Notes From Babel

Archive for April 2010

Advice to American Muslims

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I had a talk once with my Muslim friend, who was frustrated that Americans still don’t seem to accept Muslims into their culture, particularly in comparison to Jews, for example.  I suggested the first of the following suggestions below, and recently thought of some more.

1. American Muslims ought to be more upset about terrorism than anyone.  9/11 was a calculated attack against Americans, so American Muslims ought to be at least as upset as any other American.  And terrorism casts aspersions on Muslims’ religion and inhibits their acceptance into the American mainstream.  In other words, the social and psychological effects of terrorism hurt Muslims in America more than anyone else.  They ought to be leading the charge against the violence done either in the name of Islam or with its supposed blessing, by offering clear, forceful rebuttals to arguments suggesting the Koran endorses and/or mandates these atrocities.  There have been lots of wackos purporting to follow some brand of Christianity who wind up brainwashing and murdering lots of otherwise good folks.  The idea is to explain these people were off the reservation, following nothing like true Christianity and instead made up their own cockamamie doctrine, and were, well, wackos.  American Muslims need to do something similar.

Instead, a common response from American Muslims to this point has been a cool-headed psychoanalysis of terrorists, suggesting that while terrorism is to be flatly denounced, we ought to understand what has pushed them to this point.  But while there is indeed some interesting stuff here for the head-shrinkers, no one wants to hear the “I feel your pain” trope when it comes to those driving planes into our buildings yelling “Allahu Akbar.”  No one wants to talk about how we ought to peer into the subtle and complex inner workings of the terrorist mind so that we might understand his pain.  This is not to say we can’t ask those questions.  But when these sorts of sentiments dominate one’s thinking on the issue of terrorism, one comes off as entirely disengaged from the reality of the subject and wholly out of step with the rest of America.

2.  Somewhat less severe yet symbolically significant, American Muslims ought to be come out and condemn burkas. Modesty is fine.  In fact, American Muslims’ strong commitment to traditional moral values put them in the mainstream of conservative Americans.  But burkas are problematic in a number of ways.  Legally, they ostensibly pose a problem of state incursions into religious practices, such as when burka-wearers would purport to testify at trial.  There are also obvious security implications where a fashion custom prevents a person from being recognized.

Simply as a matter of custom, however, they’re weird.  At the outlet mall a couple of weeks ago I passed a couple of of burkas, who were apparently doing some shopping.  Though I couldn’t directly tell, I assumed there must have been people inside of them, judging by the general cut and surface area of the textile, and intuiting that the propulsion of a five-foot tall drape along the sidewalk at midday was best explained by positing some manner of anthropoid lurking about in the contents.  Even the little eyes peering out were difficult to discern, as the accompanying custom of burka wearers is to avoid eye contact.  (I imagine an enterprising fellow might think to introduce a periscope to the general design.)  Even diversity-loving, kumbaya-singing free spirits should be able to admit it’s off-putting.  Moreover, I am given to understand the burkas have nothing to do with Islam as a religion, but rather with certain regional customs.  Cultural tolerance is fine, but let’s encourage the home team Muslims to accelerate these new folks’ assimilation.  Americans like their beer cold, their TV loud, and their people with faces.

3. With respect to more current events, American Muslims ought to be deeply troubled that South Park and Comedy Central—the program and network who broadcast a single episode featuring the word “shit” in 162 separate instances—finally succumbed to censorship in its 201st episode, apparently due to to this warning/threat from an American convert to Islam featuring an image of the murdered and bleeding body of Theo Van Gogh.  There is something to be said for the sacking of our entertainment by those who find it easy to obtain laughs simply by pushing the envelope.  This, perhaps, is the cost of inexpensive production and distribution of culture.  (Though, I do admit, I find South Park hilarious.)  But one would like to think that it goes without saying that “culture war” is just an expression.  Aside from furthering the impression that the religion is intrinsically violent, the South Park matter just makes Islam seem deeply lame.

4. This leads to my final suggestion.  Given there are so many reasons Islam has left such a bad impression on Americans, it is lamentable that American Muslims are so uniquely awful in not only failing to seem to care about that negative impression, but that they are so disproportionately concerned with America’s relationship with Israel.  Without going into a big thing about it, I will say that I understand the skepticism over our foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel.  I read Walt and Mearsheimer’s book.  It seemed to make some sense.  But that’s neither here nor there.  No one likes a Johnny-one-note.  American Muslims need to get off the hobby horse and get concerned about some other causes, too.

[Revised.]

[UPDATE: A friend forwarded me this article, entitled “Changing the Muslim conversation.”  While it contains perfectly valid points, it is nonetheless indicative of the problems I discuss above—namely, that American Muslims are far too disengaged from the cultural and ethical battles that the rest of America takes up with boundless enthusiasm.

So why, I ask you, is Abou Talha Al-Amreeki not written off as just another lunatic? Are his blue eyes and flowing brown beard giving him credibility even though Revolution Muslim has all of 12 followers? Muslims in general and the media in particular are misdirected. The ones offended by South Park must choose their battles, no pun intended. The media, following journalistic ethics, ought to do basic homework and interview representative organisations such as CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations and MPAC, Muslim Public Affairs Council, or individuals of scholarly credentials such as Dr Sherman Jackson, Dr Akbar Ahmed of American University or Dalia Mogahed (former President Obama’s adviser on Muslim relations), among many others all across North America.

Incidents like South Park unnecessarily endanger us all. Together we can change that if we alter the interaction by marginalising the violent and discoursing with the deserved. And, of course, keeping response to offence in perspective.

This advice—that American Muslims’ message ought to wait on journalists getting around to talking to Muslim religious scholars and policy wonks—is precisely the opposite of what is needed.  This advice suggests that American Muslims perhaps really aren’t all that upset that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are kept from drawing Muhammad snorting coke (as they did with Buddha) or watching internet porn (as they did with Jesus).  Instead, offer up a cool, reasoned, white paper reaffirming that the official position that violence is bad, but don’t get more exercised about the whole thing than absolutely necessary.]

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Culture, Islam

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A Nation of Tinkerers

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I’m currently reading Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I was impressed with Austin Bramwell’s vigor on land use planning issues, and Bramwell listed Death and Life as his #1 most influential book, so I figured I’d have to check it out.  Nearly a hundred pages in, however, and Jacobs has not yet finished fawning all over how neat sidewalks are.  Not a very rigorous work.  But she opens her book with a quote from Ollie Wendell Holmes, Jr., which has been ringing in my head the past week:

Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex: that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.

I realized yesterday that the reason I’m so taken with this quote is that it expresses almost the very same twisted condition of humanity noted by Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground.  I quoted this once before, but its import cannot be exhausted:

In short, anything can be said about world history, anything that might just enter the head of the most disturbed imagination. Only one thing cannot be said—that it is sensible. You’d choke on the first word. And one even comes upon this sort of thing all the time: there constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved and most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors, essentially in order to prove to them that one can indeed live in the world as a person of good behavior and good sense. And what then? It is known that sooner or later, towards the end of their lives, many of these lovers have betrayed themselves, producing some anecdote, sometimes even of the most indecent sort. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man as a being endowed with such strange qualities? Shower him with all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness completely, over his head, so that only bubbles pop up on the surface of happiness, as on water; give him such economic satisfaction that he no longer has anything left to do at all except sleep, eat gingerbread, and worry about the noncessation of world history—and it is here, just here, that he, this man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer lampoonery, will do something nasty. He will even risk his gingerbread, and wish on purpose for the most pernicious nonsense, the most noneconomical meaninglessness, solely in order to mix into all this positive good sense his own pernicious, fantastical element. It is precisely his fantastic dreams, his most banal stupidity, that he will wish to keep hold of, with the sole purpose of confirming to himself (as if it were so very necessary) that human beings are still human beings and not piano keys, which, though played upon with their own hands by the laws of nature themselves, are in danger of being played so much that outside the calendar it will be impossible to want anything. And more than that: even if it should indeed turn out that he is a piano key, if it were even proved to him mathematically and by natural science, he would still not come to reason, but would do something contrary on purpose, solely out of ingratitude alone; essentially to have his own way. And if he finds himself without means–he will invent destruction and chaos, he will invest all kinds of suffering, and still have his own way! He will launch a curse upon the world, and since man alone is able to curse (that being his privilege, which chiefly distinguishes him from other animals), he may achieve his end by the curse alone—that is, indeed satisfy himself that he is a man and not a piano key! If you say that all this, the chaos and darkness and cursing, can also be calculated according to a little table, so that the mere possibility of a prior calculation will put a stop to it all and reason will claim its own—then he will deliberately go mad for the occasion, so as to do without reason and still have his own way! I believe in this, I will answer for this, because the whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig! With his own skin if need be, but proving it; by troglodytism if need be, but proving it.

As I’ve said before, we are a people defined by a will to tinker.  Not because our world wants for tinkering, but because we are tinkerers.  Take any perfect thing and man will mar it so he may satisfy his urge to put his hand to it.

Apparently, Justice Holmes, one of the fathers of the Progressive movement, believed the same thing.  Simple constitutional doctrines can never satisfy those whose tinkering proclivities are directed toward our legal system.  Progressivism is not the ideology of choice of Progressives because it renders better results, but for the more fundamental reason that it gives activists something to do.

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

My Pension Op-Ed Is Up at the Sacramento Bee

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My piece on the (in)validity of retroactive public employee pension increases ran in today’s Sacramento Bee as the top story on the Viewpoints section.  You’ll have to get past my giant mugshot, though. Check it out!

[You can find more details about the legal analysis of the issue at my previous post here.]


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A World Where Politicians Never Die

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Few things trouble me more than the idea that the political class of the baby-boomer generation—those who carved out their destinies in the days before the regulatory state blobbed its way across every aspect of modern life, only to foreclose those same opportunities to subsequent generations—will have the opportunity to wield political power longer than any generation in history.  From NewScientist:

Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now.

. . . .

Of course, many older people do need healthcare, but many others are fit, competent and self-sustaining. Across Europe, typically only one retired person in 20 lives in a care home. In the UK, of 10 million over-65s, just 300,000 live in care homes (that’s about 3 per cent). So the majority of Europe’s elderly resemble Okushima in Japan. They are the councillors and counsellors, the social secretaries and neighbourhood wardens, the carers of other elderly people, and even the political and social campaigners and agitators – the glue that holds busy societies together. Far from impoverishing societies, says John MacInnes, a demographer at the University of Edinburgh, UK, all the evidence is that “mass longevity facilitates affluence”.

Imagine, a political class full of immortal Pelosis.  Shudder.

Written by Tim Kowal

April 18, 2010 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Saving Cleveland—And the Rest of America’s Declining Urban Centers

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I meant to link this a couple weeks ago when I first watched it—Drew Carey teams up with Reason to create a short documentary on how Cleveland, once one of America’s great urban centers, has become a shell of what it once was.  The series is called Reason Saves Cleveland.

Speaking of solutions to our urban dilemmas, I also just finished James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.  Although peppered with invectives against sprawl and capitalism, Kunstler’s book seems to suggest that Kunstler is neither wholesale in favor of urban planning nor wholesale opposed to capitalism.  The automobile is indeed the cause of sprawl and the drastic change in the design of our urban centers—I might not lament this as much as Kunstler, but I do have to admit I like many aspects of older cities and smaller towns.  But there are two observations about this I find much more interesting than the old “for” or “against” positions on sprawl:

First, one should not blame automobiles, or understate the value they have added to our lives.  When Henry Ford started pumping hundreds of thousands of affordable, mass-produced Model T’s into the marketplace, no one could have imagined how this would have changed the look and feel of future cities.  No one would have realized that the mass-produced car would have led to cities where pedestrians, to paraphrase Kunstler, feel like so many bugs about to be squished by giants.

Second, to lament the look-and-feel of today’s big cities and sprawled-out suburbs need not mean that one has to be for onerous smart-growth policies, or for razing the ticky-tacky Agrestics of the country and chasing their bewildered inhabitants back into the dirty, impoverished cities from whence they came.  In fact, those who lean towards free-market approaches—and who thus reflexively object to implementation of “smart growth” policies—might be startled to learn that when it comes to town and city planning, sprawl is not the natural, free choice of a free-market.  Instead, zoning and land use regulations governing set-backs, street widths, lot sizes, etc. all cause cities to tend toward the “sprawl” that new urbanists love to hate.  Many of these policies even start at the top—at the federal government, tied to spending bills that require states to adopt them and impose them on cities in order to get lavish federal subsidies.

Thus, free-marketeers and localists may have the right premise: let’s let the people choose.  But they may not be right to suggest that the people already have chosen, and that they’ve chosen “sprawl.”

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Chapman Finally Recognized As a Top 100 Law School

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My alma mater has finally broken into the second tier in the US News & World Report law school rankings.  When I graduated just three years ago it was still relegated to the basement of the fourth tier.  Of course, we all knew that, on paper, Chapman was a top-100 law school, but USN&WR gives a bizarre amount of weight to subjective criteria supplied by folks beholden to other schools.  After John Eastman signed on as dean, however, Chapman was able to climb over all 80 or so schools in the third and fourth tiers to stand now as the 93rd ranked school in the nation.  A nice boost to the value of that bit of paper hanging on my wall.  I couldn’t be happier.

Congratulations, and thank you, to former dean Eastman and the wonderful faculty and staff at Chapman!

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 17, 2010 at 10:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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Unintended Consequences of Accessibility Laws

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Here’s a shocking example of an unintended consequence of laws ostensibly enacted to help the disabled.  In Donald v. Cafe Royale, Inc., a wheel-chaired plaintiff sued a restaurant.  The restaurant was split level, and although the management happily agreed to have staff assist him upstairs, the plaintiff declined because it would attract attention, and the staff might drop him.  The plaintiff also did not like the layout of the dining area available to accommodate an individual dining in a wheelchair, although again, management offered to accommodate him in any reasonable way they could.

Instead, plaintiff sued the restaurant, and the restaurant thereafter went out of business.  Under the law, the “prevailing party” in such a suit gets awarded his attorneys’ fees.  Because the restaurant’s going under resulted in its dismissal and rendered the lawsuit moot, the court awarded attorneys’ fees to the restaurant.

The court of appeal reversed, however, noting that by putting the restaurant out of business, plaintiff got his desired result—i.e., the restaurant stopped infringing with the accessibility laws. As paraphrased in Heather Farms Homeowners Assn. v. Robinson:

In Donald v. Cafe Royale, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 168, 266 Cal.Rptr. 804, the plaintiff, a physically disabled man, filed suit against a restaurant alleging it had violated the Civil Code by failing to provide him adequate access. Among other things, the plaintiff sought an injunction under section 55 barring the restaurant from continuing its violation in the future. While the suit was pending, the restaurant became insolvent and closed. The trial court ruled the restaurant was the prevailing party on the injunction and awarded it attorney fees. The plaintiff appealed the award and the appellate court reversed: “In the instant case [the plaintiff] filed his section 55 cause of action in order to enjoin [the restaurant’s] operation in violation of the pertinent statutes and administrative code provisions. The cessation of … operation of the restaurant achieved that result. Under these circumstances, it was an abuse of discretion for the court to determine that by going out of business and rendering the issue moot, [the restaurant] ‘prevailed’ for purposes of attorney fees. Neither party prevailed for purposes of an award of attorney fees on the cause of action for injunctive relief.” (Id. at p. 185, 266 Cal.Rptr. 804.)

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Written by Tim Kowal

April 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Posted in Law

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