justice for innocent Palestinians, who, I must point out, outnumber their Israeli counterparts by several times. Only when discussing Israel could so many be convinced that murdered children somehow deserved it.

3. Conflation of Criticism of Israel with Support for Israel's Enemies
This kind of pure strawmanning happens with surprising frequency. Simple, lame assertions that moral revulsion at the widespread killing of civilians by Israel-- and, let us be clear, Israel has killed many more civilians in recent years than their enemies-- is equated with support for whatever despicable acts the other side has committed. You'd think this sort of thing would be pretty easily undone, by saying "My disgust with Israel's killing civilians is in no way support for Hamas, or their vile and inexcusable rocket attacks." But, no-- many will continue to act as though, ipso facto, criticism of Israel means support for its enemies. You know, like how criticizing the Colombian government means the same thing as supporting FARC. Or something.

4. The "Why do you only criticize Israel?" Dodge
In this bit of empty rhetoric, the fact that critics of Israel actually spend time criticizing Israel's actions demonstrates their lack of a moral compass, and is commonly used with implications of anti-Semitism: why do you criticize Israel so often? I'm not saying anything, it just makes me wonder.... This argument is ultimately connected with number 2 above. Why do we criticize Israel when there are other political agents worthy of criticism? There are several reasons.

The first thing to say is that whether or not any individual critic of Israel has the proper priorities when criticizing Israel is irrelevant to the question of the righteousness of Israeli action. The second is to say that critics of Israel do, in fact, criticize countries like Iran and groups like Hamas, and very often in the very commission of the criticism of Israel in question. Next, the United States has a relationship with Israel that makes Americans like myself investors in the Israeli cause. The billions we give in direct aid are only a part of our contribution to Israel; we also have a truly unique military and intelligence relationship with Israel. That investment means that we Americans have special responsibility to Israeli conduct. Perhaps most importantly, Israel is a robust, functioning liberal democracy. Israel can be meaningfully changed by political discourse and right dialogue. That is a condition that is sadly not shared by Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran. We argue about Israel because Israel can change, and because Israael should be the agent for positive change in the Middle East that many of its supporters claim it to be.

(Incidentally, that brings up the incoherence in the arguments of many people who support Israel. When Israel acts badly, we are told that they must, because they are in a region of violence and brutality. Yet we are also told that we must defend Israel because it is a righteous democracy in a sea of totalitarianism and theocracy. You can't argue both.)

5. Guilt by association, or by ethnicity
The saddest aspect of the conflict is the way in which it seems to invite precisely the kind of guilt-by-ethnic-association that has been used against the Jews so terribly in so many sad moments of their history. The constant refrain of those who rationalize and justify the killing of Palestinian civilians is that they are only being killed because of the actions of vile Arabs. This, of course, is logically identical to the "chickens coming home to roost" argument that excuses the murder of more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11. That argument, while horrid and empty and wrong, at least has the tiny advantage of blaming Americans for the behavior of actual other Americans. Palestinians, meanwhile, it seems will forever be blamed for the bad actions of Jordanians and Syrians and Egyptians and Saudis.... It is a sublimely sad moment when a hardliner argues, with no appreciable understanding of their own absurdity, that a Palestinian twelve year old should pay for the decisions of, say, the Egyptian government 40 years ago. To these people, there are no Jordanians, no Saudis, no Syrians or Palestinians; there are only Arabs, and for some reason, every and all Arabs are responsible for the foul deeds of any Arabs. This is, of course, the twisted and terrible logic that has been at the heart of anti-Semitism for so long.

Hamas is indeed a Palestinian organization; so what? Again, there is no difference between saying that innocent Palestinians deserve to die for the actions of Hamas and saying that Americans deserve to die for the actions of the American military. Palestinians, today, are dying, despite not being members of Hamas, never holding a rocket, never targeting an Israeli citizen, having nothing whatsoever to do with attacks on Israeli civilians. They are killed, we are told, because of and only because of the failings of other Palestinians; Israel can take no blame. This is the kind of moral calculus we have long been saying we would not participate in and would not stand for. Who among you would be soothed, if a family member or loved one was killed, if you were told merely that they have the wrong ethnicity and the wrong neighbors, and so they had it coming to them? Who would abandon moral outrage in the face of such a thing?

******

This is the truth: the modern state of Israel is a country that has been placed in harm's way, by the Western powers that established it in 1947. It has been pushed to the breaking point by terrorist attacks, indiscriminate killing for which there is no excuse and which must be denounced with utter clarity and stridency by all principled people. There is no defense for Hamas or their actions; the sad fact that this opinion, broadly shared by many critics of Israel, is somehow seen as contradictory to their criticism is a mark only of the rhetorical skill of those who defend Israel with no respect for right dialogue or fair argument. Israel is indeed in a perilous part of the world; Israel does indeed require defending, by the West, in both peace and prosperity. But this defense is not an excuse for immorality by Israel. There is no excuse for murdering innocent people; this is a notion that came to many of us with stunning clarity following 9/11, but which sadly seems to leave so many of us when the innocent people in question are dispossessed Arabs.

That is the condition of American foreign policy discourse following 9/11: when it is convenient for us and our preconceived foreign policy benefits, we are full of high-minded principles and utter moral infallibility. When it is not, we are a realist nation that recognizes shades of gray, and that, well, sometimes innocent blood must be spilled, and better them than us. Our morality is as long as our ambition will allow. Everything done by the United States, or by Israel, is permissible; everything done by those we consider enemies is to be condemned. Firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel is a putrid crime. Shelling Palestinian civilians is no less. What's the difference, for our purposes?

The first is that the former is condemned by all sides with full voice, including, yes, those most critical of Israel, including me. I defy you to find a mainstream voice that supports Hamas sending rockets into Israel. I defy you. Find me a writer at a mainstream magazine or major website. Find me a blogger on a magazine's masthead. Find me an American politician in national office who would breath any such support. You can't find it. Only the most pitiful and idiotic extreme, in this country, justifies Hamas's killing innocent civilians. Who, meanwhile, justifies and rationalizes the killing of innocent civilians, of innocent children, in Palestine? They are all over. Not just in the pages of Commentary or the Weekly Standard, but in Newsweek, the Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Slate, the Huffington Post. People like Rod Dreher, a respected and perfectly mainstream blogger, can riff on the slaughter of dozens or hundreds of innocent people with aplomb, without hint of apology or care. Can you imagine the response, if I were to speak of Israeli dead with such casual disdain? I can't; because unlike Rod Dreher and the Palestinians, I recognize no enemies in innocent Israelis. I don't think, actually, that the murder of innocent people is ever justified. I am not in the business of excusing casual slaughter. I'm not one to talk of chickens coming home to roost.

This is the Israeli discussion in American mainstream media. One side speaks cautiously, quietly, with constant provisos and caveats. That side takes pains to distance themselves from the enemies of Israel, makes no bones about their moral condemnation of the terrible actions of Hamas and Hezbollah. One side takes all necessary care in discussing with nuance, with discrimination. The other unapologetically and openly justifies the killing of people they admit are innocent. And yet it is the latter group who is the mainstream, the latter group who holds the benefit of the conventional wisdom, the latter group who demands apology and retreat from the former. It's a strange place, for our national conversation, and a sad one.

Sadder still, these same policies of aggression and overreaction actually endanger Israel and ensure that Israeli safety will be even harder to ensure. Israel has acted in accordance with the hard line for decades; it is no safer for it. An equitable and fair resolution to the Palestinian problem is the only real long-term solution for an end to these hostilities. But those who have appointed themselves the protectorate of Israel in America have at every turn insisted on preventing such a solution from happening. They are endangering Israel; they are undermining its central mission; and they are delegitimizing a righteous project: a homeland where Jews can live in safety and abundance. Despite all of their faulty arguments, we have to continue to expose them, and to disagree with them in full voice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm tired of fighting.

Manhattan, Detroit and the anger imbalance

I have been surprised, as you know, by the degree of vitriol that has appeared against this autoworker bailout, relative to the bailout for the financial companies. It's pretty stunning, really, and it confuses me. If you read a lot of blogs, you have likely seen this linked to not once or twice but ten times or more. There's no question that in most mainstream blogs, posting about the automaker bailout has dwarfed the proportion that $17 billion represents compared to the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars you and I are throwing down the rabbit hole of financial America. There is an anger that, to me, doesn't make sense in comparison to the amount or level of anger being shown towards the financial sector, recipients of a vastly larger bailout and responsible for far more negative effects to our economy and our country.

I've seen some strangled attempts to justify the imbalance, in both rhetoric and amount of coverage, including some commenters asserting-- really-- that the financial companies aren't "basically insolvent" the way the automakers are. Aren't basically insolvent. Let me tell you, with love and fellowship, that this idea is utter bullshit. The financials and investment banks failed in their most basic fiduciary responsibilities. They took risks with no meaningful appreciation of the odds. They did nothing to effectively inoculate themselves against the worst-case scenario that, hindsight tells us, was sadly quite likely. They spent years acquiring assets that have essentially no value, didn't or couldn't accurately appraise their value, and in doing so not only destroyed their own companies but dragged down the world economy. After doing so, they've been granted not a bailout in the ballpark of the $17 billion that has been considered for the automakers, but hundreds of billions.

There are many smart and principled arguments against the automakers bailout. There are smart and principled arguments in favor of the bailout for the financial sector. I find that often, the arguments for why we must bail out the financials and must not the automakers are simplistic and tunnel-visioned; in particular, I find many people are underestimating how great, in fact, the damage to the larger economy the failure of the automakers will cause. But this isn't an argument about the wisdom of the competing bailouts, and anyway, the issue in the public mind has been settled. And for those of you who are opposed to the auto bailout, the day is yours. There has been some effort to soften the fall of the Big Three, but in the larger fight, there's no question that those against a lifeline for Detroit have won the issue.

But what gnaws at me, and remains unexplained, is why every conservative blogger I read has spent time decrying the evils of Detroit, and so little relative time talking about the evils of Manhattan. In terms of the impact of the larger economy, in terms of the sheer size of the amount of taxpayer money, in terms of the damage done to basic capitalist principles, the bailouts for the major financial institutions dwarf the proposed bailout of Detroit. In every sense, the financial bailout is a bigger story. Yet while people take pains to point out the "sad necessity" of bailing out AIG et al., I don't find nearly the same anger or nearly the same attention. And the fact that so many people are convinced that the financial bailout is necessary-- and I am one of those people-- doesn't explain or excuse such an imbalance in the kind of critical attention and chest-beating. The fact that our financial gurus have convinced us that we must bail out the financial sector doesn't seem to me to explain the relative imbalance in basic anger and bellyaching.

Update: Dan Waxman in comments:

I absolutely agree that there has been quite a shockingly hypocritical set of double standards used when comparing the auto bailout with the financial bailout. But I think you're kidding yourself if you think that it is limited to the Republicans (and semi-libertarians like Megan McArdle) - I've certainly noticed the almost diametrically opposite feeling from the few left-leaning blogs I read.
That's a good point. I stuck a "conservative" up there pretty much needlessly, in connection to my overall point. He's right; it's not ideologically aligned, I find. And it cuts across large swaths of the commentariat, so there's no need in blaming anyone in particular. Certainly, the issue is less important than the pragmatic concerns of which bailouts are best for the country right now. But I do think that attitude and language matters, and I think they point to some perhaps disturbing consequences for how we continue to look at the financial sector as the "best and brightest" despite all of the reasons we now have not to.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008



My nervous system can't take many more games like that, boys. But I'll take the result.


Still alive!

Monday, December 22, 2008

media organizations, political advocacy organizations

The brouhaha over this in his comments, and this post from Andrew, are just way off base.

When Slate.com was first born, Michael Kinsley, the initial editor-in-chief, wrote an article saying that one thing Slate would not do would be to critique Microsoft. As he said, no one can audit themselves. While Slate would be a remarkably open forum, Microsoft was paying the bills, and so Microsoft would not come in for criticism in the pages of Slate. That's only coercive to the degree to which your employer is always coercive. There were plenty of other places to post criticism of Microsoft, and you didn't have to look hard to find them. Hell, those who felt animated enough could have started up an anti-Microsoft site on Geocities or whatever else was free web back then.

And Slate was and is an online political magazine that is dedicated to presenting many viewpoints and differing opinions. CAP, meanwhile, is a public advocacy organization, a political operator, and has never claimed to be anything else.The Center for American Progress is not a free and open media organization. It's not Blogspot. It's not an online magazine. CAP has never promised to present every side of the issue, never pretended to be an open forum, never denied that it has a set of political policy positions that it endorses. That's natural. I wouldn't expect to read a blogger on the NRA's website go on pro-gun control jeremiads. I wouldn't expect a NARAL blogger to post about the evils of abortion. That's the deal you make when you blog for a political advocacy group. Perhaps Matt didn't understand that when he signed on, but I really doubt it. It seems more likely that his commenters didn't understand. And they aren't the ones drawing a paycheck from CAP.

The root of this problem, I think, is the simple naivete and misunderstanding on the part of Matt's readership. I am a huge fan of Matt's blog, but I knew very well when he switched to CAP's masthead that there were going to be consequences.

Do I find the whole thing a little creepy? I do. Do I, as a consumer of Matt's work, wish he was on an open forum? I do. It was Matt's choice to make, and it's the fault of the readership who expected this change to have no repercussions at all for so badly misunderstanding the situation. And don't kid yourself into thinking that, one way or the other, being on the Atlantic's masthead doesn't carry with it certain burdens and expectations as well. Sure, it's much more free than CAP, but it's not completely free, and again-- whoever said that CAP would publish a blog and pay the blogger with no expectations whatsoever as to content? Who came up with that idea? If people are simply arguing that Matt should try to go back the the Atlantic, or set up a personal blog again, then advocate that. Expecting someone drawing a paycheck from a political advocacy organization to have no responsibilities to the organization is naive.

You can contrast this with the Ladyblog imbroglio at Culture11. Culture11, as I said at the time, has the right to publish or not publish whatever it wants. And there are some expectations associated with being under the imprimatur of Culture11-- things like obscenity, basic grammar and coherence, libel, etc. Beyond that, I felt and feel, the bloggers should have close to free rein. That's the difference between writing for a media organization like Culture11 and writing for a political organization like CAP. Ultimately, either have the right to publish what they want. Both ultimately will also draw the lines around what they feel is appropriate for their purpose. And it just seems like the norm to me for the lines to be drawn much more narrowly for a political agency. I know that's annoying as a consumer of media, and like I said, I don't like it. But it's CAP's dime.

There is an element of coercion in employment. It's up to the employer to decide how much. If anyone, Matt included, doesn't like it, they can look for a new job. But his commenters seem intent on being liberal commenter stereotypes and comparing an employee being constrained by his employer to the real, physical, we'll-kill-you-if-you-cross-us of totalitarianism.

Update: ron bailey says in comments:
I'm not certain I agree with you, but for the sake of argument let's pretend I do. Wouldn't Palmieri been better off just to have Matt address the issue on his own? A mea culpa published in Yglesias' own words would have saved the CAP a lot of credibility and mended fences with the hyper-timid incrementalist bullshitters at Third Way at the same time.
Should have been more strenuous in saying-- this was very poorly handled, and I think ron is right. I guess a lot of what I'm reacting to is the language being used to some commenters, with stuff like "Stalinist" and "Big Brother" being thrown around. But it's true, there were many more artful ways to handle this.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In hiding for a little while

public for life




So there's this funny new show on HBO called Summer Heights High, about an Australian public high school. One of the characters on the show is Ja'mie, a private school girl on a sort of private/public exchange program. Ja'mie is very privileged, and very sheltered, and is constantly making this kind of cringe-inducing, off-hand insult to public school. It's really funny, and for me, uncomfortably true. I've encountered a lot of private school kids like Ja'mie, and while it's satire, it's actually verrrrry close to reality. You kind of get used to it, but you kind of don't, and for people like me who are not only not ashamed of our public education, but actively proud of and happy with it, it can be unbearable. To put it to you as simply as I can, I am the person I am in large part because I went to a public school. My education is imprinted on who I am, over and over again.

What I was really thinking about, when watching the first few episodes of that show, was bloggers.

It's interesting that people who spend so much time in introspection and thought can be so unthinking sometimes. You often find yourself, when reading blogs, saying "how can a person who wrote post X, which was so smart, write something so dumb?" This is almost a constant complaint in my comments, so it's not like I don't know the other side. I just find, over and over again, that dependably smart, respectful people treat public schools and those of us who are products of them with the most callous, casual degradation you can imagine. It's like the character Ja'mie, a combination of extraordinary lack of tact and respect with an almost sublime lack of self-knowledge. Over and over again, when discussing any kind of educational policy, bloggers make off-hand insults that really sting, without seeming to understand that anyone could take such a thing personally. It's not so much the disagreement about the value of public school, but the inability to understand that there are people who prize their public school educations. I suspect, actually, it's similar to the feeling many religious people have when they feel that their religion is being casually or thoughtlessly disrespected. Added to the insult is the assumption that no one could be insulted.

Because of the vast diversity of opinions and ideologies represented online, we tend to forget that there are certain demographic trends within blogs, particularly among the blogs who have been given the legitimacy and weight of establishment media. Many bloggers, to be blunt, grew up in privilege, and many people who grew up in privilege went to private school. I don't begrudge anyone having gone to private school at all; that would be stupid, particularly considering very few of us get to choose where we go to school. But going to private school, particularly an elite private school, does create the conditions necessary for someone to have the kind of boneheaded conception of public schools that you see a lot online. And I do see it alot, even among bloggers I generally respect. It's pretty simply a matter of the unknown and bad press, and you end up with a cadre of smart people who think every public school has crumbling buildings, shoddy books, legions of gangs and violence and a crack pipe in every classroom. It's ugly.

All of this has policy ramifications. As someone who is an ardent supporter of public education, and a committed opponent of vouchers, one of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation is the amount of work done by completely unfounded and unsupported notions about widespread public school failure. Simply put, a huge difficulty in our discussion on education is really paralyzing lack of reliable data on which schools are succeeding and which are failing. We just don't know, really, how many school districts are reliably good, how many reliably bad, and we really don't know about individual school quality within those districts. But when I argue education policy, again and again I find foes of public education allowing the assumption that any given public school has to be shitty to carry their water for them. This is made especially frustrating by the fact that these are often people who are usually very circumspect in the way that they construct data, and would never countenance an opposing argument that relied on so much assuming and anecdotal evidence. But when it comes to public school, where it benefits them, they can just talk as if it's safe to assume that any given public school is probably no good, and certainly worse than a private alternative. It's a failure of elementary good faith argument and analysis.

Well, you can support any policy position you want, and if you think public education is filled with criminals and failures, you can argue away. But when it comes to more personal dimensions of judgment, let me say to you: if you aren't one of us, you can't understand us, you don't know us and you can't judge us. I'm glad people are happy with their private education and I'll never assume that anyone who went to private school has any particular failings at all. But when people intimate, even without meaning to, that public school kids must be more violent or less intelligent or less achieved, they're just wrong, and I'm here to say so. I think about my public high school-- cheerful, racous, alive, diverse in every sense, smart and capable, and filled with dedicated employees, and I couldn't be happier. So there!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Genius.

Barack Obama and the age of hysterics

This could be my imagination. I just feel like we've been in a mode of permanent media agitation since the presidential campaign started heating up. That's natural, I guess, considering American presidential elections are important, and cable news loves political coverage: lots of supposition, lots of analysis, lots of ways to fill time with meaningless verbiage, never-ending opportunities for talking heads to demonstrate their unique genius. It's exhausting, though, and the Internet was just as frantic. I was assuming (and hoping) that this hectic pace and breathlessness would naturally subsume after November 4th. But I look around, and don't see it happening. In fact I see a media that has basically forgotten how to cover mundane times.

Does anyone else feel that way? It seems like the media is treating the transition and the Blagojevich scandal with the same interest and hype that they treated the election. Which, frankly, is madness. Yes, Cabinet appointments are important. Are they really deserving of the kind of round-the-clock coverage and analysis the campaign was? The amount of media attention devoted just to the Hillary Clinton appointment was staggering. And the sense of importance that was attached to all of those discussions was totally out of line with the day-to-day impact the Secretary of State will have on the average American. Yes, our chief diplomat is important, but this was over the top. Same thing with the Blagojevich indictment. Crazy for a governor to be so corrupt, great story for the news. But not, in the final analysis, particularly relevant to the life of most people.

This is all made sadder still because I, and I suspect many others, have been waiting for the end of the Bush administration out of a deep desire for a return to normalcy, to the mundane reality of everyday life. The media was especially hyper about the election, like I said, but it's also seemed extremely agitated for pretty much the entirety of the Bush administration. Again, probably natural, considering the events. The Gore/Bush debacle. 9/11, of course, which was not only a time of natural hysteria and grief, but also an event about which many people insisted that, if you weren't in a state of hyper-emotionality, there was something wrong with you. Afghanistan and Iraq. The government deciding it could break any law it felt like, as long as they believed they were justified in doing so. The justice department punishing prosecutors for not making political prosecutions. And, you know, New Orleans being swallowed by the sea, and the government not really feeling like something needed to be done about it.

I'm so tired of the sense of never living in normal times, the feeling that our country has taken to careening from one disaster to the next. It's funny. Barack Obama is famously the candidate of change. But what I want from him is a return to normalcy, a return to the feeling that, while there are crises and there are disasters and there are challenges, we still live in the ordinary ebb and flow of time and events. That sense is lost to me; I feel like it's just a time of crisis, all the time. People tease me about my pining for the good old 90s, and of course I'm looking at the decade of my youth and my adolescence with rose-colored glasses. But I do think things were calmer then.

I know Barack Obama can't really bring back my lost America. Certainly, the news media is disinclined to change; they have every incentive to keep reporting at a fever pitch. But I'm hopeful for the future. Getting rid of George Bush-- warmongering, wiretapping, Katrina-enabling, torture-supporting, prosecutor-firing, environment-destroying, country-crushing George Bush-- well, that'll go a long way all on its own.

Monday, December 15, 2008

With Blogger's publishing software, if you start a post and don't finish it, it stays in your Posts section with a "draft" tag. If you were to go through all my posts, you'd find maybe one draft-- a post I never finished-- every six or seven posts, I'd guess. If you look at my current Posts, it's riddled with posts marked "draft". I don't know, I just can connect nothing with nothing right now. I'm spent. That kind of makes sense, given the calendar, but there's also something more going on that I can't put my finger on. Posts that used to race out of my fingertips are now only coming from great effort. It's strange.

Criticism has certainly been more harsh lately. That's fine, I invite it, but it does wear you down a bit. Anyway-- sorry for shorter than usual posts, sorry for less posts. Hopefully I'll get recharged soon. We'll see.

the addict and the dealer

This post from Andrew Sullivan I think is guilty of the tendency to attack individual actors within a culture and not put the blame on the people who helped create that culture or the culture itself.

There are villains to go around, here, across the ideological spectrum. But it seems to me to be the urge among conservatives to often punish the last cog the in machine, the end-of-the-line consumer. It's conservatives, after all, who have told us for years that consumption and spending are the keys to happiness. Conservatives who have counseled us that growth is the engine on the train to prosperity and abundance. Conservatives who deride urbanism and cities, and praise the suburbs and rural areas that offer no alternatives to individual home ownership. President Bush and his administration who pushed for more home ownership. Alan Greenspan who kept interest rates artificially, irrationally low. Conservatives in the financial sector who pressed for deregulation and laissze faire conditions that led to this collapse. And it's conservatives who have long held two fundamentally conflicting virtues to be a part of the American character: fiscal responsibility, and endless consumption. There's many working against the latter impulse, of course, like Rod Dreher and the Cruncy Cons. Andrew himself has been an important voice in that regard. But here, I think, he's dropping the ball.

Should people have taken out mortgages they couldn't afford to pay off? Of course not. Do they deserve some blame? Sure. You know who deserves more blame? The lenders who eagerly offered them the loans. The banks that eagerly underwrote them. The investment banks that collateralized and bought them. The ratings agencies that went along with the charade, going against the express purpose of their existence. The boards and executives at the investment banks who knew the risks and did nothing to inoculate themselves or our economy against those risks. And what's really to blame is a culture that tells people they can have whatever they want, whenever they want it, that they can buy something today and put off paying for it forever, one that tells people that their value is actually synonomous with their belongings, with their consumption.

Our culture, our profligate, celebrity-addled culture, is cross-ideological or a-ideological. We need people from both sides to change it. Part of that is scolding, sure. Homeowners need to be chastised for shirking individual responsibility. They had people enabling them all the way along, and they were actors in a culture that has long held home ownership to be an elementary facet of American middle class identity. All of that has to change, and it can only change by applying our displeasure equally and fairly.

this can't be good

Creepy stuff.

Don't miss Will Wilkinson's comment, it's about exactly how I feel.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Planned Parenthood and pragmatism

Ross joins John Schwenkler in attacking the idea that Planned Parenthood is an organization that should be valued by the pro-life cause:
...that makes it sound like Planned Parenthood almost never performs abortions. Of course, the reality is rather different.... And even if they weren't massaging the numbers - even if their non-abortion business were enormous enough to make that three percent claim legitimate - they would still be performing more than 250,000 abortions a year. That's a 2, a 5, and four zeros....
In other words, the good Planned Parenthood might do in preventing abortions is outweighed by the evil they do in preventing abortion. Isn't there something missing in this equation, though? The people who are arguing that someone like Ross should value Planned Parenthood aren't saying merely that Planned Parenthood does good that should outweigh what Ross perceives as the evil in the abortions they provide. They're saying that Planned Parenthood, on net, prevents more abortions than it provides, from the massive amount of birth control, family planning and emergency contraception they provide. (Before you jump down my throat, please be aware that there is no evidence Plan B ever acts as an abortifacient.)

Now, you can argue with whether or not that's true. Unfortunately, we're talking about hypotheticals here. Ross can count up all the abortions performed by Planned Parenthood, while I can't ever know exactly how many were prevented by the birth control and education provided by Planned Parenthood. How would you even go about defining that? Every time someone has sex while using contraception provided by Planned Parenthood, would that count as a prevented abortion? If so, then Planned Parenthood's number of prevented abortions is orders of magnitude bigger than than the number it has provided. I imagine that Ross wouldn't define it that way. I think the number prevented is a lot higher, but it's unknowable. In this, supporters of PP are kind of disadvantaged in the same way that Conor says economic conservatives are disadvantaged: we can't ever know precisely the amount of good, only the amount of bad.

So I don't think Planned Parenthood is like Hezbollah, building hospitals here, murdering innocent Israelis there. I think, if you believe abortion is murder, it's more like a drug that inoculates against a plague, but kills some of the people who take it-- sometimes it's a killer, but many times it saves lives. (Uh, I think. I'm kind of on shaky ground with this analogy.)

Also relevant-- Ross is the same person who said that the politics of abortion is part of the art of the possible, and stated matter-of-factly that the goal of a pro-lifer is to be pragmatic and reduce the number of abortions in the United States, regardless of whether or not doing so was perfectly in line with pro-life philosophy or principles. So which is it? Is the pro-life cause's duty to lower the net number of abortions or not? If the answer is yes, I can't see how Ross can argue against holding his nose and supporting Planned Parenthood. That's what a pragmatic opponent of abortion's duty would be, and that's the kind of pro-life Ross asserted he was in that older post responding to me.

Update: Hmmm, well the last paragraph doesn't quite follow-- the way Ross could be both an abortion pragmatist and not support (whatever that means) Planned Parenthood is if, as I said was possible, he doesn't actually think they prevent more abortions than they provide. Which brings us back to the unknowability problem.

Update II: "Award-winning columnist, reporter, editor, author, bon vivant and raconteur" Robert Stacey McCain responds to me, or really, responds to my comments on John Schwenkler's response to me, so check both out. Worth saying that I didn't actually call myself a pragmatist; I don't think a fetus has human rights, so there's no conflict for me at all. I have just said, and will continue saying, that if those who are pro-life put on the mantel of pragmatics in the face of genuine philosophical or argumentative inconsistencies, I don't see how they can be so hard on Planned Parenthood. But then, this has been a deeply unhelpful conversation all around, so maybe we should drop it.

Incidentally, I think the problem with Robert Stacey McCain's position is the same one with the conservative position against sex ed: people enjoy having sex and are not going to stop anytime soon. Yes, I know that sometimes politics involves seemingly unlikely dreams; as you know, I'm a big believer in those things. But if I had to make a bet on which political aim was least likely to succeed in the near future, I'd probably go all in on "getting people to have less casual sex."

dastardly readers

I feel like this and this are really acts of preemption. See, if you accuse everyone of lying about how well read they are, you are effectively saving yourself from the position of ever meeting someone who is better read than you are. If someone makes such a claim, well, they're liars. It's a generalizing claim about something that is essentially impossible to disprove, and it invokes some of our most unfortunate urges: anti-intellectualism, reverse snobbery, solipsism. Yglesias and Olmstead are guilty of something I talked about in this article: asserting that others must have a failing as a way to avoid the implication of judgment of their own behavior. I know that Yglesias is specifically referring to some (unconvincing, to my mind) sociological data, but he's still making some pretty unfair claims.

Look: I am a very well-read person, or well read for a 27-year old, anyway. I try never to make that overbearing or to use that as an excuse to self-aggrandize. I think my more loyal readers can probably back me up on that. I just love reading, I always have, and consuming tons of whatever I could get my hands on as a child, I think, has been the most crucial element of my intellectual development. I was actually sociable and popular growing up, but I was also an intense reader, and reading was a deeply lonely activity. I know this is the most banal thought possible on the subject. But being someone who read constantly was always to feel like an outsider or a weirdo. It's not just that people didn't like to read themselves. It's that they had such an aggressive way of insisting that no one could really enjoy reading, that no one could find actual pleasure in challenging reading. Yglesias's comments thread has the inevitable "No one likes Ulysses!" snark going on. Well, I like Ulysses. It's fine if others don't. But what hurts is the suggestion that the only people who claim to like it or works of similar intensity are people who are lying to self-aggrandize. Yglesias and Olmstead take that one further by asserting that not only do most people who claim to enjoy it not enjoy, they must be lying about actually reading it-- an assertion it is almost impossible for an individual to disprove.

Well, no, I don't lie about how much I read. There's been many books I started to read and couldn't get through, and some I own that I've never even gotten the heart up to start. I know that a big reason I continue to read so much is that I have the privilege of the time to do so, which is a function of the personal and professional realities of my life. And, again, there's no judgment of people who aren't similarly addicted to books. I don't look down my nose at anyone who isn't into reading. I just want the right to love books as much as I do, and not to have people assume that my stated appetite for books is a lie intended to make me appear smart (I know how to pronounce Foucault!) or, bizarrely, to get girls. I like reading, I read voraciously, and if you don't, that's cool. I don't want to be too hard on Yglesias and Olmstead. But their posts make a lonely endeavor seem a little lonelier still.

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's eminently clear to me that Megan is unable, due to ideological fidelity, to acknowledge the fact that the UAW has proven much more amenable to making concessions to management than vice versa. She's just not going to say it, no matter how events demonstrate that it's so. That's fine. What I wish is that she would just drop the pretense that there is any situation whatsoever where she would argue on the union side. It would be great if she just said "I'm an anti-union zealot, and whatever the situation, it will be the union I criticize."

There are going to be an awful lot of people in immense hardship in the months to come because of this. If anyone suggests that the economic conservatives who have so gleefully and enthusiastically cheered on the conditions that led to the collapse of the auto industry are being unfeeling, they will of course be derided as shrill and unfair. Certainly, I'm not going to be one to do so. Me, I only have to shake my head at how little has to be done argumentatively to shield oneself of accusations of heartlessness, how little excusing it takes, how quiet the caveats need to be, so parenthetical, so small....

clicking through

Reihan Salam has been pointing out for a long time the ability of the Internet to let people with sympathetic artistic visions find each other, and share their work. There's something to be said for the loss of a communal artistic vision, everybody watching and enjoying the M.A.S.H. finale or similar, the true broadly shared artistic experience. But it does seem to me that this might be gone for good, and the longer we advance in our intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, the more intensely stratified and variegated they become. People will develop tighter and tighter definitions of their intellectual projects, and only the Internet is capable of connecting them with people of closely similar goals. If there is a sadness in the end of the real community-wide intellectual or artistic pursuit, there is joy in the ability of people who have developed intricate philosophies and aesthetics to find others like them in the diaspora. There may no longer be a whole town in the local movie theater watching the newsreels, but there are pomocons and neo-agrarians and radical queer feminist post-structuralist epistemologists, scattered to the winds but united by bandwidth and wi-fi. There's a revolution, in that.

I say this inspired by a Facebook application, of all things. The Graffiti app, like a Paint program for your Facebook, is one of the few Facebook apps that's actually useful and smart and gracefully implemented. Most apps are trash. ("You've been snuggled by Shorty Carbunkle's gay autistic zombie pirate! Snuggle back?") But a few, like Graffiti, are really something. There's an option now where you can replay the artist's every move, which I find endlessly fascinating-- I'm a disaster as a visual artist. Anyway I was looking at some of the public Graffitis, and there are some that, produced by such a simple and limited application, are simply jaw-dropping. And it reminded me again that there are all kinds of genius in the world, that there's a vast variety of really smart and cool people working on many interesting and strange projects. Not all of them will be valuable or affecting to all of us, but almost any of can find something, in the rich ocean of creativity, that touches us. It's a heady time.

Anti-Semitism, Israel, and the INGBs

I'll never forget an argument I had back when I was in high school, in American politics class. I think this was my senior year so it was either fall of '98 or spring of '99. We were talking about gay rights. I made a little speech about what an ardent supporter of gay rights I was. While I did it, though, I was making a caveat every other sentence or so of the type "I'm not gay, but...." When I got done, my good friend Nick raised his hand in that quick way you do when you're ready to shred someone. (I don't know how your classes in high school were, but in most of mine the cadre of kids who were inclined to speak the most in class had a friendly but vicious contest of wills to see who could score the most points, rhetorically.)

Anyway Nick raised his hand and asked why, if I was so accepting of homosexuality, I felt it necessary to qualify most every statement by announcing my heterosexuality. It was, I'm afraid, a perfectly good question, and one of the most direct hits against me in my educational career. I didn't have much to say, but I choked out some lame joke to save face. ("I'm not gay, but I'm pretty sure you're an asshole," I believe.) Couldn't really rebut him, because he was right. (In my defense, it was high school.)

Since then, as much because of the embarrassment of being vulnerable in that way as because of the fact that it was a good point, I take care when I write about gay rights and gay marriage not to spend every other sentence assuring my readership of my heterosexuality. Because it does contribute to the impression that homosexuality is some shame to be denied, and also because, well, who gives a shit? If my ideas and arguments are salient, they are salient regardless of my personal connection to the issue, and I should be smart enough to construct an argument for gay marriage or gay rights that doesn't require my being gay. We have a distressing habit in this country of privileging individual experience over superior logic or evidence, and to our detriment, I think. One of the simple facts of democracy is that people are going to have to make decisions that impact other people's lives, even if they have no real understanding of what it's like to live those other lives. It's inevitable. I do succumb to the temptation, sometimes, but I try to avoid it, and in particular I don't invoke certain aspects of my life history in political argument, for fear of appealing to emotion or individual experience. So anyway, no INGBs ("I'm not gay, but"s) from me.

I was thinking about that when considering this recent post on Israel. Commenter Roque Nuevo has been taking me to task in the comments, with some reasonable questions and some not. He has not, to his credit, accused me of anti-Semitism, but he has made the kind of vague appeals in that direction that you find constantly in this discussion. ("Who but an anti-Semite....") It's got me thinking, as I often do when Israel comes up, about an aspect of the Israeli conversation that is similar, a sort of INGB for discussing Israel. I don't personally spend a ton of time when talking about Israel assuring everyone involved that I am not an anti-Semite. I don't because I don't think it's necessary; the idea that anyone who is critical of certain aspects of Israeli policy must spend half his time denying anti-Semitisim merely plays into the notion that there is something inherently hateful towards Jews in that kind of criticism. That is not true. Israel, a governmental, political body, must be subject to criticism, as any nation-state must, particularly since our strategic alliance makes us investors in the Israeli state. To act as though there is something essentially anti-Semitic in valid criticism of Israel is to give the whole enterprise away, to concede to the most wrong-headed and unfair aspect of our debate about Israel.

I equally feel that there is something ugly in that kind of oft-repeated caveat. It's like the old statement "some of my best friends are black;" even when true, there's something kind of gross about it. And, as much as we should remain open to the very real possibility that any particular debater has what we would consider bigoted attitudes, the assumption should be that they don't. Alan Jacobs wrote very brilliantly about things that should go without saying (look in the comments of that post). It should go without saying that my criticism of the status quo in Israel isn't a product of hatred of Jews. The conflation of Israel and the Jewish people, it seems to me, is a mistake that is made by both zealous supporters of the Zionist mission, and zealous opponents of it. We should avoid that temptation.

But, look, maybe it doesn't go without saying that I am not an anti-Semite. Maybe criticism of Israel is just bound and determined to invite such accusations, whether that's logical or not, and I should make more of an effort to demonstrate, when I talk about Israel, that my opinions are based on both humanitarian/democratic principle, and on my genuine beliefs about what will produce the best outcomes for Israel. So look: my opposition to the continued occupation of Palestine and various Israeli policies therein is based on my belief in democracy. It is simply a crisis for democracy and humanitarianism for a group of people to live within the bounds of control of a nation and be given neither voting rights nor their own, self-determining country. You can solve this problem in one of two ways: you can incorporate the Palestinians in the territories into Israel, with full citizenship and voting rights, a one-state solution. Or you can give the Palestinian territories actual sovereignty and self-determination, with all that entails, a two-state solution. That's what my vision of human rights requires. It also helps that, in my opinion, a resolution to this conflict will be the best vehicle to lasting peace for the Israeli people.

Roque mocked my referring to the Israeli project, but I actually find that an appropriate choice of words. Israel, more than any other nation, is really a project, a mission. The question of whether I support that mission is dependent on how you define it. What exactly the Zionist mission entails is of course a matter of profound disagreement, certainly beyond my ability to divine a proper answer. So am I a Zionist? It depends. I absolutely support the continued prosperity and peace of the state of Israel. The physical security of Israel is non-negotiable. I absolutely denounce any violence against the state of Israel. It's a non-starter. My vision of Israel, though, is a secular state. I don't believe in fundamental religious characters for countries; that is simply contrary to my beliefs in democracy. No Muslim states, no Christian states, no Jewish states, if the world lived according to my preference. As important, Israel has to be a state that extends completely equal rights to non-Jews as Jews. Again, that's just a function of my vision of liberal democracy. Israel should always be welcoming of Jews from around the world as a home and place of safety. But everyone within must be equal. (That's a vision that Israel has satisfied completely, regarding non-Jewish citizens; but work remains to be done, of course, with the dispossessed Palestinian population.)

For some people, denying the Jewish character of the Israeli state makes the idea of a homeland for Jews nonsensical. I don't agree. Some people think that for the Zionist project to be really fulfilled, Israel has to be a religious state. We are not going to agree. But we can admit that our disagreement has nothing to do with hatred of Jews, and I equally think that we can admit that reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about what the best course of action is for the Israeli state.

I continue to resist the idea that I should be making caveats about my abhorrence of anti-Semitism every time I post about Israel. But I don't know. Maybe I really should be doing that, as untoward as it seems to me. It's important to say that there are of course crucial differences between denying homosexuality and denying anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a noxious evil, while homosexuality is nothing of the kind. Confusion about someone's sexual identity can have at worst certain socially awkward situations. Confusion about someone's stance on Jews and anti-Semitism can have much more damaging consequences. Certainly, there remains a hard-core of virulent and corrosive anti-Semitism in the world, and yes, it is particularly a problem within the Arab world.

But these facts remain: it remains true that acting as if critics of certain Israel policies are required to spend half their time denying anti-Semitism essentially confirms the notion that there is something hateful towards Jews in any criticism of Israel. It remains true that there is something self-undermining and troubling in a person constantly stating that they are not anti-Semitic, just as there is something untoward in the person who constantly assures you that he is not an anti-black racist. Perhaps most importantly, just saying it, of course, means very little, and while I can assure you repeatedly that I have no animus against Jews within me, ultimately it's my conduct and my ideas that have to carry the day. The ultimate question, if this is to be a discourse of use and pragmatics rather than one of emotionality, is whether my opinions about what is best for Israel actually produce the best possible outcomes for that country. So I remain uncomfortable with constantly disavowing anti-Semitism when discussing Israel. But I could be wrong; it may be that the terrible history of anti-Semitism requires that I take a more proactive role in denying the very real and very destructive reality of anti-Jewish hatred. I remain open to the possibilty.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Emmet Otter



Christmas always creeps up on me, and I end up feeling like I didn't experience the season when it's over. So I try to watch Christmas specials and shows leading up to the big day. I love Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas, one of flaming lefty Jim Henson's creations. It's great. I particularly love Ma Otter's song, sadly not on Youtube. It's one of those cheesy odes to how the world might be, if people would let go of fear and anger, and stop insisting that idealism is incompatible with the real world. There are often efforts within liberalism to try and downplay or marginalize artistic statements like that, the "Imagine" sentiment within liberalism, because it's not argumentatively helpful; those deriding liberalism leap at hints of idealism or "mushiness". It's easy to caricature those statements, and it's true that they rarely belong in specific policy debate. Yet I find the sentiment contained within those kinds of artistitc statements of idealism essential to the soul of the liberal mission, and I never want it written out of our movement, whatever the tactical costs.

Here's the thing about Emmet Otter: when Emmet's band and Ma (uh, spoilers) lose the talent show to Riverbottom Nightmare Band, there's no suggestion that it was because of cheating or impropriety. That's certainly what you'd expect in a holiday special of the type. But, no-- Ma and Emmet just get beat. It's a pretty remarkable choice, plot wise.

Sæglópur

This song was on a video game commercial last night, if you can believe it, and it reminded me of it. God, I love it so.

the hot stress injection

I think the idea that social or cultural conservatives are generally people who are afraid of sex is little more than a gross caricature. As I've tried to demonstrate, I equally think a lot of self-professed "sexually liberated" people are, in fact, the ones most likely to feel actual fear for sex, because their attempts to make sex mundane are usually about removing the danger, immediacy and emotionality of sex-- that is, the things that make sex so special in the first place. When I hear someone talking about a naked party, sometimes, they may just think that's a way to have a good time, although frankly I think the average naked human, even a particularly attractive one, isn't something you'd like to look at in most social contexts. Very often, though, I think people who are interested in naked parties or the like are people who are paradoxically terrified of sex. They're attempting to de-eroticize shared nakedness. That's not liberating sex from anything, it's robbing sex of its power.

I do think, however, that conservatives allow general unease and fear about sex to carry a lot of rhetorical water for them. It seems to me that often enough, conservatives can just sort of invoke sexual ephemera and conjure emotional reactions, out of proportion with what they've actually proved logically. We're evolutionarily and culturally cued to react to invocations of sex, and I wouldn't want to change that. But I think conservatives, when agitating against this or that current sexual practice, use that general sense of heightened emotionality or stress to rhetorical advantage in a way that doesn't actually benefit the conversation.

I'm not quite accusing James Polous of doing this here. My assumption is just that James is hearkening to previous posts where he's already laid the groundwork of why bisexuality is bad. James certainly isn't one to not do the necessary intellectual homework. But I would have appreciated a link to get at his actual arguments, here. Invoking the painfully obvious does us little good. James has a pretty strong case for the origins of bisexual affect, although I can't accept it on the grounds that I don't believe in one person or another judging the internal sexual and emotional content of another. More to the point, though, that doesn't get us anywhere about why this is all to our detriment as a society.

Of note here is probably my philosophical stance that the best, most humane and liberating framework for understanding human sexuality is to think in terms of sexual behaviors and not sexual orientations.

Update: Just about everyone in comments, or near enough, is telling my I'm a moron for this post. I don't know, I think I'm on to something here. Look I'm not saying "don't go to naked parties, it's immoral." I'm saying "I won't go to a naked party, because I don't think the people involved are accomplishing what they think they're accomplishing; and anyway, I want to keep shared nudity for sex, because I value sex."