Congratulations to Gurbir Grewal

Congratulations to Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal for his nomination to the position of Attorney General of New Jersey by Governor-Elect Phil Murphy.

I got to know Gurbir last year when he spoke at the series on “Race and Criminal Justice in America” that I organized at Felician University; I was deeply impressed then, and remain impressed now, at his capacity to walk the fine line between prosecutorial toughness about enforcing the law, and moral sensitivity to considerations of justice. It’s a tough balancing act, but I sleep better at night knowing that someone knows how to pull it off. Because I certainly don’t.

Gurbir Grewal speaking at Felician University, December 5, 2017

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Now’s the Time for “Never Again”

A piece of advice: if you see a sign like this on a telephone pole in your neighborhood, rip it down.

A “Blood and Soil” sign in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Photo credit: Dario Gal

Don’t just leave it up and take a picture of it, and don’t bother calling the police to investigate. No one has a right to put a sign of any kind on a telephone pole without authorization of the owner, much less a sign of this kind. You’re not violating anyone’s rights by taking it down. If you have a genuine “civic duty” as an American, it’s to express your rejection of the politics of “Blut und Boden“–Blood, Soil, and Master Race–before it takes hold more powerfully than it already has. Continue reading

One Little Victory

Most of the news we’ve recently been hearing about immigration in the United States has been bad, but every now and then a bit of good news emerges. Here’s an instance of the latter.

About a year ago, a journalist told me the story of a young Pakistani immigrant in a terrible situation, asking me to write a letter of support that might help her get out of it. I contacted the person in question, heard her out, sat down to write her a letter of support, and sent it off to her lawyer. A few weeks ago, the woman told me that her application to remain in the United States had been accepted, and the orders to deport her had been lifted. With her permission, I’ve reproduced the letter I wrote for her, one of several she used to make her case to the immigration authorities. In the interests of privacy, I’ve changed her name. 

As I see it, the case demonstrates the complexity (or alternatively, the vacuity) of the idea of “following the law” in immigration cases. Absent a substantive, non-positivist conception of justice, the prescription to “follow the law” is as consistent with deporting an immigrant as it is with allowing her to stay. Introduce a substantive conception of justice, and you introduce the considerations that give the law meaning, while giving legal decisions their point. Justice obviously demanded allowing Sarah Ibrahim to stay in the United States, and thankfully, the law allowed it as well. So it appears that she’ll stay. I’m happy to have made a small contribution to the outcome.  Continue reading

A Memo to Friends and Colleagues

I wanted to take a moment to thank the many friends and colleagues, especially those at Felician University, who have expressed their support for me following my police detention of Wednesday, November 29th. I deeply appreciate the support you’ve sent my way. Indeed, my gratitude extends to the many jokes–some of them pretty funny–that have been made at my expense, my personal favorite being someone’s description of my detention as “something out a sitcom co-written by Michel Foucault and Flavor Flav.”

My brother’s idea of “moral support”

For now, suffice it to say that I was involuntarily detained on that date for several hours by the Lodi Police Department and Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, involuntarily transported to the Lodi police station, held and questioned there, and asked to give consent to search my car and “premises.” Continue reading

Free Speech for the Mum

Consider the following scenario, a commonplace of academic life. A professor decides to devote part of his ethics class to the ethics and economics of higher education, with readings on the value of the BA degree, and on the place of athletics in higher education. To focus the conversation, the professor cites examples drawn from the students’ experience at their home institution. In the course of doing so, the students give voice to complaints about the institution. The professor acknowledges the complaints, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with them.

Taking the acknowledgement as agreement, students give voice to their grievances against the university on social media, citing what they take to be their professor’s support for those grievances. The university’s administration, sensitive to PR issues, catches wind of the student’s claims, and notes the apparent support for those claims offered by members of the faculty. The faculty member is then called before the Dean and a witness to give an accounting of the affair. Continue reading

Traveling in the Right Circles

From a letter to the editor of today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

Re “The Truth About the Cost of War” (editorial, Nov. 24):

I was in a unit in Vietnam in 1969 that called in air and artillery strikes on “free fire zones” in III Corps, northwest of Saigon.

I asked an Army officer how we knew that the people we fired on were all the enemy. “By definition,” he said, “if we kill them, they are the enemy.”

Part of the truth in your editorial isn’t that civilian casualties are underreported but that their deaths in battle are seen as irrelevant.


Cold As ICE

From an article about a deportation proceeding in Monday’s New York Times:

Adding to the sting, immigration officers refused to let the twins or his wife give him a final hug goodbye, Ms. Hopman said.

“They told us they no longer provide that courtesy,” she said, “because they don’t like emotional scenes.”

In other words, federal law enforcement officers can’t seem to do what police officers, paramedics, firefighters, doctors, nurses, therapists, family-law attorneys, and funeral service workers do every day: deal with honest expressions of intense emotion. They have no problem breaking up families; they just have trouble observing the emotions that arise when they watch the effects of their handiwork.

The right likes to taunt “Social Justice Warriors” as “snowflakes,” but the SJWs I know are a lot tougher, and a lot less hypocritical, than officers like these. And yet it’s law enforcement that keeps making its insistent demands for our “respect” in a climate of opinion supposedly stacked against them.

Well sorry, but I can’t respect people like this–people too cowardly to endure the emotions that arise when they break up other people’s families. It’s hard to respect people who demand Stoicism of the victims while demanding a “safe space” for those who victimize them. The people responsible for these policies should perhaps remember that there is no “safe space” from moral judgment. They can’t seem to endure tears. Perhaps they should confront contempt.

A Letter of Hate to America: Teaching Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the Americans” (2002)

The recent controversy over Richard Fausset’s New York Times article, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” prompted me to brush off and lightly revise this apparently unrelated (but subtly relevant) piece I wrote for the 17th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, on teaching Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to the Americans.”  By some strange quirk of fate, the conference at which I gave the paper took place April 14-17, 2011, about two weeks before U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in their raid on his compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Despite that, I’m inclined to think that the Letter is still as relevant as it ever was.

I have some thoughts on the Fausset article but don’t have time to comment on it right now. The short version is that I think it’s a piece of crap, and mostly sympathize with those who accuse Fausset of normalizing Nazism. Actually, I would go beyond that and say that if Fausset is The New York Times’s idea of “one of our smartest thinkers and best writers,” American journalism is a more desperately half-assed enterprise than I ever thought it was. That said, I don’t quite agree with the anti-Fausset-article arguments I’ve seen (some of them are worse than the article itself), and also (sort of) sympathize with those leery of the term “normalization.” But I don’t sympathize enough to agree: at the end of the day, “normalization” is a perfectly good concept, and perfectly apt here. But that’s a topic for another post. There’s only so much radical evil I can blog about at a time. 

(The essay is 2,880 words long.)



For against an objector who sticks at nothing, the defense should stick at nothing.

—Aristotle, Topics V.4 (134a1-3)

I use the phrase “dialectical excellence” to name a set of moral-intellectual capacities canonically associated with a “dialectical” tradition in philosophy that includes the Platonic dialogues, Aristotle’s treatises on dialectic and rhetoric, Cicero’s dialogues, Aquinas’s Summas, and Mill’s Autobiography and On Liberty. What makes these texts “dialectical” is their attention to philosophy as a conversational activity, with particular attention to the adversarial or polemical features of philosophical conversation. Philosophy in this tradition vindicates or refutes controversial claims in order publicly to demonstrate their truth or falsity to an educated but indifferent, skeptical, or even hostile audience. As conceived in this tradition, “dialectical excellence” names the capacity, in adversarial contexts, to refute a sophistical argument in a rhetorically effective way. Continue reading

Casualty #5: Yasin Hamilton, RIP

A never-ending toll: I didn’t know Yasin Hamilton, but his sister Iteeanah was a student of mine at Felician. Just a sobering reminder of the State of War taking place three or four miles from the suburban placidity of my own existence.

Last night at approximately 7:18 pm. Yasin Hamilton, 26, of Newark was fatally shot in the 900 block of South 18th Street. He was pronounced dead at 7:26 p.m. yesterday.

To repeat something I’ve said before, and will inevitably say again: “Whatever criticisms we have to make of law enforcement–and I have more than my share–the fact remains that law enforcement is the only barrier between us and victimization. Abolitionist fantasies can’t eliminate that fact. Reform is our only hope, and enough work to last a lifetime.” I’m unwilling to tolerate abuses of police power, but always grateful that the power is there.

My condolences to the Hamilton family.

Previous posts on this topic: Tyeshia Obie, Stepha Henry, and Imette St. Guillen; Sarah Butler.