Archives For: Keepers

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.

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by Freddie deBoer

Edward Snowden is a hero, in the truest sense. At the age of 29, he sacrificed a comfortable, fulfilling life, working a stable and well-paid job in Hawaii, and exposed himself to great risk—most certainly including risk to his life—out of personal conviction. Even if I were not convinced that Snowden had made the United States a more informed, more democratic, and in fact, safer country through his controlled leaks to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gelliman, I would admire his commitment to principles above self-interest. As it stands, I think that he has done a tremendous service for his country, in a way that the apostles of patriotism constantly invoke, and for his troubles he has been forced from his home and family, under a state of constant legal and physical threat, and reviled by many.

Many or most of my fellow travelers on the left, in my experience, support Snowden. It’s not hard to imagine why, given that he has exposed the inner workings of a key cog in the violent, invasiveGERMANY-US-RUSSIA-INTELLIGENCE-NSA-PARLIAMENT apparatus of American empire. Yet there has also been a strain of leftism that has been deeply suspicious of Snowden and sought to question, or out-and-out discredit, his work. I don’t mean natural skepticism, which we should bring to bear on any public figure, but active hostility and fear-mongering. (I’m also not talking about die-hard Democratic partisans, who object to Snowden under the simple logic that Snowden has harmed a Democratic president and is thus the enemy. I’ve spent far too much of my life debating that kind of partisanship, so I’ll just set it aside—that’s their logic, they stick to it, fine.) My interest here is instead focused on those who criticize Snowden neither because he’s undermined the national security state, as is typical of “terrorism experts” and various imperial stenographers, nor because he’s hurt Obama and Congressional Democrats. I’m talking about those who think Snowden should be distrusted or rejected because he’s, alternatively, a secret libertarian, an open libertarian, a quasi-libertarian, a crypto-libertarian, or similar.

You can find this argument all over. For a balanced, fair take, here’s Salon’s Andrew Leonard. On the other side of the ledger is this piece by Sean Wilentz of (of course) The New Republic, still the go-to magazine for establishment whining and the fetish for “legitimacy,” which at TNR tends to refer to those political opinions that have had the blessings of establishment power. But a little Googling will show you that the subject of Snowden’s libertarianism, whether real or imagined, has attracted a great deal of attention from those who identify as part of the broad left-wing.

My response to the claim that Edward Snowden is a libertarian is simple: I don’t care. At all. It’s simply immaterial to me. I have no particular interest in his broader ideological or political beliefs. Snowden is not a candidate for President or Congress. He’s not my political czar or my personal friend. What has distinguished Snowden has been his actions, the action of releasing a small portion of a vast trove of secret government documents to the public, in order to reveal to us the extent to which our national security system has trod on our rights and on our freedom. It is of little consequence to me whether he believes in socialism or fascism or anything in between, so long as the fruits of his efforts leave us more informed and better able to at least understand how the military state has harmed us. I don’t know why that indifference to his broader politics would be surprising to anyone. I respect and value his actions, and I feel that we owe him a great debt. If he proposes political ideas that I find immoral or unwise, I will say so. There is no contradiction there.

When we’re discussing Snowden, of course, we’re also discussing Glenn Greenwald.

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Academics, Public Work, And Labor

Aug 18 2014 @ 8:22am
by Freddie deBoer

Last July, I attended the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois. While there, I watched a keynote address given by Duane Roen, a vice provost and professor at Arizona State University. Roen’s speech addressed the great need for academics and scholars to be publicly engaged, to share their work with a general audience and to endeavor to make the work we produce in our universities more accessible to the public. Roen referenced Nicholas Kristof’s famous (or notorious) column complaining that academics are too cloistered, our work too obscure to be of use to the general public. At the time, I and others complained that Kristof’s perspective was willfully narrow, failed to recognize a whole host of academics who make their work public every day, and ignored structural economic reasons for why academics can’t or won’t engage publicly. But Roen’s speech made clear that, despite these real reservations, we must continue to press ourselves to be more engaged, accessible, and open in our teaching and our research. Whether the perception that we are inaccessible and secluded from public life is fair or not, that perception must be combated through rigorous public engagement. Roen discussed academics who had, he felt, done an exemplary job of making their work available to a wider audience, and laid out the many benefits of this type of scholarly work.

Roen was the perfect figure to deliver such an argument, given his long history as a leader and mentor within the WPA world. The night before his speech, my friend Marcy and I talked with Dr. Roen at length at a gathering for graduate students, and I was struck by his warmth and approachability. This, too, is a form of public work, engaging with early-career academics and making them feel like part of the scholarly conversation. I was happy to see that Roen’s speech displayed the same friendliness and openness.

But while I felt energized by Roen’s keynote, I also felt concerned. I had noticed that all of the academics Roen listed were late career, and enjoyed the benefits of both tenure and prominence. During the Q&A, I asked Roen about the dangers of engaging publicly as a grad student or untenured academic, given that public speech tends to be political speech. Roen admitted that the question for the untenured was complicated, and advocated a cautious approach. Afterwards, several other faculty members in the audience addressed the question, and argued that grad students should not fear political engagement. Why would someone want to join a department, one asked, if that department had such little regard for intellectual and political freedom that it wouldn’t hire someone with controversial views? I felt encouraged by that support. But it’s also the case that, after I spoke, I was approached over the course of the next day by perhaps a half dozen grad students, who confided in me that they, too, feel constrained in what they can say, and fear speaking out in public about issues of controversy. They appreciated the support of the faculty in attendance, as I did, but said that with the academic job market as demoralizingly competitive as it is, they could not help but feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves. They want to engage publicly, but the risks seem to outweigh the rewards.

These questions have taken on particular salience recently. Dr. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American scholar who studies indigenous history and post-colonialism, had a tenured job offer rescinded by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, thanks to a series of tweets he had sent regarding Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. To make matters even worse, Salaita had already resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, as his appointment at Illinois had already been confirmed. Adding insult to injury, Cary Nelson, a professor in the department Salaita was to join and the former president of the AAUP faculty union, vigorously defended the school’s decision, despite being a self-identified defender of academic freedom. (In fact, Nelson has displayed such intimate knowledge with Salaita’s tweets that it is fair to ask whether he had a hand in the decision.) I wrote a letter to UIUC’s chancellor to protest, as did many others, and as Corey Robin has documented at length, a great number of academics and public figures have condemned this action. (Robin’s blog, in general, has been an indispensable resource in covering this story.) But while I hope and pray that Salaita lands on his feet in a secure tenured job, the damage to academic freedom has been done no matter what the outcome: the millions of academics observing this situation, particularly those who are in the precarious position of being untenured—the vast majority—cannot help but be less likely to speak out on matters of controversy. Those at UIUC who are responsible for this decision are culpable for this chilling effect on free political and intellectual expression.

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What Can Prevent Campus Rape?

Aug 15 2014 @ 1:21pm
by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Judith Levine published a beautiful piece this week on how “to stop campus rape,” an issue that’s recently been getting attention from far outside its usual feminist bounds. In Congress, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a bipartisan team have been trying to pass a federal Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA) which would, among other things, create a public database of campus assaults and raise fines on colleges that report them inaccurately. A little over a year ago, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act was campuspassed, mandating that schools create rape prevention and awareness programs if they want to keep participating in federal student loan programs.

It’s hard to see how most of these efforts will change anything. The difference between a rapist and a not-rapist isn’t having clicked through an online sexual-assault awareness module. And a public database of campus assaults may prove useful to those who choose educational institutions based on crime stats, but it would seem to do nothing to discourage rape on campus. The underlying issues — sexual assault is all too common, victims are often hushed or treated unfairly by college administrators, the accused can lack anything resembling due process — remain.

Increasing fines for colleges that fail to report sexual assaults, as the CASA would mandate, might force schools to take sex crime complaints more seriously. But even this proposal is riddled with problems. First, it would require a victim whose allegations have already been swept under the rug by her or his university to then take further action and file a complaint with the Department of Education. And as The New York Times noted recently, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which handles these claims, hardly has enough staff to evaluate student complaints, which could mean “many colleges that violate federal law will not be investigated or fined.”

Others, however, fret that the OCR could get a little too fine-happy under the new proposal. Hans Bader, an attorney with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently pointed out that the bill would let OCR keep any money it receives, rather than turning it over to the general treasury. Wendy McElroy worries:

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Semi-Professional Journalism

Aug 14 2014 @ 5:36pm
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Dan Savage, Samantha Allen, and others have either linked or – so as not to link – alluded to Gavin McInnes’s recent Thought Catalog hate-rant against the transgender. I tend to agree with Allen, who writes:

I refuse to link to it—that’s how bad it is. McInnes willfully misgenders all transgender people, Janet Mock included, while pathologizing them as “nuts” and fixating at great length on the state of their genitals. It’s repulsive.

McInnes’ piece doesn’t deserve a formal response.

Yep. McInnes does not simply make an argument about gender identity that falls outside conventional liberal (and, as Allen notes, medical) norms. Such an argument might be buried below what it is he did write, but it’s hard to say, given the muck surrounding any possible substance. I’m also not keen to drive traffic to something odious, but it’s viral already, and not linking just invites curiosity, so by all means, judge for yourself whether a piece containing such sentences as, “You will be totally comfortable when your daughter marries a post-op dude and you should have no problems with her smoking his blintz” is, in fact, a thoughtful dissent worthy of consideration.

This scandal reminded me of another recent one on a totally different topic, namely the one that erupted when the Times of Israel – such an authoritative title! – hosted Yochanan Gordon’s oh-so-insightful intervention, “When Genocide Is Permissible.” What do these two items have in common? Here’s a hint, from the Times of Israel’s note regarding their decision to close down Gordon’s blog:

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Libertarian Morality

Aug 14 2014 @ 2:57pm
by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Dismissing the naysayers, Damon Linker argues that the Libertarian moment has indeed arrived … sort of:

America clearly is becoming more libertarian — it’s just that the transformation is happening in morality and culture, not in economic, tax, and regulatory policy. The swift and broad-based triumph of the movement for gay marriage and the rapid rise in acceptance of marijuana legalization are the most obvious examples. But the source of these changes is deeper than the policies themselves — and may lead to other changes down the road.

Linker asserts that the prevailing cultural attitude in America right now is one of radical non-judgment:

Consider the phenomenon of Miriam Weeks (Belle Knox), the Duke University undergrad who’s become a breakout celebrity (and something of a libertarian folk hero) for proudly admitting that she works as a porn actress to pay for her education. Pornography is obviously nothing new. But what is new — aside from its easy and costless availability online in effectively infinite quantities and varieties — is the claim that we shouldn’t judge Weeks’ decision to earn a living by having sex for money and in public, which is often the subtext behind discussion of her job choice. At least when the discussion isn’t explicitly framed to make her look like a saint for “empowering women and sex workers.”

In our libertarian paradise, moral judgments are perfectly acceptable, as long as they praise and never blame.

I take issue with that last quip – libertarian-minded folks are plenty capable of placing blame at the feet of people who deserve it. We have no problem expressing moral disapproval of an administration that rains death on innocent people, or of the insane militarization of our police force and the attendant terror it’s causing. We cast stones at those who let their own discomfort come before women’s safety and those who think any abuse by the state is warranted once someone has committed a crime. These are absolutely moral judgements – you don’t have mere differences of opinion on whether it’s okay to kill Pakistani children and African-American teenagers. We just don’t tend to be big on blaming people for failing to live up to some arbitrarily constructed sexual-morality code.

That’s not to say libertarians are all polyamorous pro-porn potheads (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In some places out west, self-proclaimed libertarians often look much more like Mormons than libertines. The only libertarian line in the sand on things like these involves government force, and it’s perfectly possible to be horrified at prostitution, gay strip clubs, and marijuana edibles and still not want them banned or regulated onerously. That is not an anti-libertarian position.

I understand the kind of cultural libertarianism Linker is writing about is oft predicated on the opposite – people’s personal desire not to be judged for their behavior becomes a rallying cry for less stigma generally. But I also submit that stigma reduction isn’t only the feel-good ra-ra bullshit some purport it to be. I, too, cringe at talk of how porn “empowers” women (what empowers women depends on the woman; individual women may feel empowered by sex work, just as individual women may feel empowered by mastering French, but neither present a net gain or loss for feminism). But I do believe that a “woman’s decision to earn a living by having sex” should be allowed, without abuse or jail time or insane regulations. And if you want people to stop treating sex workers’ lives as expendable and start supporting policies that treat sex work like any other kind of work, then reducing stigma goes a long way.

(Image via Flickr)

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by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

spirit animalYesterday I bemoaned those who would turn Robin Williams’ death into a mandatory mass therapy session. But that isn’t to say I don’t appreciate some of the conversation his suicide is provoking. If you’ve never been clinically depressed, the idea that someone like Williams could possibly find life wanting tends to seem absurd.

But depression is a “lie of the mind,” to borrow an old Sam Shepard title. It cares not for your comedy-god status or your loving family. It cares not that plenty of people have it worse. “Depression is a skilled liar, using what you know is true as basis for a massive fraud,” wrote journalist John Tabin yesterday. “If you’re suicidal, you’re where I was five years ago,” he tweeted. “Please read”:


I got teary-eyed reading that, and not just because Tabin is someone I know and like. There’s also the pain of recognition: I could have written nearly every word he did here. This is my depression story, too.

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by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Comedian Jim Norton admits that he “cannot even fathom a guess as to how much money” he has spent on paid sex in the past few decades. He isn’t ashamed of his habit, and he doesn’t think other johns should be either. But he does worry that the criminal status of sex work invites violence:

By keeping prostitution illegal because we find it “morally objectionable,” we allow (or, more accurately, you allow) sex workers to constantly be put into dangerous situations. Studies have shown that rapes and STDs dropped drastically between 2003 and 2009 in Rhode Island after the state accidentally legalized it. The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that the homicide rate for prostitutes is 50 times higher than the next most dangerous job for a woman, working in a liquor store. You don’t need a Masters in sociology to understand it would be much safer for sex workers if they were permitted to work in places that provided adequate security. Legalizing prostitution would also alleviate the fear a sex worker may have about reporting the abusive behavior of a john out of fear of arrest.

…. By keeping prostitution illegal and demonizing all of its parties, we (you) are empowering pimps and human traffickers and anyone else who wants to victimize sex workers because they feel helpless under the law.

These are all arguments I make frequently (as do organizations like Amnesty International, the United Nations Development Programme, and Open Society Foundations). Criminalizing consensual sex between adults not only harms the sex workers and johns engaged in it but also the actual victims of sex trafficking, from whom resources are being diverted in order to conduct large, interstate stings on men like Norton. Dan Savage recently criticized such tactics, in response to an organization called Seattle Against Slavery and its Men’s March to End Demand:

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by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Protests on Al-Quds Day in Berlin

Alongside the coverage of Gaza, on the Dish and beyond, has been a steady stream of coverage of a kind of shadow issue: European anti-Semitism. Writes Jon Henley:

Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons. This is not unusual; police and Jewish civil rights organisations have long observed a noticeable spike in antisemitic incidents each time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares. During the three weeks of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, France recorded 66 antisemitic incidents, including attacks on Jewish-owned restaurants and synagogues and a sharp increase in anti-Jewish graffiti. But according to academics and Jewish leaders, this time it is different. More than simply a reaction to the conflict, they say, the threats, hate speech and violent attacks feel like the expression of a much deeper and more widespread antisemitism, fuelled by a wide range of factors, that has been growing now for more than a decade.

“These are the worst times since the Nazi era,” Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, told the Guardian. “On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticising Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.”

Observers who don’t happen to be Jewish may see this and think, hmm. At a time when there are all these people being killed by Jews, is anti-Semitism really worth discussing? Indeed, it’s quite possible to be Jewish and to share this entirely understandable sentiment. (I’m Jewish and don’t share it, but more on that in a moment.) While right-thinking people balk when anti-Zionism crosses the line, it can seem just… odd, as if one is conflating the armchair bigotry Jews are experiencing on the continent that, yes, yes, hosted a genocide against them, but ages ago, when right now, there are dead Palestinian children. When Hadley Freeman, who normally writes about fashion, took on this issue, writing, “Clearly, a film festival being cancelled is not on a par with civilian deaths,” while I didn’t share the Guardian commenters’ collective eye-roll, I did understand it.

Yet anti-Semitism is intricately tied up with the situation in the Middle East, just not in quite the ways people seem to think.

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by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Yesterday Robin Williams died, seemingly from suicide. Scrolling through Facebook a few hours after the news broke, I found myself in a sea of RIP and this is so sad! and other, lengthier expressions of mourning for the beloved actor. One update stood out, from a friend of a friend. After acknowledging that it may sound cold, she wrote:

I just want to put it out there that it is also ok not to have any feelings when something bad happens to a celebrity.

This was met with initial, emphatic approval from a few, quickly followed by admonitions. Didn’t she get the memo that we were all supposed to be using this as a PSA about mental health? They bet she wouldn’t be singing this tune if she or someone she knew had suffered from depression!Las Vegas Hosts International Consumer Electronics Show

Now there’s nothing wrong with using the surprising (apparent) suicide of a surface-happy comedian as a catalyst for discussing mental health issues. But how absurd to suggest it’s wrong not to. Maybe some people would prefer to remember the man’s life and work rather than his demons. Maybe some people who are intimately aware of the toll depression can take (or the pain a loved one’s suicide can cause) are loathe to latch their very personal pain to online discussions of a stranger with strangers. Maybe not everybody has to react in the same emotional tones.

But then why say something at all? That was another criticism hurled at this Facebook poster. Why couldn’t she have just kept her big non-mourning mouth shut?

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