Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading Garrett Hardin

I'm in the last throes of finishing the ms. and looking over Garrett Hardin's famous "Tragedy of the Commons" Science 162 (1968), pp. 1243-48, which I hadn't read carefully since I was an undergraduate. It's a much more compassionate and thoughtful piece than its invocation by neo-classical economists would suggest. Used as a citation to justify property rights of all sorts, Hardin is himself not persuaded of their utility in many contexts. In fact, the essay would be more aptly titled, "The Tragedy of the Commons for People with Property Rights."

Property rights do not create solutions, but Hardin describes how they contribute to the tragedy of the commons. His paradigmatic example is grazing. But grazing only poses a problem if land is held in common while individuals have private rights to their herd. (If herds also are held in common then neo-classical economists worry about laziness, which would be bad for productivity but would not lead to overgrazing.) Similarly, Hardin's solutions do not require more property rights and market solutions but appeal to an inventive use of regulations.

For instance, noting the degradation of the national parks, he suggests entrance policies based on a lottery, a proposal now in place. And he writes: "[O]ur particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream--whose property extends to the middle of the stream--often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door" (1245).

And Hardin in 1968 was one of the first to point out the inability of property rights to handle pollution of what he calls pleasure. As a result of property rights to a store, "The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000 people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travelers" (1248).

Hardin also writes with some sadness that each generation is in the habit of forgetting lessons of previous generations. It is indeed a sign of the times that Hardin's lessons on the dangers of overpopulation and the commons, which have not proven the problem he thought they would be, would be the ones for which he is remembered, while his more astute observations about the harms of property rights have been ignored, though not by the folks at anti-advertising, whose bus stop intervention appears above.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Barney Frank Sells out for Job in Clinton Administration: Insider Revelation

On April 24, 2007 Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) did something he's done before, introduce a bill that would "prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender," HR 2015.

The "gender identity" language would help transgendered employees battle discrimination, but it's important for other reasons as well. Including "gender identity" is the only way to make sure sex discrimination laws, including sexual harassment laws, will apply to gays and lesbians. Courts previously have confined application of sexual harassment to different-sex scenarios. Stipulating that "gender identity" should not affect the interpretation of employment protections will protect men from sexual harassment from male bosses, and women from female bosses. Analyses by the LAMDA Legal Defense Fund also suggest that removing "gender identity" would allow employers to fire people on the basis of their being "too effeminate" or "too mannish."

On September 27, 2007, Rep. Frank did something that he appears not to have done before, introduce a competing bill that sells out gays and lesbians by removing the "gender identity" language, HR 3685.

The LGBT community is furious with Frank. According to an October 18, 2007 article in the Bay Area Reporter, "More than 200 LGBT groups around the nation have, in the past 10 days, signed onto a letter to House leaders asking them to 'oppose any substitute legislation that leaves part of our community behind.'"

The question is why did Rep. Frank do this? Frank's explanation: "We do not have the votes to pass the bill with transgender."

But no one who knows anything about Washington politics believes Frank. Indeed Frank himself admits that his proposed bill, even if it passes in both houses, will not become a law until a Democrat wins the presidency. So why is Frank really pushing Congress to pass a law that is being actively opposed by the constituencies in whose name he is acting?

Insiders have an explanation, and it's not a pretty one. According to a source who works with many of these LGBT groups, Frank and others are pressing Nancy Pelosi and Senate colleagues for a vote on a bill without "gender identity" protections at the insistence of presidential candidate and bully Senator Hillary Clinton. In exchange for helping her with this, word is that Frank's been assured a position in her administration.

Why would Hillary want this so badly? Getting the weakened bill on the Senate floor gives Clinton something she can vote for to bolster her substantively weak LGBT credentials and loosen some spare change and good will in the LGBT community. Getting Frank to lose the "gender identity" language in a bill that will not become law allows Clinton to appeal to the mainstream's sense of fairness in the workplace without allowing the Right to scare the general public by suggesting Clinton wants to protect fairies and other people with a gender imagination.

The most hopeful scenario in these cynical dealings is that perhaps after Clinton is elected and the Democrats have an even stronger grip on Congress, and perhaps after Frank receives a cabinet post and other muscle, the administration will push for a real bill that will be really signed, one that includes the "gender identity" language.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Federal Government Persecuting Science-Art Team

Steve Kurtz is the founder of Critical Art Ensemble, a renown art and critical inquiry group whose installations have been in museums, galleries, and classrooms worldwide. A few years ago Steve's wife, Hope, died in her sleep. When the police showed up they found Steve's research materials and after quickly dismissing the possibility that these played any role in Hope's demise, the police brought in the FBI and began an inane bio-terrorism investigation. This eventually led them to an equally silly mail fraud charge against a research scientist, and, in the midst of his struggle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the scientist has just agreed to plead guilty to an even lesser charge, still not disclosed. The press release quoted in its entirety below is from the Critical Art Ensemble defense fund, and many links to further information are contained there.

After participating together in an evening of presentations on genetic research and art at a community center in Los Angeles around 2001, where Steve educated the audience on the uses and abuses of genetically modified crops, I spent some time talking with Steve at a friend's home in Silverlake. He is a super-smart, community-minded guy who wants people to think and take control over genetic discourse and genetic material, and all other thought and matter corporate giants want to make their exclusive domain. Rather than the passive, inert matter of Dupont's chemical Zeitgeist, Steve was inspiring people to consciously shape their political and biological worlds.

The thought police do not appreciate such gestures. Use the mail to ship guns? No problem. Use the mail to ship cigarettes? Great! Use the mail to ship something to help educate people beyond the DNA illiteracy? Call the FBI bio-terrorist team and criminalize learning. I'm writing about this on the "states without nations" blog because it's the nationalist paranoia of the Patriot Act that led to Steve's arrest. Here are the details:

October 11, 2007

Email: mailto:media@caedefensefund.org
Claire Pentecost: 773-383-9771
Gregory Sholette: 212-865-3076
Edmund Cardoni: 716-854-1694
Igor Vamos: 917-209-3282
Lucia Sommer: 716-359-3061
Dianne Raeke Ferrell: 412-352-2704

Scientist's Wife and Daughter Comment on Case

Buffalo, NY - Today in Federal District Court, Dr. Robert Ferrell,
Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate
School of Public Health, under tremendous pressure, pled guilty to
lesser charges rather than facing a prolonged trial for federal
charges of "mail fraud" and "wire fraud" in a surreal post-PATRIOT
Act legal case that has attracted worldwide attention.

"From the beginning, this has been a persecution, not a prosecution.
Although I have not seen the final agreement, the initial versions
contained incorrect and irrelevant information," said Dr. Dianne
Raeke Ferrell, Dr. Ferrell's wife and an Associate Professor of
Special Education and Clinical Services at Indiana University of
Pennsylvania. "Bob is a 27 year survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
which has reoccurred numerous times. He has also had malignant
melanoma. Since this whole nightmare began, Bob has had two minor
strokes and a major stroke which required months of rehabilitation."

Dr. Ferrell added that her husband was indicted just as he was
preparing to undergo a painful and dangerous autologous stem cell
transplant, the second in 7 years.

The Ferrells' daughter, Gentry Chandler Ferrell, added: "Our family
has struggled with an intense uncertainty about physical, emotional
and financial health for a long time. Agreeing to a plea deal is a
small way for dad to try to eliminate one of those uncertainties and
hold on a little longer to the career he worked so hard to develop...
Sadly, while institutions merely are tarnished from needless
litigation, individuals are torn apart. I remain unable to wrap my
mind around the absurdity of the government's pursuit of this case
and I am saddened that it has been dragged out to the point where my
dad opted to settle from pure exhaustion." (To read Gentry Ferrell's
full statement, please visit:

Dr. Ferrell's colleague Dr. Steven Kurtz, founder of the
internationally acclaimed art and theater group Critical Art
Ensemble, was illegally detained and accused of "bioterrorism" by the
U.S. government in 2004 stemming from his acquisition from Dr.
Ferrell of harmless bacteria used in several of Critical Art
Ensemble's educational art projects. After a costly investigation
lasting several months and failing to provide any evidence of
"bioterrorism," the Department of Justice instead brought charges of
"mail fraud" and "wire fraud" against Kurtz and Ferrell. Under the
USA PATRIOT Act, the maximum penalty for these charges has increased
from 5 years to 20. (For more information about the case, please see
"Background to the Case" below or http://caedefensefund.org)


The government is vigorously attempting to prosecute two defendants
in a case where no one has been injured, and no one has been
defrauded. The materials found in Dr. Kurtz's house were obtained
legally and used safely by the artist. After three and a half years
of investigation and prosecution, the case still revolves around
$256 worth of common science research materials that were used in
art works by a highly visible and respected group of artists. These
art works were commissioned and hosted by cultural institutions
worldwide where they had been safely displayed in museums and
galleries with absolutely no risk to the public.

The Government has consistently framed this case as an issue of
public safety, but the materials used by Critical Art Ensemble are
widely available, can be purchased by anyone from High School science
supply catalogues, and are regularly mailed.


"The government's prosecution is an ill-conceived and misguided
attack on the scientific and artistic communities," said Dr. Richard
Gronostajski, Professor of Biochemistry at SUNY Buffalo, where
Professor Kurtz also teaches. "It could have a chilling effect on
future scientific research collaborations, and harm teaching efforts
and interactions between scientists, educators and artists."

"It's deeply alarming that the government could pressure someone of
Dr. Ferrell's stature into agreeing to something like this. The case
threatens all Americans' Constitutionally guaranteed right to
question the actions of their government," said Igor Vamos, Professor
of Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


The plea bargain agreement comes at a time of overwhelming public
support for the two defendants. A film about the case, Strange
Culture - directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson and featuring Tilda
Swinton (Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Clayton), Thomas Jay Ryan
(Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin
Brockovich) - has drawn widespread critical praise and public
interest, with screenings in dozens of U.S. cities after its
selection to open both the 2007 Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival documentary
section. An October 1 screening of the film at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York City drew a crowd of 400 who stayed for an hour
afterward for a discussion with Professor Kurtz, director Hershman
Leeson, and actress Tilda Swinton. Special benefit screenings of the
film in numerous cities have raised thousands of dollars to offset
the two defendants' escalating legal costs.


The legal nightmare of renowned scientist Dr. Robert Ferrell and
artist and professor Dr. Steven Kurtz began in May 2004. Professor
Kurtz and his late wife Hope were founding members of the
internationally exhibited art and theater collective Critical Art
Ensemble. Over the past decade cultural institutions worldwide have
commissioned and hosted Critical Art Ensemble's participatory theater
projects that help the general public understand biotechnology and
the many issues surrounding it. In May 2004 the Kurtzes were
preparing a project examining genetically modified agriculture for
the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, when Hope Kurtz died of
heart failure. Detectives who responded to Professor Kurtz's 911 call
deemed the couple's art suspicious, and called the FBI. Within hours
the artist was illegally detained as a suspected "bioterrorist" as
dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits sifted through his work and
impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his
wife's body.


The government has pursued this case relentlessly for three and a
half years, spending enormous amounts of public resources. Most
significantly, the legal battle has exhausted the financial,
emotional, and physical resources of Ferrell and Kurtz; as well as
their families and supporters. The professional and personal lives of
both defendants have suffered tremendously. A trial date has not yet
been established.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Google Explains Jew Results

Google has replied to the petition to remove JewWatch.com from its search engine. No surprise that they won't remove the site, but their reply is more than a standard form letter and offers some interesting, though not entirely persuasive thoughts, on why anti-Semitic results appear.
f you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew," you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you conduct this search.

A site's ranking in Google's search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings up one such unexpected result.

If you use Google to search for "Judaism," "Jewish" or "Jewish people," the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for "Jew" different? One reason is that the word "Jew" is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word "Jewish" when talking about members of their faith. The word has become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to Jewish topics such as these:

* http://shakti.trincoll.edu/~mendele/vol01/vol01.174
* http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/jonah081500.asp

Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely to enter terms like "Judaism," "Jewish people," or "Jews" than the single word "Jew." In fact, prior to this incident, the word "Jew" only appeared about once in every 10 million search queries. Now it's likely that the great majority of searches on Google for "Jew" are by people who have heard about this issue and want to see the results for themselves.

The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results. Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Although Google reserves the right to address such requests individually, Google views the comprehensiveness of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the page.

We apologize for the upsetting nature of the experience you had using Google and appreciate your taking the time to inform us about it.

The Google Team
I applaud Google's interest in ordinary language philosophy, i.e., the different motives for the use of "Jew" as distinct from "Jewish" or "Judaism." However suggestive their hypotheses, they are not entirely satisfying. First, most of the sites that appear when people use "Jew" are not "disturbing," including what is now the second-ranked site, the Wikipedia entry, which used to be first until this controversy appeared to bump up the JewWatch.com ranking to #1. Also, Google makes an uncharacteristically inaccurate statement about its own search engine: if you type in "Jews" and not "Jew," JewWatch.com also appears as the second site on the list (after the Wikipedia entry) and the third url on the list is for Jews for Jesus. And finally, as I pointed out yesterday, the explanation does not explain why similar results do not show up when people enter "Christian" or "Muslim."

While the details of Google's response are not entirely accurate, the spirit of its engagement is a welcome change from corporate double-speak that ignores the substantive issues. Their engagement, if not expertise in linguistics and counting (the results in their own search engine), are much appreciated.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Website Banning Petition in Progress

A few hours ago my girlfriend received a note forwarded from her mother's friend, asking her to sign a petition to remove "JewWatch.com" from the Google search engine. The note tells people, correctly, that JewWatch.com comes up very high on the google.com search engine if you type "jew." It was the second entry, after the Wikipedia entry. (A website has a high ranking on the google pages if a lot of people visit it through the google keyword searches or if a lot of other sites link to it, which the google engine can figure out by crawling through the web and finding the urls on other pages.)

The message says the site is anti-Semitic and tells recipients that if 500,000 people sign a petition requesting its removal from the search engine, Google will oblige. (The petition itself states Google will do this with a mere 50,000 signatures.)

I find it hard to believe that Google will in fact remove a site from its search regardless of the number of people who request this. If it does, this is a well-kept secret in the normally transparent Google operation, as its not mentioned in any of the means for removing site content. Hard to prove a negative, so I have a query into the Google Press Center about this.

The emailed message does raise an interesting question, and it's not about whether google should remove the site. (Of course not. That's a no-brainer for anyone who doesn't want their viewing habits controlled by the preferences of 50,000 or 500,000 people with too much time on their hands, though not enough time to realize that their messages are going to send people to the JewWatch.com site and further bolster its ranking.)

The intriguing question is why would JewWatch.com be the second site listed when "jew" is entered? Moreover, what does it mean that other entries on the first google page for "jew" are actually much more pernicious than JewWatch, including "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem," a 1920 anti-Semitic screed by Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford car company. That site also includes links to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and other creepy sites.

I tried typing in "Christian," "Muslim" to see if something similar occurred, but it didn't. One reason is probably that Christians comprise 33% of the world's population and about 20% are Muslim. Jews are fewer than one half of one per cent of the world's population. Assuming that people who are members of a group are more favorably disposed to that group than those who are not, chances are that in absolute numbers, a lot more people are not-Jews than not-Christian or not-Muslim. If ten percent of Jews are not favorably disposed to Muslims and Christians, that's about 138,000 potential anti-Muslim or anti-Muslim website viewers. If 10 percent of Muslims (120 million) and 10 percent of Christians (198 million) hate Jews, that's 318 million people, more than enough for a robust Google ranking.

The sites that appear if you type "jew" are not just anti-Zionist or "anti-Israel Lobby" sites, to use the less charged language of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. These are sites that denounce people as Jews, and not just those who favor Israel.

The obvious reason for the sites' popularity is that a ton of people fear and hate Jews. However this is not a reason but another question. Why? What's going on with the hypothetical ten percent driving these rankings, people markedly singling out Jews and not other minority groups for international approbation? While it's true that hatred is more likely toward a religion other than one's own, the first pages of Google hits for "Confucian" or "Zoroastrians"--religions with fewer adherents than Judaism--display no links to hate-filled websites.

I don't think the answer is the one that B'nai B'rith has in mind but rather, that it lies in Israel's own policies that conflate Jewishness with Israeliness and hence encourage those who oppose Israel to oppose Jews. When I was living in Istanbul and a Turkish sect supporting Al Qaeda blew up nearby synagogues in 2003 and killed 29 Jewish Turks while they were worshiping, Israel arrived to assist with the removal of corpses and the investigation. Much to the country's dismay, the bodies were buried with Israeli and not Turkish flags. Perhaps this was the decision of the families, or of the Turkish government to show their solidarity and appreciation of Israeli aid. But this decision to collapse dying for being Jewish with the celebration of Israel was not made by the folks running JewWatch or other anti-Semitic sites.

Indeed Israel puts itself forward as a Jewish state. It allows anyone who can prove Jewish descent to become a citizen and denies this to anyone not already in its borders, including those who have been removed by force. It is therefore not all that surprising that Jews and not just the Israel lobby would be held responsible for the crimes committed by and in the name of Israel. Indeed to do otherwise, which has been demanded of outsiders since Israel's founding, is to expect a high if not absurd level of sophistication. During World War Two the United States government interned its own citizens if they happened to be Japanese. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt, married to a great civil rights leader, could conflate nationality with ethnicity, then it seems unsurprising that folks with far less cosmopolitan aspirations would do the same.

This does not mean that FDR was correct in assessing the loyalty of his citizens. The confusion reflects that nationality creates ethnicity: Ireland makes possible "the Irish," Korea "the Koreans," and so forth. Before Judaism was Judaism, the Israelites were a nation, one that God told Abraham he would choose for covenant. (Jews were named such much later, by the Romans after the largest tribe in Judea.) Yes, anti-Semitism existed before the modern state of Israel. Long before that. But it did not exist before Israel the patrilineal nation of descent, the one following from the lineage of Abraham before becoming matrilineal after the destruction of the Second Temple. In both cases, belonging to the Jewish or Israeli nation is largely a matter of descent and kinship, just like all other nations, a mark of belonging and therefore of exclusion as well.

If Jews want to stop being targeted in the fight against Israel, then Israel needs to forsake its status as a Jewish nation, and join all other countries in opening their borders. The best way to make sure JewWatch goes away, is to remove the Muslim Watch at the Israeli borders.
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