Harpo Jaeger dot com

Putting words into practice

On the road with limited Internet connectivity right now, but this is a big deal:

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy shadow Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

This is concrete evidence that the current administration really gets how important the Internet can be, and is willing to put time and money into helping people use it even when their governments won’t. Says Hillary Clinton:

“We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,”

More of this, please.

False equivalencies

Pew Research Center’s most recent Political Typology report (h/t Jonathan Chait) classifies Americans by general political positions, and divides responses to issue-based polling along those classifications. There’s a ton of incredibly interesting information in this report, but here’s one of the best survey questions:

The typical media portrayal of the debate on the deficit (or really, on government expenditures in general) is this: one one side, we have Republicans, who overwhelmingly favor both tax and spending cuts, and on the other we have Democrats, who only want to tax-and-spend, tax-and-spend. First of all, Pew’s data shows that Republicans are not uniformly in favor of arbitrarily “reducing the size of government” there’s a good deal of internal division. More importantly, however, liberals are largely united around a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. There’s no indication here that liberals are instinctively “pro-spending,” as some in the GOP would like you to believe.

Of course, these particular data don’t go into the specifics of how tax revenue should be raised and how spending should be cut – that information is further on in the report. But it’s also significant that the Democratic position of reducing the deficit through a combination of tax increase and spending cuts is far more representative of overall public opinion than the hard-right Republican position of cutting taxes and spending. This is not to say that the Democratic position is necessarily right because it polls well there are many cases where a significant section of the public holds opinions that are demonstrably false (see Birthers) but it would be nice if we stopped looking at this debate as one over whether to spend less or spend more. Everyone agrees we should spend less. The disagreements arise around two things:onwhat should we spend less, and should spending cuts should be the only mechanism for reducing the deficit. The first of those two areas of disagreement requires a real, vibrant public debate on national priorities, a debate which we’re seeing very little of. On that second issue, we have a discourse where one side takes a hardline position which is largely at odds with what the public thinks, and the other side takes a more moderate, diplomatic, and workable position that is basically in line with what the country wants.

Guess which side gets more attention?

Mayor Higgins’ Handouts from Noho budget forum

As promised, here are the two handouts that Mayor Higgins provided at the Northampton city budget forum last Thursday. Both are PDFs.

City of Northampton State Aid and benefit Costs

City of Northampton FY12 Budget Issues

Tonight’s forum on the Northampton budget

I attended a forum tonight on the Northampton municipal budget, and its relation to state budgetary processes. The mayor of Northampton, Mary Clare Higgins, our State Representative Peter Kocot, State Senator Stanley Rosenberg, and City Councillor Pamela Schwartz (also the director of YES! Northampton, a group that advocates for the preservation and enhancement of local revenue to fund basic services such as education) all presented.

It was a really terrific overview of the challenges our community faces in balancing the budget without cutting local services such as education (which is the single largest expenditure in our town). It was also immensely refreshing to listen to dedicated politicians who weren’t afraid to talk about the facts and back it up with data. It’s a stark contrast to the anti-intellectualism so often proudly displayed at the federal level. In other words, I like knowing that the folks I elect to my government have an actual interest in, well, governing.

Here are the notes I took, which are as exhaustive as I could make them. I’m getting in touch with the offices of the Mayor and Rep. Kocot, who were both more than happy to provide me with a copy of the materials they brought with them, which are really instructive. As soon as I get those (hopefully tomorrow) I’ll post them here as well.

NYT executive editor Bill Keller gets it exactly right

On the differences between the NYT and partisan news outlets:

The first is that we believe in verification rather than assertion. We put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny

Being right is necessary but not sufficient. We also strive to be impartial. We are agnostic as to where a story may lead; we do not go into a story with a preconceived notion. We do not manipulate or hide facts to advance an agenda. We strive to preserve our independence from political and economic interests, including our own advertisers and including our own government. (NPR, whose news coverage I admire, must surely be wondering whether a federal subsidy is worth its vulnerability to the riptides of Congressional politics.)

But just as doctors and lawyers, teachers and military officers, judges and the police are expected to set aside their own politics in the performance of their duties, so are our employees. This does not mean as one writer recently scoffed that we poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality. It does not mean according equal weight to every point of view, no matter how far-fetched. (Sorry, birthers, but President Obama is an American citizen.) Impartiality is, for us, not just a matter of pretending to be neutral; it is a healthful, intellectual discipline. Once you proclaim an opinion, you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out.

I think this last part is exactly right. And I also like that Keller doesn’t fall into the traditional “this is all the fault of the bloggers” line of reasoning. In fact, he even takes a shot at that precept: “…worrying that the accelerated competition of Web news has undermined our premium on accuracy.”

There’s still, and will continue to be, a place for real, verifiable, reporting. Some if it is done in newspapers, some of it is done in blogs. There’s also a good deal of shoddy journalism in both. It’s heartening to see an executive at one of the finest news organizations in the country talking frankly about the structural incentives that shape the way news is produced and consumed. That’s the first step to better aligning those incentives with the public interest.

The FTC is asleep at the master switch

Thanks to Tim Wu for the title inspiration.

AT&T announced on Sunday that it agreed to buy T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom, in a $39 billion deal that will reshape the cellular telephone industry.

So says the NYT, confining their interest in the effects this deal will have on consumers to the following paragraph:

Already, some critics say the deal will result in higher prices for consumers. T-Mobile had offered some of the lowest rates in the county. While AT&T is expected to honor current T-Mobile contracts, it is likely that once those contracts expire, T-Mobile customers would be expected to pay AT&Ts higher rates.

…followed by:

Even so, AT&Ts bid will solve the problem facing T-Mobile USA, the smallest of the countrys four major cellphone service providers. Both companies operate on the same wireless standard, GSM. Through the deal, T-Mobile will finally gain a path for the next generation of cellphone data, known as 4G, by using AT&Ts forthcoming LTE standard.

Arguably, the reason that smaller providers like T-Mobile are having a hard time getting access to 4G infrastructure is because there’s so little meaningful competition in the wireless market to begin with (from my perspective, most of the competition is in marketing, not actual services provided). This deal promises to make all that worse, not better.

The deal will also drive enormous cost savings. The combined company is expected to shutter retail outlets in areas where they overlap as well eliminate overlapping back office, technical and call center staff. Marketing costs could also be cut. Cellular carriers have been one of the biggest advertising spenders in the nation.

I wouldn’t hang around on the edge of my seat for AT&T to pass those savings on to customers. Also, it would be nice if the NYT considered these “cost savings” from a perspective other than AT&T’s bottom line. Consolidating retail, office, technical, and support staff = job losses.

Yet one more piece of evidence that what’s good for industry isn’t always good for the country.

A conversation with CiF Watch

When the J Street smear video broke (see my last post), CiF Watch tweeted a link to it, saying I was pro-BDS (I’m not). I replied, and over the next hour or so, we had a conversation about anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. I committed to writing a post exploring what I believe to be substantive differences between the two. I think an understanding of those differences is key for Zionists (or anyone who’s not an anti-Zionist) crying wolf at false cases of anti-semitism is not only incredibly damaging to those accused, which in and of itself should be enough of a reason not to do it, but ultimately counterproductive in actually identifying real cases of anti-semitism.

I’m planning to write that post tomorrow or early next week, but here’s the conversation that @CiFWatch and I had on Twitter. CiF Watch deleted their initial tweet claiming I was pro-BDS after I corrected them, so you won’t see that one here. Also note that the conversation goes on beyond the excerpt here hit the “view more” button at the bottom to see the whole thing.

Fisking yet another smear against J Street

I was interviewed for the deceptively-title video “2011 J Street Conference.” I’m the guy in the beginning and then later on, with the orange striped shirt.

I left a comment on the video explaining that I was one of the subjects, and objected to the way in which my interview was used. Comments were subsequently disabled, so mine doesn’t show up anymore. I feel that the video is deceptively edited, not true to my opinions, and is being used as a smear against J Street, not as part of a “research project,” which is how the interviewer described it to me. I’ve learned my lesson, and will not agree to such interviews in the future without getting the contact info of the interviewer.

It’s worth dissecting the many messages contained in the video to understand the complexity of what’s going on here. I’ll therefore present a line-by-line transcript of the video (taken from the subtitles) and offer my opinion on each component. Obviously, I can’t speculate on the intentions of the other interviewees, but I’ll explain my positions in the two clips of my interview.

To begin with, the video is set to “Puff the Magic Dragon.” WTF? Is the implication that J Street’s leftist constituents are all stoners or pie-in-the-sky idealists? Either way, I’m pretty offended.

Me: “There is an oppressor and there is an oppressed. Israel is the oppressor and Gazans are being oppressed.”

This requires no justification. I’ve yet to hear a sensible argument against the proposition that Gazans are suffering at the hands of Israelis. Clearly Hamas is part of the picture, a largely corrupt organization with violent tactics that do not serve the Gazan civilian population. Nevertheless, Israel has choices in how to respond, and turning Gaza into a 1.5 million person open-air ghetto through a land and sea blockade and control of resources, airspace, and communications amounts to oppression, plain and simple.

“I support the Palestinians creating their Palestinian state and if need be declaring it unilaterally if there’s no negotiations on it and creating a *fait accompli *that Israel will have to live with.”

J Street’s official position remains that Palestine should be created through direct negotiations. However, it’s far from radical to propose alternate methods of statehood. In fact, a panel at the conference reflected this reality, discussing the implications of Palestinian statehood mechanisms. Confining discussion of Palestinian statehood to the negotiation-based peace process ignores the growing likelihood that this process will fail. Believe me, I have no desire to see that occur (I’m an optimist), but ignoring its likelihood would change me from an optimist to a denialist.

Q: “*Do you think Hamas is a terrorist organization?” *A: “Not any more than the IDF is.”

This one I disagree with. It’s a drastic oversimplification to say that the IDF is a terrorist organization, or at least that it’s more so than any other army. I believe this interviewee is wrong. That said, it’s also an oversimplification to label Hamas either terrorists or not terrorists. Do they use abominable tactics of killing, injuring, and frightening Israeli civilians? Yes. That, as the Goldstone report noted, makes them guilty of war crimes. But they came to power in a context where Palestinians were deeply unsatisfied with the slow progress of Fatah. Hamas provides legitimate social services and has, internally, done many important things for Gazans. Arguably, those are outweighed by the damage they do in helping provide a justification for the blockade. Furthermore, nothing excuses war crimes. But the fact remains: Hamas is a lot more complicated than just a bunch of guys with rockets. The question lends itself to oversimplification. When it was asked of me, I felt that that was the idea.

“Something is going to need to be done to force Israel’s hand one way or the other.”

This is pretty vague, and also fairly non-controversial. Hardcore Israel apologists will take issue with the characterization of “forcing Israel’s hand,” but that’s what diplomacy and international relations is aligning a nation’s self-interest with a desired outcome. As a peacenik, I have no illusions that Israel will suddenly decide the peace process is morally “right” until they are forced to realize it’s in their interest to do so. The same is true, for example, of the American occupation of Afghanistan.

“I think if you look around and you talk to people and you listen to who’s applauding and how loud and… you’ll find that people’s… people’s priorities are more with the activists for peace and justice and less interested in coddling the sort of centrist Zionists.”

Aside from the problems with judging an organization’s political alignment by applause, it’s ironic that this is used here, because I wish it was more true than it actually is. That said, I do understand J Street’s reasons for wooing centrists in the way it does. It’s just frustrating sometimes (welcome to politics). Whatever the case, this really isn’t very good smear material.

“Hamas is… there’s no one Hamas.”

Obviously there is in fact a political organization called Hamas, so this comment is a bit off, but the notion that Hamas is not some unified organization acting with well-defined strategy to destroy Israel is at least as off-base, if not more. I don’t entirely agree with this guy, but what he’s saying isn’t that outrageous.

*Q: “Do you think the Israel lobby in the United states has prevented the United States from –” *A: “Yes!” *Q (cont.): “…from succeeding in the peace process?” *A: “Yes, I do. And I am so glad for J Street actually.”

This is actually a good question, and I fully disagree with the answer. The Israel lobby is one of many factors in US inaction, but to blame it for the failure of negotiations is a drastic oversimplification.

“I do support the boycott of Israeli settlements and settlement products.”

There’s a legitimate argument to be made against such boycotts (I strongly support them), but it should be totally obvious that people specifically targeting settlements in a boycott are, even more clearly than those who don’t boycott at all, asserting the “legitimacy” of Israel as a state. If they didn’t, they’d be boycotting the whole thing. This is not to say that anyone engaged in a larger boycott of Israel is opposed to it conceptually, but someone who intentionally singles out settlements likely does so because they believe settlements specifically to be illegitimate.

Me: “Personally, I think I would like to see J Street embrace some of the language that is typically associated with the ‘Radical Left.’”

This is where the editing really gets to me. The point I’d been making here was that J Street’s opposition to what’s generally considered the political left (mainly the BDS movement,) while logically and politically sound, has led to some of J Street’s supporters and allies instinctually dismissing the language that BDS proponents often use to describe the conflict. Language like “oppression” (this is where the first clip of me came from). That language is, in many cases, accurate (as I noted before), and may be tactically useful in helping reclaim the feeling of a moral imperative for the work J Street does, an imperative usually confined to BDS supporters or the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd. I’d like to see J Street assert the validity of our work in a moral sense. The video makes it seem like I want J Street to start getting angry and vitriolic, which I don’t (and for the record, I think leftists do this far less frequently than they’re accused of).

*Q: “Do you support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement?” *A: “More now than I did!”

Providing thought-provoking information yet another example of the dangerous tactics J Street employs. G&d forbid an organization permit its activists to change their opinions!


That’s about all. If the interviewer or others involved in the creation of the video want to respond, I welcome discussion. Please pass this along to them if you know who they are.

Are bloggers journalists? Does it matter?

This comment on Jewschool and the one directly following it got me thinking about the ethics of blogging. I’m certainly not the first to ask this question, and I tend to think that although there are certainly formalized differences between bloggers and journalists (the type of information they tend to cover, etc.,) we’re both responsible for our information. Perhaps because bloggers tend to have less editorial oversight, we feel *less responsible (and are less apt to be fired or penalized if we get a fact wrong,) but in reality, there’s a certain authority that comes with just *claiming to know facts. Anyone with a website that’s at least somewhat respectable i.e. not a conspiracy theorist is likely to be taken at least somewhat seriouslyfrom the get-go.

So bloggers, regardless of how impartial we are,should strive for the same level of integrity as journalists do. Similarly, we should recognize that blogging, like journalism, can serve an important public function, and we should try to live up to that. Which is why this is particularly disgusting:

There has been widespread condemnation of the violence directed against journalists covering events in Egyptand there should be. But honestly, I dont have a great deal of sympathy for those who have been attacked.

Journalists have a job to do, but when they take huge risks for the sake of ratings and then find themselves in trouble, its hard to take seriously any shock that media executives express about their journalists being targeted.

Despite news organizations’ general preference for ad revenue over real journalism, the fact remains that correspondents in the field are putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of spreading important information.

Journalists should use judgment and not race into the middle of what amounts to a massive bar room brawl without expecting something bad to happen.

First of all, the situation in Egypt only “amounts to a massive bar room brawl” if half the people in said brawl were paid to be there and to instigate violence. Second of all, I imagine those journalists did expect something to happen. They knew very well what they were getting into, and they did it anyway. That’s laudable.

Bottom line: bloggers and journalists have been providing us with incredibly important information on the ground in Egypt. Show some respect, people.

The new abolitionists?

Dave Weigel:

Many pro-life activists consider their work a continuation of other movements that protected human life and elevated the status of people whom the law doesn’t consider “human.” In the 19th century, it was African-Americans; in the 21st century, it’s children in the womb. This is a common point at the annual March for Life. In 2009, Rep. Jeff Fortenberrytold activists at the pro-life event: “You are the new abolitionists. You are the new civil-rights movement.”

I think this is a deceptive metaphor. Giving blacks full civil rights was a recognition of the fact that the government had no business permitting their status as second-class citizens. Individual citizens are obviously free to think what they want about racial equality (being racist isn’t illegal), but in conducting business or public affairs, they have to treat all people equally.

Laws permitting abortion don’t *require *anyone to 1) believe that abortions are okay, or 2) have one. In this way, the right of citizens to make private choices about a private matter (analogousto one’s right to believe black people are inferior to white people) is left intact. But the fundamental difference between the two cases is that no one’s life is threatened by their being forced to treat blacks and whites equally in public. They may not like it, but they can (and have) learned to live with it (one of the many sacrifices people have to make to live in an at least somewhat cohesive society).

Forcing all people to recognize an unborn child as deserving of the same Constitutional status as the woman who’s carrying that child ignores the fact that having a baby has a huge impact on people other than the baby, primarily the mother. While I wouldn’t claim that anyone who’s anti-choice is automatically anti-feminist, this is the reason I can’t totally shake the feeling that refusing to allow a woman a choice that is at its core about her own body and what she wants to do with it is tantamount to declaring that her only function is to have babies (and that someone else gets to decide when she does it).

Check out J Street’s newest campaign

I wrote a post at Jewschool on J Street’s campaign to get Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (House Foreign Affairs chairwoman) to return campaign contributions from a top funder of East Jerusalem settlements.

Still refusing to see the pattern

Will Wilkinson at DiA:

But try as we might to cushion the whole world, there will remain an infinite storehouse of freakishly singular hazards that elude imagination and defy the generalisation that feeds caution.

He’s referring, of course, to the Tuscon shooting, and he makes the case that those of us who are calling for stronger gun regulations in the wake of the tragedy are just overreacting and should wait until we calm down.

The things we already fear and already desire more thoroughly to control are most vividly salient to us. We seize on those: guns, crazy people. Did Jared Lee Loughner shoot government officials with a gun?Ban guns within 1,000 feet of government officials! Was Jared Lee Loughner detectably crazy?Make involuntary commitment easier! Did Jared Lee Loughner buy a gun while detectably crazy?Tighten background-screening requirements!Did Jared Lee Loughner’s gun sport an extended magazine?Ban extended magazines!

I think he’s over-psychologizing people like me. Obviously we’re a bit worked up about the whole thing federal officials were gunned down in broad daylight! Forgive me if that’s something I get a bit upset about.

Some of these proposals may have merit, but no more now than on Friday. The issues they address have become no more urgent.Sadly, people are shot to death every day. The odd and the infirm roam our streets. Some of them buy guns and use them.

This is a complete strawman argument. No one’s claiming that gun crimes are more of a danger now than they were a few days ago. But the issue is in the public eye right now, and I think Wilkinson understates the extent to which the very remedies he makes fun of would actually help the problem. The reason people are shot to death every day is because we make it incredibly easy for people (including crazy ones) to buy guns and ammunition.

Ezra Klein agrees with Wilkinson:

There are certain tragedies or disasters that relate to a very specific policy failure.

But the conditions in which action makes sense — when a policy failure is clear, and when fixing that policy will prevent recurrences of the tragedy in the future — don’t seem to me to be present here.

I just don’t see how either Wilkinson or Klein can come to this conclusion. There’s a clear policy failure the expiry of the assault weapons ban, which would have prevented Loughner from buying a 9mm semi-automatic Glock with a high-capacity magazine (under the [sound] logic that this particular gun really has no discernible use except as an assault weapon that is, exactly how Loughner used it), and fixing it will absolutely prevent this sort of thing in the future.

The bottom line is this: no matter how hard we try (and in this country, we don’t try very hard), we can’t get every violent crazy person off the street. We can stop selling them guns. Until we do, we have to stop looking at events like this as isolated. The shooter might have a different story each time, but what they all have in common is a gun.

The long haul: sustainable self-determination

Last Wednesday, J Street Western MA held a panel discussion following a screening of Budrus (which you should see) at a local movie theater. Almost 130 people stayed after the film for the discussion overall, quite a successful night. The discussion was moderated by Stephanie Levin, a member of the J Street Western MA steering committee, and the panelists were Melanie Harris and Ira Stup. A wide range of opinions were represented in the audience, including a sizeable number of HSJP and WMCP activists. I stuck around after the discussion and had an excellent conversation with some of them, which prompted me to do some serious thinking, both on the spot and afterwards.

One of the primary justifications for the BDS movement is the call by numerous Palestinian civil institutions for its use as a tactic to force the end of the occupation, the disassembly of the separation barrier, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The unanimity of this appeal is impressive and grants a great deal of legitimacy to the tactic and its supporters. It also has the effect of forcing opponents, or at least those who don’t fully embrace it (such as myself), to seriously consider the justification for their position. In other words, how can one engage in non-BDS-centered activism while still truly supporting Palestinian self-determination?

This is an important question, one that people like me need to pose to ourselves quite seriously. I thank the HSJP and WMCP folks who opened my eyes to a new standard by which I have to measure my own activism, and I hope that our continued efforts and dialogue push others to do the same. After a good deal of thought, I feel a renewed belief in J Street’s work, and although that probably wasn’t what the WMCPers had in mind, they should still be proud for pushing me to grapple with the topic. Here are my (now newly updated) thoughts on how J Street’s actions are consistent with the cause of Palestinian self-determination.

First, a working definition. Wikipedia defines self-determination as “…the principle in international law, that nations have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or external interference.” I’m going to assume we all agree that there’s no way Palestinians can be said to possess the right of self-determination currently. Therefore, the question remaining is: how do we deliver it to them as speedily and sustainably as possible? Here’s where the BDS movement and J Street differ (I generalize a wide range of opinion exists within both of these camps, often overlapping, but we’ll work with BDS’ core principals and J Street’s official position on BDS).

The BDS movement is based around the concept that standing in solidarity with Palestinians directly affirms their inherent right to self-determination. On this, I agree. The nonviolent resistance movement has gained legitimacy and power through the involvement of non-Palestinians, and we who believe in it should continue to raise our voices.

But ultimately, our mission is to create a political framework that will become a real and lasting State of Palestine, a state which by definition will be the exemplification of real and lasting Palestinian self-determination. By choosingnot to take a position on borders, security, one state vs. two states, or a host of other issues that are the building blocks of Middle East peace, the BDS movement sacrifices the ability to aid in accomplishing that mission. I’m not claiming that a movement must support a two-state solution in orderto support Palestinian self-determination, just that it must articulate some political mechanism by which that self-determination is to be preserved.

I too stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but I struggle for a future where they don’t need my solidarity, a future where they can exercise their democratic rights without the help of international witnesses and activists, in a state of their own, in peace.

It’s just what armies do

The major thing I’m taking away from the latest Wikileaks release is that it’s pretty inaccurate to evaluate an army as anything other than a group of individuals. People all over the ideological map make this mistake all the time, whether it’s the US army being referred to as a “liberator”, the IDF being called “the most moral army in the world”, or, from the other direction, ours being painted as ruthless colonizers or the IDF as an entity hell-bent on abusing Palestinian detainees. Both of these descriptions might be accurate in terms of what the army does, but they don’t hold water in terms of explaining why. And this is where Wikileaks fills in the blanks.

You can train an army all you want, but it’s still made of individual people. You can adopt as complex a strategy as you want, but you’re still relying on those individual people to carry it out. At the end of the day, an army is just a collection of people with guns, and all evidence shows that when you give people the kind of power associated with carrying a gun and serving in an army, things go wrong. It’s inherent to the concept of an army in general. Clearly, individual soldiers can be held responsible for their actions, but to claim that those actions prove that the army is “immoral” is missing the point. Of course it’s immoral! It’s an army! Its job is to fight and kill people.

The sooner we stop conceptualizing our own army as the harbingers of democracy, the sooner we can really grapple with the implications of our military involvement. The sooner we stop excusing war crimes by the IDF, the sooner we can really understand the effects of military occupation. We don’t have to look at soldiers from either as evil they’re just normal people. But when normal people become soldiers, they necessarily help carry out the function of the army. And we shouldn’t ever forget what that is.


I’m on FIRE today! Check out my Jewschool post on the Forward/BJPA survey on Jewish attitudes towards Israel and Park51 (two great tastes that taste great together!), as well as my more substantive New Voices post criticizing the traditional form of Jewish campus opposition to BDS.

More on this blog coming soon I’m on a roll with the local zoning stuff…

Historical commissions and societal progress

In the Northampton area, community preservation boards and other such groups hold a lot of sway, or at least have a lot of effect on public opinion. In my particular neck of the woods, the North Street Neighborhood Association (NSNA) commands quite a bit of lawn sign real estate and visibility. At most public forums, they can be found handing out information or gathering opinions on various projects that would affect zoning ordinances and town property management in our area. While I think it’s vital to have citizen watchdog groups like this, especially single-issue ones that are quick to note the side effects of various policies on their particular area (in this case, land preservation and local ecological systems), we have to keep things in perspective. Invariably, material progress in land allocation, and more theoretical societal progress in how we perceive our relationship to the land will both leave some people out of the fold. The question is who, and at what cost?

A good example of this sort of calculation can be found in this Gazette article: Amherst Historical Commission troubled by possible razing of old farmhouse, barns. The key issue we’re dealing with here is the balance between historical preservation and current, more mundane, community needs (in this case, a ballfield).

The case for preserving the farmhouse comes from a belief that the town shouldn’t necessarily purchase and utilize more property that it should work with the space it already has, particularly when not doing so endangers historical sites. The case for replacing the farmhouse with something else is that it doesn’t really serve any practical purpose, especially since it’s “not salvageable.” In this case, I think the latter opinion is a bit more realistic. I certainly appreciate the desire not to steamroll over everything that’s existed before simply for the sake of a new field historical artifacts shouldn’t be subject to the whims of city planners or housing officials. On the other hand, the farmhouse as it is isn’t contributing to any historical objectives. It’s not being used in a Historic Amherst exhibit, nor is it habitable or usable for anything. It’s just taking up space.

But are ballfields really the most important thing to be built? What if this land was used to create subsidized public housing? Certainly we could use more of that. This whole issue shows a lack of long-term thinking on the part of pretty much everyone involved. Reflexive urban and suburban development is clearly not the way to go. But neither is reflexive resistance to the same. Rather than calling for the same thing in every situation, single-issue groups like Historical Commissions, or the NSNA should be there to raise red flags and then work with government officials and citizens to determine what’s in the community’s best interests.

New Jewschool post

Of guilt and repentance.

Why I’m voting for Dave Sullivan tomorrow (and why you should too)

Law enforcement keeps the streets safe. Everybody knows that. We grow up learning that the police’s job is to put bad guys in jail, and that the streets are safer because of it. And in popular media, the public defense system (in my opinion, one of the most important services the government provides) is treated solely as an obstacle to putting the bad guys in jail. Police have to “get to” criminals before they “lawyer up,” as if getting a lawyer was somehow a shady move on a criminal’s part, just one more step in their deceitful lifestyle. No, actually getting a lawyer is a right. And getting a fair trial is in the constitution. But to see the way public defenders are portrayed underhanded characters who wear bow ties and will do anything to help a rapist walk free you’d never know it.

There’s a certain type of law enforcement or prosecutorial worldview that I see as the root of that disparagement of the public defense system. It’s the tough-guy attitude to law enforcement someone did something wrong and we’re gonna lock ‘em up for it. There’s no room for analysis or understanding of why they did something wrong, or what the best solution might be. Nope, we’ve got firepower and sentencing requirements (which, aside from taking away an important tactical tool from prosecutors the ability to bargain with defendants using sentences leave no room for nuance), and we’re going to use them.

While I have infinite respect for the work that police do, and I believe that the law is the law, no matter how much we’d like to change it in some ways, we have to notice that there are other things going on. The crime-and-punishment loop has done *nothing *for this society. Whileour incarceration rate is higher than anywhere else in the world,our society is a far cry from crime-free. We breed criminals by inducing poverty (particularly along racialized lines), making guns easily available, and refusing to address the negative social impacts of gambling, drinking, and the ramifications of heavy-handed drug policy. And as we privatize more and more prisons, offloading the work of handling rising numbers of inmates to private corporations, we waste more and more resources on a penal system that hasn’t delivered the results we need.

Lots of smart people have called for a better way of doing things. So how does this relate to the hotly-contested race for District Attorney in Massachusett’s Northwestern district? Well, electing one particular Democrat over another here won’t single-handedly bring about the necessary penal reform. But that’s precisely the point. The way to change these things is from the bottom up. Gun control laws won’t be coming out of Congress any time soon because the NRA is way too powerful. Neither will penal reform,for the same reason. It’s up to us to elect lawmakers and law-enforcement officers whose view of law-enforcement’s role in combating crime is more grounded in reality that is to say, who recognize that there’s more to safety than arresting criminals and putting them in jail.

Dave Sullivan is that candidate. He has the necessary legal and managerial experience to run the office, and he has lots of ideas on how to make it better. While it’s easy to just stand around and criticize people for not doing their jobs, Dave has concrete ideas on how to improve things. He’ll assign community prosecutors to work locally with various agencies and institutions, create civil and human rights advisory boards in the DA’s office, and issue an annual report and citizen’s guide to the office, so that the public knows where resources are being allocated.

Dave understands that crime prevention is also an important part of the DA’s job. He has fresh ideas on how to engage with the community to help prevent crime and report signs of it before it begins, breaking out of the crime-and-punishment paradigm. This sort of approach is necessary in order for the DA’s office to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and I just don’t see the samecommitmentto it from his opponent. Obviously, others may disagree on how best to respond to and deal with crime, but I believe the data supports my viewpoint that putting more people in jail doesn’t address society’s problems.

We need a DA who understands not only the power of our legal system, but its drawbacks. This well-rounded view is emblematic of someone who is ready to use all the tools at his disposal to improve public safety, not just the conventional ones associated with prosecution. It’s clear to me that Dave Sullivan is best equipped to take on the responsibilities of the DA and to carry them out in a sensible, nuanced manner, and, in doing so, to effect the sort of change that’s necessary to move beyond our broken view of law enforcement.

Make no mistake, there genuinely are people who need to be prosecuted for crimes. But there is also danger from an unequal or unfair application of that prosecutorial power. Dave’s ideas on reforming and improving the office will result in better allocation of resources and better partnership with the community, two things we can’t do without right now.

For all of these reasons, and more, Dave Sullivan is clearly the best candidate for Northwestern DA. I’ll be voting for him tomorrow, and I hope you will too.

New post at Jewschool

My latest Jewschool post was inspired by my rabbi’s sermon from services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Check it out!

In which Marty Peretz tries really hard, but still misses the point

Well, he apologized for saying that Muslims shouldn’t have First Amendment rights:

The embarrassing sentence is: “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” I wrote that, but I do not believe that.

So I apologize for my sentence, not least because it misrepresents me.

But then he turns right around and says this!

There is no hatredin my heart; there is deep anxiety about the dangers of Islamism,and anger at the refusal of certain politicians and commentators toadequately grasp those dangers,

I’ll take him at his word that he doesn’t hate Muslims, but here you have it; he has “deep anxiety about the dangers of Islamism.” What dangers, exactly, might you be referring to, Mr. Peretz? And “Islamism”? This term in and of itself is highly Islamophobic. No one uses “Christianism” to describe Scott Roeder‘s philosophy. We don’t say “Jewishism” to describe Israeli settler violence. No, we call it what it is: violent extremism. “Islamism” implies some sort of creeping danger from Muslims, or from Islam in general.

I give Peretz credit for believing that Muslims are worth of constitutional protections, but that’s a pretty low bar. He’s got a long way to go.