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Emile Durkheim in Orange County

Julie writes an interesting meditation on the idea of some white Americans -- she uses her childhood home of Orange County, California, as a paradigm -- feeling like they lack culture. The OC she describes is sort of an anti-Cheers, where nobody knows your name, and where all social activities, from meals to music, are purchased rather than made together. Against this background, it's unsurprising -- though no less problematic -- that discontented members of such a society go out an appropriate elements of other cultures. Julie would rather frame this not as people in the OC having less culture than the other groups they jealously appropriate from, but as their culture being shallower.

In the comments, La Lubu (riffing on a comment by chingona describing the contrasting cultures of shallow Phoenix and deep Tucson) makes an interesting point:
What is culture, if it isn’t something shared by people? I think that sense of anomie is that disconnect with other people. That's what's shallow, to answer waxghost's question on "who determines depth?" Isn't the function of culture to connect people? I mean, "culture" isn’t just something that exists in the background like air. It's a collective enterprise. When it is no longer serving that purpose, it isn't inaccurate for the people whom that "culture" does not serve (say, the way Orange County's culture affects Julie) to state that it's shallow. Culture is belonging. It's not just continuity with history, it's continuity with other people—right now.

This reminded me of a point made by Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology. In Durkheim's day (as in ours), it was common to take greater connectedness as a sign of the presence of culture, whereas disconnectedness and individualism were un-cultured states. This is paralleled in "state of nature" theories, in which people are fundamentally separate and community is a further accomplishment. Durkheim's insight was that both community and individualism were equally cultural. Individualism must be established, defined, and upheld by culture just as more solidarity-filled community does. Just think of all the norms Julie's neighbors and family in the OC have to internalize in order to maintain their isolation -- rules about keeping monetary exchanges at arm's length, about not prying in anyone's business, etc. After all, that's why discontented white Americans so often seek authenticity not by becoming truly immersed in a richer culture, but by purchasing the trappings of other cultures (kanji tattoos, dream catchers, etc.). Purchasing is their existing cultural model of interaction. These norms are shared -- hence a culture in La Lubu's sense -- even though their function is to hold people apart. A similar point can be made, I think, about cultures that emphasize rootedness in a long past versus those that try to be ahistorical. Culture is a model for how to interact, but that model may or may not constitute "connecting people" as we normally understand the phrase.

Culture exists in order to enable people to get along in the world. We can therefore judge the adequacy of a given culture, in the context of the needs of the people involved and the demands of their situation. It seems clear from Julie's description that the culture of the OC is seriously inadequate for many people, because it is unable to satisfy their deeply-felt need for a particular type of interaction. Though diagnosing the problem in this way does not necessarily tell us how to fix it.


Miscellaneous roundup

Shepard Fairey-style Obama icon reading 'Plus Ca Change'First, a little Plus Ca Change Watch. Obama released the Bush-era torture memos with minimal redaction yesterday, so he gets a cookie for following the law there. Disturbingly, though, he effectively pardoned all the people who actually did the torture, because holding people accountable for their actions would be living in the past. He obviously knows he needs the support of civil libertarians and anti-Republican partisans who seized on the torture issue. But his concern to establish a precedent for immunity from responsibility for torture makes me wonder what the real message was that the CIA was sent about how to interpret his public promises to stop torturing people.*

In related news, the NSA has been (accidentally, they swear!) spying on Americans, and even prior to the latest revelations the current administration was earning a marginal grade on civil liberties.

Moving to immigration, we have a bit of "actual change" news -- the people arrested in the recent Washington state raid have been released and given work authorization. My cynical side wonders how much this represents an actual change in policy versus punishing ICE because they embarassed Janet Napolitano by springing the raid on her.

For folks who were arrested in circumstances other than the Bellingham raid, immigration continues to be a black hole of human rights, even for detainees who are U.S. citizens (my wife's coworkers were the people who helped out Rene Saldivar, the guy pictured in that story).

*I'm realizing through all this that I have a much stronger structuralist tendency than I thought -- I simply don't trust the office of the presidency, and I'm less reassured than most people by a change in which dude's butt is in the chair. Or maybe I'm just an across-the-board pessimist -- while I expect a bad institution to corrupt even a good officeholder, I wouldn't expect even the best-designed institution to be able to rein in a truly bad officeholder.


Clark U.'s punt to procedure on Norman Finkelstein

My graduate alma mater, Clark University, has gotten into some controversy over canceling a lecture by Norman Finkelstein. What I find interesting in the affair is not the question of whether Finkelstein should be giving a speech -- I know far too little about the Israel-Palestine issue, much less Finkelstein's personal oeuvre, to make a judgment on that -- but the rationale that Clark President John Bassett gave for canceling the speech.

The root of the issue is the broad philosophical tradition of liberalism. Liberalism arose as a reaction to the European wars between Catholics and Protestants, in which each side was convinced it held the deep truth about the universe which the other side needed to be made to see, by force if necessary, to save their souls and discharge the evangelistic obligation of one's own side. Rather than proving the truth of Catholicism or Protestantism, liberalism sought to make the substantive question about what will send you to hell irrelevant to the political arrangements for living together. A fully-developed liberal political system would allow people to hold to and pursue whatever substantive commitments they want, because disputes could be resolved on a purely procedural basis.

Liberalism is a great thing. But unfortunately, there is not always a procedural solution to be found -- some substantive decisions need to be made (I generally tend to see a smaller scope for pure procedure than the major modern exponents of liberalism like Rawls and Habermas). Yet the allure of a purely procedural solution, which allows you to sidestep hard (even intractable) substantive disputes, leads people astray. I call this fallacy of groping for a procedural rationalization in situations where none exists the "punt to procedure."*

Now let's return to the question of Finkelstein. In general, we can divide the people who might be invited to speak at a university into three groups:
A: Those whose views are correct and who therefore will enlighten the audience.
B: Those whose views are incorrect, but who are part of the reasonable debate and who students will therefore benefit from engaging with.
C: Those whose views are so bizarre and/or dangerous that it would be detrimental to give them a wider airing.

Deciding that someone falls into group C is, I think, a perfectly reasonable basis for canceling their speech. To allow a C to speak would both spread their dangerous views (and/or cause distress among their opponents) as well as give the university's implied endorsement to their participation in the reasonable debate. As a general rule I think universities have a duty to err on the side of taking the most generous reasonable interpretation of where the line between B and C falls**, but it's a dereliction of duty to wash your hands of ever declaring anyone a C (thus in effect asserting that everyone is an A or B). The trick, though, is that deciding which group a person falls into is a substantive question -- it requires analysis of their positions and a judgment as to their reasonableness.

Since he has to be the president of both Students for Palestinian Rights (who think Finkelstein is obviously an A) and Hillel (who think he's obviously a C), it's no surprise Bassett would hope to find a purely procedural reason to cancel (or, less plausibly, defend) Finkelstein's speech. Here's what he came up with, according to the Globe story linked above:

In a letter to the university's campus newspaper, Clark's president, John Bassett, wrote: "The university remains committed to inviting a wide range of speakers to encourage diversity of opinions on controversial topics. My decision was predicated on its untimely and unfortunate scheduling."

Finkelstein's address would conflict with a similar conference hosted by the university's Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, scheduled for April 23-26, two days after Finkelstein's speech, Bassett said in his letter. That conference could draw Holocaust scholars who MacMillan said may disagree with Finkelstein.

... "It is possible that our understanding of the Middle East conflicts would be enriched by conversations with Professor Finkelstein," Bassett said in the letter. "It is my judgement, however, that having Professor Finkelstein speak on the same evening as our planned conference would only invite controversy and not dialogue or understanding."

Bassett is ostentatiously non-committal about whether he thinks Finkelstein is an A/B or C. But his stated rationale seems quite weak -- the Finkelstein speech is two days before a conference of scholars who disagree with him. Were the events on the same day, I would grant a procedural out here. But as it stands, Bassett's argument is simply a punt to procedure, a procedural rationalization to avoid taking a substantive stand.

It's quite possible Bassett doesn't actually have a position on the substantive question here -- rather than secretly believing Finkelstein is a C but using a punt to procedure to avoid having to defend his view, he may simply be looking for the option that creates the least controversy and fewest headaches for him. But Students for Palestinian Rights has dumped a problem in his lap that obligates him to make a substantive decision -- to come out and say either "Norman Finkelstein is a provocative but important scholar who students will benefit from engaging with even if they disagree with his conclusions," or "Norman Finkelstein is soft on anti-Semitism*** and therefore Clark will not elevate him to a position in the reasonable debate."

*The term is an allusion to the "punt to mystery," the fallacy by which a religious person dismisses challenges to their theological position's apparent contradictions by asserting "God works in mysterious ways."

**Thus I think Clark was justified in its decision, during its previous big speaker-related controversy, to let Paul Bremer speak.

***Or whatever the precise allegation his critics make is.

Obligatory tea party post

I think it's in the Blogger terms of service that I have to post something about today's Tea Party protests. The reversal of the roles of "righteous demonstration to wake the people up" versus "showcase and mock the other side's wackier and stupider members"* after eight years of left-wing anti-Bush demonstrations is interesting. The "hur hur hur 'teabagging' hur hur hur" bit got old really fast -- though perhaps this just shows I read too many liberal blogs. I also think it could be fascinating to read a historical study of the use of the Boston Tea Party motif by protest groups in American history. It's a very striking and unique event that played a key role in our country's formation, yet it's open to a multitude of reinterpretations placing it in the lineage of different contemporary concerns. After all, the last notable use of the tea party motif before today's conservative protests was by Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic primary.

*Yes, I know, the "Bu$Hitler" signs were the work of lone wackos or possibly agent provocateurs, whereas the "Hang 'em high" guy is the precise statistical mean of the views of the tea partiers.


Non-Christian Easter rituals

We all know about the rituals that Christians practice on Easter. But I think it's important to recognize the rituals practiced by non-Christians -- particularly those of a secularist bent* -- on this holiday. I'm not talking about the pagan celebrations of spring that were incorporated into Christian Easter practices, though some people do still practice those. I'm talking about pointing out the existence of pagan celebrations and their incorporation into Christian Easter. (A similar ritual, with slightly different liturgy, is observed at Christmas.)

This ritual has the appearance of making an argument -- #many Easter traditions have a pagan origin, therefore Christianity's righteousness is somehow compromised.# But it doesn't really function as an argument. These things are mostly said not to Christians, but to other non-Christians -- e.g. in this Pandagon thread. And I doubt many Christians who are otherwise secure in their faith are particularly troubled by these historical facts (certainly I wasn't). Either they already reject all the aspects of Easter that aren't found in the Bible (including, sometimes, the very idea of an Easter celebration), or they don't see enriching their holiday with elements from another tradition as necessarily threatening the remembrance of Jesus' resurrection (coloring eggs can be just a fun thing to do, not an act of worship of Oestre).

Instead, pointing out the pagan roots of Easter functions as a ritual for affirming non-Christian identity and solidarity (a quite useful function, I might add, given the dominance of our society by Christians). It's a way of reminding everyone in the group of non-Christians' superior critical thinking skills (which are held to be the basis of non-Christianness, much like faith is the basis of Christianity), and holding up Christianity -- particularly Christianity as unthinkingly practiced by the masses -- as ridiculous to anyone who knows some historical facts. Indeed, there's an interesting parallel in that both Christian and non-Christian Easter celebrations are about affirming the group's knowledge of a hidden truth that they want to spread.

*I use the term "non-Christian" here for lack of a better one -- this ritual is not particularly common among devout practitioners of Islam, Hinduism, etc., but neither is it exclusive to people who entirely reject religion. I've even seen it among a few rationalist liberal Christians.


The mechanics of salvation

(The following post has been kicking around in my head for several years, so Good Friday seems like a suitable occasion to bring it out.)

I had already drifted away from orthodox Christianity when I began to think about the following problem, but right now I'd say it's one of the biggest stumbling blocks to ever returning: How, exactly, did Jesus manage to die for our sins? In other words, what made his death necessary and sufficient to forgive us? Why couldn't God simply forgive us before Jesus' execution, and why did he have to forgive us afterward?

Growing up in the church (ELCA, to be specific), the most common framing was that Jesus took our punishment on himself. God demands that we live up to an exceedingly high standard of moral perfection, but since human nature was damaged by the Fall, we inevitably sin and thus wind up deserving eternity in hell. But by dying on the cross, Jesus took our punishment for us and so we're free to go to heaven. The imagery here is typically of a person facing God on Judgment Day and having God pronounce our sentence, at which point Jesus pops up and says "no worries Chief, I took care of it."

But this idea of Jesus taking on other people's punishments is nonsensical from the perspective of justice. Imagine trying to do a similar thing in a human courtroom. Someone has been convicted of a crime, and the judge sentences them to several years in jail. Just then, a member of the audience jumps up and says "Your honor, I will serve this man's sentence for him." By what logic would the judge agree to this deal? It's not enough that if there has been a crime, *someone* gets punished. Every theory of punishment -- retributivist or consequentialist (deterrence) -- requires that the punishment be inflicted on the particular individual who committed the crime. It accomplishes nothing to punish an innocent third party.

It is possible for a judge to be satisfied by punishing the wrong person in one scenario -- the scenario where the judge does not know the wrong person is being punished. But it seems rather odd to premise an entire religion on one part of the godhead playing an eternal trick on the other part. And it's hard to reconcile the idea of Jesus tricking God into accepting the punishment with God's omniscience, and with the Bible's claims that Jesus' life and death were a mission he was ordered by God to carry out.

On top of that, Jesus was not actually crucified for our sins. He was crucified for (allegedly) fomenting rebellion against the temporal and religious authorities in Judea. So perhaps in my example above, we should really have the audience member jump up and say "Your honor, the other day I was beaten up by a mugger. Please count my injuries as the punishment for this man's crimes." That makes even less sense than the original scenario.

Another common frame is that Jesus' death "paid our debt." In this frame, the punishment we deserve for our sins is not some sort of retribution or deterrent -- instead, our sin causes some sort of loss to God, which needs to be repaid. Unlike punishments, debts can clearly be paid off by a third party. A pure creditor doesn't really care where the money comes from as long as they get it back, on time and with appropriate interest. This model fits with the animal sacrifices made by Jews during the temple era -- and indeed, Jesus is often explicitly analogized to a sacrificial animal. Animal sacrifices work because the deity -- be it Yahweh, Zeus, or Baal -- actively enjoys the death and burning of an animal, and that enjoyment offsets their anger at the sacrificer's sin. (Animal sacrifice also often contains a claim that the sacrificer's economic loss is important because it demonstrates the depth of their concern/contrition, but that raises two problems in the Jesus case: first, it brings back the third-party problem noted with respect to taking on a punishment, and second, Jesus' death is not actually a loss, economic or otherwise, for those who get saved by it, since he came back to life three days later.)

A key element of the debt model is that debt only works if the creditor values the thing that's owed to them. If somehow someone ended up owing me a giant pile of manure, I would not ask them to pay it back, since I don't want a giant pile of manure. So God has to intrinsically enjoy the suffering that he's owed -- God likes watching people burn in hell, and he likes watching his son get crucified (likes it, in fact, exactly as much as he likes watching all the people who ever lived burn in hell for eternity). That's a pretty gruesome God we're being asked to worship. Nevertheless, people have worshipped some pretty gruesome deities in various times and places, and "gruesome" is arguably more consistent than "loving" with much of God's conduct in the Bible.

More important, though, is the question of why God doesn't simply declare our debts cancelled without indulging the sadism/masochism of killing his son. After all, no matter what you owe me, I always have the prerogative of declaring it void (and indeed, God specifically ordered the Israelites to cancel all debts every so many years). While there's an argument to be made that strict adherence to justice forbids granting mercy in cases of punishment, there's no similar argument that justice demands not forgiving debts if the creditor is so inclined.

A final bit of imagery I often heard in church was that Jesus' blood washed away our sins. It's quite opaque to me what, if anything, this metaphor tells us about how he accomplished that.

So in addition to the doubts I have about whether Jesus' life, death, and resurrection actually occurred in anything like the form described in the Bible (on which I may post later), I'm stumped as to the mechanics of his death leading to forgiveness. "Jesus died for your sins" seems like a non sequitur.


White privilege and weird names

Working all day has made me late to the pile-on against Texas state representative Betty Brown, who said that if Asian-Americans want to be sure they can exercise their constitutional rights, they should change their names to something Anglo poll workers won't find so weird.

As many people have pointed out, plenty of non-Asians have weird names too. I'm one of them -- most people I meet stumble over my first name (despite the fact that it's pronounced just like it's spelled), and I've learned to respond to anything starting with an "S" (my dissertation advisor sometimes called me "Spencer" as a joking reference to a classmate who misunderstood my name long enough that I decided I didn't want to embarrass him by pointing out his mistake). My name is even misspelled on my birth certificate, so technically my various forms of ID are inconsistent.

Nevertheless, I have never encountered problems voting -- or conducting business at the DMV, a bank, or any other sort of institution -- because of my name. The people I encounter are typically solicitous about getting the pronunciation right, and sometimes make complimentary small talk about it ("that's a neat name. Where is it from?"). This is clearly not the experience of the Asian Texans who were at Rep. Brown's hearing.

I don't think it's too far-fetched to say this is about race/ethnicity. Aside from my first name, everything else about me -- my skin color, the shape of my face, my clothing and hair style, my accent, my last name* -- screams "'normal' (white) American." My name thus becomes an interesting oddity, but one that is reasonable for the person to learn to cope with because I seem like I belong, like I deserve the same quality of service as Jane Smith and Bill Jones. But when an Asian person with an unfamiliar name comes along, at least a few of those features will not match the implicit model of a normal American held by some such workers. Thus their weird name will be taken as one more mark of foreignness, making some people feel put-upon to accommodate an outsider who insists on being treated equally. This idea of Asians as perpetual foreigners is quite obvious in the way Rep. Brown spoke -- e.g. telling the Asian spokesman what "your citizens" should do -- and belies the idea that this is somehow simply about the inherent difficulty of pronouncing certain names. Accommodating "Stentor" is easy, because I'm clearly already a normal Anglo American, but accommodating Asians means not just learning new names but also admitting that the U.S. is a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.

(An aside I couldn't figure out how to work into the post: I have had two teachers in my lifetime who made "learn to correctly spell and pronounce my name" an explicit class assignment. One was my Polish 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Kolodziejski. The other was my Tamil college intro anthropology professor, Dr. Sangarasivam.)

*Interestingly, "Danielson" is much less common in the U.S. than it looks. I've never met a Danielson I wasn't related to, though I know they're out there. But since it uses the "common male first name + son" pattern, it comes off as a very common, normal name (though I do get referred to as "Daniels" from time to time) -- more normal than names like Nguyen or Vasquez which are objectively far more common in this country.


Fixing Immigration Court

Apparently USA Today was jealous of the AP's big piece on immigration detention from a few weeks ago, because they did their own investigation into another blown-out tire on our nation's totalled immigration system: the backlog in immigration court (via). They found that 90,000 people since 2003 have waited two or more years to have their case decided by an immigration judge, and 14,000 have waited five or more (no indication of how long people are waiting between the final order of deportation and actually setting foot in their home country). The story doesn't break down how many of those people were detained, but I presume it's a very substantial amount. The detention angle raises the problems with immigration court from ordinary bureaucratic abuse to serious injustice.

There are a variety of things that would ease this problem:

1) More resources for the immigration court system. This is the obvious one, mentioned in the USA Today article. With more judges and clerks, they could get people on the docket quicker and get their cases underway.

2) Changing the focus of enforcement. The immigration court system is full of people. But a lot of those people are low-level offenders -- green-card holders who got caught with a bong, people who gave their life savings to a coyote to get smuggled in and given a forged social security card, kids whose parents brought them in as babies but forgot to adjust their refugee status. Prosecuting these people -- the Sheriff Joe strategy -- is not getting the most bang for your buck. There have been some encouraging noises from the Department of Homeland Security that they're going to start focusing on going after the employers and the smugglers -- the big players -- though we'll see what that ends up meaning in practice.

3) Reduce the amount of deportable offenses. If there's a problem with too many people who are in the country illegally, there are two ways to fix that -- get them out of the country, or give them an option to be here legally. I realize the second option isn't politically feasible, but it would certainly help. I have some admittedly radical ideas on what the system should end up looking like, but you don't have to go that far to get some mileage out of this idea. You could take a big chunk out of the backlog by declaring that you can't get kicked out of the country for smoking pot anymore. You could take another chunk by improving access to legal status -- more visas, lower fees, etc. Streamline the whole process of getting and keeping status, and you'll have fewer people getting caught up in technical violations (as well as ultimately a lower workload for the government).

4) Public defenders for immigration court. Anyone in the U.S. charged with a crime -- citizen, legal immigrant, or even totally undocumented -- is eligible for a public defender if they can't afford a lawyer. But since immigration is classified as civil law*, there are no PDs. That means a huge proportion of immigrants are unrepresented, while a bunch more are represented by scammers and incompetents**. This is a problem for the immigrants, obviously. But it's also a problem for the efficiency of the system. A good lawyer can help an immigrant understand which forms of relief are likely to work, and which ones would be a waste of time to pursue. A good lawyer can help the immigrant understand the court process -- when things need to happen, how to file certain things, etc. A good lawyer can keep ICE on its toes to keep the process moving. It's distressing that none of the serious immigration reform bills that have come up recently have included a PD program.

5) Reduce the use of detention. As I argued earlier, detention is a horrible thing and should be avoided if possible -- and it usually is possible. It's a lot easier to wait two years for your case to be resolved if you're out and about than rotting in a jail cell (easier for the immigrant's mental and physical health, and easier for the taxpayers' pocketbooks).

*IANAL, but as far as I can tell the criteria by which we decide whether an area of law is civil or criminal is on the basis of whether the government has decreed that it's civil or criminal.

**Immigrants facing deportation and their families are understandably desperate, and understandably ignorant about the intricacies of the second-most-complex area of U.S. law (after tax law). And if you get deported, it's tough to hold your lawyer accountable. So they're easy prey for people who make up hopeful stories about their chances and charge big bucks for pretending to fight their case.