We Made Police Misconduct Inevitable, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson

Readers sound off my post about our complicity in police misconduct:

You write, in part, “It’s human nature: people who are subject to little or no review will inevitably behave badly.” Hogwash.  What you have, apparently, bought into is the belief in some parts of Christianity that we are all born evil.  And that, therefore, we all require constant outside pressure in order to behave well.  I’m guessing that, consciously, you would reject that worldview.  But it’s what your statement comes down to.  (And personally, my experience of humanity has been very much otherwise.)

The problem is rather that some people do need outside constraints.  I would suggest that it is, most of the time, only a very small portion of the total.  But that small portion is highly visible when their constraints are off.  (It’s the same phenomena which causes people to believe that the streets are more risky than ever, even as crime rates have been falling for a couple of decades.  Bad things make headlines.)

Yes, police misconduct is a problem that needs to be addressed.  And may even be especially high in some minority urban areas.  But to address it effectively, we need to have a clear view of the police as a whole.  There are doubtless some places, possibly including Ferguson, where the police department as a whole is a problem.  Then again, it would only take a couple of people, even there, to lead to the problems we have seen.

Suppose you have three problem individuals, out of 50+, on the Furgeson PD.  One is the guy who ordered everybody into combat gear.  One is a guy who started the shooting (since once that starts, in a tense situation, many others will follow).  And, of course, one may be (depending on what really happened) the guy involved in the original incident. That’s all it would take – less than 10%.  I’m not saying that that’s all there were; just that no more are actually needed for things to deteriorate.

Saying, or acting, like we believe that everybody on the police department, there or elsewhere, is nasty unless tightly controlled is only going to make it harder to make things better.  People, even good people, get defensive when they are accused of being evil.  If you really want to get positive changes, you have to recognize that most of the police are dedicated good guys, who would join in your efforts with a will … if you refrain from tarring them all with the same brush.

Well: it happens that I don’t believe that human beings are basically good, despite how often that’s said, but I don’t think I’ll convince anyone of that in the space of a blog post. I’ll just say this: maybe it’s true that only some people need to be subject to close scrutiny to behave well. As you say, it only takes a small amount of people to ruin everything, and as I indicated, the cyclicality and regularity of these problems seems to suggest that the problem is systemic rather than individual. Indeed, some readers are complaining that I’m going after the cops in an unfair way, but I’m actually arguing that the system we’ve created has given the police little incentive to behave well. That’s not an exoneration of the individuals, but it is a way to look for deeper causes than personal immorality. I would add that it’s impossible to know who’s going to be good and who’s going to be bad, without scrutiny, before the fact. So we’re still left in a place where we need strictly defined and strictly enforced accountability measures for police, and we need them to operate in an atmosphere that does not default to deference. And finally, whatever is hypothetically the case, we are hearing every day from the poor and racial minorities, in this country, that they fear the police. That’s their reality, and we need to respond to it.

Another:

Thanks for this posting. However the problem very much pre-dates 9/11. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 2,000 wrongful convictions since 1983, and, I think it is safe to say, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a corrupt system that includes prosecutors who are happy to convict and then unwilling to reverse their position once new evidence comes to light. We see the problem all too clearly in my state, Illinois, where Governor George Ryan put a moratorium on implementing the death penalty in 2000 after 13 people had been exonerated – most of those exonerations requiring many years and often bitterly fought. In Chicago, taxpayers have been required to pony up millions of dollars in settlements over and over again in cases where the police have over-reached (to put it mildly). The most notorious cases being John Burge who was found to have been involved in torturing 200 suspects between 1972 and 1991.

The problem is African American and low income communities of all races know/believe this stuff goes on all the time. But, in general, white and better off communities either don’t believe it or don’t want to believe it or don’t care or some combination of all of the above. Which goes to your point that we get the police department the public wants to have.  Most police officers are good. But the system defends the bad ones with such vigor, it tarnishes the entire system among the people who need it most, but are also most victimized by it – low income communities. The public needs to re-think what is costing everyone to continue like we have.

And another:

This is not merely a post-9/11 problem, although I agree that the outpourings of public support (for first responders) you cite certainly contribute. History repeats itself. I recall my own experience from the 1960s-70s.

After a stint in the military, I came home to my west Bronx neighborhood to find it in transition from a middle class, Irish-Jewish enclave to ghetto. It was 1968. Heroin ruled the streets, crime was rampant, students at nearby Columbia were rioting and, shortly after, the South Bronx would literally erupt in flames. I continued to work in the neighborhood for the next 13 years as a public utility employee. While I watched my old neighborhood burn down, I was able to observe much else that occurred on the streets.

Then as now, the police routinely despised and brutalized the people they were supposed to serve.  Granted, they were overwhelmed and often demoralized.  At the same time, they had no incentive to address the root cause of much street crime, heroin.  The reason was precinct-level corruption which, as revealed in testimony before the Knapp Commission, was endemic. There was little incentive for a cop to run drug dealers off his beat when they might well have been the source of income that may have equaled or exceeded his regular paycheck.

Hopefully, that cycle of despair doesn’t exist to impede efforts to resolve today’s already daunting societal problems.

(Photo: Police officers arrest a demonstrator on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

You Go To War With The Warmongers You Have

by Freddie deBoer

Kristol

Though the left is often seen as home to only pacifists and those who see the hand of imperialism in all proposed military action, there is also a healthy strain of messianic militarism on our side. I regularly engage with lefties who believe we should be “doing something” for the people of Syria, although what that something entails is not consistent or clear. In this telling, the Syrian uprising is a legitimate revolutionary force, the Islamists among them a small corruption that doesn’t jeopardize a post-Assad future, and the situation such that the United States could deploy military power in a way that increases stability and humanitarian outcomes rather than degrades them. These lefties believe in revolution, and they want the United States to be a revolutionary power.

Well, I would simply start by asking: is the United States military in the habit of supporting revolutionaries? What about the history of this country compels you to think that it has the capacity to support revolution, or any interest in doing so? If the United States goes to war, it doesn’t go with some hypothetical benevolent military machine. It goes to war with its actual existing military machine, under the auspices of the same-old warmongering politicians and officials, and with the same old military leadership. We don’t have some spare revolutionary force lying around. So: do you want to break bread with those people? Do you want to give your support to them? Do you want them to do what they do? Because that is a necessary precondition of getting involved. The neocons who want us to get into every war are not suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “we’re sitting this one out, the lefties have got it.” You are free to say that you don’t want to get involved with Bill Kristol and his cronies. But they will most certainly get involved in your war.

There are more arguments against intervening in Syria than I can count. The first and most salient is the only argument we need against calls for more righteous bloodletting: should implies can. The United States went to war under ostensibly humanitarian pretenses in Iraq. We had over 100,000 troops stationed there, and the result was a humanitarian calamity, limitless slaughter. We sent cruise missiles to liberate the people of Libya, and the country has descended into civil war and chaos. Saying that we should free the Syrian people implies that we can. But for now, I want left-wing advocates of military intervention in Syria to recognize: anything that the United States does, will be done in the way that the United States always does it. This will not suddenly become the country you want it to be. And no matter how much you wish it were different, you will be lying down with the Tony Blairs and the Dick Cheneys and the Weekly Standards and the Commentarys. They will be getting involved, and they will exercise more control than you ever can. That’s reality.

Back in a rare moment of clarity, before quickly rediscovering his cruise missile liberalism, Peter Beinart wrote an apology for his previous support for the war. He explained that he had come to learn “a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.” That was true then, and it’s true now. Because the United States is not that country. Because everything about our history, recent and distant, teaches you that this country does not rescue. It doesn’t liberate. It supports dictatorships, destroys enemies, secures resources, destabilizes countries, drops ordnance, and generally imposes its will. But it does not liberate, and no amount of wishing will make it the kind of power you want it to be.

(Image from HuffPo’s “True Chyrons For Bush-Era Iraq War ‘Experts’“)

Is Edward Snowden the World’s Dumbest Spy?

by Freddie deBoer

Michael B. Kelley thinks he might be! Such a fine line between espionage mastermind and espionage incompetent. Kelley does a deep dive into Snowden’s interviews and, with the help of some very, very willful reading and powerful cognitive dissonance, concludes that Snowden has distributed essential intelligence to those commies in Russia and China.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Kelley admits that he doesn’t know whether Snowden has done any such thing. He just waits until the long piece’s third-to-last paragraph to make that admission. “Fifteen months after his epic heist, we still don’t know if Snowden was telling the truth when he said he destroyed the tier 3 documents between June 12 (the SCMP leak) and June 23 (the flight to Moscow).” I would call that a fairly important qualifier! I think you’ve buried your lede here, Michael. I mean, if you’re writing a piece about how you think somebody leaked something, but you have a paragraph where you admit that you have no evidence that he in fact leaked that something, you might want to put that up near the top. Just a thought.

Kelley is part of the professional Edward Snowden skepticism circuit, which has kept a lot of “National Security Experts” gainfully employed. (Stimulus!) But Kelley isn’t a part of the knuckle-dragging, “hang his lifeless carcass from the Pentagon flagpole” school of anti-Snowden rhetoric. Instead, he’s part of another class of Snowden critics, the Snowden concern trolls. It’s carrying water for the national security state, just for the sophisticates. In this genre, you cast your aspersions on Snowden, intimate he’s a Russian or Chinese spy, or that he’s been duped by Russian or Chinese spies, or that he’s so deluded he doesn’t know he’s fallen into the trap of the Russians or Chinese. But you do it all while hemming and hawing and giving a little sugar to the people who don’t think we should have a limitless domestic surveillance system. You undermine him and what he’s done, but you do it with a veneer of journalistic objectivity.

But I said that Kelley must think Snowden is the world’s dumbest spy. Here’s Kelley’s thesis: Snowden stole three types of documents, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. The first two have a legitimate whistle blowing purpose, and Kelley concedes that someone could steal them out of legitimate civil liberties concerns. But Tier 3, in Kelley’s view, has no legitimate white blowing value, and so the only reason to steal them is to give them to the Russians or the Chinese. Or sell them to the Russians or the Chinese. And Snowden has wound up in… drum roll please… China and Russia.

Now, as Kelley is perfectly aware, it would have been incredibly easy for Snowden to have simply gotten the Tier 3 files and given them to a foreign government. For an encryption and communications expert like Snowden, it would have been no great difficulty to send those files securely online… or, you know, send a flash drive via UPS. That’s part of the great scandal here: that somebody like Snowden had such carte blanche to explore the domestic surveillance files of the NSA, and that he was able to walk out of there with so much information without anyone noticing. Indeed: were I interested in keeping the NSA’s secrets, I’d be a lot more worried about all of the other contractors I don’t know about than I am about the one I do know about. So since he knows Snowden could have easily taken the info and run without ever telling the world, he has to come up with a version where Snowden either legitimately wanted to blow the whistle on the NSA and then also wanted to give intelligence to the Russians and China so he fled there, or where Snowden acted like a whistle blower just to hurt the USA’s legitimacy and fled to Russia and China to share the Tier 3 documents with them.

Both of these are really dumb. If he was both legitimately interested in spreading the word about the NSA’s illegal activities but wanted to also help America’s antagonists, whether for money or any other motive, then he’d have hurt the value of the Tier 3 documents by going public. When you tell the world that you’ve gotten your hands on some explosive documents, and you tell the government agency you took them from what you took, then those files become much less valuable. The espionage value of intelligence that the other side knows you’ve shared is far lower. And if the whistle blowing is all a con as part of an elaborate scheme to hurt the United States, hiding out in China and Russia is the very worst thing he could have done. Does Michael Kelley really think that the Chinese and Russian intelligence services are that bad at their jobs? If this was all some elaborate plan to discredit the United States, would Russia’s spy agencies really say to Snowden, “make sure you hide out in China and Russia– that’ll  add to your credibility with the American people”? How dumb would they and he have to be, if that was the plan? Indeed, the fact that Snowden ended up in those countries makes it much less likely he’s a spy. If he were a spy, he’d have fled someplace way less suspicious.

Given that, by his own admission, Kelley has no evidence that Snowden shared damaging intelligence materials with any other foreign governments, and given that if he were a spy, he’d be doing a terrible job of it, I conclude that in fact Snowden is who he says he is: a whistle blower, one who fled to China and then Russia because he was on the run from an American government that would like very much to throw him in some closet somewhere, preferably in a friendly dictatorship where he could be tortured. Was it a good idea to go to China in the first place? I have no idea. I’ve never been on the run from the world’s most powerful country. And I have no idea what conditions Snowden was under when he grabbed those documents, if he had much choice, or what was on his mind. I do know that he’s in Russia because he’s been trapped there by our government, and that if he’s a spy, he’s gotta be the world’s worst.

Israel Has Been Singled Out by Israel’s Defenders, Ctd

by Freddie deBoer

A reader shares some very typical sentiments in a criticism of my piece yesterday on the “why do you single Israel out?” narrative:

I’m  a Jewish American who is not at all afraid to criticize Israel, particularly with respect to its settlements in the West Bank.  As I mention to friends whenever Israel is being discussed, there are plenty of Israelis who completely disagree with the Netanyahu administration and many current policies of the Israeli government, so no reason we in the U.S. can’t do the same.

That said, deBoer’s argument is wanting on several fronts, two of which I will address here because they are the most egregious, and interrelated in many ways.  First, deBoer makes no mention whatsoever of anything that Hamas may have done to provoke the recent violence, as if the entire situation is 100% the fault of Israel.  I sometimes disagree with Andrew about Israel, but I respect his opinion and am open to be persuaded by his arguments because he always makes clear that he condemns what Hamas (or others) have done, and explains that he understands the larger historical context that Israel (and Jews) operate under, even if he disagrees with their conclusions.  I see no similar effort by deBoer, and if the effort is to persuade someone with his writing, it causes me to completely tune him out, because he gives the impression that he only sees this conflict from one perspective, i.e., Israel=bad/evil, Hamas=oppressed/innocent.

This is a very common rhetorical ploy: why do you not mention Hamas’s problems when you mention Israel’s? Well, first, that’s the very argument of my post: that we bear responsibility for Israel’s actions because we enable them to a degree that is completely unprecedented in American history, and so we are responsible for them. That simply is not true of Hamas. Not remotely. Second, the idea that we should always take pains to achieve balance in our criticism of Israel– a kind of “one for you, and one for me,” reciprocal approach”– is fundamentally misguided, because it misrepresents the reality of official support for Israel and for Hamas. Support for Israel is as close to unanimous in national American politics as you can get, despite the fact that public polling shows a great deal of criticism from America’s people. Essentially all of our legislature and our executive will support Israel’s actions literally without exception. In this recent conflict, the vast majority of those killed have been civilians, by absolutely anyone’s reckoning, including within the Israel media. Hundreds of children have been killed. That has not changed the elite political consensus one iota. Meanwhile, the number of American politicians who support Hamas is exactly zero. Such a person does not exist in our Congress. So who exactly am I supposed to be scolding for supporting Hamas? Why would I bother to criticize the side that has no establishment political support whatsoever, when the other side has slaughtered hundreds of children and lost no face with America’s political class? This emailer is operating under a broken understanding of political responsibility:

Second, I understand deBoer’s point about people here in the U.S. being able to single out Israel for criticism because of how much moral and financial support the U.S. provides to Israel, but his complete dismissal of any possibility of anti-Semitism is simply naive and, again, makes me question his entire perspective.  Does he not see the news about supposed anti-Israel rallies in Europe turning into pogroms against synagogues and Jews there?  Modern Orthodox friends of mine traveling to Europe this summer, even the UK, wear hats in public so they don’t invoke the ire of residents there.  Is there no anti-Semitism in this lashing out at Jews who have no direct connection to Israel?  deBoer completely dismisses the notion that there could possibly be anti-Semitism behind at least some of the criticism lobbed at Israel.  Again, this is in contrast with Andrew, because he always acknowledges the reality of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe where it should be particularly concerning for anyone with a modicum of knowledge of history, both recent and ancient, to see graffiti and violence condemning Jews.

The reasoning is again the same: the political establishment of my country, which is my responsibility, is entirely opposed to anti-Semitism. I don’t doubt that there is hatred of Jews lurking around out there, but there is no one– literally no public figure of any importance whatsoever, whether politician or celebrity– who would ever publicly express anti-Semitic remarks, unless they’re interested in committing reputation suicide. If they did, they would be rightfully cast out and reviled. Meanwhile, hatred of Muslims and Arabs generally, and Palestinians specifically, is an absolutely mainstream phenomenon. Republicans in Congress spew hatred and venom for Muslims and Palestinians daily. Can you imagine if a celebrity said “Jews deserve to die,” the way Joan Rivers said Palestinians deserve to die? Can you imagine a celebrity saying that Israelis are like a crazy woman who needs to be slapped, as Bill Maher said about Hamas? No. No, you can’t imagine it, because it would never happen. Because it’s OK in public life to hate Palestinians. It’s not OK in public life to hate Jews. I don’t “balance” condemnation of Palestinian oppression with condemnation of anti-Semitism because the whole world defends the former and only a lunatic fringe defends the latter.

Nobody of importance defends Hamas’s rockets. Almost everyone of national prominence defends Israel’s right to murder children. That is the condition under which I argue, and for that reason, I will not take part in the facile exercise of mentioning Hamas’s bad deeds every time I mention Israel’s. They are not comparable phenomena:

deBoer actually makes me much more sympathetic to Israel, because unmitigated condemnations like these, without any scintilla of sympathy or perspective on what it must be like to be an Israeli, whose homeland (and fellow Jews around the world) has been the consistent target of mass genocide by your neighbors, give Israelis the distinct feeling that they are on their own and must do whatever is necessary to protect their citizens and preserve their state.

If your take on collective punishment and illegal occupation can change because I didn’t do enough to assure you that I don’t condone anti-Semitism, I would suggest you think it over a bit more.

Southland Tales: An Unappreciated Masterpiece

by Freddie deBoer

Since Andrew and the Dish team gave me carte blanche to write about what I want, I’m going to go ahead and abuse the privilege by writing a defense of a largely-forgotten, eight-year-old movie, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Because when it isn’t being ignored, it’s usually being reviled, which is a crime. Southland Tales is a masterpiece.

Explaining the plot of the movie could take up thousands of words—and in fact, already has. I’ll leave it to others to explore the complex web of plot lines, references, digressions, and symbols. Suffice is to say for now that Southland Tales is the story of America in the age of terror, an America where a nuclear terrorist attack on Texas leads to a massive surveillance infrastructure, a nascent resistance movement, and the desperate search for an alternative energy source in a world where the Middle East is on fire. While American wars rage in Syria and North Korea, the sprawling USIDENT surveillance system keeps tabs on us through both sophisticated electronic means and more old fashioned, soldiers-with-telescopes techniques. Meanwhile, a genius scientist has discovered Fluid Karma, seemingly a source of unlimited free energy, drawn from the endless churn of the oceans. When we enter the scene, Dwayne Johnson’s character Boxer Santeros, a Schwarzenegger-style movie star and fiancee of a powerful Senator’s daughter, has gone missing, having lost his memory in a mysterious event in the desert. During his disappearance, he’s shacked up with Krista Now, a porn star who wants to start a new life, and sees Santeros as her ticket out. The story really gets rolling when Santeros goes on an ill-fated ride along, ostensibly to research a movie role, with a cop named Roland Taverner—or is it Ronald? Then there’s the question of Santeros and Now’s screenplay, The Power, which keeps mimicking real life….

But, well, there I go, getting into the plot without really meaning to. The movie’s like that.

You won’t understand everything happening in the movie the first time you watch it, and you aren’t really meant to. Among its many references and influences are the great film noirs of the past, and like those films Southland Tales is usually experienced in a state of mild confusion, comprehension always lagging just behind the progression of the Byzantine plot. But you don’t need to understand all of what’s going on for the themes to resonate, or to enjoy the many fantastic set pieces, which are sometimes hilarious and sometimes gorgeous. The characters are pulled into these moments in surprising ways. All of them are portrayed as at least partially comic, and yet all are allowed to entertain grandiose schemes and levels of self-importance. Wallace Shawn’s mad scientist wears the haircut of a synth player from some 80s Euro band; Cheri Oteri’s witless revolutionary/con woman makes up for her bad plans with a talent for violence; Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive actress from the Poltergeist movies, quotes T.S. Eliot. Kelly arranges them in carefully choreographed moments that play out almost as skits within the larger narrative, and it’s here that they are allowed to achieve some sort of dignity, or at least self-determination. A staged domestic disturbance between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris from the Wire turned real shooting bleeds out into a paranoid escape across the foggy, overgrown lawns of suburban LA, set to The Pixies. The Rock, Mandy Moore, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dance to Moby in a scene right out of your senior prom. A hallucinating Justin Timberlake, shirt covered in blood, lip syncs to the Killers in a psychedelic arcade. Gorgeous, every frame.

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Southland Tales is one of the handful of greatest LA movies without being recognized as such. It’s cliched to say that a city is a character in a film, so perhaps I’ll just say that Los Angeles is a ubiquitous presence in Southland Tales. The city is at once a central concern of the film and a subtle one. There’s little about the plot, as plot, that necessitates it being shot in LA, and yet there’s no way it could have been made anywhere else. The city is alluded to in the (excellent) soundtrack and in the voiceover narration, but it reveals itself especially in the movie’s geographic expansiveness, the way it lazily stretches out across its setting. Donnie Darko, the film that made Kelly’s reputation, is a claustrophobic movie, its suburban cul-de-sacs a metaphor for a time line looped back on itself. Southland Tales, in sharp contrast, spreads out across its setting like it’s in no particular rush to get anywhere, mimicking the expansive interconnectedness it dramatizes, as vast and inescapable as the surveillance network that is at the center of both its plot and its themes. In its centerless sprawl and wide boulevards, LA works for this movie in a way that a more cramped city like New York never would.

Though it’s a 9/11 movie and a War on Terror movie and a political movie, show business is at the heart of its themes. The movie is about Hollywood the culture and Hollywood the industry, if not so much Hollywood the place (In its aesthetics, Southland Tales is much more Venice Beach than Hollywood and Vine.) In The Power, Santeros’s name is “Jericho Kane,” a reference to the Arnold Schwarzenegger schlockfest End of Days. That movie, while one of the worst Arnold ever made, is peak meta-Schwarzenegger, the dopiest and most self-important of his blockbuster career, a symbol of overstuffed action movies with overmuscled action stars. And it was the beginning of the end for Schwarzenegger as unironic action star, a relative box office dud from an actor who was once the most reliable draw in Hollywood. Kelly is interested in Hollywood people on the down swing; he’s interested in value in Hollywood, how it’s perceived and what it means. The cast is filled with actors who were seen as Grade C-types even at the time—Oteri, Jon Lovitz, John Laroquette, the guy from Highlander. I’ve heard people suggest that this means that Kelly couldn’t get bigger names in his movie, but that’s wrong; coming off of Darko, his career would have been at peak buzz. Instead, I think Kelly intentionally sought out actors who were perceived as washed up or in some sense ridiculous, like pre-Renaissance Johnson. In his movie, Kelly is working through the idea of who is allowed to be taken seriously. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character, for example, is underestimated and dismissed, despite taking part in a complex conspiracy that drags in some of the most powerful people in the world. Two feminist neo-Marxist radicals fight for revolution and respect from government officials who underestimate them. A character who fulfills one of the most reviled stereotypes we have—the rich white kid who dresses and talks like a character from a rap video, complete with ridiculous doo-rag—is given respect and compassion, playing a key role in the bravura climax, one of the most indelible visuals I’ve ever seen on screen.

All of this, I’m sure, makes the film sound deeply pretentious. If so, that’s appropriate; it’s a pretentious movie, in the best sense. The rampant fear of pretension has been one of the great mistakes of our current aesthetic era. It’s led to lots of perfectly crafted, perfectly unambitious, perfectly safe movies, the type Manohla Dargis aptly summarized, in her positive review of Southland Tales, as “elegantly art-direct murder.” We’re in an artistic age where the omnipresence of critical judgment has led so many creators to create from a defensive crouch. It’s an age of recappers and social media chatterers and Rotten Tomatoes, and so the response has been the rise of artwork designed to appease them rather than to take the kinds of risks that, sometimes, lead to transcendence. It’s the Era of the Critic Proof, the age of celebrating the perfectly fine. True Detective, Drive, Haim—I enjoy each of these, sometimes a great deal, and I’m happy they exist. But none moves me like the big shaggy mess that is Southland Tales, and in their workshopped perfection, they sand away the natural impurities that are the source of character. It’s kind of a dismal feeling, to perceive so much competence and so little risk, but in a world of towering fan entitlement and an entire industry of nitpickers, it’s probably inevitable. Here’s to the messes, and to Southland Tales.

Can Double-Blind Peer Review Be Reformed?

by Freddie deBoer

Peer review, the vetting of academic writing by subject-matter experts, is an essential element of academic progress. But the peer review process is also dysfunctional, sometimes out-and-out broken– and that brokenness stems from the well-meaning ideals peer review is meant to protect.

Gabriel Rossman wrote a fantastic piece illustrating the difficulties with peer review, and I highly urge you to read it if you are at all interested. I think Rossman is perfectly right in arguing that it’s the self-same people who complain about peer review as authors who often turn around and exemplify its worst tendencies when reviewing. As a peer reviewer myself, I try to always place myself in the position of the author, and in particular, I try never to review an article by thinking about what I would have done differently, but rather to ask if there are glaring theoretical holes, methodological errors, or problems with presentation. Far, far too much peer review becomes a matter of reviewers telling you what you should have done rather than making the work you did write better. As Rossman writes,

Rather, fixing peer review has to begin with you, the reviewer, telling yourself “maybe I would have done it another way myself, but it’s not my paper.” You need to adopt a mentality of “is it good how the author did it” rather than “how could this paper be made better” (read: how would I have done it). That is the whole of being a good reviewer, the rest is commentary.

But the particular problems with how peer review happens are less important than the basic structural problem. The fundamental issue is this. Peer review, at the vast majority of credible journals, is built on a double blind system. In order to ensure that a big name academic’s big name doesn’t get inferior work published, and so that reviewers can respond honestly without fear of retribution from people with disciplinary and institutional power, neither author nor reviewer knows the other’s name. That’s a sound idea, but it has a perverse effect, particularly given how important publishing is to an academic career. Reviewers and editors have enormous power to make or break careers; one major journal article could mean the difference between launching a professional career and having that career die on the vine. And with no knowledge of who exactly is responsible, we’re left with unaccountable power, which is never a good idea even when people are trying their best and mean well.

Though I’m talking about peer review, it’s also worth saying that this can apply to the whole academic publishing process. You might know the names of the editors you’re working with, but going public with complaints, in the event those complaints are fair and warranted, could be disastrous if you aren’t established or tenured.

For the better part of a year, I’ve been wrestling with an onerous, deeply unpleasant review process at an established journal. All editing, of course, is to some degree an unhappy business. But I’ve gotten peer reviews, even for rejections, that have been smart, fair, sympathetic, and constructive. This is not one of those times. The initial reviews were actually quite positive, though they came months after submission. I made those changes without complaint. Since then, there have been additional requests for changes again and again, each time separated by a period of months. I’ve made those changes to the best of my ability, but the requests have sometimes been unclear, rude, or worse.  These changes have been, at times, plainly contradictory of previous requests, in the most direct and unambiguous sense. It’s frequently unclear what requests for changes are coming from the peer reviewers and which are coming from the editors, or if the peer reviewers are even still involved in the process at all. At some point it became clear that I was being edited by several different editors and that these editors were not communicating with each other. I would receive questions, answer them, and get the same questions again, months later. And so on.

Is it possible that I’m just wrong, about everything, and they’re just right? Sure. But the fact is that if I was right even hypothetically, there would be no way for me to fix the problem. I don’t know who the reviewers are, so there’s no way to expect individual accountability. And as someone who lacks the benefit of employment, tenure, or prestige, speaking out publicly about the journal by name would be professional suicide. Even this missive, in and of itself, is likely to be seen as violating proper academic decorum, even though there’s no way to tell what journal I’m talking about. Under those conditions, how could we expect fairness or accountability? I think a lot of peer reviewers do a great job, and for no money. So do most journal editors, who if they are paid, are paid a pittance in most fields. It’s a lot of work. But I don’t know how to deal with problems with peer review and editing when the professional stakes are so high, the personal accountability so low, and when notions of collegiality and respect prevent people from making complaints like this one.

What makes all of this worse is that the double blind system was designed as a bulwark against the corrosive effects of power imbalances. The whole idea is that an unknown graduate student should have the same chance to publish in the biggest journals as the most respected academic celebrity. But that tenured prof can write books, publish research on his or her own web site, and be sure to receive respect and fair process from editors. Younger academics need to have their work vetted if they want to build a career, and they have to do so without complaining. The right to register grievance when grievance is warranted should be available to everyone, but the current structure of academic publishing makes that right unavailable to the most vulnerable.

I’m still plugging away on the article, but the communication has become so acrimonious that I’ve never represented the article on any of my professional documents and have essentially written off ever seeing the piece get published. Which is a shame, because I think it’s a good piece, as the reviewers did, to say nothing of the dozens of hours I’ve spent over the past year writing, researching, and revising the piece. That time represents a major opportunity cost at a critical juncture in my work and my life. And with the review process at many journals being so slow, it’s not reasonable to expect that I could withdraw the piece, get it published elsewhere, and get appropriate credit for it in time for it to help me on the job market.

Are you an academic who’s been caught in review hell? Are you a peer reviewer or editor who thinks your role is misunderstood? Or am I just full of it? Write in to dish@andrewsullivan.com and let the Dish know.

(Thumbnail Photo by Nic McPhee)

Israel Is Singled Out By Israel’s Defenders

by Freddie deBoer

One of the strangest and most fundamentally disingenuous lines of criticism used to attack critics of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine is that we are “singling Israel out,” that we pay special attention to Israel in a world of bad actors, and that this is indicative of obsession and, of course, anti-Semitism. The accusation is illegitimate on its face; America’s relationship to Israel, in terms of monetary aid, military aid, cooperation between intelligence services, and diplomatic protection at the UN and elsewhere, is unlike any other in the world. Read The Intercept’s exhaustive reporting on the incredible degree to which the United States supports Israel’s government and military. There is no relationship in American diplomacy –none– that is comparable to that between the United States and Israel. It is a wholly unique connection, unique in the depth of our support and in how unconditional that support is. The incredibly powerful Israeli lobby in American politics, which has earned very close to unanimous support for the Israeli government in Congress, has singled out Israel through those efforts. That’s just reality.

Our moral responsibility to Israel is different from that of antagonist nations because we have a hand in Israel’s actions. George Scialabba summarized this case recently:

The anti-imperialist/anti-totalitarian distinction is misleading because, broadly speaking, one side (Cockburn’s) is protesting crimes that their readers can readily, as citizens, do something about, and in fact are ultimately responsible for, while the other side (Berman’s) is not. Abuses by Castro and Chavez, and crimes by Saddam and Iran’s ayatollahs, are undoubtedly real. But the U.S. government did/does not support those regimes and was/is not responsible for their crimes.

I would argue that this is both basic political theory and basic morality. We bear moral responsibility for those things that we can control. I am a citizen of the United States, and the United States makes Israeli apartheid possible. I am therefore responsible for it in a way that I am not responsible for the theocratic thugs in Tehran or Saudi Arabia. It’s just a fundamental failure to understand the meaning of responsibility to suggest that we are too focused on Israel in comparison to other bad actors. And it’s the self-same lobby that accuses us of singling Israel out that has done everything to make this relationship unique.

So too with our media. It’s bizarre to read pieces like, for example, this insufferable piece of ethnic discourse policing by Shmuel Rosner, arguing that American Jews have a responsibility to censor themselves when it comes to Israel, and maintain the view that it is Israel’s critics who are singling Israel out. Rosner asks American Jews to treat Israel differently than any other issue in the broad sweep of our democratic conversation. He is charging them with prioritizing the ethnic and religious priorities he has invented for them over their democratic responsibilities. Shmuel Rosner has singled Israel out. Is Rosner guilty of anti-Semitism? Or consider this piece by Tim Murphy of New York Magazine. Murphy’s piece asserts that, in New York politics, Israel is the third rail, and he quotes many New Yorkers who feel that way. Is he making it up? Are they? Is he anti-Semitic to acknowledge this dynamic? If this is an accurate depiction of a fundamental difference in how Israel is discussed, how are critics of Israel the ones doing the singling out?

I know many fearless and combative political people who simply never speak or write about Israel. They have weighed the risks, they tell me, and find them too dangerous to make speaking out worth it. That is a kind of singling out, and one which comes not from critics but from the toxic rhetorical environment that Israel’s most aggressive defenders have created, through the constant conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. I have often asked professors and mentors about how to engage politically while building an academic career. I have been counseled in many different ways on this question. But what is striking is the number of professors and mentors, Jewish and not alike, who have said to me “just not Israel.” Engage, debate, invite controversy– but not about Israel. Yes, I suppose they are singling Israel out. But they are not doing so to cast aspersions on the country. Rather they are trying to counsel me in a way that they think is a matter of simple professional self-defense.

Maybe all of these people who say that criticizing Israel represents a particularly dangerous form of controversy are anti-Semitic, I don’t know. I think, instead, that Israel is “singled out” because Israel’s many powerful defenders have made the topic of Israel singular, singular in the broad sweep of American politics– singularly ugly, singularly toxic, singularly dysfunctional, singular risky.  And I also believe that Israel is singled out because of the singular hopelessness of its brutal, racist occupation, and the vast architecture of political and rhetorical defense that has been erected to justify it. It’s the bleak reality of the ritualistic punishment and oppression of a living people, in the name of defending “the region’s only democracy.” That’s singular.