Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reflections on Israel and Liberalism

I have been pondering a lot lately the question of why there seem to be so many liberal intellectuals who are opposed to Israel. The Jewish conservative would no doubt tell me that it shows the fundamentally morally bankrupt nature of liberalism as a whole. I cannot accept this answer, not only because I believe in many of the tenets of liberal ideology, but also because there is no logical connection between opposition to Israel and any other liberal idea. On all of the hallmarks of the traditional liberal agenda, like civil rights, workers’ rights, and the environment, Israel is leagues ahead of any of its neighbors, and historically, liberals were consistently among Israel’s strongest defenders. To be sure, Israel, like all countries, has room for improvement in many areas. If their issue was only with specific policies, they could work within the democratic system to change those policies, as they do in all of the world’s great democracies. Yet, the rhetoric coming of so many liberal intellectuals amounts to delegitimizing the very entity of the Jewish state.

Some would like to chalk these people’s opposition to Israel to mere antisemitism. While I do not deny that this is probably the case in some instances, I have a hard time believing that so many people who are so careful to remove any trace of prejudice from their heart in all other areas would suddenly fall prey to old-fashioned antisemitism. Still others would claim that the real problem stems from ignorance. They look at the situation superficially. They see that the Palestinians look weaker, assume they are the victim, and reflexively support them without looking into the real details or history of the conflict. Once again, while this may be true some of the time, I cannot accept that these people who clearly think on a very sophisticated level in everything else they study, would suddenly give in to intellectual sloth when it comes to Israel.

Where I believe the real answer lies is in a subtle but significant shift in liberal ideology itself. I would term this the shift from modern liberalism to postmodern liberalism. Modern thought is characterized by a rejection of prejudice and superstition in favor of an epistemology that relies entirely on reason in its pursuit of an absolute and universal truth. For the modern liberal, the most significant truths are the notion that all people are entitled to the same basic rights and the notion that government can have a positive role in making people’s lives better without interfering with their personal decisions. I stress that this is a universal idea and it gives us an objective yardstick by which to measure the moral development of any society. Furthermore, one who truly believes these ideas will want to export them the world over in order to improve the lives of all human beings. The debate of whether liberalism should be exported militarily is a pragmatic debate over whether this means is actually effective.

Postmodern thinkers, by contrast, reject any notion of absolute truth. The very concept of truth, they would claim, is merely a product of our prejudices and biases. Every person has his or her social, cultural, or historical narrative, within which certain ideas may make sense, but nothing can be claimed with objectivity outside of the narrative. To the postmodern liberal, the idea is that we should all ultimately evolve to an enlightened, postmodern way of thinking. In doing so, we will come to respect the differences in one another’s narratives and promote tolerance and diversity and the well-being of all. The political idea of the modern liberal that it is not the role of government to tell people how to behave has, for the postmodern liberal, become a philosophical idea that there is no objectively right or wrong way to behave. The idea of exporting liberalism militarily, far from being a pragmatic debate for the postmodernist, is fundamentally wrong. We have no right to try to force ideas which make sense within our narrative on people who do not share that narrative.

What does the postmodernist do when two narratives are fundamentally incompatible? This is essentially what is happening any time there is conflict in the world. However, when the conflict is between two undeveloped societies, it can be attributed to a lack of postmodernist context. They are fighting because they have not yet reached the level of intellectual sophistication to respect each other’s narratives. The real problem arises when there is conflict between a developed society and an undeveloped one. The developed society is expected to respect and accommodate the other side’s narrative, and in doing so, the undeveloped society will, of course, learn to respect and accommodate them.

Unfortunately, real life does not always work this ideally, and this brings us back to Israel. The Palestinian narrative calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and in the case of Hamas, the entire Jewish people. It is a narrative that fundamentally cannot coexist with the Israeli narrative, no matter what Israel’s borders are. Every attempt by Israel to accommodate the needs of the Palestinians has been met by more and more violence, and Israel has been forced to use its military to defend its citizens. However, the use of military force by a developed nation against an undeveloped one is automatically viewed as sinister to the postmodernist. It is immediately assumed to be an act of imperialism; of trying to force your narrative on another people, the cardinal sin of postmodernism. It may begin with Israel, but ultimately a liberalism that no longer has an objective moral yardstick by which to measure competing narratives will wind up supporting not only Hamas, but a great many other illiberal causes, all in the name of tolerance and diversity. The true believers in the original ideals of liberalism, modern liberalism, must reclaim the mantle from the postmodernists, not only for the sake of Israel, but also for the sake of liberalism.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Israel's "Disproportionate Force"

Israel has once again been condemned by most of the world for its defensive actions. This time, Israel was smart enough to videotape the events. Not that that has made one iota of difference in terms of how Israel's critics react. Those who have even a shred of integrity obviously cannot buy into the unprovoked violence story being promoted by the knife-wielding "peace activists." Instead, they fall back on the criticism of Israel for using "disproportionate force."

Frankly, the whole notion of disproportionate force never made sense to me. Who made up the rule that if you're attacked, you can't defend yourself with any weapon more powerful than the one you're attacked with? If my life is threatened, I want all the disproportionate force I can get. Furthermore, I don't think I'm going out on a limb with this view. When have you ever heard the idea of "disproportionate force" invoked for any purpose other than condemning Israel? The only possible exception would be when the attacker's force is obviously non-lethal. But a knife is just as lethal as a gun, and when you use lethal force, you invite lethal force being used in return. Where else in the world would a soldier or police officer be condemned for shooting someone who came at him or her with a knife?

Obviously, even when your life is being threatened, you shouldn't rush to use lethal force in response. If you can save yourself without it, that is certainly to be preferred. I am sure Israel will investigate the events and determine if the level of force used was appropriate. However, we should recall that it is not reasonable to demand complete rationality of thought from someone when their life is being threatened.

Some have blamed Israel for allowing this confrontation to occur by boarding the boat in the first place. But what other option did they have? They could have let the boat through, thus rendering the blockade meaningless and risk the potential smuggling of arms into Gaza. I suppose this is what most of the world would have preferred. However, when Israel is not involved, international law clearly recognizes a country's right to block arms shipments to its enemy. Once again, Israel is just not entitled to defend itself. Alternatively, Israel could have minimized the risk to its soldiers by blowing the whole damn ship out of the water. That really would have been unprovoked violence, so clearly was not a serious option. Or they could board the boat to search for weapons and hope for the best. Clearly the best did not occur.

Besides being contradicted by videotape, the other side's version of events is just patently absurd. Israel knows they cannot use force without the world condemning them. They would have no motivation to use force at all, let alone unprovoked, if they did not absolutely need to. The world's reactions reveals a massive confirmation bias. The only way you could possibly believe the other side's narrative is if you already believe Israel is a rogue, lawless, maybe even evil, state. If you believe Israel is a civilized, developed nation committed to the same ideals of justice as other civilized, developed nations, then even if the soldiers did use excessive force, you would trust the Israeli government to be able to police itself. No one calls for international investigations when someone is shot in France, because we trust the French justice system. On the other hand, if someone was shot in North Korea, there well might be calls for an international investigation, because nobody trusts the North Korean justice system. Most of the world clearly views Israel as more similar to North Korea than to France. How sad.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gates and Crowley: Police Misconduct Irrespective of Any Racial Issues

The debate over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has fallen along typical ideological lines. The liberals rush to the defense of Prof. Gates, and accuse the police of racial profiling. The conservatives rush to the defense of the police force, deriding anyone who talks of race as being “the real racists” (cf. Yasser Arafat calling Golda Meir “the real antisemite”). The problem with this simplistic analysis of the situation is that it conflates two issues that are not necessarily dependent on each other:
1) Were the actions of the police racially motivated?
2) Were the actions of the police justified?

In fact, Prof. Gates did himself a disservice by immediately claiming to be the victim of racial profiling. In doing so, he put people in the position where if they disagree with his assessment, they feel obligated to defend the actions of the police, and anyone who criticizes their actions is assumed to be agreeing with him that the case was racially motivated. This is evidenced by the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association’s statement that they resented President Obama’s implication that race was a factor in the arrest. In fact, President Obama said no such thing. He carefully chose his words to say the police acted “stupidly” and did not accuse them of racism. However, because of the way Prof. Gates had already framed the case, people assume that a criticism of the police’s actions are a tacit way of implying racism.

There is little evidence to suggest that officer Crowley was racially motivated. He was doing his job in responding to a call, and seems to have an excellent track record on race relations. None of this means, though, that he was justified in arresting Prof. Gates. While nothing in this incident would indicate that Prof. Gates is a racist, or “reverse racist” as some conservatives have suggested, he does seem to be a bit paranoid. However, given the history of relations between police and minorities in America, one cannot entirely blame him for that paranoia. Furthermore, let us try to put ourselves in his shoes. He just got back from a trip to China. He’s tired. He’s jetlagged. He’s frustrated because he had trouble getting his door open. And no sooner does he get it open than the police show up accusing him of breaking in. There is no doubt he overreacted, but very few of us would not have been irritable under those circumstances. Officer Crowley should have been more sensitive to this. He should have just apologized for the misunderstanding and walked away. To arrest him was indeed, as President Obama said, acting “stupidly.”

However, “acting stupidly” does not go far enough in describing officer Crowley’s actions. One can easily argue that Prof. Gates acted stupidly as well, but their actions are not at all comparable. Prof. Gates may have been rude and unfair in how he spoke to the officer, but he broke no law. A person has freedom of speech in this country and a person may be as disorderly as he wants in his own home. He posed no threat to anyone and was not creating any kind of public nuisance. Instead of acting professionally, officer Crowley let Prof. Gates’ comments anger him personally, and then used his power to arrest to settle a personal grudge instead of to enforce the law. That’s not just stupid. That’s abuse of power. That’s illegal, and for that he deserves to be disciplined, and perhaps sued for false arrest. A person who would use his police powers for such extralegal purposes is not someone I would ever want carrying a gun. So let’s be clear about things: while both Prof. Gates and officer Crowley may have acted stupidly, only one broke the law, and that was officer Crowley.

Even though the actions of the Cambridge police department in this particular incident were probably not racially motivated, there are lessons it can teach about race relations for police departments all over the country. The wounds inflicted by the police on minority communities through years of discrimination and racial profiling are still not healed. Those departments that are still profiling obviously need to stop immediately, but even for those that aren’t, their responsibilities are not done. It is not enough to simply treat members of the minority community the same way they treat members of the white community. They must treat minorities with extra sensitivity. They must recognize that history gives the minorities every reason to be suspicious of the police. The onus of responsibility is on the police force to make an extra effort to undo the damage and mistrust they wrought. Only then will we be able to truly put our disgraceful past behind us and have a police force that can effectively protect all of the residents of this great land.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It turns out I don't get so worked up about things when it's not an election year, which means I'm obviously writing a lot less often. Of course, pressing issues worth commenting on do still come up from time to time. I can usually express my views in short sound bites, which I will first try to send as a letter to my local newspaper. When they don't print it, I will proceed to publish it here. So here are two letters I wrote recently:

On Judge Sotomayor and the Ricci case:

Legal precedent prior to Ricci v. Stephano was clear that in cases where an employment qualification showed disparate racial impact, the side arguing that it should be used anyway had the burden of proof to show it was fair. The New Haven firefighters certainly did not meet this standard. In its decision, the majority of the Supreme Court essentially chose to reverse this precedent, and put the burden of proof on the other side to show the measure was not fair. We can obviously argue over which is a more equitable standard, but there is no question that Judge Sotomayor was following established legal precedent when she issued her ruling. I find it interesting that conservatives are now arguing that she should have ruled based on her personal sense of fairness rather than on the legal precedent. Isn’t that what they used to call “judicial activism”?

And on healthcare:

I find it ironic that the Republicans are trying to raise the scepter of financial responsibility in their criticisms of the Democrats’ health care proposals. They clearly didn’t care about deficits during the eight years they were bestowing lavish government handouts on the very rich. But now that the government might do something helpful for people who actually need it, this we can’t afford?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Health Care Reform

I've been trying to go somewhat cold turkey from politics, so it wouldn't completely take over my life. I do need to get other things done. This is why I haven't written in quite some time. I wrote the following letter to my local paper on the topic of health care policy. It didn't get published there, so I figured I might as well publish it here.

Many Republicans have announced that they cannot support President Obama’s health care plan if it includes a public alternative, on the grounds that this will bankrupt the health insurance industry. This may or may not be true, but it is not something we should be afraid of. If those who believe health care can be most efficiently provided by the private market are right, a public alternative will not bankrupt them. They will respond to the public competition by providing even better quality, more cost-effective coverage, and people will choose them over the public option. If they cannot compete, it will have proven that those who believed health care could be most efficiently provided by a public, single-payer, not for profit system were right. Either way, the people get the best quality health care, which is what the goal of health care policy should be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Should Obama's First Priorities Be?

Obama has opportunities to make progress in many, many arenas. Healthcare, jobs, the environment, just to name a few. However, for me, as a Jew, there is one issue that stands out above all others, that I really hope will be his top priority when he takes office. That issue is civil liberties. For 8 years, the Bush administration has been putting the US Constitution through a shredder in the name of maintaining security. Suspending habeas corpus, illegal warrantless wiretaps, torture, a general attitude that the president is above the law, and can ignore congress as he sees fit. And those are just the things we know about. Many of these things remind me of Germany in the 1930s before World War II, as they started to take similar rights away from the Jews, and consolidate the power in the hands of the executive. Now, I am not trying to suggest that George Bush is anywhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler. I know some of my friends have chided me that Bush is just using these tools to fight terror, and as long as I'm not a terrorist, or associated with terrorists, I have nothing to worry about. However, once the precedent is set that the government need not respect these kinds of rights for its citizens, there is no way to predict who they will use it against in 20 or 50 years. As a student of Jewish history, I feel I have good reason to believe they will ultimately turn against the Jews. Every society has, especially those where Jews once felt most welcomed.

Even though Obama spoke of restoring civil liberties during the campaign, once in office he will be under tremendous pressure not to. Once a person or institution has a certain power, they do not give it up easily. The intelligence community has grown accustomed to a certain modus operandi during the Bush administration, and will not look kindly upon having their hands tied by the Obama administration. I have no doubt they will do everything they can to convince president Obama that there is no way to effectively fight terror without retaining these tools. Of course, we can fight terror in a way that is smart and effective, and also legal. But that would require new thinking on the part of our intelligence. The easy choice is to keep doing things they way they are now. Were Obama to give in, he would likely get away with it. The conservatives never believed in civil liberties anyway, and if he placates the liberals with an ambitious healthcare plan and strong new environmental regulations, they'll ignore this one misstep.

We really are at a precipice of history on this issue. If Obama restores constitutional rights, then the Bush years will be an aberration, and we have no immediate cause for concern. If he doesn't, then the changes will become precedent, more or less set in stone, and it is extremely unlikely that any future leader would change them back. If this happens, I fear for my people.

I joined the ACLU because of George Bush, but lest we become complacent now that he is leaving office, it is doubly important we continue to support the ACLU now that Obama is becoming president. If he does not act to restore civil liberties, the opportunity is probably gone forever. If he really wants to show he is taking a different direction from Bush, this ought to be his top priority. He promised it during the campaign, and more than anything else he promised, this is the one we need to hold his feet to the fire to get him to keep. I don't normally make appeals on this page, but please, now more than ever, support the ACLU. They really are the last, best, hope for America.

Thank you, George Bush

I know it's a little late to first be writing my post-election reflections, but, as usual, I've been busy, so here goes:

I wanted to start with an unpublished piece I wrote the day after the election 4 years ago:

On the night of November 2, some of us stood outside in the cold, and sometimes rain, for 8 hours, waiting for John Kerry to come out and speak to us. He never did. Some of us are still waiting. Some of us will always be waiting. No, John Kerry was not a perfect candidate, but he offered hope. Hope for an America that not only fights for freedom abroad, but protects freedom at home. Hope for an America where no one who works a full time job should have to live in poverty. Hope for an America where economic success is measured by how committed we are to protecting the weakest members of our society. Hope for an America where health care and quality education are rights of all people, not a privilege of the wealthy. Hope for an America where no one forces one worldview on anyone else but where we all take responsibility for each other’s physical well-being. Hope for an America where protecting our air and water for the next generation is never a controversial issue, and where politics is never put before science. For all this we must continue to wait. True, this is not our first loss, and true there will be more opportunities. But this time represented something special. Those of us who have been involved in politics for a while, certainly remember what it was like when Al Gore lost. This time, though, is so much more depressing. When Al Gore lost, we were still in high school, still living with our parents, still not able to vote, and not able to have that much impact on the election. It was sad, but we knew there would be another time. This time, we are in college. We put everything we could into it, and we lost again. Sure, there will be another time. But who knows where we will be in 4 years. We will no longer be college students. We will have jobs, and maybe families. We may no longer have the time, energy, and optimism of youth. This was our big chance to make a difference in the world, and our hopes were crushed. We must pass the scepter onto the next generation of college students, but we must not give up the fight. We must not lose hope entirely. No matter where life takes us, we must find time to fight for what is important to us, and we must not stop caring the way we do today. When Teddy Kennedy conceded the 1980 nomination to Jimmy Carter, he spoke words that are as relevant and meaningful today as they were then. “For me, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

When I reread this, I relive all the emotions of 4 years ago. I can't help but think just how different the last 4 years could have been if John Kerry had won that election. This election had an anticlimactic quality for me. Four years ago, I spent election night at a national campaign headquarters. This year I was at home, watching the results on TV by myself. I never really got involved with the Obama campaign the way I got involved with the Kerry campaign. I'm out of college and past my prime as a political activist. All I do these days is cheer from the sidelines. Obama may have been an objectively more inspiring candidate, but John Kerry was the candidate I put my heart into.

And yet, I think a tremendous opportunity may have been presented by John Kerry's loss. He would likely have had to govern with an opposite party congress, and a Democratic Party still deeply divided among itself as to how best to handle the Iraq war. I have no doubt he would have been better than Bush, but he would have improved things in small incremental changes, still basically playing on a Republican-defined field, in much the same way Bill Clinton did. His loss created the opportunity for the thorough collapse of the Bush administration. The continued failings in Iraq enabled the Democrats to take control of congress. The recent economic crisis has discredited conservatism as an ideology, breaking the the 50-50 gridlock that has defined American politics for the last decade. Barack Obama has the opportunity to usher in a sweeping new era of liberalism, in much the same way the Great Depression created that opportunity for Franklin Roosevelt. For this opportunity, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to George Bush (hence the name of this post).

Of course, just because the public has rejected conservatism, does not mean they have embraced liberalism yet. If he plays his cards right, he can build a generation-long liberal majority like Roosevelt did. If he screws up, we may revert right back to conservatism in 4 years. He may have opportunities that even Hillary Clinton would not have had, as people see him as a complete break from the past, and expect big things from him, not just the moderately liberal record of the Clinton years. If he wants to be successful, he needs to go big, and he needs to go visible. It can't just be the right idea, it has to be sold right politically as well. There needs to be something tangible that every ordinary person can see and say, "This is what president Obama and the Democratic Party are doing for me."

Another major factor in determining his success will be his ability to keep the Democratic caucus united. Will they stay together or will they splinter up like they did in 1993? Though nothing is set in stone, I think we have reason to be optimistic. First of all, the last vestiges of the truly conservative Democrats, who were still around at the beginning of Clinton's term, have long since retired or become Republicans. Of course, we still have our moderates and our progressives, but I think they are far more united than they were 16 years ago. Some might say they were only temporarily united in opposition to Bush, but I think it really does go deeper than that. Progressives have learned that you can help the poor and middle class without being so antagonistic to business. The recent crisis has taught the moderates that more regulation isn't necessarily bad for business. Even the moderates now see the need for a major overhaul of the healthcare system (even the American Medical Association and the health insurance lobby itself have come on board to varying degrees). Single-payer advocates are now willing to accept pragmatic compromise rather than fight tooth-and-nail and risk getting nothing. Even the hawks of the party have come to see Iraq as a mistake (of course this division may still be a problem at the next war being considered). I really think this time around, the different wings of the party may be able to converge on a single agenda in a way that hasn't been possible for the Democratic Party in over a generation. Plus, and thanks again, George Bush, for this one, it'll be really hard for anyone on the right to scream socialism at our expansions of government, after they just nationalized the banks.