Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Defending FISA?

Something's occured to me. I'm sure it's occured to y'all a long time ago.

Notice how the admin's secret, unwarrented wiretaps are getting us liberals to say "why didn't they go through FISA" and thus defend that institution?

It's as if there is a strategy: do the most outrageous, even pointless, things so that way the defenders of our liberties will resort to even defending the less outrageous and actually useful, but still wrong things you really want to do.

I know I've been mealy mouthed about this on the past, but, while I prefer a wiretap having a FISA warrent to one having no warrent at all -- even the FISA warrenting process is suspect.

The fact of the matter is that, even under our more Constitutionally acceptible, pre-9/11 rules, if Clinton and especially Bush were not so interested in not breaking eggshells around the Saudis, the 9/11 conspiracy would have been thrawrted using convensional law enforcement techniques. There is no need to go around the Constitution to keep us safe. It's worked for us for 200+ years, it can work for us for more time. And if it doesn't work, they should at least have the decency to ask for an ammendment so people actually will discuss the issues. They shouldn't hide behind a "war" (which is constructed so that it will never end -- thus making what the executive branch is doing not a "war power" but a permanent change which should only be done by ammendment). And why isn't the "Constitution in Exile" crowd up in arms about a very real abuse of executive power in the same way they are up in arms about logical consequences of the commerce clause and power of the purse?

Anyway, even if the BushCO plans would keep us safe -- even though utility is a necessary condition for subverting the Constitution, it is not sufficient.

As Ben Franklin said: "those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither".


Domestic Surveilance

I must confess something.

Even as a hippy-dippy liberal, I have no problem per se with plain-clothes/undercover (why is the NYPD insisting on making this distinction now after successfully petitioning a judge to have this distinction dropped?) attending protests, rallies, etc. After all, these are public events which anyone can and should be able to attend. If someone about happens to be a police officer and happens to be taking notes, so to speak. All the better -- maybe we'll reach out to a new constituency ;)

That being said, while I don't think the police should have to prove that they are investigating a specific crime to "spy" on a protest, they should have to establish that their is a significantly greater likelihood for specific crimes to be committed at protests than other public places where they are not "spying" on what's happening. And saying "a bunch of hippies together -- they're gonna be smoking pot" is not sufficient. The police should be allowed to "spy" on public protests (private meetings are another story) but this allowance should be periodically reviewed with hard, statistical evidence that the actual (not arrest ... if you are looking for crime, you'll find it ... if you are not looking, you oftentimes won't) rate, e.g., of pot smoking, is higher at protests than in public parks. If there is no crime for which the rate is higher, the police should not be allowed to blur the plainclothes/undercover cop distinction and should have a non-uniformed police presence no different than that in a comparably crowded park or other public place. Indeed, why should police waste resources persuing crime where none exists?

What I do have additional problems with:

(1) police officers/etc. egging on the crowd -- this is incitement and, if it occurs, should be persued as a criminal offense ... whomever hatched the scheme should be punished ... and it should be investigated like an organized crime case. Get the officers actually involved to flip (with very generous plea bargains -- e.g. a reprimand with no real consequences) and then persue the scheme upwards.

(2) evidence uncovered in "spying" being used extra-constitutionally to prosecute cases or even worse frame people

(3) persuing people in terms of guilt by association

Indeed, one problem with domestic "spying" is that it generates a lot of irrelevent information that at best is useless in criminal prosecutions and could taint real evidence in criminal prosecutions not to mention distract resources away from real criminal investigations. One has to wonder with all of these "spying" attempts, from the federal level on down, why the emphasis on techniques so unlikely to result in real prosecutions of real bad guys -- are these people really interested in keeping us safe or just looking tough? Call me a utilitarian, but before I sacrifice even the fence around the law of our Constitution, I want to see evidence that it is necessary (and that is a necessary condition for making such a sacrifice not a sufficient condition -- I am not totally a utilitarian!).

Of course, as to point #1, it is inherently difficult to spy on a protest: if a cop is too un-involved, then the cop might get discovered by his/her apathy. If the cop gets too into it, he/she risks being a criminal agitator. I would suggest that the correct posture for a police officer actually doing the spying is "I'm not here to protest, I'm just here to pick up hot chicks/dudes". I am sure a lot of people really go to protests for that reason anyway, so they won't stand out by being too apathetic, but they ought not to get too into things either, and this posture will keep them a bit aloof.


Moral Equivalence, Moral Relativism, Munich and the story of Jacob/Israel

In the present few weeks in the Torah readings, the story of the life of Jacob is coming to a close. Jacob is an interesting figure because, even as he is the one who becomes Israel, he is profoundly flawed. Indeed, unlike even the "tragic" hero, he is not a great man with a tragic flaw -- he is a deeply flawed man who achieves greatness, both materially and even spiritually. And the Hebrew Bible does not shy away from presenting its heros warts and all. And this is done on purpose -- not only so we will not overly venerate our heros and treat them as demi-gods, but also so we learn that even the most spiritually flawed person is capable, through moral struggle (as Jacob engaged in to become Israel) -- with himself and with God through God's messengers (angels) -- of true repentence and return to God and hence moral greatness. This is a lesson at the heart of Judaism -- God in Grace provides us with a path to Holiness and we can redeem ourselves (and society can collectively redeem itself to bring about the Messiah via Tikkun Olam) without intermediaries by true repentence and reparation (although our sins are, individually but more often and less fairly, collectively subject to a law of "karma" where, as occurs with Jacob, deceivers are deceived ... or as threatened in Deuteronomy, an unjust society will perish) -- that no person who can make reparation for his/her sins is beyond salvation. The Hebrew Bible, in presenting us with morally flawed examples for spiritual guidance (a good idea pedagogically ... after all, how can you learn from someone's mistakes if they are perfect?), realizes this. Jesus certainly realized this -- with his associations with sinners. Those Christians who seem to think that even the most minor sins separate humans from God in such a way that we cannot merely follow God's path to achieve forgiveness, miss this point. Those who think we all should be morally perfect and are haughty about their own "perfection" certainly miss this point and are exactly the people Jesus condemns.

Unfortunately too many Jews nowadays (and somehow it always seems that those self-proclaimed guardians of "tradition" are the ones most missing the lessons of Torah ... why does this pattern seem to repeat everywhere at all times? I guess it's a kind of idolatry -- those who idolize "tradition" do not cast a clear enough eye on it to learn its lessons?) also seem to miss this most important lesson of Torah. The latest example is the furor that has erupted around the movie Munich: many in the Jewish community are criticizing it, ostensibly for the "sin" of moral equivalency. While indeed, in Jewish tradition, it is considered a grave error, when two sides are disputing, to consider equivalent ("they both are equally wrong") the major sins of one side with more minor sins on the other (the notion of "equivalency of sin", however, is key to understanding Paul's approach to Christianity), it is also considered a grave error to view one side as being 100% right. Indeed, as shown by the Genesis stories of Jacob (and later stories of Moses and Aaron), we Jews realize that even the most religiously heroic among us are spiritually flawed. While "moral equivalency" is a sin (interestingly, the people complaining about moral equivalency are often the same people who push a sort of moral relativism, antithetical to Judaism but part and parcel of Zionism which holds that we Jews ought not to be held to any higher standard than any other people), considering one side of a dispute as morally clean is also a grave error (and condemned in the Talmud).

I have not seen the movie, but apparently Spielberg does not present both sides of morally equivalent. What he does do, which has irked so many, is present the Israeli side as doing something morally wrong. That the Israeli side was wrong, according to Jewish tradition, should be indisputable. Jewish law is very clear that, while killing in the context of armies fighting is regrettable but ok, seeking vengence on specific perpetrators of a criminal act, even an "act of war", is wrong. Jewish law is very keen on bringing those guilty of capital crimes to justice -- by murdering them, one prevents the adjucation of those crimes in court, the lack of which adjucation is listed as a cause for God's extreme wrath! If Mossad captured Eichmann, they could have captured, rather than killed the Munich perpetrators and brought them, in accordance with Jewish tradition even if against international law, to justice. That Israel did not do such a thing is sinful in Jewish tradition (not to mention strategically stupid: by killing those who killed some of us, we made what was clearly a wrong on the other side into just part of a "cycle of violence" in which we made martyrs out of criminals -- had we had even a show trial it would have allowed Israel to publically lay out its side of the story, shown the terrorists we mean business and not given anyone a sense of moral equivalency, martyrdom, etc. -- if there is moral equivalency here, it is because the Israeli government acted as if their actions were morally equivalent to those of the Black September terrorists!) and it is perfectly commendable, in a tradition in which our founding father, Jacob/Israel, is presented as such a flawed figure, to produce works of art which point out the sins of our people.

So the question is: why is it so important for some people that their side be always presented as morally 100% correct when even our Torah presents our founding father as so morally flawed?

Friday, December 23, 2005


Last Week's Torah Portion

In last week's portion, we have another example of God responding to people where they are: in this case, the frightened Jacob who fears "the gig is up", receives his new identity of Israel (does this help him to hide from what he has done in a sense?). We Jews believe that God is not some high-in-the-sky perfectionist, but rather takes people as they are and forgives us as we truly repent and seek to make restitution for our wrong-doings.

But such return to God does not come easy. In order to do so, we must struggle -- with ourselves. Jacob becomes Israel only after he struggles with his appreciation of what is divine in him. Does he become perfect afterwards? No. Can anyone? No. But he does struggle, and that is what is important. Indeed, while Christianity has often diverged from Judaism in matters of whether our repentence and restitution are sufficient for atonement of sins, the teachings of Jesus presented in the Christian Bible, continue with this Jewish line of thought: God "forgives sins as we forgive those who sin against us" and Jesus doesn't proclaim the blessing of the faithful but the "poor in spirit". The kingdom of heaven does not belong to those who have perfect faith and no need to struggle with themselves, but rather to those who struggle and those who wonder if God will provide a ram and, thus fearing this lack, make provisions for themselves.


Another motif in this portion, besides the notion that blessings belong to those who struggle to spiritually better themselves and God responds to such people where they are, is the theme of the younger sibling inhereting the spiritual birthright. First Isaac and then in this part of the Torah, Jacob. Judaism is being iconoclastic here: spiritual rewards do not come from birth, but from a personal engagement to spiritually improve oneself. For all of his flaws, and he has many, Jacob at least tries whereas Esau is content to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.

Of course, as spiritually blind as Esau is, at least he loves his father. Some authorities state that Isaac's bind for Esau is a sign of Isaac's being stunted by the experience of the Akedah. Others note that the Jewish tradition seems to favor, in modern terminology, not only the younger brother but also the Mamma's boys (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau). But perhaps the real lesson of the portion is that, even if Esau is another Cain, everyone has their good side. And even if Jacob was the "chosen one", everyone has their rough side. God does not throw up his hands, so to speak, that people are not perfect and demand some substitutionary atonement for it. This would not make sense -- why would an omnipotent and omniscient God allow people to behave in an unforgivable manner. God responds to people where they are and reaches out to them so long as they struggle to meet the Hand reaching out to them.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


The Taylor Law

So I hear the strike is over: my wrap up?

The MTA really should receive some of the blame for trying to use these negotiations to make a point about pension spending. It really wasn't that much money at stake -- they just wanted to set a precident. And perhaps the governor was pushing them to do so. Given that the governor may have been a wanker here (no surprise), why was the union so stupid to ask him to come to the table?

But the local union didn't seem too swift: The union thought it could convince people how necessary their members are by going on strike, but in going on strike to prove a point, they merely lost the support of most people in the tri-state area. After all, their strike wasn't just hurting their employers' ability to make a profit, but, heck, it was, at least as reported on TV (which makes it the reality), keeping cancer patients from receiving chemo. Which, of course, is why the Taylor law (or something like it) is needed.

But, while people have tried to convince me the Taylor law is above-board and Constitutional, I still don't buy it. If a strike is "illegal", certainly the employers' can just fire workers for not showing up and, if the contract actually has not yet ran out, seek redress for breach of contract. But they must do so in a fair way. If they cannot replace all of their workers with what they are willing to offer scabs, then they should pay their union employees more -- that's the free market at work.

But the Taylor law fines people for not working. How can that be? This isn't the old Soviet Union where it is illegal not to work. We have the 13th ammendment, you cannot punish people to force them to work. If a strike is "legal", then striking workers do and ought to receive certain protections (getting their jobs back, etc.), but I fail to understand how "illegal" strikers could be punished in anyway other than potentially not getting their jobs back ... and, the decision as to which striking workers to keep on the job and which to fire must be made in some fair manner (seniority, documented before-the-strike performance metrics, etc.) lest the employer be discriminatory in the workplace.

So, I still don't get how fining people for not showing up to work is within the framework of American laws and customs. And given that, how is it any conspiracy for the union leadership to call upon people to do something they have a right to do -- that is not show up to work unless they have a contract obligating them to do so.

If the contract is up, the obligation to work is over, nu? And the obligation for an employer to keep the worker is over, nu? This alone should provide incentives for both sides to negotiate. If one side doesn't have an incentive enough to keep bargaining ... well, then, doesn't that mean someone is not bargaining in good faith?

The MTA should not have pushed to fine the strikers: merely said that if they don't come back to work, they will not have jobs to come back to. If the MTA couldn't hire enough others to take their place under the terms they were willing to offer, well, from a free market perspective, the MTA was not offering enough, now were they.

In a sense, strikes are not against the American, free-market way ... they are part and parcel of it. A flexible and free labor market (or capitalist system in general) cannot thrive unless work is somewhat voluntary (with a safety-net to catch those at the bottom and no laws mandating work). When work becomes too involuntary, incomes reach an equilibrium distribution, the economy as a whole equilibriates and thus "dies" -- it is no longer capitalist but feudalist.

So why do some want to undermine our capitalist system? And in the name of the free-market no less?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


The Two Cultures

Not the sciences and the humanities in this post, but Judaism and Christianity.

There is an old humorous observation that Jews "observe" holidays while Gentiles "celebrate" them, and like many such observations, there is a grain of truth to it (even if we Jews certainly do celebrate Simchas Torah, for example).

This certainly is quite funny, but it also highlights that difference between how Jews "observe" holidays and Christians "celebrate" them. Many of us Jews are quite puzzled as to how some Christians seem to feel Christmas is so important that restrictions on it in the public square are tantimount to an anti-Christian tilt by the state and that it is so important to keep "Christ" in Christmas even as these same Christians, while they may go to Church on Christmas night or morning, by and large celebrate the holiday in a manner free from specific religious rituals. While to these Christians, their celebration of Christmas is exactly how Christmas is supposed to be and indeed may honor the birth of Jesus, the lack of specific "laws" regarding Christmas makes us Jews think, at some level, that even those Christians who are so adamant about fighting wars to save Christmas don't really take the holiday seriously.

But we should give people the benefit of the doubt, even when we disagree with them. To a Christian, that we Jews would celebrate Christmas like this is a sign of how ridiculously legalistic we Jews are in equating holiness with ritual. But Christians perhaps should remember that, as natural as their way of celebrating holidays is to them, many people view their lack of legalism and formality about their ritual practice to be a sign that they do not take their holiday seriously. This causes us to wonder what the fuss is about when some of them get so worked up about "the war on Christmas". In this season of too many misunderstandings -- among family together for the holidays, among people of different faiths, etc. -- let's all try to remember that we all have different ways of approaching God and not to judge people for being too legalistic or too flippant about how they do so.

We are enriched by our diversity. We must remember that.


The Transit Strike

I thought I would put my $0.02 worth in here:

Having been in a union when in a moment of intense contract disagreements that almost lead to a strike, it seems to me that, while the stakes are much higher for the transit workers than they were for us grad students, the actual positions of labor and management were closer together than in even many negotiations that don't break down -- after all: the gaps were largely qualitative and compromisable (62 vs. 55 retirement age a problem? why not have eligibility for a special early retirement at 55 which is better than would be retiring under the previous contract at say 53 but not the same as a regular retirement). It seems to me that both sides must have been bargaining in bad faith -- although, since I don't really know the facts, I cannot say so for sure ... but since knowing the facts doesn't stop anyone now-a-days, I will say so: it seems to me that both sides must have been bargaining in bad faith.

My general sympathy toward unions, though -- even to the idea of stiking just to show that your job is of infinite worth -- kinda evaporates in this case: this strike hurts too many other working folks to really be just a matter of showing "The Man" the real value of your labours so "The Man" will actually for once negotiate in good faith. I think the union made a political gamble in this strike and they may have lost out. But what do you expect from a union that is actually urging Pataki to get involved in the negotiations (if I were them, I would be happy he's not involved!)?

Of course, that a strike such as this one hurts the average Joe and Josephine is exactly why the Taylor law exists in NY State to begin with. But that law is troubling me 'cause I think it goes to far in punishing union members for striking (isn't that they are losing their wages disincentive enough? why double the cost to them and add taxes besides?) -- not to mention it doesn't manage to penalize management for negotiating in bad faith ... it only penalizes unions. But what really bothers me about the Taylor law is it is saying people have to work, even without a contract. Doesn't that violate a little thing called the 13th ammendment?

Something like the Taylor law is necessary and all states should have it. But as written, the law in NY State seems unfair and possibly unconstitutional. I hope the courts address this soon! While many have addressed our eroding Constitutional right to due process, the undermining of the 13th ammendment, e.g. if we were to end the law of the soil in citizenship determination -- one can even question whether restricting abortion access is questionable in 13th ammendment terms: does requiring a woman to carry a baby make her into a slave a la the Handmaiden's Tale? -- really concerns me greatly.

To me, the very people who complain about social welfare leading to serfdom are those advocating policies that would lead us into a feudal equilibrium. The 13th ammendment is the final bullwork against real serfdom -- I hope it is not undermined under the radar while we are all, rightfully, fighting the good fight against the undermining of the 14th, 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th ammendments.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


I'm So Shocked! Not ...

Every so often a liberal columnist says something to the effect of "it's odd but you know who really benefits from our deposal of Saddam Hussein, Axis of Evil member Iran" as if this is something unexpected.

Call me a paranoid, tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy theorist, but why should it be unexpected that certain elements of the Bush administration are publically vilifying Iran while doing things that end up helping that country? Why did some people who ought to know better really think the Bush administration would invade Iran?

Remember, even as this adminstration contains former Saddam hugger, Don Rumsfeld, it also contains many people who helped arm Iran, as well as terrorists, in the 1980s in the Iran/Contra affair. This administration contains many who have worked in the past with Iran, even if some would publically vilify that state, so why should it be surprising that this administration would undertake actions that would help Iran?

BTW -- something relatively unreported is that while politics and religious warfare do not make strange enough bedfellows for Saddam Hussein to have supported Al Qaeda, they do make strange enough bedfellows for Iran to have supported Al Qaeda. Now put the pieces together folks: Saudi Arabia is a contentious monarchy with lots of would be rulers and an oppressed Shi'ite population. Both Iran and Al Qaeda have a great interest in what's going on there. I wonder what kind of intra-royal family fights and influence jockying by Iran in Saudi Arabia are fueling a lot of tsuris abroad. And does the Bush admin really know or care about the potential threats to our security should Saudi Arabia implode? Or are they too busy with their own bread and circuses?


Yet More One-Sided Reporting or Am I Being Paranoid?

Is it my sense of the hypothetical getting out of control, or is the media still displaying a prejudicial disposition toward this particular President, which they did not display toward, for example, Clinton?

I'm often listening to the local radio news stations (to get traffic info -- which is always so incomplete -- so maybe all info from these stations is always so incomplete, after all, they need to have time to report on the missing white girls, etc.), and they report GW Bush's statements regarding the Patriot Act renewal and domestic spying, etc., but they don't report any response from the Democratic Congressional leadership or anyone.

Why do I suspect if that scalawag Clinton, with his carpetbagger wife (I use these terms on purpose -- remember, HR Clinton was a carpetbagger not when she went to NY but when she moved down South with WJ Clinton ... and this is the lens through which the Clintons are viewed ... as a scalawag and a carpetbagger: anyone who fails to understand that fails to understand the US as a whole and the South, which is politically ascendent now, in particular) were President, the media would give ample time to the GOP leadership for a response?

Yet, on the local news, you never hear how the Dems. filibustering the Patriot Act offered to temporarily extend it so that it could be fixed, and it is the President who's being a stubborn ass. You just hear the President and his cronies saying "if the Democrats didn't like the Patriot Act, why did they support it earlier?" and other such bull$#%* indicating the President has no concept of a temporary measure in a time of de facto war that should be reversed. So why should we trust the President to use his "war powers" (without Congress even declaring war ... an on whom? declaring war against terrorism is a little bit like that kid in the skit parodying the paranoia about D&D wanting to use "magic missile" against the darkness!) only temporarily and against real enemies? Not to mention what kind of message it sends to terrorists that they have succeeding in terrorizing us so we consider them legitimate soldiers for a cause rather than the bunch of criminals they are.

But unfortunately, most people don't think along these lines -- they hear the President and won't question him until someone else raises the questions. But the media don't give voice to those raising questions. Given how often they did so when Clinton was President (everytime Clinton fought against terrorists with military might, the media were happy to report the voices of those claiming Clinton was wagging the dog -- so why are those people now allowed to get away with saying "9/11 changed everything" without having been forced under threat of pillory to apologize for criticizing Clinton for worrying about terrorism?), that they've not done so with Bush indicates the media are still biased.

Friday, December 16, 2005


What the Fuss? Round II

Now I understand what the fuss is: some people are trying to get on the good side of regulators. Of course, just wait for this sort of thing to be used as evidence as to how regulation inherently backfires by serving the interest of the regulated over the rest of us. Of course, since when do the kinds of people who complain about regulation serving the interests of the regulated want so badly to "stick it to the Man"? And what about the personal responsibility of regulators to do their jobs? What a world! That's all I can say.


An Argument that Should Have Traction with THIS President

One criticism of our President's pro-torture tilt, often leveled by ex-CIA types and the like, is that if we are torturing, our agents/military folk/et al. will have a greater risk of being tortured should they be caught.

Why doesn't our President, who claims his favorite philosopher's Jesus, even really respond to this argument? After all, it is a matter of others doing unto us what we do unto them?

Maybe Nietzsche was right about the difference between the positive and negative versions of the Golden Rule? For all we know, GW Bush could like a bit of BDSM -- and why should I care about such things -- but he would, having a slave mentality, assume since he would have certain things done unto him, they could be done to others, no prob.

But what he really needs to remember is that we should not do to others what we would not have done to ourselves. Presumably GW Bush would not go on record as saying "I want our troops to be tortured" (even if, for all we know, he may want such a thing) -- so then, according to Hillel, Confucius, et al, he should do what he can to ensure we do not torture others.


BTW -- for those who think torture is so effective, haven't they heard the saying "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar"? Actually, though, what is effective (and some people have indicated the Israeli army seems to do this) at getting information from radicals who might not otherwise talk, is to have people believe there is a threat of torture and then treat them rather nicely: they'll be so relieved they are not getting tortured, they'll blab quickly lest things change. And -- their blabbing won't be questioned or reflect too badly on them -- after all, everyone else will forgive them after all they must have been tortured into blabbing and just are too emotionally damaged to admit it. The problem with this strategy, as effective as it is in getting information, is that when you occupy a people and they believe you are torturing them, even if you are not, they will tend to become violent, etc. -- wouldn't you? They also will not trust you in negotiations, peace settlements, etc. So even though rumors of torture can be effective in gathering intelligence, investigating terrorist activities, etc. -- much more effective than actual torture which merely gives you the answer you want to hear (whether it is true or not -- did Al-Libi tell us what we wanted to hear because he was tortured? or even more frighteningly, did he pretend to tell us under duress so we would believe he was giving away some secret when, in fact, we were not destroying Al Qaeda's operations by going into Iraq but doing their bidding and giving them a new base of operations?) -- they backfire in the long run by radicalizing against you the population amongst which the rumors are spread.

Of course, the people in charge of this country now seem not to care about the long term in any way anyway. Is it 'cause they figure the world will end soon so we might as well make some money now while we still can?


How will this keep us safe?

I heard on the radio that the President has authorized the NSA to spy domestically on citizens/resident aliens, with the idea that we need to do this to "keep us safe from terrorism".

Aside from the obvious, Franklinesque criticism (it was Franklin, wasn't it?) of "he that would give up liberty for security deserves neither", will these sorts of things really help us?

After all, I highly doubt that the NSA is going to be able to evesdrop at just the right moment and thus foil a terrorist plan. Intelligence gathering is or at least ought to be in part about long term efforts to foil terrorists. But in as much as terrorists are criminals (is GW Bush, like Ronnie "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter" Reagan, willing to grant terrorists some sort of conceptual legitimacy by treating them as anything other than mere criminals? -- why didn't Dems make this a political issue as soon as GW Bush and CO. started ripping on Dems. for treating terrorism as a law enforcement concern? Why wasn't their response: "we think terrorists are criminals. do you think terrorists are anything other than criminals?"?), eventually the goal is to arrest them, try them, etc. Last I looked the Constitution still applied in this country -- and information obtained in wire-taps, etc., that were not okayed by courts according to our Constitution would not be admissable in a Court of Law: moreover, any leads gained from such recordings, short of those covered by "inevitable discovery" (which, don't get me wrong, is a legal concept of which I think highly), would be considered "contaminated" and also might be thrown out of Court. Does GW Bush and CO. really want to undermine the prosecution of terrorists in order to gain information that has a dubious use in protecting us over the short term? Why are GW Bush and his advisors unconcerned with this sort of problem? Perhaps they are unconcerned because they fully plan on subverting our Constitutional rights anyway in which case this problem won't arise? But in which case we should all be very frightened ...

Of course, there may be something else at work here -- the right wing disdain for judgment and the legal process. A certain strand of reactionary thought wouldn't care if terrorists don't get prosecuted because they view the legal system as an exercize in futility anyway. Perhaps this is the mindset of GW Bush and CO? They don't really care about putting criminals behind bars -- and pretty much said as much in their denigrating the Democrats for wanting to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue (why the Democrats didn't force people to think about what the Republicans were really saying, rather than letting this dangerous anti-law enforcement meme slip into people's mindset, I will never understand) -- only about the raw exercize of power as a presumed deterent to those who would harm us?

From a Jewish point of view, as one might imagine, this disdain for legalism, is something quite dangerous. After all, Pirke Avos warns us that, at least in the Holy Land, the failure to adjucate capital crimes (note the passage does not refer to the failure to punish them per se) will result in an calamity (I forget off-hand which one is specified). Of course, Israel's targetted assasinations (an assassinated person cannot be tried in a court of law -- so by killing someone extra-judicially, they are preventing a capital crime from being adjucated and thus placing the state of Israel at risk for calamity) violate this policy -- so I guess even too many of us Jews have forgotten our own teachings. So how can we be a light unto the other nations in this regard.

But if there is one thing this uncertain world needs -- it is law and order! So why is the "Leader of the Free World" doing everything he can to undermine our own system of laws and to create a situation where we either have to give up the very liberties for which we claim to fight or allow terrorists to escape prosecution?

Whose side is the right wing, whose rhetoric sounds so much like the rhetoric of the religious right elsewhere including in the Islamic world, really on? Whose side is the President really on?

Thursday, December 15, 2005


What Liberal Establishment?

One interesting challenge we liberals face in getting our message out comes from two fundamental realities about the "establishment" -- the mainstream media, the beltway chattering classes, etc.:

(1) When it comes to individual positions on the issues of the day, modulo their positions on a few social issues (and even on many social issues, when the consequences of ideas are made explicit or even when the issue finally hits close to home, most people usually overcome what lingering prejudices and are more liberal than they or others would imagine them to be), the "establishment" positions tend to be on the conservative side of the range of "mainstream" positions

(2) The establishment, however, perceives themselves (and others perceive them) as being on the liberal side of the mainstream

Point #1 by itself should neither surprise nor concern us. While at various points in history, the establishment can and must take the lead in ensuring necessary social and political progress occurs for the masses (and the argument that just because the majority doesn't want to expand rights rights should not be expanded by the establishment taking the lead in social progress goes against the very idea of a Constitutional republic), the establishment is obviously going to, at least out of self-interest, support the status quo in which they are the established -- i.e. they are going to be conservative. Thus, we as liberals should hope that the middle of the mainstream is typically more liberal than the establishment. Also, there is something to be said for establishment conservativism: if a society is working well, then, even as some folks are trying to figure out how to make it work better for more people, some people need to have an interest in making sure that at least things that ain't broke aren't fixed so as to maintain the social structures that are working so well.

Point #2 alone also is not that much of a problem. So what if the "Man" thinks himself to be on the side of progress? Even if this delusion is the result of right-wingers trying to play the refs so that the hopelessly objective and middle of the road will give the right a too fair hearing lest they be perceived as too far to the left, this plan can backfire and the "Man" might actually buy into his progressiveness in a constructive way and actually do something to promote progress.

The problem comes in the malignant interaction between the perception and the reality. Except perhaps (and that is a very definite perhaps) on a few, hot botton social issues, the establishment is really more conservative than the mainstream. But they -- whether because they wish they were good, liberal folks (and there ain't nothin' wrong with striving to be open-minded, etc.) or because the right's ref working has convinced them they are more liberal than they are -- really do perceive themselves as liberals. And because they tell everyone they are liberal (often in not so many words, but the message is clear) and, as independent minded as we all like to think we are, we humans are social animals who look to group-think and figures of authority to help define who we are in relation to others, everybody perceives what the media says as what liberals say. Thus, even if people, when challenged to think through issues as individuals, are more liberal than the establishment, even when doing the private act of voting, people are afraid to be as liberal in terms of candidate selection, etc., as they really are on the issues because, the human desire to be "crazy" and "wild" excepted, they want to be "mainstream" ... so if the media, etc., clearly stand one way, people will tend to automatically shift to the right of that since they believe the media to represent the liberal side.

I know this sort of thing has been said many times in many ways before ... and now with the "liberal" NPR thinking it is being fair and balanced in its use of think-tanks for information about the issues of the day (with which I have no problem per se -- that's what think tanks are for ... to think about these things) when it has numbers it publicizes showing it to be biased to the right in its choice of sources, it will be said again. But the question is, given how perception and reality are clashing, what can we liberals do to change the mass delusion from which this country suffers? How do we break this cognative dissonance that the right has been working so hard to establish?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I'm Dense I Know ...

But could someone please explain the logic of restricting individual's driving in(to) Manhattan on account of an MTA strike? Aren't many of those people who would drive in Manhattan going to take public transport instead, thus putting more pressure on the MTA system at a time when it will already be broken?

In general, I would agree with the idea of reducing automobile traffic in Manhattan -- it is such a lovely pedestrian island and cars do get in the way of pedestrians and each other. But don't you have to give people better alternatives? I don't know how many people are in my situation, but when I drive through Manhattan, it is typically because it's quicker and just as cheap as either using public transportation to get between points west of Manhattan and points east and quicker than going through Staten Island. Why should I pay around $20 and spend 2 hours each way taking public transport when I could spend a dollar or two less (tolls, gas, and rounding up to account for auto upkeep) and spend 1-1.5 hours each way going by car? And why should I spend $6 to go via the Verrazano bridge when I can go via Manhattan for free -- and not have to worry about going out of my way or the mysterious yet omnipresent traffic backups on the westbound Staten Island Expressway.

In general, if they want people to take public transport, they got to subsidize it as much as they subsidize automobile transport by paying so much money into highway maintanance. And if, specifically, they don't want people driving through Manhattan, they need to at least figure out why traffic is always so heavy on the Staten Island Expressway and what to do to alleviate the problem.


Weekly Torah Portion Blogging

I know I'm behind with this sort of thing and have probably missed a few, but I've at least figured out what to put for this past week's portion -- a discussion point:

Last week's portion presents us with the concept of God's omnipresence -- God is present everywhere and all the time .. or at least, according to some, God can and should be so present according to people's willingness to accept God's presence. But how does God's omnipresence square with the concept of hamavdil ben kodesh l'chol -- the separation of sacred from the rest -- the idea of having holy-days and holy sites, the idea of sacred spaces in a secular society in which Church and State rightfully have a wall between them?

What is the resolution of the obvious tension between these two important concepts in Judaism -- God's omnipresence and lamavdil ben kodesh l'chol?

Monday, December 12, 2005


On the Notion of Punishment as a Deterrent to Crime

Yeah, punishment is important to maintain an orderly and lawful society, and I certainly want to keep criminals off the street, but let's not kid ourselves. I think Shakespeare may have put it best (coming out of Portia's (? of all characters) mouth in the Merchant of Venice):

"The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree."

Friday, December 09, 2005


More on Judgment and Ideology

One thing we Democrats like to complain about is the obvious double standard of Democrats getting judged worse for screw-ups when in office than Republicans get judged.

This, however, is not necessarily an unfair double standard -- as it relates to the principles of our party. Since Democrats actually believe that government can do some good, we must when in office be good at government. Republicans, who do not believe in good governance at some fundamental level are not hypocrites if they are bad at government. The same goes for judgment issues: Democrats need to display good judgment as we believe in good judgment. Republicans do not as they do not believe in it. It can work the other way too -- Democrats needn't be such good sports about politics as we often are, because we take politics seriously. OTOH, Republicans can afford to be good sports, and should be better sports than they are, as politics is to them a game and power play.

Not only do we need to be good at governing and to make good judgments (and we should probably not run a candidate who judged the situation poorly and gave GW Bush the power to go to war in Iraq -- remember, Bush pretty much said in 2004 that Kerry was not fit to be president 'cause he displayed bad judgment in giving Bush power to go to war in Iraq -- and this argument resonated!), but we can turn this into a strength rather than a source of double standards and weakness.

How? We need to convince people that good government is actually a good thing. How? Well, a lot of people may have deep moral commitments (*) to certain causes (e.g. pro-life/pro-choice, various views on gay marriage), but what really irks them about gummint are local things -- use of traffic citations to raise money for corrupt political machines, stupid alcohol laws, etc. -- and all politics is local. If we Democrats can root out our machine and corrupt local politicians and have a national campaign to run clean local governments and can do so effectively, this will not only move a lot of people to support Democrats (as they will happily support any party that addresses issues about which they care personally -- and people may have strong opinions on national matters, but except for a few mega-polluting big business types, etc., what really irks people are local matters -- and if Democrats can address these instead of making them worse, then people will like the Democrats) locally but also allieve the fear a lot of people have about government programs. If we Democrats do well in governing locally, not only will we convince people that we are good at government but that it is good to be good at government! And that will make the case not only for our party but also for our ideology.

(*) Speaking of moral commitments ... we may walk the walk in terms of actually having a set of programs that address public morality (more so than the Republicans, in fact -- which does even the Levitical code, with its reputation for being obsessed with ritual purity and propriety, care more about: sexual mores or fair distribution of wealth? considering that the whole point of the code is the sacrificial system in which food gets shared and the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in which property gets redistributed ... I would think the latter! Morality may involve who you have sex with but it more involves taking care of the widow, orphan, et al. And not just at a level of individual charity -- the whole point of Leviticus is that these activities must be handled by a centralized and legislated system ... in today's terms, "big government".), but what matters in politics is talking the talk. Allow me to suggest an example of someone who knows how to talk the talk: Barbara Boxer. She has a lot of support accross the political spectrum, even from hard core social conservatives? why? Because she is always talking in terms of things being right and things being wrong ... in terms of things being moral and things being immoral. And she doesn't sound forced or pandering when she does it. Certainly she knows the world is full of shades of grey, and her record largely reflects (although it is not quite pure enough ideologically for me ;) ) the views of the reality based community. But she also communicates a deep sense that she has certain principles and these principles are based on a deep seated sense of morality. She is a person that people accross the political spectrum can respect, can trust to not be so ideologically inflexible that she will not bend if the situation requires, but also someone who sincerely has a sense of right and wrong and will do the right thing -- whatever that right thing is. I am not saying that Barbara Boxer is my favorite Pres. candidate idea (or that she would even be electable when it comes to a national race ... being able to get votes for a Senate seat in Cali even from social conservatives -- and Cali has some hard-core conservatives! -- is different than being able to win even those votes to be the Head of State ... of course, we did try electable last time, and look at where we got: fair or unfair, we need to win by a large enough margin that even if they cheat, we can still win!), but it would behoove Dems to pay attention to how she speaks and what she says and make sure to run people who sound like her!

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Bad Judgment as an Ideology

A while back at Eschaton, in a discussion of whether supporters of the Iraq war display(ed) bad ideology or rather more accurately bad judgment, I raised the point that, in many cases, part of the problem is that there is an ideology of bad judgment on the right.

To clarify this point a bit:

The right has, for quite some time, has frowned upon the very notion of good judgment. The modern reactionary movement views humans as inherently evil. To them, the notion that a forest of human laws or even God's laws can keep the devil at bay is inherently flawed, as the humans producing the laws and enforcing the laws via a due process shepherded by humans are all inherently enslaved to the devil anyway. Only strict adherence to traditional mores, developed not by individual humans but over a collective history and under a class hierarchy, can keep the masses under control and hence keep the devil away. Similarly, the idea that one should attempt to engage in good judgment is discredited as they feel that no human judgment can be good -- the only fair and just judgment is that of the marketplace, which is guided by the invisible hand of God. Thus, the right finds the idea that we should make decisions based on good judgment or frown upon bad judgment to be hubristic, even as we liberals often find the attitudes of the right to be hubristic, but rather, since we are condemned to judge situations badly, we might as well revel in this state to which we are condemned.

Many pro-war "9/11 caused me to crap my pants even if I was safe in the 'burbs" liberals also converted to the idea that good judgment is bad: they misunderstood how it was that the terrorists attacks ended up happening, and developed the mindset that the time involved in making decisions about war, etc., based on good judgment was too much, and the delays entailed by actually waiting for a well-thought out decision to be made on matters of war could place us in danger.

Thus, a lot support for the war, both among liberals and reactionaries did not merely come from bad judgment but rather from a mindset in which good judgment is considered strategically and possibly morally wrong.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Resistance to Changing Horses Mid-stream

I don't think this is necessarily a bad attitude (although if someone is driving off a cliff, you do change the driver), but how come some of the same people who are (sometimes correctly) so reluctant "to change horses mid-stream" when it comes to supporting the CiC in a time of war are also, when their favorite team, the business in which they own a fair share of stock, etc., is not doing so well, they demand the coach/manager/CEO be changed, even if what is going wrong is not the fault of the figure-head?

How come people are so ready, when things are not going well, to push for a change of coach/manager/CEO/etc. -- no matter whether the person in charge is the one screwing up or the person in charge is actually making the very best of a bad situation beyond her control, but when it comes to the President they have the attitude: "if we are at war, we must support the President"? Do people see the discrepency in their attitudes? Do people see the danger in their attitude to Presidents -- that such support for a CiC gives a power hungry CiC great incentive to start a war (or at least be less resistant to using military power, if only at a subconcious level) just to maintain the support of the people?

Of course, I must say that there is something about certain leaders that engenders a kind of "don't blame me for but rather support me in these difficult times" devotion. Generally (with the exception of FDR and JFK), in this country, this kind of devotion has applied to Republicans (Lincoln -- who deserved it, until recently, Bush -- who IMHO does not deserve it) and not Democrats (LBJ and Carter). Why the difference? A lot of it comes from people taking cues from the media and other authorities as to how they are expected to behave: if the media, perceived -- quite incorrectly -- by many, to be sceptical and liberal, supports a conservative president, people will certainly decide the president must be worthy of support as they believe the media have every reason not to support the president -- even if in reality the corporate, war mongering -- has there been any war in this country, outside of WWII, which was actually one of our most legitimate wars, which was, in the build up to the war, not propagandized by the media? -- media have every reason to support the president. But is there something historically different about Democratic and Republican Presidents that explains the difference?

Friday, December 02, 2005


What the Fuss?

I just don't get what all the fuss is about a la carte cable pricing.

While cable companies, no matter what sort of "competition" is introduced, will always form a de facto oligopoly if not a de facto monopoly, and thus the conclusions of free market theory don't apply (if they ever do ...), you would think that if it were reasonably cost effective and if there were actually enough of a demand for it, cable companies would just offer a la carte channels in order to keep customers who might otherwise eschew cable altogether.

On the other hand, what would the cost be to offer channels a la carte? It isn't as if people would reasonably expect the same sort of deals for a la carte channels as for a package. When I go to a fancier restaurant (which is not often, with my budget), I have a choice between ordering from the prix fix menu or options a la carte. If I order a la carte, I understand that I will have to pay more. Is this even fair, considering I have food allergies that usually rule out ordering from the prix fix menu? No. So would it be perhaps unfair that you force people "allergic" to MTV to either pay for it or pay additional costs per station to get only the channels they want? Perhaps not, but this is how a la carte works -- and the people pushing for it will have to understand that little economic fact of life.

In the case of cable channels -- so the cable companies offer stations a la carte. They charge $X per station a month. For a package of 50 channels you have to pay only 10*$X a month. So people wanting only a few specific stations will order them a la carte and everyone else will order a package, even if they don't really want many of the channels in the package. I would think with a price structure like this (which is quite reasonable), many people would order packages, thus obviating the concern (presumably faked -- I doubt that the "reverend" Marion Robertson really cares about programming diversity other than people buying his own programming) of big media that if everyone orders a la carte, there will go diversity of cable stations as nobody will pay for the fancy new station (as if the cable companies couldn't offer it for real cheap until it catches on -- as if that isn't how products are introduced in every other market). It isn't as if the cable companies would be restricted from offering packages (would they? now that would be stupid).

So what is all the fuss about? What would be so bad about cable companies having to offer channels (at some higher cost per channel) a la carte? Then again, why don't they just do that already without the government having to step in?

I guess this says all we need to know about the initiative of private industry, don't it?

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Chayei Sarah and the Solstice

In this part of the world, the closing days of autumn, the month of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, are perhaps the dreariest time of year. The leaves are gone from the trees. It is so dastardly frigid out, but there is no snow to make the cold worth the while (except for this year -- we got snow soon after it was cold enough for it to do so! hurray for the lack of an un-necessary wait!). And yet, there is, in this time of weather-wise senescence, a sense of hope in the air. The Shabbos before the one that has just passed witnessed the announcing of the month of Kislev -- the melody of the announcement changed throughout or at least at the very end from the usual very "Jewish" sounding chant, reminiscent of the nusach used for the fall holidays to the happy melody of Maoz Tzur -- Rock of Ages. Our Christian brethren have begun the season of Advent, a time of great hope for them. In the Christmas carols, one feels a distinct sense of joy even as one feels in the melody the cold of the season as well. And though it was early this year, the festival of Dewali often also falls at this time.

Much has been written about the celebration of life, emotional warmth and light at a time of darkness, cold and senescence, but what is interesting from the Jewish point of view is that this is the time in which we read the Parashat, Chayei Sarah -- the life of Sarah. The oft-noted irony of this portion is that the words beginning it, which give it its name, actually are describing the death of Sarah. And the portion ends with the death of Abraham. It is interesting then that we come to this part of the Torah as autumn enters its final stretch: as all around us the world is asleep and dead to itself, yet all around us are Christmas carols, Chanukah songs and other songs of hope and winter cheer. The dramatic irony of the Torah portion perfectly reflects our feelings at this time of year -- our need to remember that, even as the days get shorter, light will come to us again. In general, our calendar reflects the comforting rhythms of the seasons (I say as I will likely move out of New Jersey back to the relatively season free sunbelt at the bottom of this country -- I will miss the seasons) as well as an agricultural world in which many of us no longer live as well as the coming of the Messiah which many pray will happen soon even if s/he may be tarrying until humanity has proven itself worthy of Messianic rule: the fretting of the Omer period when one is not sure how one's first grain harvest will turn out, the joy of the fall harvest and the good judgment upon us we would like to think it represents, etc.

One of the themes of Jewish meta-humor is that we Jews, having experienced so many catastrophes in our existence, are good at suffering, good at dealing with mass death. No awkward moments of silence for us, no forced wailing. Just the plaintive chants of the Psalms: Psalm 1, Psalm 22, Psalm 23, Psalm 39, Psalm 49, Psalm 130 ... and the prayer most associated with mourning, the Kaddish.

There are actually many varieties of the Kaddish prayer -- all of which serve as "punctuation" in Jewish worship. And what does the Kaddish say? It is a paean to God, but within it lies a very strong demand: that we wish for God to establish the Divine Kingdom on Earth -- "now! and swiftly! soon!" Why do we say this prayer in memory of death? As a very touching midrash has it, "if we are to say a Kaddish when a chapter of Torah is finished, how much more so should we say Kaddish when a person's life ends." Life, like the seasons, is marked with a beginning and an end. It is all part of the great cycle described so poetically by Koheleth. At the end of the cycle -- at a time when all seems so bleak, we remember (in the active sense of the word so often used in Torah), in Kislev, with Chayei Sarah, with the festival of the re-dedication of the Temple, Chanukah, that spring will come again, life will be renewed. Thus, the Kaddish, said in memory of the dead, contains a plea for the Messiah to come and renew life.

As the Rabbis of yore taught: "why should we feel sad at the passing of someone who has died after a long and full life? should we not feel happy that they have led a long and full life? should we not rather worry at the time of the birth of child about how that child will turn out?"

While death is a time of sadness and the close of autumn is a time of cold and darkness, sometimes without even snow to add brightness from reflecting what little light there is, we must remember life and hope for its return. That is what the title of the portion, the Life of Sarah, implores us to do: as much as we may be sad, that which we sow in tears shall be harvested in joy. In this season of cold and dark, but at this season of the rededication of the Temple, let us all remember how it began: with not the death of Sarah, mother of Isaac without whom there would be no Jewish people (remember Abraham was happy to have Ishmael as his heir), but with her life.



My friend Nate has a nice blog

It seems a lot of us central Jerz types have blogs.


The Meaning of Words on Money

There is a very good reason to wonder why atheists even have standing, so to speak, to sue to have the words "In God We Trust" removed from our money and question why theists are not more up in arms about this issue in terms of it being a completely vain invocation of God (that being said -- this theist thanks you Mr. Nedow -- although I've disagreed with you in the past).

... because it is so completely vain! What do words on money mean anyway? My dollar bill claims it is "legal tender for all debts public and private" (emphasis mine), yet if I want to park in metered parking for, say, two hours but I only have enough change to park there for one hour, I cannot use my dollar bill to pay this debt -- instead I must either park for only an hour, risk a parking ticket or find some friendly merchant who is actually willing to make change. So how is my dollar bill legal tender for even all public debts?

So if some words on money are meaningless, wouldn't repeating other phrases on money cause people to question their meaningfulness? Is it in fact not anti-religious to insist on diluting the phrase "In God We Trust" to form a cultural expression rather than a theistic one?

BTW -- I think it might be high time to rethink that whole "no religious tests" clause in the Constitution. I would love to give an examination to public officials who insist on forcing their religion down our throughts -- e.g.: "if Jesus is your favorite philosopher, why do you not accept the golden rule as a principle of statecraft -- i.e. do unto other nations as you would have them do unto you? -- and why do your policies so hurt 'the least of them'-- after all, how you treat them is, according to your professed religion, how you treat Jesus" or "if you are so keen on the 10 commandments, are you careful about abstaining from work on Saturday? how do you feel about having people swear oaths, that might be in vain, in your court? do you insist on having people give affirmations instead so that you do not place a stumbling block before the blind? what do you feel about having a vain invocation of God on the money?" ...

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