Monday, January 30, 2012

it's all fantasy to me

I said this in the comments to my previous post, but it's worth pulling out and repeating: this is all hard for me to discuss because none of it-- loyalty to nation state, loyalty to religion, loyalty to ethnicity-- makes any sense to me, for Israelis or Americans or Iranians or anyone else. I am an internationalist and an egalitarian, and I reject artificial divisions between broad groups of people. Because of the unique history of Judaism and Israel, these issues come up more often, but that doesn't mean the contradictions aren't there for America or any other country. I happen to think that what we butt up against in these discussions is an inevitable tension between the liberal ideal of equality across difference and the dividing lines of national identity.

The issue of divided loyalties rests on assumptions I simply don't hold. As near as I can figure out, the complaint about divide loyalties stems from the assumption that loyalty to one's home country and country of citizenship must always and necessarily be the first and most important loyalty. Suggestions that any individual has loyalties that trump those to the nation state are, in this reading, insulting to that person, and in the case of superior fidelity to Israel, anti-Semitic. Even within the context of nationalism, this does not make sense to me. I don't understand why it is impossible that someone could feel greater loyalty to Israel than to the United States, or why this greater loyalty to Israel would be so horrible. This, after all, is what Ackerman was saying. My commenters yesterday fixated on the term "Israel firster," insisting that the point was whether the term has a bigoted history. But that is not at all what Ackerman said. His entire piece insists that any consideration of a conflict between loyalty to America and loyalty to Israel is prima facie anti-Semitic. It has been pointed out that some people have said quite straightforwardly that loyalty to Israel trumps loyalty to the United States. This observation has been met with total silence.

Set that all aside for now. What use is any of this if we don't assume that loyalty to one's home nation state trumps all? I am an internationalist. I recognize no loyalty to the United States beyond that of personal self-interest. I am legally prohibited from undertaking actions that oppose the security interests of my country, forcing me into a loyalty that I never chose (and thanks for that, nation state). More immediately, there are innumerable advantages to being an American, and I'm thankful for them. But loyalty, against principle or family or friends? I have none at all. I categorically reject any notion that I am duty bound to my country. The nation state is a fantasy, and an explicit one. The founders of the modern nation-state were perfectly frank: they devised it to make militarism and imperialism easier. I find the mythology of patriotism just as disqualifying as the mythology of religion.

Abandon the pretense that loyalty to America is an assumed good, and the whole case against dual loyalties falls to pieces. Nationality, religion, and ethnicity are all constructs, and ones totally incompatible with an egalitarian, liberal political ethic. That the world has not caught up to this fact is irrelevant to me. My distaste for national identity is equivalent whether we are talking about the United States or Iran or Israel or whomever. But in the case of Israel, the embrace of nationalism, and my democratic polity's considerable investment in same, is leading us toward regional war. (In contrast, my democratic polity is investing considerable sums in undermining the nationalist desires of Iran.) For that reason my duty to speak is clear. I can't be accused of "alleging" dual loyalty because I find the assumed loyalty to America unsupportable to begin with.

Perhaps, in the tangled, anachronistic competition between dueling loyalties to country and religion and ethnicity and principle, there are those conventional liberals who express anti-Semitic accusations of dual loyalties at Jewish writers. If so, that's a problem, a very big and very unfortunate problem. But it is most certainly not my problem.

The discussion of the term "Israel firster" has gone almost completely off the rails. Most discouragingly for me, it does not appear to be tied to any coherent attempt to demonstrate that the people accused of using it are actually animated by anti-Jewish hatred. I've never used the term myself. If the etymology of the term is indeed linked to a bigoted past, I think that's a good reason we should all avoid it. Surely the profound issues that confront us are how to speak fairly and constructively about Israel, whether critics of Israel's policies are in fact anti-Semitic, and whether they are motivated to speak by anti-Jewish animus. Glenn Greenwald has been writing online about foreign policy and social justice for half a decade. Has he been motivated by anti-Semitism the whole time? Isn't the purpose of our inquiry here to determine whether Israel's critics are in fact guilty of anti-Semitism? I ask and have asked none of my questions rhetorically. The silence towards simple questions asking for simple answers to simple inconsistencies and contradictions says everything.

How are we to righteously discuss Israel, when Israel's defenders constantly invoke Israel's status as a Jewish state? In that same (execrable) story from yesterday's Times magazine, Ehud Barak insisted that his responsibility included "in a very direct and concrete way... the existence of the State of Israel — indeed, for the future of the Jewish people." As long as Israel's defenders speak this way, Judaism and the Jewish race will be present in the conversation. Are we not adults? Is it really not possible to discuss these issues with enough nuance and care that we avoid saying bigoted things?  Yes, of course, absolutely: anyone who evinces suspicion or antagonism or criticism towards Israel because it is a home to Jews is an anti-Semite, and such people should be treated accordingly. But plenty of people are not doing that and yet are dismissed as bigots regardless. When Norman Podhoretz says straightforwardly that "the role of Jews who write in both the Jewish and general press is to defend Israel," he makes Ackerman's rules nonsensical and impossible.

One day, there will be no nation state. No America, no UK, no China, no Iran, no Israel. Until that time comes, liberals who delude themselves into thinking that they can maintain their ties to exclusive categories like nationality while embracing egalitarianism will struggle with these discussions. Israel simply throws them into sharper, more immediate relief. When an American liberal flails about, trying to define why he should care more about someone born five miles north of the Mexican border than someone born five miles south of it, he is running into the same elementary contradictions that this discussion reveals. The truth is that only with the abandonment of useless, agitating inventions like country or religion or race or people will we find true enlightenment and true justice.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

because policing the discourse is punk rock

Spencer Ackerman is upset that sometimes adults have to speak like adults, and that countries having explicit ethnic or religious characters sometimes makes conversations complicated, and that democracy means having to wade through righteous arguments that sort of look like ugly arguments if you squint hard and read uncharitably and (especially) if you have clear and obvious political motivations for dismissing those arguments. Oh, and Hitler Hitler Hitler.

Whenever I compare these situations to their analogs in discussions of race, or in discussion of other countries like China, the response is always the same: Israel is different. Israel cannot be discussed the way other subjects are discussed. Of course, voiced in a different context, that sort of talk is taken as self-evidently anti-Semitic. You see, it is not merely wrong but anti-Semitic to judge Israel differently than you judge any other nation-- except when it is not merely wrong but anti-Semitic to judge Israel in the same way that you judge any other nation. When it is necessary and convenient, defenders of Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people insist that any discussion of Israel that does not treat it like any other country is offensive. When it is necessary and convenient, failing to note how Israel is not like any other country is offensive. Leap from foot to foot as is necessary to win.

Glenn Greenwald is getting the usual treatment, in large part because he pointed out that taking a loyalty oath to another country might potentially be evidence that one has loyalties to another country. (Imagine that! Swearing loyalty to Israel might give someone the impression you're loyal to Israel!) Is it possible that Israel could have gotten involved in an armed conflict against the United States, during Jeff Goldberg's tenure in the Israeli army? Remember, it is not merely wrong but anti-Semitic to suggest that the relationship between Israel and America is unusually close or complicated. Suggestions that Israel functions militarily as an extension of American armed forces, after all, are routinely dismissed as anti-Semitic. It's therefore possible that armed hostilities could have broken out. So what would have happened, had Israel gotten involved in an armed conflict with America? I don't presume to know the answer to the question. What Ackerman and others are insisting is that any suggestion that Goldberg might have held to his loyalty oath and backed Israel is self-evidently anti-Semitic. Am I guilty of anti-Semitism for even thinking of the possibility? Are thought experiments, predicated on the simply observations that separate countries can go to war, potentially anti-Semitic? Are there any Israeli Americans who might consider their dedication to Israel more important than their dedication to America? Is asking that question anti-Semitic? If an Iranian-American joins the Iranian military, and war breaks out, would asking the same questions be indicative of anti-Persian racism? I no longer know how to even broach the question.

One could go on. As Philip Weiss points out, Ackerman attacks Max Blumenthal for referring to Goldberg as a former Israeli prison guard, which seems like an odd thing to complain about, considering that Goldberg is a former Israeli prison guard and that he was referred to as such on the jacket of his own book. Or we could talk about the fact that Goldberg uses Jewishness as license to psychoanalyze anyone and everyone. He engages in an absurd laundry list of claims about Glenn Greenwald. How does Goldberg know all of this about Glenn Greenwald? The only evidence for all of his claims is that Greenwald is (presumably) Jewish. If you've read Goldberg for as long as I have, you'd know this is his specialty. Once he knows a writer is Jewish, he feels that he has total authority to discuss that writer's character, beliefs, and psychology. That this is the elementary logic of bigotry-- the notion that one can know all of this intimate knowledge about someone thanks to his or her ethnic character-- seems not to bother Goldberg in the least. Perhaps I'll publish a piece psychoanalyzing Goldberg, each observation derived solely from his status as a Jew, and see how long I remain in polite society.

All of this happens for a purpose: to make it clear to anyone who might have a moral conviction about Israel's treatment of the Palestinians scared to talk about it. I know many people who have political stances on everything, and voice them without regard or fear, on questions of race, abortion, poverty, Afghanistan, gay rights, health care.... But about Israel, they won't speak. It has simply been drummed into their heads, by people like Spencer Ackerman, that this is no-go territory for them. They are mostly gentiles, as I am, and they know that speaking on this issue could easily result in accusations of anti-Semitism. So they shut up. And here comes Spencer Ackerman, and his red-baiting essay, and the predictable Hitler graphic. And so the task of pressuring "a recalcitrant Israel to come to its senses, especially about the insanity of attacking Iran" just becomes harder.

If you'd like to consider how a man's obsession with the meta and his social positioning overwhelms his moral and philosophical understanding, just peep the sub-head to this piece.

Note to some of my fellow progressives: If we can’t argue about Israel without using anti-Semitic tropes, then the debate is lost before it even begins

I have to tell you, I just have no idea what that means. Just no idea at all. I can't fathom what that sentiment could entail. Who is the "we" who could possibly win or lose? This is not a debate to be lost by unaffected American writers. It is a matter of vital life and death, for one of the most powerless, beleaguered, and oppressed people on earth. No matter who wins or loses these arguments, the situation in Palestine endures. Ackerman's piece is one written by someone who has become completely unmoored from the actual, physical, material reality that he is purportedly writing about. I assure you: Ackerman, in the context of the conflict, has already won. The losers are the people who live in cities subject to 24 hour curfew, whose communities are illegally encroached on by settlers, whose homes are bulldozed without due process or review, who are intermittently subject to the horrible bloodletting of another Israeli incursion, as they have been for over 40 years. There's none of them in Ackerman's piece. None of them at all.

That it is self-evident that essays like Ackerman's make it materially harder to secure justice for the Palestinians will make no difference to him. He is proudly basking in the approval of people like Jeff Goldberg and Eli Lake, men who have never met an assault on Muslims and Arabs they didn't approve of. For a creature of Washington, as Ackerman is, justice and morality are minor concerns compared to the preeminent priority of securing the blessing of Very Serious People everywhere. Doubt me? Wait and watch, as the usual suspects in Washington flock to his aid. Spencer Ackerman cares more about their approval than he does about the security of the Palestinian people. And now you know his character.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

there are reasons not to go to grad school, but Red Lights is not one of them

Alyssa Rosenberg has an odd post up on her generally excellent blog for CAP.

The essential weirdness here is that Rosenberg is taking the fictional world of a movie and using it as proof positive that you shouldn't go to grad school. Making this even stranger is the fact that she herself admits that the situation in the movie is a fantasy. The plot, apparently, involves two skeptical professors who are losing their prestige within the department and university to a parapsychologist. I am very aware that there are failings in the modern research university, but I assure you, the creeping influence of parapsychology is not among them. So... what?

Rosenberg writes, "No self-respecting university would put this much muscle behind paranormal research, but no matter." Um, why is that no matter? Isn't the plausibility of the given situation precisely at issue when considering if a movie works as a critique of the academy? Rosenberg had very little regard for the movie The Ides of March; I doubt she'd take it as an effective critique of the state of political journalism, precisely because she finds it such an implausible document.

She continues:
Silly stuff, but it conveys some of the desperation of being shut out. I can imagine graduate students struggling to keep their funding will empathize. Ultimately, it’s Sally and Ben who make a critical discovery, rather than Tom, and their revelation turns out not to matter very much anyway. While I won’t reveal it, Tom ends up meeting a more dramatic fate that suggests whatever time and money he spent on his PhD may have been a waste. Academia has rarely looked worse.
 But how is a fictional movie specifically constructed to attack the academy a critique of the academy at all, particularly when the situation has such little relevance in actual scholarship? If the idea is that patronage and personality matter in the university, sometimes to the detriment of scholarship, I am on board with the critique. I must point out that political blogging is among the fields where social capture and patronage dominates the most. (I mean, really.) In any field, any field at all, talent and ability can take a back seat to likeability and social influence. The fact that the university resides in the real world and is subject to all of its problems is not an argument to avoid grad school.

Rosenberg shoe-horns a bit of a critique of the economics of graduate education in, by talking about graduate students who are in danger of losing their funding. This is an issue, though perhaps an overblown one. I've said it a thousand times: don't go to a PhD program if you're not funded, and be ruthlessly mercenary in your professional choices in pursuing this life. (I have myself.) It's just that this a wholly separate issue from which kinds of research and scholarship grant one authority in a given field. The declining fortunes of certain areas of scholarship relative to others is a product of a confluence of political and economic factors, such as the perceived practicality of a field or the ability of research to fund itself.

For the broader issue of graduate school and whether it makes sense, I wrote a long post about this awhile back that I think still stands. To put it simply, there are smart ways and not smart ways to go about graduate school. Sure: many people go and find that they can't get the jobs that they wanted. But many thousands go and find themselves gainfully employed. Individuals have tremendous ability to make sane, informed decisions about whether and how to proceed. As I say in that post, going to graduate school is announcing that you want to be a researcher. Those who attempt to gain entry without doing the necessary due diligence in researching the job market have no one to blame but themselves.

What's more, this is an odd time to critique going to grad school. As I mention in that post, criticisms of graduate school often revolve around opportunity costs. But opportunity costs imply opportunity; for recent college graduates, the job market is terrible to begin with. If you are funded, as you most certainly should be if you are going to get your PhD, your opportunity costs are only as large as the opportunities you actually had. Finally, I will note that, from a social justice standpoint, nobody should be weeping for the plight of the American PhD. The unemployment rate for such people is below 2%, lower than any other education level and far lower than the national average. Sure, there's selection bias and ability effects there, but from the position of social justice, that's irrelevant: people with PhDs are in great shape in great majorities, both in a national and worldwide context.

Even in failing fields, there are more practical and less practical paths, ways to take more or less risks. Choose, take your best shot, and see where you land. That's capitalism.

Ultimately, political punditry's ceaseless war on graduate education comes down to a very strange misreading of what getting a graduate degree means. Pundits and bloggers act as though graduate school has ever amounted to a guarantee of a certain job or a certain lifestyle. But in this system, employment and fulfillment are always a gamble, whether you pursue your dream in a comparative literature department or go full mercenary at a Wall Street bank.

Update: Incidentally, I've gotten some emails saying that I shouldn't have written this; I'm guilty of the sin of taking what Alyssa Rosenberg wrote seriously. Though the emails think that they are defending her, they both, in fact, operate on the principle that she was just a girl writing about movies. I don't play that.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Today on the website of the Atlantic, Emily Richmond has a brief piece that illustrates many of our pathologies about children and disability.

I'm not an unbiased commentator on the particular school district on issue: I am a (proud) product of the Middletown public school system. My eldest niece went to Farm Hill school, where this controversy originated, and my youngest niece attends now. I also have worked at the school district as a substitute teacher, in years past. Most significantly, I worked for a program that was of particular relevance to these issues.

I worked in a special program within the district's elementary school system. It was a program for kids with certain kinds of developmental, social, or cognitive disabilities. Most of the students suffered from some form of severe emotional disturbance; some were autistic and had difficulty making it through their day without attempting to harm themselves or others. The program was housed within a regular elementary school, and some of the students were significantly "mainstreamed" into the general school population, in keeping with the Americans with Disability Act case law. Many students, however, could not attend the regular classes due to the severity of their problems, and the program itself was separate. Support staff were specially trained to physically restrain students when they were a physical danger to themselves or to others. (The state's euphemism for this was "therapeutic hold.") There was also a room that, I suppose, could be referred to as a "scream room": a small space with padded walls, where students could take out their frustrations without the chance of harming themselves. The lock on the door required you to hold down a button, and there was a window in the door, meaning that a member of the staff had to continually stand at the door watching the child. Not that anyone in the program would have just put a child in there and walked away, but it was a good idea to make sure.

I only worked in the program for a little over a year, as I was filling in for a support staff member out on medical leave. I found it very difficult work, both emotionally and physically, and to this day I admire the permanent teachers and staff who worked with these children and attempted to teach them amid all the difficulty. (I should hasten to say that many of the children improved markedly and moved on to regular classrooms.) As most neighboring school districts had no similar program, children were often sent into ours from other towns. For many of these children, the program represented the end of the line; those who proved too difficult even for the special program might well move on to the state mental health system. The educators in the system were doing their best in a very difficult situation, and the compassion, energy, and dedication they showed after decades of doing this work humbled me.

One night, while working for the program, I went out to drinks with a few friends. There was a woman there who I had only met a few times before. I began to talk (in general terms, so as to preserve the privacy of the children involved) about a particularly difficult day from the past week. One of the children had had a major event, throwing chairs, going after his peers, striking members of the staff. As was typical, the heightened tension and emotions of the moment caused some of the other children to escalate and need intervention as well. I talked about it and admitted that the program was become emotionally punishing in a way I wasn't quite equipped to handle.

After talking about it for awhile, the woman I didn't know very well broke her silence and said, "you need to honor that." I told her I didn't know what she meant. She said that, in acting out the way he had, the child was expressing who he was. Our attempts to control his behavior was in fact an unwarranted restriction on a person with a disability. She even analogized our removing him from his peers with preventing a paralyzed person from entering a public building. 

I told her that I didn't see things that way. I pointed out that, had we not intervened physically, he would have hurt himself, the staff, his peers, or all three. I said that I hated when students went into the padded room, as all the staff did, but that there didn't appear to be any other choice that kept the rest of the population of the school safe. I asked her, point blank, what else we should have done, what "honoring" a dangerous and self-destructive behavior could have meant.

She only said again "you need to honor that," and as I could tell she was becoming upset, I changed the subject.

That was an extreme case, but I have come to realize that this idea is pervasive: that any behavior that can be plausibly attributed to a medical or psychological condition is a behavior that must exist free from the appearance of judgment or reproach, particularly in children. Well: it happens that I didn't and don't blame these children, at all. Many of them had lived incredibly difficult lives. I didn't and don't doubt that there are serious medical and psychological issues at hand here. The point was not punishment. The point was that there were no alternatives to removing these children from a position where they could hurt themselves or others. That notion, that physical separation might be the product of pure, grim necessity, is totally absent from Richmond's piece.

In my short time there, I saw students throw desks at their peers with every intention of doing severe bodily harm; I saw a student hit himself in the face repeatedly with a heavy medallion; I saw a girl tear the stuffing out of the wall in the padded room and attempt to swallow it; I saw students struggle with police and EMTs who were attempting to load them into ambulances; I saw kids who were totally out of their own control. I have nothing but sympathy for them and respect for the parents and teachers who work with them day in and day out. My question for those who oppose physical separation is, what else would you do?

We've come to a place in our society where optics are the only prevalent concern in discussions of disability and mental health. What matters is how things look, the aesthetics of our behaviors and language, rather than what is being accomplished. Look at Richmond's piece: these interventions appear archaic, they "silence" troubled schoolchildren, they make them frightened. I'm very sorry for that, I am. I'm very sorry that children have to go through any of this. If I have to choose between silencing a child and letting that child break her own nose, I know which I'm going to choose. I'm sorry if that puts me on the wrong side of an empty, self-satisfied ethic of positivity, of "honoring" conditions that only hurt people's lives. These behaviors are not just different, and they are not the legitimate expression of individuality.

The details matter. How children are treated when they're removed from their peers, how long they are so removed, the level of training the person doing the removal has, the conditions in the separate space... all of these are legitimate subjects of inquiry. Whether physical separation is being undertaken responsibly, and not done merely to avoid working with a difficult child, has to be adjudicated by impartial agencies. But as to the fundamental question, of what critics of physical separation would do with a student who can't be talked out of dangerous behavior? I haven't got a clue.

missed opportunity

The bullying, consensus-enforcing power of the Internet was on full display last week, as the digital jet-set went about paving over anyone who questioned the narrative. SOPA and PIPA were bad laws, terribly bad, and I'm glad they were opposed, but geez. Still, the anti-SOPA movement still lacks an effective spokesperson. Perhaps we need someone who truly represents the revolutionary struggle, speaking truth to power and giving voice to the powerless and afflicted.

 Finally, a hero emerges.

Yes, modern day Robin Hood Kim Dotcom stands apart. He is the brave hero millionaire who will oppose the evil villain millionaires. From the vantage of his fabulous mansion, festooned with luxury and opulence during a global financial slowdown that has impoverished millions, Kim DotCom provides the kind of proletarian credibility the movement has been lacking. True, he's previously been arrested for insider trading and stealing phone card numbers, but hey, victimless crimes, right? (I mean, insider trading-- when have the machinations of stock traders and bankers ever been shown to have negative impacts on ordinary people?) Plus, I'm sure he looks cool when standing next to his fleet of luxury cars. That's got to count for something.

I truly cannot understand the broad swaths of people who look at the MegaUpload situation and continue to speak in the same self-congratulatory terms that have attended the entire anti-SOPA/PIPA fight. Does the fact that the IP reform movement wants broad change mean we can make no distinctions between actors? And don't fool yourself if you think that there is some sort of anti-capitalist bent here. "Freeing" information does not make it free. It only means that you change who gets paid. I know: you hate the music and movie industry. I'm not a fan either. But a site like MegaUpload doesn't make that value magically disappear. It just shifts it to people like Kim DotCom, to the ISPs, to the people who control the server space, to the aggregators and the search engines. And it takes it away from the session guitarists and struggling actors and others who want only to make a decent living producing art. And, yes, to giant soulless aggravating entertainment companies.

Yes, of course: every defendant deserves due process. Of course the fact that the government can do so much without proper due process is atrocious. That ship has sailed, hasn't it? When I bring this argument up to progressives about Obama, I'm told that civil liberties are a niche issue nobody cares about. When it comes to MegaUpload or torrenting, suddenly, due process is imperative. It doesn't say much about our current character that due process becomes important when it comes to downloading IP, and not when it comes to Guantanamo. And if we're asking for procedural justice here, doesn't consistency require that we ask what procedural justice exists in what MegaUpload does? I keep reading posts that demonstrate the limited economic impact of piracy. Is there no consideration of whether IP violations are right or wrong?

Those who spend lots of time on the Internet have a bad habit of believing that they represent the public. Ask the makers of the NBC show Community; they'll disabuse you of this notion. The fact of the matter is that there is a broad majority of Americans who have little or nothing in common with the blogging set, and ultimately the appeal for a saner set of IP laws has to be made to them. Now imagine: you are a typical recession-hit American. You've heard about the SOPA fight. You're sympathetic, to the degree you understand the issues in play. How are you going to feel, when you see the same people who opposed SOPA rallying around a German millionaire, living in absurd opulence in New Zealand, by providing digital content without compensating the people who made that content?

I have asked and asked and asked for those who keep arguing against IP law, in totally black and white terms, to consider those at the bottom in the content-generation world. No one has ever even attempted to answer my questions, instead preferring to complain about me (as is typical). I love the writing program Scrivener, a labor of love by a particular person with a tiny company, the kind of company where small differences in profit and sales can mean everything. Can you easily download a cracked version of Scrivener? Do you even need to ask? Look: I believe that in this capitalist system, those who work hard to create valuable digital content have the reasonable right and expectation to be fairly compensated for that content. I have previously mentioned the unauthorized downloading of the Humble Indy Bundle, a package of games by independent developers, offered on a "pay what you can" basis for charity. Yet these conversations constantly devolve into the flatly untrue notion that people only download IP from large corporations or rich people. There appears to be no coordinated movement online to discourage or stigmatize such a practice. And it's precisely those at the bottom end of the power and profit spectrum who are the most vulnerable. Ultimately, the point isn't the companies and products I can name, it's those who were strangled in the cradle in the first place. Sure, Jay-Z can make a living selling Vitamin Water and champagne. The artist who you'll never hear because of the collapse of the music industry has no such luxury.

At some point, you have to ask: do people who produce the cultural and media objects we love deserve to be compensated for their work? And will those cultural and media objects continue to be created if the answer is no?

The IP debate is the purest expression of a contemporary American conceit: that we can have whatever we want at no cost, that digital technologies have meant the end of the class antagonism that animates human history, that you can identify goodies and baddies and proceed accordingly. Every political question is a battle between winners and losers, every last one. And in this battle, you want me to rush to the aid of someone like Kim Dotcom? No thanks. The information is never free. Somebody gets paid. The question is, which soulless millionaires and corporations do you want to pay? The ones who made the content, or the ones who didn't?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chinese lobby, Israeli lobby revisited

Three and a half years ago, I tried to draw a particular parallel, which I think is still relevant today.
Remember how, during the later stages of the Clinton administration, a popular right-wing meme to attack the Clinton White House was to say that the Chinese lobby was too powerful? That the Clinton administration was in thrall to the Chinese, that there was too much Chinese money and influence within the administration and other elements of Democratic party leadership? It was a favorite talking point of Rush Limbaugh et al.

Now, do you remember a hew and cry about anti-Chinese racism following those accusations? Did anyone get pilloried for suggesting that the Chinese government's lobby was overly influential? Did merely asking the question mean that, ipso facto, the asker was an anti-Sino bigot? Was the rise of these questions seen as portending the rise of the "new anti-Chinese racism"? Were there articles full of stern warnings about the great danger to the average Chinese person posed by these questions of Chinese influence on American government affairs?

Of course not. Because there was and is a Chinese lobby, a lobby for Chinese interests, as there is for just about any country of a certain minimum level of power. And it was appropriate to ask whether that lobby's relative strength compared to other lobbies was a detriment to the overall interests of the United States. It wasn't racist to ask because the country of China is a political, governmental body, not a race or ethnicity, and the country of China has interests that (believe it or not) are not always 100% congruent with the interests of the United States. And asking whether or not what the lobby wanted was in the best interest of the USA was no insult to the people of China, or of Chinese descent. It made no statement whatsoever, as a matter of fact, about the merits of the Chinese people at all. Accusing Rush Limbaugh or anyone else of anti-Chinese racism would have been a non sequitur.
I was drawing a connection, of course, with Israel. It's important to say (and I said at the time) that context is everything when it comes to histories of oppression. While there is a long and corrosive tradition of anti-Sino racism in the United States, and that tradition includes the idea that the Chinese are corrupt schemers, this is not the same as American anti-Semitism, particularly where conspiracy theorizing is concerned. However, the major point remains: we generally understand that in the context of international relations it is inevitable and necessary to discuss the conduct of different countries, and that we can and must recognize a difference between criticizing the actions of a country and expressing bigotry against its people. Criticism of a Jewish state is an inevitable byproduct of the existence of a Jewish state. That's life.

Ultimately, the major problems in our discussions of Israel stem from the desire of many defenders of Israel to have it both ways: they want at once to point out (reasonably and righteously) that it is offensive to judge a nation's people for its actions, but also to insist (unreasonably and unfairly) that judging a nation's actions is the same as expressing bigotry for its actions.

If your interest is only in reducing criticism on the Israeli state, the path is the same as it has been for 45 years: end the unconscionable oppression of the Palestinian people.

Monday, January 16, 2012

It's not about Ron Paul. It's about you.

A hole dug to excavate a mass grave in Amalpura, via Fourth World Post
When I was a child, we would travel to Indonesia, where my father conducted his research. It was the time of Suharto. His research mostly took place in Bali, where, due to the high concentration of tourists, the regime was careful to limit its presence, but still the signs were there. Every once in a while, a black army truck, filled with soldiers; your odd military checkpoint; and, always, Indonesian friends and peers of my father who were critical of the regime, and afraid. It was difficult for Western academics. No one wanted to be a collaborator, and among the many I met, none had anything but disgust for the Suharto regime. But to complain publicly risked being barred from the country, which did no good for anyone. I believe the tension haunted him.

When I was thirteen I took a trip with him there, just the two of us. One night, he woke me gently and led me outside, where one of his Balinese friends waited for him. We were in the village, inland, where few tourists ventured, at least at that time. We got in a bemo and drove for awhile, and when we got out, my father led me by hand in the moonlight to a mass grave.

We met an old man there. If you know the right people and know how to ask, you can still find them, I'm sure, older Indonesians who will tell you the stories. He walked us over to the roadside-- I have no idea where we were, geographically-- and showed us a shaded ditch. It was dark, and anyway, there was nothing to see. Just dirt, just earth. You would never have known that bodies were piled underneath, just a few feet down. The older man started speaking and my father spoke to him. (He spoke such wonderful Indonesian, and serviceable Balinese, I envy it even now.) He translated for me, briefly. I bent over and put my hand on the dirt. I tried to imagine my own family, what was left of it then, crammed down underground, with dozens of others. I tried to do whatever I could to make it real. The dirt made it corporeal. It was something I could touch, lay my hand on. I have never been the same, never.

Then we drove home and I went back to sleep.

I don't know if that grave was one of the few to be opened and explored. Even now the Indonesian government broadly obstructs attempts to investigate the events of the Year. The "conservative estimate"-- that is, the one that won't get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People-- is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You've heard it before. You've likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don't deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don't even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You'd be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.

If you think that 1965 is ancient history, and that you are thus free from the burden of responsibility, I would remind you that the Clinton administration backed the Indonesian government in its atrocities against East Timor, where perhaps a third of the population was murdered; that Dennis Blair, former Obama intelligence official, had direct authority in our support of those war crimes; and that today, the Indonesian military is doing this to the people of West New Guinea:

I hardly need to tell you that our support of Indonesia and its military is ongoing. We are up to our elbows in the current regime, just like we were with the Suharto regime. (A Clinton apparatchik called him "our kind of guy.") And in a democracy that makes it our responsibility. A foreign army that takes our money and our training and applies them to the harassment, oppression, and murder of its own people-- that's our responsibility. Yours and mine.

I know very well how this will go over. I know that this kind of talk is anathema to a new American liberalism that values only jokey cynicism and has contempt for the plain expression of values. Perhaps there's much to mock in my story; "he touched the earth!" I was thirteen, after all. But I was permanently changed, and I'm glad that I was, and I'm not ashamed to say so, however that might be taken by others.

Were I to allow comments on this post, I would immediately be greeted by the usual contention that I am being sanctimonious or self-righteous, or that I'm merely posturing, or that I'm trying to be leftier than thou.... In other words, the subject would change immediately from our country's actions and their human consequences to me and my failings. The message would get lost in a consideration of the messenger. When confronting establishment progressives with the reality of our conduct and how much it has cost some of the poorest and most defenseless people on earth, the conversation never stays about our victims; it inevitably changes to those attempting to talk about them, a knee-jerk defense that progressives have made an art form. That's why Ron Paul is so perfect, for establishment liberals. He is an open invitation to change the subject. The United States keeps killing innocent people, keeps propping up horrific regimes, keeps violating international law, keeps trampling on the lives of those who lack the power to defend themselves-- but Ron Paul is a racist, and believes in the gold standard, and opposes abortion, and in general supports some of the most odious domestic policies imaginable. What I insist, and what people like Glenn Greenwald keep insisting, is that Ron Paul's endless failings shouldn't and can't exist as an excuse to look away from the dead bodies that we keep on piling up. What I have wanted is to grab a hold of mainstream progressivism and force it to look the dead in the face. But the effort to avoid exactly that is mighty, and what we have on our hands is an epidemic of not seeing.

I could never vote for Ron Paul, for a thousand reasons. I have been arguing against many of his policies and the worldview that generated them for the entirety of my adult life. But I have to value his voice in the national debate because almost no other national political figures will raise these issues at all. I would love if these issues were being expressed by politicians and pundits who combined them with righteous views on domestic policy. But here, too, mainstream progressivism deserves a great deal of blame. Left wing politicians like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich have embraced discussion of foreign policy and civil liberties, and for their trouble they have been dismissed as unserious by the self-same progressives who now dismiss Ron Paul's ideas. For far too long, mainstream progressives have signaled their "seriousness" precisely by denying the validity of people like Kucinich or Sanders, so taken with some bizarre definition of the reasonable that they effectively silence the leftist non-interventionists they say they want. If you want left wing criticism of our militarism and surveillance state, stop ridiculing those who express it.

The notion that there is something less disqualifying about support for murder and oppression than support for regressive and racist policies cannot stand scrutiny. The right to not be killed precedes all other rights. It is the foundation on which all other rights rest. What value can any rights have if they are not protected by a right to not be killed? Freedom of expression is no solace to a corpse. Likewise, what value do other rights have if those rights are not protected by rights of the accused? There is no value in freedom of assembly or religion if you can be thrown into a cage without a trial where you can invoke those rights. The right to protest has no meaning if the executive can respond to that protest by killing you without accountability, legal challenge, or review. Civil liberties are not merely right on principle. They are the necessary bedrock on which all conduct in a free society must rest.

What political philosophy supports this dismissal? Liberalism? Liberalism insists that all people, including poor Muslim people in antagonist nations, have equivalent rights. Egalitarianism? I can't imagine a greater failure of egalitarianism than the endless attempts to minimize and justify our crimes against those who have the bad fortune of not being American, or white, or affluent, or influential. I've seen them dismiss and deflect and deny and ignore conduct against poor children in Yemen they would never countenance in Baltimore. I've seen them put "dead Muslim child" in scare quotes, as if we haven't killed them, as if talk about them is some sort of con or game.

The whole argument has revealed American progressives at their absolute worst: incurious about the bad consequences of their positions; totally convinced that righteousness in intent can only lead to righteousness in effect; preemptively contemptuous of criticism from the left; dismissive of arguments that they themselves made under the last administration; and ultimately just as partisan as the conservatives they railed against three short years ago.

I want those who profess belief in liberalism and egalitarianism to recognize that they are failing those principles every time they ignore our conduct overseas, or ridicule those who criticize it. What I will settle for is an answer to the question: what would they have us do? If you can't find it in you to accept our premises, at least consider what you would do if you did. For those of us who oppose our country's destructive behavior, there is no place to turn that does not result in ridicule. Every conceivable political option has not only been denied by establishment progressives, but entirely dismissed. The idea that one should criticize the President from the left is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The notion of primarying President Obama is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The idea of supporting a candidate from a different party is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. Every conceivable path forward, for those of us who demand change in our conduct overseas, is preemptively denied. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. What am I supposed to do?

Update: Robert Farley has some powerful objections. I suppose I am using Paul as a proxy for my anger and disappointment that no credible alternatives exist. I appreciate Dr. Farley taking the post seriously.

Update II: I want to stress again, as this has been a source of consistent confusion in this debate, that I don't and couldn't support Ron Paul's bid for the presidency, on any number of disqualifying issues. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

taking my medicine department, Dana Stevens edition

Just a note: years ago, I wrote a snotty post about Dana Stevens's work as film critic at Slate, over at the American Scene. While I don't take back all of the specific points I made in that post, I have since regretted it, and talked about the reason for my regret and the nature of the Internet here.

Anyway-- to take it a step further, just let me say that I loved this year's installment of the Slate Movie Club, and I found Stevens to be engaging and well-written in her role as host.

anonymous commenting

My father once told me that in a free society, you say what you want to say and then sign your name to it. That's why I've always used my real name, always, in Internet commentary. That's the reality of accountability. It's no coincidence, meanwhile, that usually my anonymous commenters are the most nakedly establishmentarian or tribalist, constantly dinging me for not being a member of the Cool Kid Crew, not being a pro blogger, violating the "consensus," and all the usual attempts at disqualifying me that I've experienced for the last five years. At the same time, I am somewhat disturbed by the requirement for people to create accounts or identities online that might track them or whatever, and my general policy is just to let any non-spam comment stay.

So here's my compromise: anonymous comments won't be blocked or deleted, and other readers or commenters are free to read them and engage or whatever. For myself, this will be my personal policy towards them, as well as the perfect visualization of my attitude towards those who get on me for not being well-behaved, deferential towards power and influence, or apologetic:

Update: Psuedonyms are fine, but please pick one and stick to it. Even if you're just telling me how much of an asshole I am each time you post.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

my old piece on conservatism

In light of the success of Corey Robin's book, which I'm planning on reading soon, I thought I'd link to this piece I wrote about the death of certain desirable traits within conservatism awhile back. You'll note that my piece diverges from Robin's thesis, which is in partthat conservatism never had the kind of prelapsarian identity that my piece in part alludes to. To this I would just say that my major point was identifying two major strengths typically ascribed to conservative philosophy. If this stemmed from an unrealistically positive portrayal of the intellectual roots of conservatism, that's a failing, but I'd maintain that the argument for those two major insights is still germane.

Incidentally, the date on the piece is wrong; it was published right around when Scott Brown won his Senate seat, which is referenced in the piece.

Friday, January 6, 2012

the college "bubble" continued

So here's this chart, via Yglesias. (I don't know the original source of the chart.) It shows that, as you'd expect, the recent growth in employment is concentrated among college graduates. This is both unsurprising and sad, and based on conditions both fair and unfair. Anyway, that's the reality: it's good to have a college degree.

A few months ago, some bloggers and online chatterers decided that there was a college bubble, and that getting your degree was no longer important or worthwhile. I choose the word "decided" carefully. This story was never really based on evidence. It was really a matter of conjecture and narrative. As was pointed out at the time, empirical studies that specifically controlled for selection bias have consistently found a significant college wage premium. Yet over and over again, bloggers and online opinion writers pushed the narrative that college was a poor investment. I remember Tyler Cowen, at the time, naturally asked what particular methodological criticisms these bloggers had with the extant research, but he never seemed to receive an adequate response. (Sorry for the lack of link, I can't find the post I'm looking for.) Maybe the college wage premium will be found empirically to have dissolved, and I've said many times that undergraduate education is ludicrously expensive. I've also offered many suggestions for why that is and how it can be changed. For now, though, the evidence is still that college is a wise investment in the contemporary American economy.

I was going to start linking to prominent examples of this phenomenon, but I gave up after seeing the dozens I had to choose from. You couldn't swing your arm without hitting a blogger making this dubious assertion. But why?

I'm on record as saying that I think that journalism and the professional opinion making professions are in a kind of resentful turf war with the academy over who gets to make knowledge and who gets to pursue the truth. I also think that a lot of this attitude was straightforwardly driven by bias and interested parties; many conservatives and libertarians distrust and resent the university generally, and the people who populate college faculties. There was always a lot of wishful thinking in the insistence on a college bubble. You would have hoped, though, that the consistent findings of empirical evidence would have splashed cold water on this phenomenon. But once it got rolling, nobody seemed able to stop it with reference to the real world. Enough connected and influential people wanted it to be true, so they represented it as true.

Blogging gets criticized often for being too meta or navel-gazing. Yet I confess that I don't see enough consideration of this kind of issue, the odd ways in which likeminded bloggers share bad ideas and justify poor reasoning. I still find a profound lack of bloggers asking simple questions: how do we as bloggers make knowledge? What are the internal systems of accountability to keep us from getting things wrong? What checks and balances work within blogging to orient us towards truth and to punish getting it wrong? What constitutes a settled argument? How do you know success when you find it? What mechanisms ensure reconsideration of received wisdom and previous opinion?

There are many, many problems with the way that universities generate knowledge. I could recount a host of pathologies within the system to you. But I also know that there is a mechanism for accountability, that it is regular and systematized, that it is inadequately but genuinely tied towards professional advancement, and that there are baked-in elements of critique and reform that can, if we're lucky, fix the things that are broken. I just don't see anything similar in blogging, and worse, I see widespread defensiveness and resistance from bloggers when the subject comes up.

Update: The inevitable whinge from the well-remunerated but wildly sensitive professional Matt Yglesias: "Certainly Freddie could stand to interrogate his own extremely sloppy analysis offered in that post."

As I thought I made clear, I am not offering an argument for a college wage premium in this post. I am pointing out that peer-reviewed, empirical literature that specifically corrects for selection bias has found a consistent and large college wage premium. I'm not trying to prove that myself, as a blog post is a poor forum for such a thing. Indeed, blog posts are poor for proving many kinds of claims. As Yglesias's output proves, they typically house those claims that are specious, purely speculative, and driven by personal resentment. Yglesias and people like him have exploited a unique historical moment in order to get paid to throw out wild speculation without accountability or evidence.

If Yglesias wants to challenge those peer-reviewed studies, he should generate empirical scholarship of his own, or he should find and identify specific disqualifying methodological issues within them. He won't, though, because he can't, because he has no formal training or qualifications whatsoever beyond his Harvard philosophy degree. An impressive achievement that I respect, by the way, tempered only by the knowledge that Yglesias has lived a life of affluence and privilege, attending high-profile and extremely expensive private academies, which according to both anecdote and empirical study confer massive benefits in gaining entry into the world of elite colleges.

Update: But then, I'm also overreacting. You know how I am.

In unrelated news, I hate the Internet.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

the tribe