James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Posts Tagged ‘civil rights

Understanding and overcoming bigotry …

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Henry Ford helped popularize the myth of Jewish control in America in the 1920s.

… a synopsis of some recent correspondence

I have recently been discussing outbursts of bigoted statements in a variety of contexts.  In current events terms, these discussions have sprung from events ranging from the debate over Park51, the misnamed “Ground Zero mosque”, to Rick Sanchez’s comments that Jews run the media, to Juan Williams’ expression of fear about outwardly Muslim airline passengers.

Let me deal with these issues by talking more specifically about Sanchez’s allegations.

Sanchez basically repeated the old antisemitic canard that Jews control the media.  That many people might make such a quick assessment is not that hard to understand – moreso when one considers the cultural background of antisemitism common in most communities.

In Iowa, for example, Jews are only one in 500 people.  Most people either personally know zero Jews or a very tiny number of Jews.  They do, however, turn on their TVs and see a fair number of Jews associated with both the news media and the entertainment industry.  Given the contrast, a quick assessment might indicate either that Jews run the media or substantially dominate it.  That is because the relative concentration of Jews in such context far exceeds the presence of Jews in an Iowan’s day-to-day life.

However, a person employing their intellect can readily overcome such a rush to judgment.  First, while Jews in Iowa are about one in 500, Jews in the US are one in 50.  In media centers like New York and LA, Jews are more like one in ten.  So, even if there is no clustering of Jews in the media (and there might be some of that too), an Iowan should expect to see about 50 times the proportion of Jews in the media as in Iowa.  This is true merely on the basis that Jews in the media are representative of the localities in which they are employed.  That is, however, a shocking difference that is likely to provoke an outsized estimate of Jewish influence.  But, such outsized estimates are easily countered, again, by making informed observation and employing our intellects.  There is much more evidence than this, but we can start with the observation that CNN and Fox are both owned and run by non-Jewish heads.  Even when one looks narrowly to prominent Jews in the media it becomes clear that they have no coordination and little agreement and so the idea of a ubiquitous “Jewish control” is downright ridiculous.

And, this pattern plays out in a wide variety of bias issues. The initial prejudice is easily justified by a simple observed difference between a foreign context and a familiar context.  Human learning is predicated on our ability to generalize, but here such generalizations serve to create an imagined reality that wildly exaggerates true reality.  This can apply to issues like black crime or family malfunction, Jewish control or miserliness, Muslim terrorism or misogyny, gay male illness or sexual predation, female seduction or manipulation, … In order to challenge these stereotypes, we have to understand the different contexts that give rise to them.  The rampant prevalence of prejudice throughout human history clearly demonstrates that this is tied to human nature and that suggests that it cannot be ignored and is not generally self-correcting.

In Sanchez’s case, just a little education probably would have helped him understand why the myth of Jewish control of the media is an antisemitic prejudice.  Williams didn’t need the education and so he followed up quickly with an explanation of how an initial fear should not be employed to give rise to bigotry.  Acknowledging the fact of one’s fears and suspicions, however unreasonable such fears may be, is an important part of legitimizing the more rightful assertions against prejudice provoked by such fears.  We cannot combat bigotry without recognizing its fairly natural and common origins.

That said, if one asks only that we “understand” bigotry, they probably are promoting it.  If one asks for “understanding” that burdens the victims of bigotry with the responsibility to avoid it, they are probably promoting it.  We must understand bigotry, but only because our fight against it will be very difficult if we refuse to understand the natural propensity for humans to develop biases.  The challenge is developing a discourse that allows us to develop the latter understanding without encouraging the bigotry promotion inherent to the former “understandings”.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:13 am

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How gay is this story?

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I was sitting in a fairly religious  environment yesterday. The group I was with was a little over 10 people. Because we had a group of 10, one person decided that they needed to tell this story. I think it’s one of the gayer stories I have heard in a pretty long time.

Here it is …

Jon and his dad run a family business. One of Jon’s coworkers, Dave, is their top worker. In fact, he’s so good that he can literally kill the competition 10 times as well as can Jon’s dad.

Now, Jon’s dad was a little jealous about this. In fact, he learned that Jon admired Dave quite a lot, and because of this, Jon’s dad was out to get Dave.

I mentioned that Jon admired Dave, but that might not be sufficiently strong description. Jon so admired Dave that he actually proclaimed that he loved him as much as he loved his own soul.

So, Jon and Dave make a plan to determine what Jon’s dad is actually intending to do. Jon finds out that his dad is planning to summon Dave in order to bury him.

Jon sends a message to Dave that Dave is at serious risk of losing everything. Dave is hurt by this. And when he next sees Jon, he runs up to him, they kiss, and then they weep together. When Jon tells Dave that he must go, the two of them swear (before God!) an eternal bond.

… pretty gay, no?

I mentioned that the group that I was with while hearing this story was pretty conservative. And yet, they demanded everyone’s attention for the telling of this story.

What I have not noted is that this all happened at the synagogue during morning services. The 10 people were a minyan, and the story was read in Hebrew. Yesterday was Shabbat, and today is Rosh Chodesh. On such a day as yesterday, we read a special Haftarah portion. That portion is from I Samuel 20, Jon is Jonathan son of King Saul, Dave is to become King David, and the family business is the Kingdom of Israel. Of course I and II Samuel contain several such stories of the intense love between David and Jonathan. These stories are replete with multiple expressions of a covenantal relationship between the two and even describe their souls as being intertwined using language as strong as any that describes a marital relationship. Upon Jonathan’s death, David goes so far as to proclaim that Jonathan’s love was more wondrous to him than the love of women.

This is particularly timely given the judicial retention vote in Iowa. In a bizarre retention election, voters threw out three judges who were part of the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision to end marriage inequality. Of course, much of the rhetoric against marriage equality is based on the moral offense that many people find in sodomy and their presumption that gay marriage is based on sodomy. I don’t know if any of the gay married couples I know engage in such conduct any more than I know whether married straight couples obey the sexual purity laws of niddah.

But, if you ever meet a married gay couple, such rhetoric is divorced from reality. The gay married couples I know reflect the love of David and Jonathan much more than they reflect the immoral sexual violence of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible gives us a way to model and celebrate such bonds, and yet my fellow residents of Iowa seem to remain committed to a voyeuristic and sexually obsessive view of gay couples. What a shame. They should read this Haftarah portion.

postscript … I ran across this site that specifically deals with these issues from a more Christian point of view.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Some Muslims are not just “moderate” …

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… they are downright righteous. I met such a Muslim Arab man – Bedouin to be specific – on Thursday at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

Ishmael Khaldi works for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most recently as Deputy Consul in the San Francisco consulate.  He speaks for the Jewish state of Israel and being a Muslim is no barrier to that fact.

He spoke clearly about the threats to Israelis – all Israelis – emanating from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the delegitimization campaign against Israel.  Whether it is Iran’s race for nuclear weapons or the Boycott Divest and Sanction movement, these threats are threats to Arabs and Jews and others in Israel and often elsewhere.

I have met few people who have so clearly expressed the case for the Jewish state and the common bond shared among many Israelis – Jew and Arab alike.  Most striking was his explanation of the work that many Bedouins did to help give birth to the Jewish state.  For, while Israel’s independence is often simply described as the cause of war between Jews and Arabs, Khaldi made clear that a sizeable number of Bedouins supported the pre-state Jewish community and the state of Israel.

His was a story not lost on those of us familiar with the long tradition of Druze assistance to the Jewish community.  Once one peels back the simple narratives, one sees the plural multiculturalism that defines Israel as not just a Jewish state, but also as a democratic and liberal one.  Khaldi is just one of many examples of that multicultural liberal reality.

Read more about Ishmael Khaldi and buy his book through his website or on Amazon.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Doubling down on a stupid policy.

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My column is up at the Press-Citizen.  Here it is:

Doubling down on a stupid policy

Let’s be honest.

The state law that prohibits alcohol for 18-year-olds is stupid.

The federal law that promotes such a policy is not only stupid, but an obscene abuse of federal power.

These laws really do not require sophisticated criticism. The only thing that is difficult to understand about the laws is how they have managed to remain in existence for so long.

Iowa City policy that bars 18-year-olds from establishments that serve alcohol are really just doubling down on a stupid policy.

The prohibition of alcohol for those younger than 21 already creates a rich market in false identification and identity theft. But that market is promoted principally among those who want to exercise the right to purchase alcohol directly. People who want to exercise those rights through the acts of others have little incentive to obtain a false identity.

Current Iowa City policy raises the bar. Now those who merely want to share a social environment with people who are in a drinking establishment must obtain false identification. This sort of identity fraud is bad in itself, but it also creates wider channels for a wide variety of identity fraud-related scams and crimes.

That is a fairly unique problem promoted by the 21-only policy, but the shift in alcohol consumption caused by this policy is troubling on many levels. Of course, some may argue that total consumption goes down because of the policy, but that seems rather unlikely given that most high school students can fairly readily obtain alcohol. College students have many more options.

Bars have incentives to protect their customers that house and apartment dwellers do not have. Bars enrich the nightlife of Iowa City in a way that house parties do not. Bars do not have readily available areas where men can easily rape women; houses do. Bars can be openly patrolled by police without a warrant; houses cannot. Commercial districts are better suited than residential neighborhoods to the heavy traffic and noise that goes with drunken revelry. Where do we want people to drink?

However, none of this addresses the core problem. That is, 18-year-olds suddenly free of parental constraint, 21 year-olds experiencing nominal “freedom,” and a variety of others indulge irresponsibly in their alcohol consumption and cause many problems.

Whether they drink at bars or houses, this core problem remains.

A better solution requires that we, as citizens, as a city, and as a state petition our elected federal representatives to repeal the insane federal laws that promote a 21-year-old drinking age. The best solution, in the long run, might even be to abolish the drinking age entirely or reduce it to, perhaps, 14.

Let’s imagine a 14-year-old drinking age. The first opportunity for a person to drink legally would happen when they are under their parents’ care, without the financial means to buy much alcohol, unable to drive, and generally incapable of creating an environment conducive to irresponsible drinking. The novelty of drinking openly once a person arrived at college would be substantially reduced. The aggressive binge drinking that is the rite of many 21-year-olds would be non-existent.

More personally and locally, I suspect Curtis Fry would not have gotten obscenely drunk on his 21st birthday. He would not have brutally beaten my friend, Patrick McEwen, to death at Patrick’s apartment on South Van Buren Street.

Fry’s parents seem like good people. Had Fry been able to legally drink as a 14 year-old, they would have raised him in a way that prevented him from killing someone.

He would not be in prison today.

For me, imagining an alternate reality where a young man is not a killer and an old man is not brutally killed is compelling enough.

Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Israel is the paragon of religious liberty.

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Al Aqsa Mosque

The Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (courtesy MathKnight, Hebrew Wikipedia & WikiCommons)

In Jerusalem at the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, more than a hundred thousand Muslim worshipers convened and listened to a Friday sermon that attacked not only the State of Israel, but also the very prospect of  peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority:

Tens of thousands of Muslims poured into the heavily guarded Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem for the last Friday prayers of Ramadan as Palestinians protested against newly re-launched peace talks.

Israeli police put the number of worshippers at 160,000 to 170,000, while Muslim authorities said it exceeded 200,000.

In his Friday sermon Sheikh Yusef Abu Sneineh criticized the re-launch on Thursday of Middle East peace talks in Washington, saying “these negotiations are a joke.”

He went on to accuse Israel of seeking normalization with the Arab and Muslim world while “continuing its colonization” of the occupied West Bank through the building of Jewish settlements.

via The Daily Star – Tens of thousands pray at Al-Aqsa as Hamas calls for more armed ‘resistance’.

When one considers that Saudi Arabia heavily regulates the practice of Islam and that Egypt has a long history of regulating sermons, it makes this kind of liberty, in a place far more threatened by Islamist extremism, all the more impressive.  Even liberal Europe fails to display the degree of religious tolerance that exists in Israel.

And yet, if you listen to the European media or the Arab media, only Israel is the world’s oppressor.  Perhaps rather than condemning Israel, they should seek to emulate Israel.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, September 5, 2010 at 12:23 pm

State Sen. McCoy goes after Mickelson’s pocketbook.

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Sen. Matt McCoy

Sen. Matt McCoy

It looks like my chat with Jan Mickelson is making more waves:

A state senator is organizing a boycott of businesses that advertise during Jan Mickelson’s WHO-AM talk-radio program.

His first target: Toyota of Des Moines, even though he drives a vehicle purchased from the dealership.

“It’s the last one I’m ever going to own, that’s for sure,” Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines said Wednesday.

Mickelson said during a broadcast last month that some AIDS education efforts destigmatize the “stupid behavior” of homosexuality. He likened AIDS to lung disease, cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease.

via State senator targets Mickelson’s advertisers because of comments on homosexuality | The Des Moines Register.

Personally, I am generally not a fan of secondary boycotts.  I think one should target the person who engages in the offensive conduct and not the people who do business with such a person.  However, Jan Mickelson is broadcast on one of the most powerful AM stations in the country and his broadcast reaches almost the entire state.  Boycotting him is not likely to do much any time soon.  Boycotting his advertisers is probably more effective in this case.

What is more important is that efforts like this give more opportunity to confront the lies that build gay-hatred.

Written by JamesEJ

Friday, September 3, 2010 at 12:06 am

The Atlantic covers Persian Jews in America.

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Cyrus the Great allowing Hebrew pilgrims to return to and rebuild Jerusalem

Cyrus the Great allowing Hebrew pilgrims to return to and rebuild Jerusalem

Jews can trace their history in Persia back at least 2,500 years to the time of Cyrus the Great, who restored the Jews to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile.  Sadly, in the last several decades, the Jews in Persia have been reduced to one tenth their previous size.  Most Jews fled Iran because of the rising antisemitism and persecution that accompanied the Islamic Revolution and went to Israel.  A very large number also fled to the United States.

The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Weingarten has an amazing piece discussing the recent history of Persian Jews in the United States.  Here is what she reports on Persian Jewish thought on the possibility of a military strike on Iran:

“Its very difficult for us,” explains Hooshang Nemat, the executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “You dont want to see your nation destroyed, and you dont want to see a conflict between your country of birth and the country that you sympathize with because of religion and because of shared history.” Nemat, a 67-year-old Mashadi Jew an small, ancient group from the Iranian city of Mashad, came to America in 1961 as a student at the University of Miami. He returned to Iran in 1972, and came back to the United States because of the revolution.

Like Nemat, most Iranian American Jews are against a military strike on Iran — whether it is from Israel or from the United States. But while theyd prefer a diplomatic solution, others say they would still support Israel in defending itself against a virulently anti-Semitic, and potentially dangerous, regime. Sam Kermanian, the former secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, believes that an Israeli strike “would be viewed as a justifiable act of defense,” adding that “the reaction of the Iranian American Jewish community wont be much different than the reaction of the majority of the people of Iran, who view the current regime as oppressive, and in conflict with the interests of the people of Iran.”

via Iranian Jews in America: Torn Between Homelands – International – The Atlantic.

This is just a small sample of what Weingarten shares.  The entire piece is worth reading and provides valuable insight on the views of religious minorities from Iran.

cross-posted at The View From Damavand

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 2:23 am