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[ 75 ] February 25, 2015 |


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[ 222 ] February 24, 2015 |

A lot of the commentary on Graeme Wood’s long article on ISIS has focused on the relatively uninteresting question of whether ISIS is “Islamic.”  This question has become a minefield, bound up not only in politics but also in turf fights between journalists and scholars of religion, on the one hand, and specialists in conflict on the other.

Some of the responses have been quite thoughtful; the distance between the headline of this H.A. Hellyer article and its content is one reason why few people will mourn the apparently inevitable demise of Salon. Elizabeth Breunig’s article on how we define religious belief is also helpful.   Ross Douthat made a surprisingly useful contribution, taking care to put some limits on the implications of calling something “Islamic,” or “Christian.” Other responses have been much weaker, with the authors focusing more on the building and burning of straw men than on engagement with the material.

I suppose my thinking is that every permutation of the religions of the Book require specific believers and communities of believers to make decisions about what practices to adopt and what to reject, and that these decisions only rarely have anything to do with sophisticated theological debates. This sort of thing is useful, but if you’re reading it as the final word on what Islam is or isn’t, rather than as part of a pointed conversation between different Islamic communities, then you’re reading it wrong. Mainstream religious authorities are pretty bad at identifying heretics, which is to say that they’ve very good at claiming that any divergence from mainstream tradition represents heresy and should be excluded from an understanding of the faith. This is especially true when the mainstream views the heresy as a public embarrassment to the faith.

Saying that ISIS is well outside the mainstream of Islamic religious belief can simultaneously be true and irrelevant as to whether it can make intelligible claims to have the “correct” interpretation of the Islamic tradition. For my part, the repeated tendency of Christian sects to locate divine favor in a particular state entity (tendencies that run across Orthodox, Protestant, and even Catholic communities) are far less intelligible, based on the foundational text, than anything ISIS has done. Yet simply arguing that these beliefs are “wrong” misses the point.

The history of Protestantism is, literally, littered with examples of sects that begin when laymen reject broader Christian traditions in preference for ahistorical readings of foundational texts. To use just a recent, convenient example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject most of what we understand as Christian tradition in order to focus on what they believe are the core, ancient elements of the faith. JWs have a millenarian perspective on the world that, effectively, denies the legitimacy of most other Christian sects.  While I’m not attuned with the fine details of the theological debate, I’d be very hesitant to suggest that JWs represent are “wrong” about Christianity, or that the represent a “perversion” of the faith, especially in context of the wild variance in practice among Protestant communities. But (and this is particularly important) Catholic and established Protestant sects are not at all hesitant to make this argument. This is why, in brief, we don’t trust the Pope to serve as the final arbiter on whether someone is or isn’t Christian.

And so as a veteran of high-school-era wars over whether Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons count as “Christian,” I’m generally inclined to say that self-identification counts for a lot, a plausible degree of connection with foundational texts or traditions counts for a lot, and a recruiting strategy that focuses on existing believers (ISIS recruits mostly, although not solely, among Muslims, and these Muslims presumably do not believe that they cease being Muslim when they join ISIS) counts for a lot. For groups that these metrics would exclude, I’d be inclined to think Lord’s Resistance Army or the Taipings.

As an aside, I think that people inclined to suggest that Wood is treating ISIS as “authentic” are making a predictable error that comes more from how we talk about religious enthusiasm and authenticity than from anything associated with the question at hand.  I’m annoyed by the tendency to grant more radical forms of religious belief an unearned sense of authenticity, but it’s a tendency that runs across religions. As an interested outsider, it seems to me that reform and conservative Jews are often willing to grant far too much to their Orthodox and ultra-orthodox counterparts in terms of “authentic” belief and practice, even as they bitterly disagree with them on a variety of social and political questions. I think you find same confusion between enthusiasm and authenticity in intra-Christian (and probably even intra-Atheist) conversations, and this kind of thinking seems to infect our assessment of ISIS.  Douthat, cited above, is quite good on this point.

Now to back up a bit, it’s true that evaluation of this debate inevitably involves some assessment of the political stakes.  People are fighting over whether or not ISIS can be called “Islamic” because this determination has potential implications for the pointy end of the state, both domestically and internationally. The concern of many commentators that granting ISIS some claim on “true” Islam plays into the hands of right-wing critics is not unreasonable. This is undoubtedly true, although clearly right wing cranks don’t need Wood’s help in making atrocious arguments about the nature of Islam.

I think Wood could have been a touch more careful in not lending authenticity to ISIS, but his relevant point was that claims running as “ISIS is wrong about Islam” are problematic as statements of fact and not very useful as political rhetoric.  And Wood made it very clear that the vast majority of Muslims reject not only the theology of ISIS, but also its method and politics; he makes this point repeatedly across the article.  Finally, as a general rule, I’m of the view that ” to what use could a right wing asshole put this argument?” isn’t a terribly helpful heuristic for approaching complicated questions.

But whether or not ISIS is “Islamic,” it’s surely also a number of other things. And this is where things get more interesting for me. Wood suggests that ISIS’ conception of the state is in variance both with the understanding of state sovereignty that holds in international society, and with other jihadist organizations.  ISIS has displayed reluctance to assert its own sovereignty, in part because such an assertion would place it among the family of nations, with a necessary degree of respect for the sovereignty and borders of other countries.  As Wood describes, this is anathema to ISIS’ vision of the relationship between theology and territorial control.  And it’s this vision that sets ISIS apart from organizations like Al Qaeda, which don’t seem to place the same degree of (short term) value on territorial control.

And so in short, Wood presents an ISIS that views territorial control as a key value, but that denies traditional norms of sovereignty.  This is an unusual combination, but not an impossible one; it echoes a few revolutionary movements through history.  The Bolsheviks had a famously dim appraisal for foreign policy, built around early expectations that it would be easy to export the Revolution into Europe and Asia. The Soviet Union adjusted to reality pretty quickly, however. To my recollection violation of sovereignty was a key element of the political case for the Iranian Revolution (although it was interpreted differently by the various actors), and so the Islamic Republic also settled, fairly quickly, into a quasi-normal stance on foreign relations. The People’s Republic of China went through a phase in the Cultural Revolution when it rejected “normal” foreign relations, but this didn’t last long and didn’t seem to have much of an effect beyond the recall of most of the PRC’s ambassadors.  The Taliban is an interesting case; it was very slow to come around to the extant understanding of norms of sovereignty, but seemed to be moving in a conventional direction prior to 2001.  I should hasten to add that acceptance of general norms of sovereignty doesn’t imply that any of these countries were good international citizens, merely that they eventually acknowledged that international citizenship was a thing.

ISIS’ critique of sovereignty (and the term “critique” might go a step too far; “dismissal” may be a better word) seems the farthest ranging since the Bolsheviks. And so it’s interesting, in this context, to think about how an ISIS that somehow managed to retain a degree of territorial integrity would try to manage its relations with the outside world.  It would seem very difficult for ISIS to accept any degree of legitimacy on the part of its neighbors; none are good ideological candidates on the basic terms that ISIS has set. IR theory suggests that revolutionary states and state-like entities eventually (if grudgingly) follow the Bolshevik path, accepting the necessity of “revolution in one country” and adopting something that looks like a standard apparatus of foreign relations.  Whether ISIS would be capable of making those sorts of compromises is a question that I hope we won’t ever see answered.

Another interesting implication of ISIS’ preoccupation with territory (one that Wood, along with many others, points out) is that the fixation on territorial control makes ISIS unusually vulnerable to traditional military action.  If ISIS’ central theological, political, and public relations claims rest on the physical control of territory, then reducing the extent of that control could have a huge impact on degrading the organization.  Al Qaeda isn’t indifferent to territory, but doesn’t seem to worry overmuch about being forced to pick up stakes and move along.  If we are to believe ISIS’ propaganda, pushing the group out of the territory it controls would have a more far-reaching impact on the organizations’ survival.

This suggests some hope that future Iraqi and Kurdish military offensives may enjoy more than tactical and operational success (assuming, of course, that they enjoy tactical and operational success). The loss of territorial control may make it harder for ISIS to recruit, and may lead it to shed members (I’m guessing, without much foundation, that many of the “returned” fighters that leave ISIS are less interested in pursuing its aims in Europe and the US than in getting as far away from the organization as they can). And while it’s never, ever right to say “things can’t get any worse” when we’re talking about Syria and Iraq, ISIS does seem committed to pushing the limits of that proposition.

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Why Court-Packing Wouldn’t Work

[ 68 ] February 24, 2015 |

Ian Millhiser has an interesting piece for Slate, putting the potential for a Supreme Court ruling gutting the ACA in the context of the constitutional struggle that led to FDR’s (legal but not normative) proposal to pack the Court.

Despite the title, it should be emphasized that Ian concludes that the failure of FDR’s proposal “was for the best.” Leaving aside the normative question of judicial independence — which, when dealing with an high appellate court that issues constitutional rulings but is not limited to constitutional rulings, is a complicated one — I agree, and I think it’s worth addressing another reason. Court-packing would not have been an effective long-term response to the Four Horsemen + the sporadic winger version of Owen Roberts. This is true for the same reason that the idea briefly beloved of Romney- and/or Paul-curious lefties that a Republican president is no big deal because a 40+ Democrats in Congress could just serially reject all of a Republican president’s judicial and executive branch nominees was really dumb. Once court-packing was established as an acceptable norm, Republicans certainly wouldn’t abjure using it. So perhaps Congress would have added some Supreme Court seats in 2009 and gotten Obama nominees confirmed, only it probably wouldn’t have helped much because they would have been dealing with a Court where the justice at the 25% quartile of conservatism had to turn to his metaphorical left to see Sam Alito. The more ideologically homogenous Republican Party conference in the Senate would be better advantaged in the long-run to take advantage of court-packing, so on balance Republicans would almost certainly get a disproportionate share of nominees confirmed and this nominees would be more ideologically consistent and radical. And, in addition, the disequilibria produced by constitutional hardball generally favors conservative interests over liberal ones in the long run.

The real point of bringing up court-packing is to remind the public that the Supreme Court is a fundamentally political institution. If this exercise in making law out of nothing at all being taken seriously by the Supreme Court doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

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Windy City Gulag

[ 176 ] February 24, 2015 |

Remarkable reporting by Spencer Ackerman that you should read:

The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.

The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.

Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

  • Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.
  • Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.
  • Shackling for prolonged periods.
  • Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.
  • Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.


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Victory on the Tipped Minimum Wage!

[ 29 ] February 24, 2015 |

A couple weeks ago, I asked for your help on trying to end the tipped (sub) minimum wage in New York State, so that more than 200,000 workers could get a raise. And lo and behold:

Acting state Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino accepted a state wage board’s recommendation to raise the cash wage for tipped workers to $7.50 per hour beginning Dec. 31, marking tipped workers’ first minimum wage raise since 2011.

Musolino accepted four of the five recommendations made by the wage board. He said he is in favor of putting all tipped workers under one class, allowing New York City to raise its minimum for tipped workers by one dollar if and when the Legislature approves a separate minimum wage for the metropolis, and reviewing whether to eliminate the cash wages and tip credits system…

For those of you who remember the original form email, that’s recommendations A-D, and rejecting E. It’s rare that you win a victory across the board, so celebrate!

(And just for added schadenfreude,”the restaurant industry called Musolino’s decisions troubling.”)


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ACA Trooferism Roundup

[ 21 ] February 24, 2015 |
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One MEELLION Dollars

[ 43 ] February 24, 2015 |

Questions on Raising an Evil Child

hr_0581_934_164__0581934164028 Read more…

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This Day in Labor History: February 24, 1908

[ 20 ] February 24, 2015 |

On February 24, 1908, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Muller v. Oregon. This landmark decision upheld the idea that, at least for women, laws restricting the hours of work were constitutional. This would be a major victory in the long fight to bring working hours down to eight hours nationally, a dream that had already extended for more than two decades and would not be realized for another thirty years. It also created gender inequities in labor law with implications that continue today.

In 1903, Oregon had passed a law limiting the hours of women to ten hours a day and sixty hours a week. Curt Muller, a laundry business owner in Portland, sued the state. Muller believed, for good reason given the predominant legal climate of the time, that he signed legal contracts with individual workers when he hired them and that those workers freely agreed to the terms of hours and wages when they took the job. Yet, these ideas were increasingly challenged during the Progressive Era, as activists sought to create a more fair America that protected basic rights of workers to a decent life. This was especially true for women workers, who many Progressives saw as both uniquely exploited and mothers responsible for raising the next generation of Americans. Progressives argued that whatever the merits of the freedom of contract interpretation of labor legislation, the state had a unique interest in excepting women from that principle. Progressives were especially prominent in states like Oregon, as well as Wisconsin and Washington, which would see the first workers’ compensation legislation a few years later. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the the state’s law and Muller then appealed to the Supreme Court.


Laundry workers

Supporting Oregon’s case was Louis Brandeis, who filed a lengthy brief, mostly created by his sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, an activist with the National Consumers League, about women’s working conditions and lives, helping to sway the case. Brandeis employed this paternalistic ideal of women as mothers to justify upholding the law because the state had an interest in the health of future generations of Americans. He used four specific arguments. First, women were physically different and weaker than men. Second, damage to women’s health on the job might affect their reproductive capacity. Third, the health of children might be damaged if the mother was overworked. Fourth, long workdays deprived family members of their wife and mother.


Louis Brandeis

The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the law’s constitutionality. David Brewer wrote the opinion. Part of the reason this was such a landmark decision was its partial repeal of Lochner v. New York , decided just three years before. Lochner invalidated state laws on the hours of bakers and thus hours legislation nationwide based on the idea of the liberty of contract that it read into the 14th Amendment. But Brewer was clear that this was no rejection of Lochner. Rather women were different than men and thus deserved protection:

That woman’s physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

In short, the justices had a gendered construction of freedom of contract. They held to the Gilded Age belief that individual male workers freely signed agreements with employers (thus making labor legislation unconstitutional because it would violate that freedom of contract) but for women workers the state’s interest was greater than this freedom. This was not completely unprecedented however, for as early as 1876, the Massachusetts Supreme Court had founded similarly, as had several additional states between then and 1908, although Illinois had overturned a law restricting women’s hours that applied freedom of contract to women as well as men.

The legacy of Muller is complicated because of the paternalism at its core. It fit the ideals of many Progressive reformers, who used ideas of femininity and motherhood to protect women and children in a number of ways, but especially at the workplace. For people like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, these sorts of decisions were validations of their larger campaigns to protect poor women from the ravages of industrial life. But the small more explicitly feminist movement disliked the decision because it created artificial differences between the sexes.

Still, placing Muller in the context of the time, we should see it as an important victory because of its precedent setting approval of hours laws for anyone. Lochner reinforced the idea so prevalent in American business that corporations had no responsibility to anyone and that the halls of Congress and federal courtrooms would reinforce this if necessary. Even if Muller was sexist, for a lot of labor activists getting these principles applied to women laid the groundwork for all workers, which may not have been the goal of all Progressives, but was for labor activists. Establishing this principle did indeed start chipping away at the freedom of contract idea and within a decade, many industries would have 8-hour days.

States followed up on Mueller by passing night work laws for women to ensure they were not laboring during hours deemed by the state to be hours when they should be taking care of their children. Between 1909 and 1917, 19 states passed new legislation limiting the hours of women’s work, leaving only 9 states in 1917 that lacked any restrictions at all, a number that decreased to 5 by the mid-1920s. However, in most if not all of these states, the laws did not cover domestic or agricultural workers. The decision itself was rendered irrelevant by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 since it provided equal coverage for men and women. Yet gender inequities on the job have never fully been overcome, not even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for real equality on the job continues today.

I relied on Andrea Tone, The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America and Nancy S. Jackson, “Muller v. Oregon Reconsidered: The Origins of a Sex-Based Doctrine of Liberty of Contract” in Labor History, September 1989.

This is the 133th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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The IRS Issued Tax Credits to Cover Up BENGHAZI!!!!!!!

[ 13 ] February 24, 2015 |

If the facts are on your side, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the Fox News talking points into the ground:

That Cannon is defending his case by nodding like a Fox News bobblehead to an unrelated pseudo scandal is not anomalous. In both the media and in their briefs to the Supreme Court, the law’s challengers have papered over weaknesses in their historical and legal arguments with conservative bromides familiar to talk radio consumers, Fox News viewers, and recipients of anti-Obamacare talking points.

This kind of conservative argumentum ad reptilis, has a successful track record with at least one conservative justice on the Supreme Court. During oral arguments in the constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act three years ago, Antonin Scalia made reference sua sponte to the “Cornhusker Kickback”a short-lived special deal for Nebraska in the Senate health care bill that became a metaphor on Fox News for the ACA’s corrupted legislative process, and was thus made national.

But to those of us outside the conservative information bubble, it speaks to two themes that define challenge itself: that it is built on a fabricated history, and that it poses a de facto test to the cohesiveness of conservative movement infrastructure. Can a case built on an informational foundation that’s rejected everywhere outside the movement stand on the strength of the right’s intellectual and professional networks? Is the apparent internal consistency of a story and argument that only conservatives believe enough to carry the day in the Supreme Court, when the stakes are this high?

Cannon’s argument use of Pelosi’s argument that passing the bill will show that conservative descriptions of it were a lie in order to defend making up additional lies about it is my favorite example.

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Ongoing Notes On the Death of Satire

[ 71 ] February 23, 2015 |

Today’s reminder that if we were living in a satirical novel, Aaron Sorkin would consider the Republican public officials in it to be a little on-the-nose:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.

Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

“Fascinating. That makes sense,” Barbieri said, amid the crowd’s laughter.

Women — the eternal mystery. The only certainty to Republicans is that their reproductive freedom needs to be curtailed to the maximum extent possible.

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War Zone!

[ 44 ] February 23, 2015 |

In response to charges that my claims to having served honorably during the Iraq War are “incorrect” or “made up,” I would like to point out that there is copious documentary evidence to indicate that I worked in a variety of different capacities, during the Iraq War, within the territorial confines of one of the major combatants.  There may even have been a time or two when I was mildly concerned about my safety.

Should be good enough for Dylan Byers.

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I would like to know more

[ 298 ] February 23, 2015 |

Scott references Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ column in which GHR cites Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for the proposition that some sort of altruistic public service ought to be a prerequisite for the right to vote:

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his famous novel Starship Troopers, envisioned a society where voters, too, had to demonstrate their patriotism before being allowed to vote. In his fictional society, the right to vote came only after some kind of dangerous public service — in the military, as a volunteer in dangerous medical experiments, or in other ways that demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice personally for the common good. The thought was that such voters would be more careful, and less selfish, in their voting.

So when the five-day wonder of questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism is over, perhaps we should address another question: How patriotic is the electorate? And how long can we survive as a nation if the answer is “not very”? And we should proceed from there.

I’ve never read Heinlein’s novel, and ever since I saw Paul Verhoeven’s film version I’ve wondered if the book itself is a satire on the fascistic values at the psychological core of nationalism, or a celebration of those values, or something else. I enjoyed the film, because I took it to be the former, although it would be pretty disgusting if taken straight, as some reviewers did at the time.

Anyway, I’ve thought and written about the relationship between authorial intention and textual meaning in the context of legal and literary works, but I’ve never really considered that question in regard to films. Films, especially big budget major studio productions, seem like especially complex texts, because their authorship is so complex.

What does it mean to say that Starship Troopers is “really” a satire, and not a campy glorification of fascist politics and aesthetics? That Verhoeven, if he is understood to be the film’s primary author, intended to the taken as the former? That, without regard to what Verhoeven or anyone else involved in the film’s creation may have intended, this interpretation makes it a much better film, aesthetically and/or politically?

And what about Heinlein’s novel? Can it be read as a satire, or is it too obvious that Heinlein intends the ideas in it to be understood unironically, which certainly seems to be Reynolds’ interpretation?

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