Is the intentional killing of civilians okay? Thursday, May 5 2011 

First, let me apologize for the long delay between posts. I’m busy in life, and I am not afforded the free time to do research and write extensively that I had as a student at university. Also, I am posting this because it is a subject that particularly touched me, though I do have several posts regarding economics and democracy that I’ve had lined up for quite some time. There have been plenty of subjects I would have loved to write about since I put my writing on hold. But this I would like to address right now.

The question I pose in the title seems like an easy one to answer. To any decent human being, the answer should be no. The conclusion seems to go unquestioned. The idea that the killing of innocent lives is morally wrong and unjust is so embedded in the mores and norms of our culture, and countless others across the globe, the questions seems nearly absurd on its face. Yet, I’ve recently found myself asking the question and defending the forgoing conclusion in a Facebook discussion. Surely, though, the only opposition would be from a militant extremist, some brainwashed fascist, or simply a troll?

Actually, the tiff was with none other than Fouzi Slisli, a human relations professor at SCSU. (This is the same professor whom, by the way, I vehemently defended on this blog and in the SCSU University Chronicle regarding a presentation he and others had gave on the attack on Gaza in 2009, which was interrupted by professor Edelheit. This is also the same professor I praised, both here and in the University Chronicle, for their trip to Palestine and their presentation of that trip.) I do not pretend to admit that Dr. Slisli does not take outspoken stances on several issues, some of which I agree with, but this one goes beyond the pale.

This started when the professor posted a link to a Telegraph article titled “Muslim group claims royal wedding is legitimate terror target.” Seemingly approving the notion, he says, “They’re not saying they are going to target the wedding; they’re just saying the wedding is a legitimate target and might be targeted by others…” I reply, saying, “No such thing as a legitimate target that has as its essence a civilian population.” The conclusion seems obvious enough. But not for Dr. Slisli.

Dr. Slisli contends that the U.S.—and the West in general—has targeted civilians and has deliberately killed civilians. This is undoubtedly true. I agree with the professor here. In fact, I wrote on this blog about the criminal bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, describing them as “One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history.” The intentional killing of civilians is a sad reality of U.S. foreign policy and is a reason why the U.S. is one of the leading terror states. However, the fact that the West attacks civilians in no way justifies the position that killing civilians is okay. It should seem obvious enough that the actions of the West do not dictate morality. A moral theory based on such a concept would be shallow, as only a few moments of thought and reflection evidences.

Certainly the West’s behavior vis-à-vis its rhetoric makes it hypocritical. But as logic might remind us, hypocrisy does not validate an argument. Tu quoque (“you too”) is a kind of fallacious argument that aims to discredit a conclusion because its arguer does not adhere to said conclusion. But the fact that the U.S. has engaged or is currently engaged in targeting civilians has no bearing on the question of its legality or its morality. As I stated to him, “The question, though, isn’t whether the West has attacked civilians. The question is what is the proper response? Is it proper to attack the civilians of the offending nation—say you or I? That is to say, is it legitimate [to] deliberately target civilians for any reason? The answer is no. And the answer doesn’t change just because Western governments have violated the rule. Sure, it tells us a lot about the moral culture of Western nations. But if it’s wrong for the West that also means its wrong for everyone else. That’s just the elementary principle of moral universality.” (Many readers know that I’ve repeatedly mentioned the principle of moral universalism on this blog, and I’ll return to it here later.) The principle of universalism dictates that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others (more stringent ones, in fact) and vice-versa. If it’s wrong for the West to kill civilians, it is wrong for you and your cohorts to do the same; if it is right for you to kill civilians, it is right for the U.S.

Dr. Slisli contends that moral universalism, “lofty as it is, does not capture the complexity of the issue.” While I believe the principle is both basic and elementary (far from lofty)—the necessary basis for any decent moral theory—the professor takes issue with it. He claims I am “making the weaker sides to a conflict uphold a morality that you know full well the stronger side does not/will not uphold.” But again, that has no bearing on the question of either its legality or its morality. In any case, Dr. Slisli says Islam offers a “contingency plan” that universalism does not in situations for those who suffer the transgressions of others: “the law of equality.” This law states, “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Those from the Christian tradition can think of a similar idea found in the Bible (“an eye for an eye”). Thus, “if anyone transgresses this universal law against you, the Qur’an instructs, then Muslims are allowed to transgress likewise against the enemy,” posits Dr. Slisli. (Of course, “Allah prefers if Muslims have restraint.”) He therefore concludes that, while it’s preferable to have restraint, it is not necessary when “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” (emphasis his). He does claim, however, “I am not stating my own opinion here” and that he is “merely explaining the legal frameworks that the Qur’an sets for the rules of war and the legal status of civilians and civilian infrastructure.” I’ll leave the latter claim for more competent scholars.

In any case, the phrase that Muslims ought to show restraint unless “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” in an important one because it requires the person using force to demonstrate that in fact it is for the purpose of protecting oneself. So certainly the onus is on the attacker to demonstrate that attacking innocent civilians is an act of “protecting oneself.” And quite frankly I don’t think the onus can be met. In fact, I would venture to say that it would have the opposite effect: it would endanger oneself more. The reason should be obvious, but I’ll return to it later.

At this point, the discussions turns ugly. Dr. Slisli perverts my statements, saying my act of “Preaching non-violence while the powerful is sawing through the weak is, in practical terms, nothing but a complicity by inaction.” Careful readers will note that at no point do I ever “preach non-violence,” and most certainly not to those stricken by violence. In fact, I do believe violence is legitimate, but only under very certain circumstances, and the onus is on the perpetrator to demonstrate that violence is appropriate. So, for example, the use of force for the purpose of self-defense is legitimate. You can find this precedence in article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense has always been a legitimate act. Thus, I fully support the Quaranic injunction that allows for the use force to “protect oneself.” Again, though, one has to demonstrate that the use of force is, in fact, self-defense.

To attack innocent civilian populations under the guise of self-defense is an act reserved only for the most morally depraved. And I do not pretend that this is an uncommon excuse for violence and terror. Take, say, Hitler when he invaded Poland and began his slaughter of Jews and millions of others; he did so under the pretense of self-defense. That’s always the pretense. We could go through a long list, but I doubt that would be necessary.

So let’s summarize. According international law, Quaranic injunctions, and elementary morality, self-defense is legitimate. The use of force, violence, etc. is legitimate insofar as it can be demonstrated to be legitimate, for example for the purpose of self-defense. Attacking those who have not attacked you does not qualify as self-defense. Ergo, the killing of innocent civilian lives is illegitimate and is deeply immoral. It is for this reason that such acts are outlawed, condemned (nearly) universally, is considered terrorism, and is a grave abuse against human rights.

Yet, the professor is having none of it. He clings to the claim that, because the U.S. does it, it’s okay for everyone else to do it. He ponders, “If the West refuses to apply the universal laws of common decency with people A, B and C, why should people A and B and C apply the laws of common decency with the West?” He gives two reason why A, B, and C might. He says either they would because “the balance of power OBLIGES THEM to uphold the laws of common decency” while the other side does not—i.e., they are too weak to retaliate. The second is because “People A, B and C are ‘better people’ and although the West doesn’t deal with them decently, they CHOOSE to act and be better.” He admits the latter case demonstrates “admirable strength because it produces moral rectitude.” Yet, he says this is not the path to follow, because it is a deceit by the West to prevent its victims from retaliating. He wonders, “Is it a coincidence you think that intellectuals in colonial societies have always advised the colonized to use non-violence?” He claims the idea that we ought not attack innocent civilians has “sinister uses as a weapon to disarm populations …”

Therefore, Dr. Slisli concludes, the proper order of things is for A, B, and C to “apply common decency with People D, E and F and EVERY OTHER people who submit to the universal laws of common decency.” But should someone not adhere to the “universal laws,” then A, B, and C “also HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THAT COMMITMENT VOID IF THE OTHER SIDE FLAGRANTLY VIOLATES IT.” There’s a problem with this argument, though. A law is not “universal” if it is not applied universally. Of course, what the professor really meant to say, if he were being a little more honest, is, “it’s wrong for them to do it to me, but it’s okay for me to do it to them.” And it’s a demonstration of the sheer hypocrisy found in those defending the attacks on innocent lives. And that’s a vile maxim that operates nearly everywhere: it’s a crime if they do it, but not when I do it. If you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what one might call a “universal law.”

Finally, an argument made by others (and hinted at by Dr. Slisli when he accuses me of “a complicity by inaction”) is that innocent civilians really aren’t innocent at all. (In a separate posting, Dr. Slisli contends the innocents being targeted by al-Qaeda, including Muslims, are “the Crusader-Zionist alliance and those who collaborate with them,” thus fair game. But, “At any rate, this is an inter-Muslim debate in which Americans have no business sticking their nose.” When innocent American lives are at stake, I believe this to be an issue in which we might have the right to stick our nose, so I’ll continue.) One commenter notes, “We are all party to what our government/military does until it stops,” as if it’s a valid argument for attacks on civilians. But if they commenter, whom I’ve also defended elsewhere, agrees with me that the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wrong, as I suspect they do, then it is wrong for terrorists to bomb us here. Just because these were citizens of Imperial Japan make them no more a legitimate target than you or I simply because we are U.S. citizens. So in the same vein, the attack on the World Trade Center was no more legitimate than the U.S. and Israel’s punishment of Gazan citizens for voting the wrong way in a free election. They both represent an illegitimate and immoral use of force.

So back to the original topic of the royal wedding, just because the spectators of the royal wedding are citizens of the country, or merely residents, or merely tourists, or merely bystanders does not make them a legitimate target. And, as it was hinted in the previous sentence, attacks on civilian populations do not even assure one that those targeted are only nationals of that country, as there could very easily be non-associated agents within the same population. But even if we could assume it was only nationals within the civilian population being targeted, is nationality ever a legitimate basis for attack? I suspect the commenter who says we are all party to our government’s crimes also believes that other discriminations based on nationality are wrong. So if I asked her if it’s okay for us to make certain nationalities pay more in taxes or if it’s okay for us to put certain nationalities in internment camps or maybe even okay for us to toss certain nationalities into furnaces (because of the crimes their nations committed, of course), I’m confident she’d say no. Yet there is such a disconnect to the point that she see nothing wrong in the idea that it’s okay for innocent civilians to be subjected to terror attacks because of what their government has done. And that brings me to the final point, which I’ve discussed throughout this blog, which is that, even to the extent that I do live in a “democracy,” my influence on policy is basically near zero. Democracy is mostly nominal and is defined in procedural terms: I pull a lever every four years and keep quiet and to myself in the time in between. Does that make me responsible to some extent? Maybe one could argue so. But it certainly does not make me a legitimate target for attacks, nor does it make Dr. Slisli, nor the aforementioned commenter—neither of whom, I’m sure, are ready to admit they are vile war criminals deserving death.

I understand the importance of criticizing one’s own crimes. Again, to the extent that I do live in a democracy and free society, I can make some effort to address them. I take seriously Dr. Slisli’s argument that, “If you want to talk universalism, then you should make the aggressor stop aggression FIRST …” Those who have read my blog know well my critique of state crimes, particularly those of the U.S. That has always been my focus. A dishonest person is one who criticizes the crimes of others but does not reflect on his own. But that does not make the crimes of others any less of a crime. This is a moral truism we should not easily let escape from our minds.

First Amendment Forum, again Friday, Apr 16 2010 

Today I was able to attend one of the presentations that was a part of the First Amendment Forum on campus, put together by the SCSU Society of Professional Journalists, the Department of Mass Communications, the St. Cloud Times, and others. The topic of the presentation that I attended was “Protecting Journalism in the Era of Dying Newspapers and Social Networking.” Though the topic was about the death of newspapers and the rise of online content and social networking, most of the panelists discussed how they were using or had used social media to complement their writings as journalists, reporters, or editors. However, once the discussion was opened to those in attendance, the issue of the death of traditional media was brought up.

Namely, the issue of charging for online content was brought up. This issue is the same issue that I had addressed in an earlier blog post and letter to the University Chronicle. I didn’t bring it up, but I believe the person who did was the same person I wrote my post in response to (that is, Kyle Stevens). The person asked the panel what they thought about the media charging for online content.

A salient point that one of the panelists (Ramla Bile) brought up was that charging for the news online introduces some problems in that doing so bars certain people (namely the poor) from accessing the news. Bob Collins, who works for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), said he really wished the Star Tribune would start charging people to read online content, because he believed doing so would drive more people to MPR. Adam Hammer of the St. Cloud Times likened it to the music industry, and the challenges they faced with the digitization of music and the piracy of said music. He explained how people became accustomed to listening to music through digital media, and it was Apple who recognized this and created iTunes to provide a legal channel through which people could access this digital music.

Of course, there’s the other side of this issue. The content wasn’t produced without a cost. How are the media supposed to make money if they can’t charge people to view their content? Both views are valid. We need to balance the ability to make a profit through producing important news and the necessity of not pricing people out of the market for this important news. In other words, we want people to get paid for doing good journalism, but we don’t want to bar people from accessing this journalism simply because they can’t afford it.

Some people might just respond that if people can’t afford something, they don’t deserve it. If you can’t pay for it, why should I give it to you? The problem with this argument, however, is that important news is not just another commodity to be bought and sold. The news, as I have always said, is a cornerstone of democracy. (In economics, it might be called a public good.) Scholars and political theorists have long recognized that a free and vibrant press is the foundation of civic society and liberal democracy. This is what differentiates online news from, say, online music in Hammer’s example. Music is important, yes, but not necessarily a requisite for a functioning democracy.

The question, thus, becomes whether we want to limit the dispersion of knowledge and important news or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible. This is where I disagree with Stevens. He believed we should charge for online content, which would have the effect of pricing people out of the market for important news. As I said, though, we need to consider the fact that the content was not produced for free and there is a certain necessity to generate a revenue to at least cover the costs of making such important news available. The suggestion I made, basing my argument off the work of Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book The Death and Life of American Journalism, was that there be a public subsidy for independent journalism. Both McChesney and Nichols present several convincing arguments in support of their case. A public subsidy for independent (that is, not corporate) news would solve the aforementioned balancing issue; the cost of producing important news would be paid for, and accessing this content would be kept free, allowing for the greatest number of people to access vital information.

Unfree news Saturday, Feb 27 2010 

Note: This a much longer version of a letter I submitted to the University Chronicle in response to Kyle Stevens. It did not appear in this week’s edition, but perhaps it will next week’s in the edition following spring break (darn!). I’ll update this post with a link if it is.

Update: I was expecting my letter to be published in this Monday’s edition of the University Chronicle. It seems the opinions editor is unaware of any reason why it was not published in this edition and promised to publish in next week’s edition and upload it online as soon as possible. I’ll post another update with a link as soon as there is one.

Update 2: The letter was published in this week’s edition of the University Chronicle. You can read it online here.

In an opinion published in the February 22 edition of the University Chronicle, Kyle Stevens argues that The New York Times charging readers to see articles on their Web site is “good news.” People who do not subscribe to the newspaper will have to pay a fee to get unlimited access to NYT online articles sometimes in early 2011, according to Stevens. Though Stevens admits “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public, he says “this is ‘great’ news” for the media industry. The reason, he argues, is that when The New York Times began to provide free news on their Web site in 2007, small papers like the St. Cloud Times had “to play the same game.” In other words, other newspapers also had to provide free content in order to effectively compete in the market. Apparently, the news industry couldn’t survive off of this model, and now with this change “maybe the news industry can be saved,” says Stevens. This “fee-to-see format,” says Stevens, “makes so much sense that I cannot believe it has happened.”

Does it make so much sense?

We know that a free and vibrant press is a cornerstone of civic society and liberal democracy. The spread of information, knowledge, discussion is essential for any healthy society. The question is whether we want to limit this dispersion or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible.

Knowledge is what economists call a “public good” in the technical literature. Thomas Jefferson wrote that ideas have a “peculiar character” in that “no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.” In economics, that is the idea of a non-rivalrous good. Your possession of knowledge does not hamper or diminish mine. Therefore, we ought to spread knowledge and ideas as widely as possible. Yet, setting up fees to read the news does not accomplish this goal. Hampering the spread of knowledge creates an economic inefficiency. There is a better outcome, which is to make the news as dispersed as much as possible, to share it freely. Therefore, making the news more expensive does not generate a favorable outcome, and Stevens acknowledges this when he states “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public. Yes, it might help a handful of private corporations maximize their profit (as Stevens correctly points out), but it does not benefit the whole of society.

Helping large corporations maximize their profits often does not produce the most economically efficient or socially desirable outcome. As many media critics are quick to point out, the interests of large corporate media are not aligned with the interests of a vibrant and democratic society.

In this sense, the ownership of the media has a substantial influence on the output of the media. This is a core thesis of the propaganda model developed by Herman and Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Our dominant source of information is increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations. That has an effect on the output, and we experience it on a daily basis. The propaganda model has strong explanatory power.

Explains John Nichols, “The primary one is that the people who own most of the newspapers are not interested in civic or democratic values. They’re interested in commercial and entertainment values, and primarily to make a lot of money.” And it these large oligopolistic corporations that are being subsided and supported by government, through copyrights, Communications Act of 1934, and so on. Furthermore, according to Robert McChesney, this is “encouraged by the corruption of the U.S. political system, in which politicians tend to be comfortable with the status quo and not inclined to upset powerful commercial media owners and potential campaign contributors. The dominant media firms enjoy the power to control news coverage of debates over media policies; this is a power they have used shamelessly to trivialize, marginalize, and distort opposition to the status quo.”

The pre-capitalist Framers of our nation readily understood that the media are to function as a prevailing counterbalance to corporate and state power. In other words, the media are meant to give the people an independent voice. Now, however, we cannot speak of corporate influence on the media, because the media are the huge corporations. They are one and the same. And when you think of the media as agenda setters, which they are, the result is what’s been referred to as a “democratic deficit,” namely because “it was understood that if you just let wealthy people run the media system, it would serve only wealthy people, not viable democratic self-government.”

Well, now there is a crisis that is widely recognized, especially by people like Stevens and those in the media businesses, particularly in the printed press. It’s been referred to as the “death of newspapers.” Small, independent newspapers, local papers, and even some of the big dailies, are closing down or firing thousands of journalists each month. The problem is real and it’s a threat to a healthy democratic process. The reasons for it are numerous and fairly apparent. The real question is what we should do about it. Stevens offers one solution, which is to make the big newspapers like The New York Times less accessible to the general public so that smaller papers like the St. Cloud Times can have a chance. I don’t think this is the optimal solutions for the reasons I’ve already laid out. But there remains a definite problem where the printed news media are struggling to stay alive. It seems reasonable to make people charge more for good journalistic news, because it’s not free to produce. You have to balance the budget somehow.

There are alternatives to increasing charges (which is not likely to save the printed press), and two leading media scholars offer some in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. The subject of their book deals with the problems of the current state of affairs in the media and journalism, and how we can overcome the current crisis that the media face. This was also the subject of a fascinating interview the two authors had that aired on PBS last month. Had I not watched that interview last month, I probably would have thought nothing of Stevens’ letter. But Nichols and McChesney offer an alternative to Stevens’ argument, which I think is both sensible and pragmatic. What they suggest is subsidizing independent journalism. I can’t do their proposal much justice here, so I implore you to listen to the interview or buy their book (both of which I linked to above).

Obviously, the idea of a government subsidy makes a lot of people uneasy, and not just right-wingers who want to see the government disappear. There are concerns by people who think the government getting involved in the media would be akin to something like state media or, at the very least, government meddling in the generation of opinions and ideas. This, too, would be very unhealthy for a democracy. These concerns are addressed by Nichols and McChesney and they offer solutions to prevent any of this from happening. And the reason they urge a government subsidy for journalism is for the same reason that the Founding Fathers were very aware of. A free press is meaningless without a vibrant press. This was instantly recognized by the key Framers of the United States. So, for example, there were debates in early American history about how to subsidize the press, to ensure the democratic process flourished. And the government offered many subsidies to the press, one of the primary ones being postal subsidies. Congress debated how little presses should be charged for postal services. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, thought the debate was nonsense. He thought there should be no charge, that it should be completely subsidized by the government, because anything less would interfere with the free flow of ideas and opinions, which, again, was recognized as the cornerstone of liberal democracy. Madison wrote, “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”

In order for there to be liberty, there needs to be a free press in addition to a vibrant press that offers a whole range of ideas. Madison and other key Framers understood this well. It’s the only way that independent voices could actually challenge, for example, state power. It’s how the abolitionist press stayed alive even during the years Congress banned any debate about slavery. Journalism and democracy are intimately linked, and so it is our imperative that we support it to its fullest. If one role of government is to protect and ensure democracy, as some libertarians might agree it is, then there exists an obligation on its part to protect and ensure independent journalism, in the same way it ensured it during the early years of the republic. One idea that Nichols and McChesney offer is vouchers or tax write-offs for citizens to give money to independent news sources. Again, you can read their book or listen to their interview for a more in-depth discussion. When you look at the subsidies the early republic offered to the press as a percent of the GDP, it would translate into roughly $30 billion in today’s money. Moreover, when you look at the places recognized as the freest and most open democracies in the world, where the press is rated as the most independent and freest, it’s places like Finland, Norway, Sweden, and so on, where they also offer roughly $30 billion in subsidies. It is in this way that vibrant, healthy, and independent news is ensured and maintained. Writing for the CATO Unbound blog, Paul Starr says, “we should be open to the idea” of public subsidies for journalism. I also think we should be open to the idea as a viable and pragmatic alternative to Stevens’ solution, to ensure that independent journalism can survive, that it is vibrant and healthy, and that it can continue to challenge corporate and political power.

Eyewitness reports from Palestine Thursday, Oct 1 2009 

Notice and update: this is a longer version of a letter I wrote to the University Chronicle. You can read the shorter letter that was published in the University Chronicle here. Also see an update I’ve posted below.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of hearing the personal testimonies of SCSU student Amber Michel, SCSU professor Fouzi Slisli, and St. Catherine University professor Nasrin Jewell regarding their trip to Palestine this summer. SCSU professor Tamrat Tademe was also there to introduce the speakers and to give responses to some questions posed.

You’ll remember that it was these two professors, Drs. Tademe and Slisli, who were rudely interrupted last year by professor Joseph Edelheit during their panel discussion on the Gaza offensive. Dr. Edelheit, a professor of philosophy and the director of Religious and Jewish Studies at SCSU, was criticized by myself and other students in the University Chronicle’s opinion page, though some people did also defend him. I also wrote on this blog regarding the blatant bias the University Chronicle displayed in covering these incidents.

Thankfully, last night’s presentation went without incident. The speakers spoke eloquently of the plight of Palestinians and the audience had very engaging and intelligent questions to ask, allowing for a very informative discussion of the Israel-Palestine issue.

I’m very grateful for their very eye-opening reports regarding the massive oppression going on in Palestine. I praise their courage for telling the stories of Palestinians and their plight, for standing up against the predominating view in American society that supports Israeli aggression, and for explaining the perspective that is too often ignored and little understood.

However, I must respectfully disagree with two arguments they made in their presentation. The first is their advocacy for a one-state solution as opposed to the two-state solution. The second is their support for “boycott, divestment, and sanction” against Israel.

I strongly feel the two-state solution is the only way forward on this issue. I can concede that perhaps, in some philosophical utopia, the one-state solution might be a desirable outcome; but it’s completely unrealistic. So I do not pretend that the two-state solution is ideal, but it is realistic and it will improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis quite drastically.

I am not alone in this because this is the international consensus. It is favored by the Arab nations, the Palestinians, the Israeli people, the EU, and so on. The only rejectionists have been the U.S. and Israeli governments. The closet Israel and Palestine have come to a settlement was at the Taba Summit (before Israel pulled out), which led to the Geneva Accord that provides for solutions that, though not ideal, both sides can agree on. Again, that’s the longstanding international consensus.

Second, I disagree with their calls for divestment. We should support an end to arm sales to Israel, but we should not support divestment. One, it’s ineffective; two, it’s the wrong way to think about it; and three, it hurts our cause for promoting peace in the region. Namely, it distracts from the important issues of occupation, war crimes, and continued oppression. Supporters of Israeli expansion know this, and they use divestments to distract us from the primary issues at stake to focus instead on other irrelevancies.

There is no longer any doubt that Israel continues to commit flagrant war crimes, ignore international law, and terrorize the Palestinian population. We must continue to focus and speak out on these issues, stop the boycotts against Israel, and support the international consensus for a two-state solution.

Update: Just so it’s absolutely clear: despite my disagreement over these issues, I am very appreciative of the work these people have done and continue to do to support Palestine and ending oppression. The work they do is important and noble; they do a great service to the SCSU community and help the cause of solidarity with those who suffer injustice. As Amber points out to me, even those who support the freedom of Palestine have differing opinions on how best to accomplish it. I continue to stand by these professors and students who seek to raise awareness on this important issue.

Pornography vis-à-vis feminism and rights Wednesday, Sep 30 2009 

Pornography can be a touchy subject to deal with because many people are uncomfortable discussing sex, let alone its commercialization. I concede this fact, but will try to anyway.

I’m generalizing a bit, but I think it’s fair to say there are two broad categories of people when it comes to pornography: those who believe it should be illegal and those who believe it should not be illegal. I belong in the latter category. I’m not alone by any means, and I believe I’m in good company. But I want to make myself very clear that supporting the legality of something does not necessarily mean condoning it. For example, when I say I support the decriminalization of marijuana, I do not mean to imply that I condone the use of marijuana (recreationally) or that I would use it myself. When I say abortion is an absolute and inalienable right of women, I do not mean to imply I support women getting abortions (I prefer they don’t, but that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed). So when I support the legality of pornography, I do not mean to say porn is necessarily a good thing. I’m sure there’s a good deal of people who support the legality of pornography but do not necessarily agree with the act (and definitely a great deal that do support the act itself).

Tonight (Wednesday), however, the SCSU Women’s Center along with the Residential Life Social Justice and Diversity Committee will be hosting an anti-pornography special event at 6:00 P.M. in Ritsche Auditorium (I’m not sure that I will be able to make it, because I’m also going to a special event on Palestine). The event is titled “The Price of Pleasure” and it will show the documentary that goes by the same name followed by a presentation by Robert Jensen who is an anti-pornography activist and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin (he also appears in the documentary).

In one of the few times I’ve been impressed with the quality of a student-written opinion appearing in the University Chronicle, Neil Panchmatia writes a scathing criticism of the Women’s Center position on pornography that it takes in showing the documentary and hosting the professor, which he says is contrary to “the consensus of most feminist scholars.” Panchmatia, a graduate student in social responsibility, writes, “In feminism there is lively debate on whether porn is harmful, but through Professor Jensen the Women’s Center is promoting only Andrea Dworkin’s extreme perspective, which not only claims that porn itself embodies the violation of womens rights, but equates the term ‘porn’ with ‘gender violence,’ and even that porn ’causes’ rape and fuels violence against women.”

Indeed, arguments about pornography are nuanced, even among feminists, but there’s little doubt that the position the Women’s Center endorses is out on the extreme. A thorough survey of the American public by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman in 1986 showed 78% of people did not believe pornography should be illegal (finding reliable polling on this subject somewhat difficult). I do not deny that pornography can cause problems. I don’t think anyone doubts there can be detrimental effects in the participation, production, or consumption of pornography. There is, in fact, robust scholarly literature that deals with this important subject. But to conclude from that that pornography should be illegal is misguided.

In their 1969 ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States declared every American has the “constitutional right to keep and enjoy pornographic material in his home.” Though the court said they have the “broad power” to regulate “obscenity,” it concluded every American may “satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” That is, the court affirms, Americans have the right to free speech and privacy. (In a true perversion of the Constitution, the court later ruled in 1973 in Miller v. California that it had to right to determine what “obscenity” is and therefore declare it not a form of protected speech or expression under the First Amendment.)

So if we have the right to view pornographic material, one can infer from this that there also exists the right to participate in and produce pornography. That is, consenting adults have the right to perform sexual acts with each other and they also have the right to disseminate depictions of these acts with other consenting adults. They have these rights, but whether you want to argue that engaging in these activities is right or wrong is an entirely different thing. You may wish to educate people, inform people of risks, discuss its immorality and so forth, but we cannot deny them the right to engage in the activity. I can certainly agree, for example, that pornography can have the effect of distorting views on sex and sexuality and objectify and dehumanize women, but it doesn’t follow from that that pornography ought to be outlawed.

But proponents of outlawing pornography point to the alleged negative social effects it creates. Particularly, they argue pornography incites violence against women including through rape. “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,” goes the saying. Is it true? The Classically Liberal blog, in their post on the benefits of pornography, cites a study by Todd Kendall, a professor at Clemson University. Kendall finds, “a 10 percentage point increase in Internet access [to pornography] is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%,” among other benefits. There is a preponderance of evidence that supports this claim. (In fact, in 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress, in response to the SCOTUS ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. What the commission found was that exposure to sexual materials does not create adverse social effects, does not corrupt the individual, that restrictions on the “sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed,” and that adults believed they had the right to view pornography on their own accord. Congress rejected these findings.)

To conclude, the right to own, view, participate in, produce, and distribute pornography has been affirmed for consenting adults. We have strong and overwhelming evidence that pornography does not create adverse social effects and, in fact, may reduce violent crimes against women such as rape. Yet, the Women’s Center will dismiss these rights and ignore the research to instead advocate the idea that pornography is fundamentally and necessarily wrong and detrimental and ought to be illegal. Needless to say, I believe they are taking the extreme position and it ought to be firmly rejected.

LeMay responds in University Chronicle’s defense Saturday, May 2 2009 

Back in February, I wrote an indictment of the University Chronicle for what I perceived to be bias in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely as it relates to the two panels held on campus. To provide some context (see my previous post linked above for a more detailed explanation), the editorial board (consisting of Joey LeMay, mind you) published a diatribe lambasting the first panel’s outspokenness on the plight of Palestine. Keep this fact in mind for later. Then, in the next edition, LeMay wrote a front-page article on Dr. Edelheit’s presentation, which was supposed to be a response to the first panel that Dr. Edelheit rudely interrupted. The article, of course, was blatantly one-sided, as I noted in my previous post. Dr. Edelheit himself might as well have written it. Absolutely no perspective was given to the first panel’s point of view. But that’s all the past.

Now, however, LeMay has written a defense for the University Chronicle, in part because of what I wrote here. (Since I doubt they’ll publish anything during finals week and because of size restraints, it’s probably most prudent for me to respond here.) The gist of LeMay’s argument is that the University Chronicle simply does not have enough writers to cover all stories, however important they may be. Actually, he doesn’t quite say this. He says the panel’s discussion was too unimportant to be covered by its limited amount of resources. Expounds LeMay, “For its newsworthy value, the panel put on by Slisli and Tademe was not high on the list of intriguing events.” OK, so a panel of professors and students who have the courage to stand up against the predominating view in American society and say Israeli aggression is not acceptable is not “newsworthy.” To hold a panel on explaining the perspective that is too often ignored and not understood during a time of misperception and bias in coverage of a recent Israeli attack on Palestine is not “intriguing.” This is simply something that the student body would not be interested in hearing about, if we were to take the Chronicle’s argument. Gathering by the size of the crowd there that night, which was substantially larger than most crowds for 95% of university events, I think those people would beg to differ; the presentation was delayed because there were not even enough seats set out to accommodate all the people flowing in to hear this panel’s discussion. But that’s simply not “newsworthy” for the school newspaper. This, LeMay explains, is the reason no one showed up to cover the story.

It only became an “intriguing” story after a professor rudely interrupted the panel and disallowed them to present their topic, as the story goes. It takes a scandal of sorts—not actual relevant educational information—for there to be a story, apparently. So how does this explanation that LeMay gives jive with what actually happened? You’ll remember that in the publication following the first panel’s discussion (i.e. February 16), the editorial board responded to the events that took place that night. “As one of Minnesota’s largest higher learning facilities, where free thought and academic debate should be encouraged, we would be doing our students, faculty, and community a disservice by leaving voices unheard and considerations unexplored. Unfortunately, last Wednesday’s panel discussion on Israel’s invasion of Gaza was partisan and many question went unasked and unanswered,” writes the board. How could they possibly know this if no writers actually went to cover the event? Were they there to hear what the panel had to say? Were they there to listen to what question were asked? Were they there to hear what responses the panel had to give? Either LeMay is blatantly lying to us in his defense for the Chronicle or the editorial board (Ali Tweten, Paul Crawford, Andy Downs, and LeMay) was being intellectually dishonest in their response to the panel.

The front-page article written by LeMay that was in the following publication was, as I mentioned, completely biased. LeMay even admits this in his defense of the Chronicle: “I chose not to simply summarize Eidelheit’s [sic] claimed clarification of the events in Gaza. Instead, I focused on Eidelheit’s [sic] reaction to his treatment at the panel conducted by Slisli and Tademe, his problem with the Warsaw ghetto photo and the flyer, and the mixed reception he received from the audience.” You’ll note that he says nothing about the first panel’s reaction or their explanation for the photo they used. No, it was simply Dr. Edelheit’s perspective. But LeMay continues, “So, in order to say University Chronicle showed favoritism towards Eidelheit’s [sic] panel is misleading.” So, even after admitting he was biased in his coverage he says it’s misleading to call that favoritism towards Dr. Edelheit. That’s simply confounding. LeMay calls it “one of the best definitions of news I can think of.” Is it any wonder why there is “distrust in media and the idea that media skew their reporting”?

Palestine protest Monday, Apr 27 2009 

Last week there was a group of people on campus outside of the Performing Arts Center with a public display regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the last Israeli offensive against Palestine. Most graphically, they had a pile of 100 manikins piled atop of each other next to one manikin, representing the unequal causalities in that offensive. They also had another pile of smaller manikins representing the amount of children who died on the Palestinian side. They also had a display of personal stories from those who saw first-hand the horrors of the Israeli attack; a list of causalities including women and children; and plenty of handouts regarding the history of this conflict providing relevant information, history, and statistics. A lot of people seemed to be checking it out, including SCSU president Earl Potter. Naturally, of course, the school newspaper chose not to cover it.

SCSU University Chronicle & Israel Thursday, Feb 19 2009 

It appears the University Chronicle, the student-run newspaper for St. Cloud State University, has abandoned all journalistic integrity.

First, some background information: On February 11, 2009, two SCSU HURL (human relations) professors, Drs. Slisli and Tademe, led a panel along with some students to discuss the plight of Palestine from a decidedly pro-Palestinian viewpoint. Their objective, as far as I could tell, was to discuss some of the issues that most Americans don’t get to hear about from their own media. Within the first few minutes of their program, Dr. Edelheit, a professor of philosophy and the director of Religious and Jewish Studies, interrupted them in an outburst, demanding that the panel explain the juxtaposition of Gaza images and Warsaw images on a promotional poster for the event. The panel rebuffed the shouting professor and refused to continue until the professor calmed himself or left the room. After realizing his efforts were fruitless, Dr. Edelheit left the room and the panel went on with their discussion. (It should be noted that the panel did respond to questioners after they finished the presentation, regarding the poster and the images they chose to use.)

On February 18, Dr. Edelheit hosted his own forum on Gaza in order to present his side of the Gaza conflict, but mostly to explain his anger over the images used in the aforementioned poster. He stated that he invited the two HURL professors, who did not respond to his invitation; they were not present at his forum.

(On February 12, the University Chronicle published a letter I wrote regarding Israel’s war crimes in Palestine, that was completely separate of and written before the February 11 panel’s discussion. It can be read here.) (Link fixed.)

In the February 16 publication of the University Chronicle, the editorial board–consisting of Ali Tweten, Joey LeMay, Paul Crawford, and Andy Downs–wrote a diatribe on the panel’s discussion of massive human rights violations taking place in Palestine. “An environment that actively suppresses opposing viewpoints is misleading to its audience, creates polarizing results, and causes problems rather debates possible solutions [sic],” they wrote.

Sure, I think we can all agree to that. But it does not apply to the panel’s discussion of U.S.-Israel and Palestine. If anyone, it would apply to Dr. Edelheit who very purposefully disrupted the program so that they could not present their discussion to the audience that was all too eager to get a new perspective on the very important issue. It was Dr. Edelheit who was showing his contempt for the audience by prohibiting the panel from discussing and presenting their case. In his own presentation on the topic, Dr. Edelheit admitted he knew full well what he was doing and that he acted very deliberately (“I did disrupt, quite willfully”). As I already wrote in a letter I sent to the Chronicle, published in the February 19 edition, the professor’s actions were completely unbecoming for a professor of this institution. Excuses for Dr. Edelheit’s actions and behavior have no merit and have been repeatedly dismissed by a majority of people who have spoken on the issue.

Nonetheless, the editorial board continued: “The United States’ role as peace negotiator is crucial, as it is utterly impossible to envision lasting peace between Israel and Palestine without the U.S. endorsing, helping implement, and standing by a proposed agreement. But coming up with an agreement for long-lasting peace has proven difficult, especially when we give our attention to only one side.”

Let me first address the first sentence. It actually shows, quite clearly, the contempt the editorial board has for Palestinians and their right to self-determination. They basically parrot the U.S. government’s stance on the issue, which is that the U.S. owns the world and anything that goes on in a region that interests us has to go through us first. This is unimaginable to most sane and rational human beings, as it flies completely in the face of self-determination, which states that nations and peoples should have the freedom to make choices and determine their future without external pressure and demands. However, as a world superpower, the U.S. and, apparently, the University Chronicle editorial board believe we have the right to dictate the existence of other people.

(I should note that it was in the very rare exception to U.S. rejectionism that Israel and Palestine got the closest they’ve ever been to resolving the long-standing conflict. I am, of course, referring to Taba, 2001–before Israel pulled out and abandoned the negotiations, that is. It is actually very easy to envision a peaceful Israel and Palestine without the interference of the U.S. In fact, that is the only possible way to move forward on this issue. For those who see the U.S. as needing to impose its will on others, this is not an option.)

But the editorial board brings up a good point in that second sentence I quoted. When we give our attention to only one side, it is very difficult to come up with rational and pragmatic solutions. But this is exactly all the U.S. media, including the University Chronicle, do. They present one side, which is unconditionally favorable to Israel and the United States. They mimic longstanding American beliefs that we, or Israel, can do no wrong; that what is right for Israel is right for the United States; and that Israel and the United States are unjustly criticized. I made a point about this, actually, in my letter to the newspaper that was published in the February 12 edition. I quoted Noam Chomsky, who wrote the following: “The basic doctrine is that Israel has been a hapless victim of terrorism, of military attack, of implacable and irrational hatred. . . . Israel is sometimes chided for its response to terrorist attack, a reaction that is deemed wrong though understandable. The belief that Israel may have had a substantial role in initiating and perpetuating violence and conflict is expressed only far from the mainstream, as a general rule.” This, though written nearly 30 years ago, is still the predominant view that is expressed by the media and the U.S. government. And, as the editorial board pointed out, this “is misleading to its audience, creates polarizing results, and causes problems rather [than] debates [on] possible solutions.”

Okay, so the editorial board has merely expressed its opinion, however ignorant it may be. I agree, this is perfectly acceptable in a free and just society that is supposed to pride itself on free speech. However, when the Chronicle to decided to publish a story on the Gaza issue and Dr. Edelheit’s presentation in the February 19 edition, they chose no other than Joey LeMay, the same student who espoused quite clearly his contempt of Palestinians and ignorance on the issue just a few days earlier. In fact, the Chronicle deliberately decided not to publish an article on the first panel discussion that spelled out the atrocities taking place in Palestine; but they chose to publish, very prominently as the lead story, only Dr. Edelheit’s position on the issue. But what should we have expected from the author who just days earlier attacked said panel? This is a pretty good vindication of Chomsky’s point and shows quite clearly the overwhelming bias there is in favor of U.S.-Israeli war crimes in Palestine.

The type of ignorance the editorial board and others display is the exact reason I, along with others, have called for a more reasoned debate on the issue. All too often one side is presented, which is the U.S.-Israeli side, naturally. I would be more than willing to sit vis-à-vis Dr. Edelheit and debate the real issues that affect Palestinians and Israelis and anyone else who believes Israel is justified in committing grave war crimes against the Palestinian people. If the HURL professors who led first panel are unwilling to engage in open discourse with their dissenters, then I think there should be a student-led dialog on the issue, as there are clearly very vocal proponents of both sides, and this should include Dr. Edelheit and any other professor if they so choose.

Update: Joey LeMay wrote a defense for his and the Chronicle’s actions in an April 30 editorial. I wrote a response to his defense on this blog, here.