Mendelssohn Reimagined: The Yom Kippur Conflict

The fierce conflict that erupted in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur showed how a classic political philosophy problem can come to blows. Religious organization Rosh Yehudi asked the city–seen as the bastion of civil rights and secular progress–for permission to hold an outdoors prayer with segregation between men and women. Municipal authorities refused: Tel Aviv does not hold segregated public events, a creeping problem in many municipalities in Israel. Rosh Yehudi leaders appealed the decision to the Tel Aviv District Court and were rebuffed, and nevertheless mysteriously announced that they have found a way to hold the prayer in a way that “upholds both halakhah and the law.” At the event, this way was unveiled: they did bring screens and dividers, and some of them were armed.

Secular people, angry at Rosh Yehudi’s flouting of the city and court mandates, interrupted the prayer loudly with noise and protest and removed the barriers. For religious people, this was a difficult sight to bear, as Yom Kippur is one of the only bastions of public religiosity that used to be tolerated and protected by the secular majority. Here is footage of the incident:

Video by The Holy Land, by Zahi Shaked

For more on this, you can listen to this interesting podcast, or read the opposing views of Daniela Gan Lerer and Meital Pinto. The incident also splintered the protest movement, as some thought the provocation would be counterproductive while others expressed the awakening of the secular public from decades of religious coercion.

To me, the incident underscored how much the serious issues that philosopher Moshe Mendelssohn raised in his book Jerusalem are still vividly present–and how they arise in Israel in much the same way that they arose in Germany in the late 18th century. Mendelssohn, a bright light of Western philosophy, in conversation with other Enlightenment greats like Lessing, Dohm, and Kant–whom he beat at an essay competition!–lived a life of deep contradiction (read all about his life in Leora Batnitzky’s book How Judaism Became a Religion.) He was an observant Jew who was at the same time versed in fresh Western philosophy; he wrote commentary on the Torah (which would later be banned by ultra-orthodox authorities) as well as hobnobbed with Berlin’s intelligentsia–even as he had to enter the city, where his own living situation was precarious due to his Jewishness, through the animal gate; he presented Judaism, to non-Jews, as a religion of reason, superior to Christianity in terms of its compatibility with science and reason, lauded ideals of the Enlightenment era, while at the same time explaining the importance of the embodied rituals that made Jews seem so alien to, and othered in, their European surroundings.

The advent of the modern state and the earnest focus on equality and civil rights (along with all the glaring blind spots that it had) brought to the forefront what came to be known as “the Jewish Question”: up until then, as my beloved dad described in his wonderful short story collection, Jewish communities lived amongst themselves, not really mixing up much with the general population, not regarded as full citizens, steeling themselves against pogroms and general hostility from the surrounding community, and pretty much self-governed by their own rabbis and authorities. But with new winds of civil rights and citizenship blowing in European countries, mostly in Germany, some thinkers figured that better integration and civil rights should be granted to Jews. For some thinkers, offering citizenship to Jews was important for the improvement of the Jews themselves, who were deemed backward and reviled based on their dress and customs (as well as their financial occupations); but for Mendelssohn, offering citizenship to Jews was important because Judaism should be regarded as a religion–the person’s private business, between them and their religious community–rather than a membership card in a political entity. In other words, one can be Jewish in their own home, following the customs and halakhic directives, and a full-fledged German or French citizen in the public sphere. The difference between religion and state, posited Mendelssohn, was the source of its power:

The state dictates and coerces; religion teaches and persuades. The state enacts laws; religion gives commandments. The state is armed with physical force and makes use of it if need be; the force of religion is love and benevolence.

This was directed especially as a critique of the practice of religious excommunication: Mendelssohn did not want to accord to religious leadership the statelike power of obliterating a person from their membership lists based on their inner faith or beliefs.

What’s remarkable about Mendelssohn’s writings, and his massive influence on the haskalah movement, is that they centered around the question of Jewish citizenship in European countries. The notion that Jews might at some point be citizens in their own nation-state did not come into the conversation. Just a few decades later, when the Hamburg temple would reform its liturgy, one of its main innovations would be prayer in German rather than in Hebrew, under the assumption that Hebrew was a dead language, irrelevant to the lives of the German-speaking congregation. The idea that, one day, Jewish people would congregate in a public place and pray in Hebrew was unimaginable.

The kicker is this: As my late, beloved colleague Gad Barzilai famously wrote in his book Communities and Law, most of the writings on multiculturalism–in many ways, a continuation of the Enlightenment-era debate–are the work of political philosophers examining the adaptation of ethnic and religious groups to largely Western societies in the United States, Canada, and Europe (Waldron, Nozick, Kymlicka, Parekh). Very little of this has engaged with non-Western societies, and particularly with Middle Eastern societies. Which brings us back to the peculiarities and endemic characteristics of the Yom Kippur conflict. One of the main admonitions of the protesters in the public debate about this was that the prayer gathering was deliberately (and provocatively) planned to take place not only in open, public place, but at a bastion of secularity. “If they want to pray with gender segregation,” goes the argument, “they are more than welcome to do so–in their own orthodox synagogues.” This argument, for me, echoes a Mendelssohnian concept of Israel as a European nation-state: the power of the state is secular and secularizing, and religion should be kept as the person’s private business, conducted in their private sphere, and certainly not endorsed by the state apparatus.

Contrast this to the position held by the organizers of the prayer gathering. Their position implies that Israel, unlike the Mendelssohnian state, boasts a unique religion-state nexus through its declaration of independence as a “Jewish and democratic country”, and has a special, privileged position for the Jewish faith that must be respected in the public sphere. The battles along this lines are many and varied, and only recently included the big blow-up over keeping Passover kashrut laws within public hospitals.

It may well be that “Jewish and democratic” are not harmonizable ideas, and that this conflict, along with its other manifestations, has brought to a head the fact that multicultural theories can produce neat analyses (and clearly defined disagreements) only in the situation that Mendelssohn and his intellectual progeny could envision: a seemingly secular state contrasted with religious subgroups. But even this is a bit farcical. The extent to which German society, presumably sterilized from religious contamination, was truly that–with Judaism having the same relationship with it as, say, Christianity–is highly dubious, and we know that many philosophers of the era (even Kant!) explicitly discussed religious elements in their state theories. Could it be that the relationship of religious Jews with their Jewish-and-democratic state is, in some way, analogous not to the relationship of Jews with 18th century Germany, but rather to the sublimated, seemingly invisible relationship of Christians and Christianity with 18th century Germany? If so, what this conflict does is bring to the forefront a sticky problem that permeated not Mendelssohn’s thinking, but the thinking of his contemporaries, who mistook hegemony for secularity and habitus for neutrality.


Fester Book Cover
Fester Book Cover

Even against the backdrop of pandemic mismanagement in the United States, the COVID-19
disaster in California’s prisons stands out as the worst medical prison catastrophe in the state’s
history. Three-quarters of the state’s prison population was infected; 256 incarcerated people
and 50 staff members died. Socio-legal scholar Hadar Aviram and data scientist Chad Goerzen’s
forthcoming book FESTER exposes the COVID-19 correctional experience through hundreds of
first-person accounts, months of courtroom observations, years of carefully collected
quantitative COVID-19 data, and a wealth of policy documents.

Against the backdrop of decades of systemic vulnerabilities of overcrowding and abysmal healthcare, the book recounts the suffering that COVID-19 and its mismanagement wrought behind bars–the fruit of neglect, incompetence, fearmongering, sabotage, and dehumanization. FESTER illuminates the lack of control over county jails; the uphill battle to prioritize prisons as vaccine sites, and the struggle
to vaccinate the custodial staff; the harms of zero-sum thinking in light of the transmissivity
between prisons and their surrounding communities; how efforts to litigate on behalf of incarcerated people are thwarted by judicial deference to disingenuous, responsibility-shirking behavior by the state; and how our fear of the optics of releasing people convicted of violent crimes–sometimes decades ago–endanger not only the oldest and most frail people behind
bars, but also everyone in California.

FESTER bears witness to the immense suffering we bring on ourselves and our fellow humans through dehumanization, fear, and ignorance, and stands as a monument for a brave coalition of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, family members and loved ones, advocates and activists, doctors and journalists, who worked to shed light on one of the Golden State’s correctional system’s darkest times.

An Imagination Hijacked by Orthodoxy

In 1818, a Jewish congregation in Hamburg established a constitution for a new temple. Energized by the emergence of the modern state and the prospect of emancipation for Jews, and inspired by Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophy, they sought to infuse winds of change into Jewish dress and customs. And there would be quite a bit of change: the liturgy would be sung in German, not Hebrew (a dead, unspoken language at the time); men, women, and children would attend services together; and there would be something akin to a confirmation ceremony for children of both sexes. Eliezer Liebermann, a prominent supporter of reform and emancipation, praised the new services in his book The Light of Splendor: “They have cleared the path of stumbling blocks and hailstones and have removed all obstacles from the way of our people by establishing a house of prayer in which they can pour out their hearts before before His Great Name, blessed be He.” This, he maintained, was not the way of assimilation and disappearance, but a path toward salvaging Judaism in a way that met people where they were: if there had been men who “illuminated the good and beneficial path. . . with sap and nectar”, then “many of our people who have left our religion in this generation because of our numerous iniquities would not have done so.”

But not everyone was a fan. The Hamburg Rabbinical Court issued a 1819 decree against the reforms. This desecration of the traditional liturgy is clearly an emotional issue for them: the dissenters’ new prayer book, which toned down the yearning for Zion, “caused great sorrow and brought tears to our eyes over the destruction of our people.” The Hatam Sofer, leading preserver of the orthodoxy, finds “changing even one detail” of the traditional liturgy “reprehensible.” The outcome is known to history: the split of Judaism into reform, conservative, orthodox, and ultra-orthodox.

It was happenstance that, right after I read those sources, I came upon Rogel Alper’s critique of Adam Sandler’s new teen comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, and was struck by how much he played the same guilt-tripping, emotional register as the Hamburg court and the Hatam Sofer. You can read his review verbatim here, or check out this excerpt:

And how is Stacy’s Jewishness, which is presented as such a significant and vital component of her identify, expressed?

It’s an ethnic, tribal, familial issue. The Holocaust and Hitler are mentioned, of course. There’s some Yiddish slang and concepts in Hebrew, in a thick American accent. And that’s it. These are cosmetic decorations. The Jews in this film are an ethnic group. Their lifestyle is liberal. Girls are called up to the Torah and the spiritual leader is a young, kippa-wearing female rabbi. In terms of nationality they’re Americans just like Paul Simon, Woody Allen, Larry David, Adam Sandler and his daughters Sunny and Sadie Sandler. What do they have in common with Israelis?

Nothing. Israel isn’t mentioned in the film. Not even once. Stacy isn’t planning to visit the Western Wall. She doesn’t need to see the Land of Israel. She’s a Jewish woman and her Jewishness is presented as very central to her self-definition, but the country that in the Israeli Declaration of Independence is called “A Jewish state in the Land of Israel” doesn’t appear at all on the map of her values, her dreams, her self-fulfillment or the anchors of her existence.

She doesn’t yearn to “make aliyah” to Israel and doesn’t call it a “homeland.” She doesn’t long for it. She’s not in exile. Not for 2,000 years and not for 2,000 seconds. She doesn’t swear allegiance to it, doesn’t hope to “return” there and doesn’t pray to be part of the sovereignty and revival of the Jewish people in its land. She’s a Jew who already lives in security in her country. America is her homeland. She’s so American.

The inanity of Alper’s lament is obvious: it’s as if he is unaware of the fact that the United States is home to the largest Jewish diaspora, a diaspora that plays a considerable role in the the engine that drives American funding for Israel. It’s also as if he’s unaware of the fact that many U.S. teens do visit Israel, for their bar/bat mitzvah or on other occasions, with their families or with Birthright. Or as if he was never thirteen himself and cannot fathom that middle-school kids have lofty concerns closer to their hearts than the fate of Zionism. Mostly, it’s as if he’s unaware of the fact that Israel is on fire, imploding, and governed by messianic kooks, altogether not a particularly enticing place for Israeli teenagers to imagine staying and building their future there, let alone foreign teenagers to imagine actually moving there.

But let’s set all of this aside. Throughout the movie review, Alper conflates the characters’ lack of interest in Israel with their liturgy. What is it that he finds “not Zionist” or “not Israeli” about Stacy and her friends? Their feminism, as it turns out. As alienated as the Hatam Sofer by the possibility of female empowerment in a religious context, Alper seems bewildered by the fact that girls in the United States are called to the Torah (oy!) who, when looking at their rabbi, see a model of female leadership they can relate to (oy, vey!) wearing a kippa (oy, gevalt!)

Where does this lack of imagination come from in a secular, lefty man? Certainly not for lack of exciting models of alternative spirituality in Israel. Every Rosh Hodesh, the Women of the Wall (many of them immigrants from the U.S.) come to the Western Wall to joyously pray with the torah. The reform movement has a new sidur called Tefilat Ha’Adam, which is not only egalitarian, but contains many of the beautiful, Israel-rooted secular songs that Alper is familiar with. All around secular Tel Aviv, Jews who have an interested, curious, loving dialogue with their heritage gather for study dinners, creating a spiritually-engaged secular community. The Temurah Institute in Israel, like it’s U.S. counterpart, the IISHJ, ordains secular rabbis and offers great guidance to officiants and celebrants. There is a fabulous secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem and another great one in Tel Aviv. Anyone looking for a really great spiritual experience with no coercion or dogma can come learn at the Alma Home for Jewish Culture. Girls are called to the Torah in Israel. Women are ordained rabbis and officiate ceremony and ritual in Israel. Every day.

Are ordinary secular Israelis, like Alper, unaware of this flourishing spiritual environment? Where do they get the dumb idea that orthodoxy and Israeliness are one and the same? They certainly spend a lot of time pissed off at the country’s orthodox hijack, where their entire circle of life is governed by an inexorable church-and-state knot that excludes, alienates, and humiliates. Do they not know there are other options?

There is no doubt that the stronghold of Jewish orthodoxy on every aspect of spiritual Jewish life in Israel is stifling at best and life destroying at worst. The seeds for today’s messianic nuttiness, complete with its perennial essential ingredient–gender marginalization–were sown many decades ago. Israelis of all stripes, even those who are deeply displeased by this, have lived with this status quo for a very long time, and the anti-government awakening is happening decades too late. The current talk of segregating men and women in national parks is compounding the already terrifying creep of segregation in streets, public transportation, academia, the workplace, and the arts. Perhaps the nauseating flavor of state-sponsored orthodox coercion has numbed the imagination of Alper and his secular friends to the degree that they cannot imagine any loving connection to Judaism in their own country that is not saturated with these noxious elements. And if so, they have a lot to learn from Stacy and her friends.

New Year Zaru Soba

This semester, my classes at the GTU are rather ecumenical – two on Judaism and the Old Testament and two on Buddhism. So, I am celebrating the Jewish New Year with a Buddhist-inspired New Year Japanese dish: a vegetable-rich zaru soba.

On my favorite show, Midnight Diner, a wise and mysterious restaurateur opens his little establishment at midnight and closes at 7am. A group of delightful locals, as well as one-timers, from the nightlife scene around Shinjuku show up and he makes them the most delicious meals. Watching the show requires a dialectic approach, as almost nothing is vegan, but the care and meaning behind each dish is evident. Here’s the opening sequence:

Every season has a last-episode special in which all the diner guests are treated to soba in hot broth to celebrate the New Year. Since I usually cook soba from dry, I love soba soups. But this week I managed to get my hands on fresh, locally made soba, and it turns out that high-quality noodles are like revenge: best served cold.

I sliced up a few vegetables, quickly blanched some green beans, put some nice fresh medium-consistency tofu in the mix, and made a hasty dipping sauce that turned out phenomenal. Perhaps it’s not the authentic soy-based dressing for zaru soba, but the more I read about the adaptations and permutations of Buddhism in the West the more I’m at peace with there being lots of variations of Buddhism–with big doses of Orientalism and Occidentalism thrown into the debate. For a really interesting take on all this that hits home, read the book I’m currently reviewing, Emily Sigalow’s American JewBu. This doesn’t mean we should stop talking about colonial influences or ask questions about what gets lost (or gained, or fabricated) in translation. But the changes to this now-global religion and many cultures that came to the US are highlighting the futility of having shrill authenticity fights when we could employ our time eating tasty noodles.

This recipe also pays homage to my favorite Japanese Buddhist restaurant, and possibly my favorite vegan restaurant in the city: Cha Ya. They have a really lovely cold soba salad there, as well as delicious soba soups with mountain vegetables, noodles, or kitsune (fried tofu.)

Anyway – less blather, more recipe. Happy Jewish New Year! ユダヤ人の新年明けましておめでとうございます

  • 1 tbsp Nama Shoyu
  • juice from 1 lime
  • 1 heaping tbsp good quality miso
  • 1 chopped garlic clove
  • 1/2 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 cup fresh, uncooked soba noodles
  • 1-2 big handfuls baby spinach
  • 2 Persian cucumbers
  • 5 radishes
  • 4 tbsp green onions
  • 5 crimini mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup green beans
  • 80g medium-consistency tofu
  • 1 tbsp cooked corn kernels

First, make the sauce. Mix the first five ingredients well in a small bowl and set aside.

Thinly slice cucumbers, mushrooms, and radishes; mince green onions; cut tofu into cubes. Layer spinach leaves on a nice, wide plate.

Boil water in a pot. Drop the green beans in for about 30-45 seconds, then get out with tongs (keep the water boiling) and drop in ice-cold water to chill and preserve crispness.

Then, drop the soba noodles in the boiling water. Cook for about 2 mins, then drain and cool under running water. Place on top of the spinach. Arrange the cucumber, green onions, tofu, green beans, mushrooms, and corn on or around the noodles. Drizzle sauce on top.

Good Guys with Guns?

A week ago I was asked to comment on an announcement by the Governor of New Mexico who, reacting to a terrifying rise in gun violence in Albuquerque, issued an executive order that would suspend both open and concealed carry laws in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, temporarily banning the carrying of guns on public property with certain exceptions. Following quite a bit of backlash from both parties, the Governor then limited the ban to parks and playgrounds.

Because this is not my area of expertise/publication, I quickly consulted with my colleague Prof. Jennifer Carlson, who is one of the nation’s most impressive experts on gun policy. Jennifer agreed with me that, even though the Governor’s action makes sense from both moral and practical stand point, it is not constitutionally defensible, certainly not in this judicial climate, after the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bruen. Still, it’s worth asking ourselves the question whether, even if the constitution allows us to bear arms, it is a good idea to go ahead and do it.

Recently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released a report on guns, which you can read here in its entirety. This NPR story provides some important takeaways which, in my opinion, all boil down to the same conclusion: anyone thinking that the world of gun ownership can be easily dichotomized into good guys/bad guys or legal/illegal guns is not seeing the full picture.

For one thing, it turns out that more than half of gun crimes utilize lawfully purchased guns. To this number, we must add a million stolen guns which were held in legal hands until recently. Notably, the vast majority of guns used for criminal activity are pistols, which a lot of people favor for legal personal use. I think the big question anyone considering a gun purchase should ask themselves is: are the chances that you’ll be using this gun to stop the proverbial bad guy anywhere near the chances of an accident in your household or your gun being stolen?

On a personal note, as many readers know, I was in the Israeli army for five years, engaging in no combat whatsoever (unless criminal appellate litigation counts, but it does not require guns.) For much, albeit not all, of that period, I walked everywhere with my M-16 strapped to my body, including to the bathroom. The idea of lugging around a thing that presented far more inconvenience and risk than comfort and safety holds no charm or mystique for me, and I suspect that, if the symbolic/emotional attachment to the idea of gun ownership is effectively stripped away, a lot more people will see the risk calculus as I do–because it is in congruence with the data.

FESTER Blurb from UCI’s Keramet Reiter

Fester Book Cover

Another great endorsement for FESTER comes from Prof. Keramet Reiter of UC Irvine, one of the nation’s most respected and productive scholars of extreme punishment and incarceration and the author of 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Keramet is the director of UCI LIFTED, a phenomenal higher education program granting incarcerated people access to, and degrees from, UC Irvine, and also spearheaded the Prison Pandemic project, which collected first-hand accounts of COVID-19 in prisons and was one of our best primary sources.

Here is Keramet’s endorsement for FESTER:

Aviram, with Goerzen, has produced another tour de force unpacking a new legitimation crisis in California’s punishment infrastructure. Marshalling evidence from litigation, first-person narratives, administrative data compilations, and their own advocacy work, Aviram and Goerzen meticulously analyze how COVID-19 outbreaks in California prisons and jails cruelly terrorized incarcerated people and also exacerbated health risks in the surrounding communities. Impressively, the book reads like a true crime thriller – about the horrors wrought not by the people inside prisons but by the people running and overseeing those prisons. Poignant details of everyday life in prisons in crisis make vivid the book’s pointed policy critiques: information gaps about criminal legal system practices, in combination with dangerously inaccurate assumptions about the impermeability of prisons and jails, produce dangerous incarceration conditions. And dangerous incarceration conditions put us all at risk.

FESTER Blurb from the Chronicle’s Jason Fagone

Fester Book Cover

I’m very pleased to share the first book blurb for FESTER, from star journalist and author Jason Fagone. As a reminder, Jason was part of the San Francisco Chronicle team that broke the story of the San Quentin outbreak. He is also the author of a terrific nonfiction book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies.

Here is what Jason has to say about FESTER:

Myths can kill, and FESTER dissects a vicious one: the idea that prisons are worlds apart, isolated from their surrounding communities. With passion, rigor, and a flair for storytelling, Aviram and Goerzen show how California’s fealty to this myth placed whole cities at risk during the coronavirus pandemic, transforming the state’s overcrowded prisons into virus bombs that exploded outward. An indictment of a failed system and the politicians and judges who prop it up, this stunning book is also a call to action, laying out reforms that could save lives the next time a deadly virus proves that we’re all connected.

Changing the Burden of Proof for Judicial Review of Parole Denials

This week, SB 81, having been approved by the Senate, will land on Governor Newsom’s desk. The bill addresses judicial review of the parole board’s decision to deny parole. The latest edition of the bill, if passed, will add the following language as Section 3041.8 to the California Penal Code:

(a) Upon the denial of parole to a parole candidate, following a parole consideration hearing, the Board of Parole Hearings shall notify the parole candidate of their right, after completion of all applicable review periods, to petition a court for a writ of habeas corpus.

(b) The parole candidate may request that the court appoint counsel for the purpose of preparing the petition. The court may appoint counsel upon this request.

(c) A parole candidate who has been denied parole after reaching their minimum eligible parole date as described in Section 3041, their youth parole eligible date as defined in Section 3051, or their elderly parole eligible date as defined in Section 3055 has made a prima facie case for relief and the reviewing court may not summarily deny a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed pursuant to this section.

(d) The court shall uphold a decision to deny parole only if the court finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the person presents a current, unreasonable risk of danger to others. If the court finds the parole denial was not supported by a preponderance of the evidence, the court may issue an order for a new parole hearing, with or without limitations as to what evidence the Board of Parole Hearings may consider.

The most notable aspect of this proposal is that it sets an evidentiary standard for the court’s decision. While the reasons for the parole denial will remain vague (“insight,” “nexus,” etc.), at least the evidentiary side of things will be better grounded.

This is not just semantic or technical. Recall how Gov. Newsom vetoed Leslie Van Houten’s parole, arguing that she was still a risk to public safety? And how the Court of Appeal called his bluff? Here’s what they said: “The Governor’s concern that there is more than meets the eye is, on this record, speculation, but the Governor’s ‘decisions must be supported by some evidence, not merely by a hunch or intuition.'” The latter part is language from In re Lawrence. It will be good to have all this grounded in actual probability and common sense, not just in the gut feelings of people whose default is to be overly cautious about release.

DO SOMETHING! If this seems like a good idea to you, call the Governor’s Office at (916) 445-2841 and express your support for more robust and well-framed judicial overview of parole boards.

Happy New Jewish Year to all. May we all become מתירי אסורים – unchaining those suffering in bondage – this year and always.

Can We Hustle for Our Book Without Social Media?

A couple of years ago, after our San Quentin litigation ended, I left Twitter, an excellent decision that I do not regret one bit. The improvement in my quality of life was palpable and immediate. Occasionally I miss some kerfuffle that is relevant to my professional interests, in which case someone usually fills me in. Most of what I miss are pile-ups, tiresome at best and dreadful at worst, and I’m happy to be rid of it all. Occasionally someone wants to link to my stuff and emails to ask what my handle is. My career hasn’t gone down the drain; my “brand,” such as it is, hasn’t suffered from lack of cultivation; and I don’t feel like I’m lacking information or updates on important things.

The prospect of leaving Facebook is more complicated, because by contrast to Twitter, Facebook is populated by lots of distant friends and family with whom it would be difficult to stay in touch without the platform. The problem is that the platform has become worse to a point that it is impossible to deny or dissociate. Finding new posts from friends has become a Herculean task. I repeatedly see the same posts–old ones–and am not exposed to new ones. Some stuff gets prioritized, other stuff is hidden, and I have no say on the matter. Worst of all, the platform has become inundated in ads and reels that offer me absolutely nothing, and getting rid of them (through assiduous clicking and unclicking) is an abhorrent chore.

Plenty has been written about attention, mindfulness, and how destructive social media is to all these. Plenty has also been written about how we (more precisely, our eyeballs) are the product. It feels, though, that lately they’ve dropped the pretense of offering us a decent user experience in return for our attention; they’ve thrown the towel and now it’s all about unabashed marketing. Perhaps the price we have to pay for our connections and relationships has become steeper from the corporation’s loss-and-profit perspective. In any case, having now started full-time grad school on top of my full-time job and my very full-time kid, my time is limited and precious. I can’t afford to squander it by engaging in an Easter egg hunt for my friends’ words. At the same time, what is the alternative? It’s the only place that brings together people I can’t reach otherwise.

In addition to the personal cost of severing relationships that I care about and can realistically preserve only through Facebook, there’s the imminent publication of FESTER. Chad and I think this book is important; we wrote it because we wanted California’s COVID-19 correctional disaster remembered, and because we wanted to usher in the urgent conversation how to prevent the next plague from decimating the prison population and beyond. We want to bring first-hand accounts of the suffering to you, and we want you to follow the blow-by-blow account of the litigation so that you’ll know that courts (and politicians! and sheriffs!) are no good when it comes to emergency situations and lives on the line. We wrote it because we want people to witness the heroism of incarcerated people, their families, and their recently released friends, as well as countless advocates and activists, and to see what people can accomplish when they organize together against a tough, cruel system. For you to have this experience, we need you to read the book. And I’m now wondering whether it’s possible to get you to read the book without Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, and the like.

What would be good ways to promote our book without hustling online? We’re open to suggestions. If book promotion requires an online presence, I may have to do that, too, but I’m not looking forward to it and it will exact a psychological and cognitive price I’m not happy to pay. On the other hand, I’m happy to organize in-person events and parties, go on the radio and on TV, cold-contact bookstores and universities, and contact various organizations and activist hubs. Will the latter stuff be enough? I’m not sure, but I’ll certainly discuss it with my publicist and with those of you who have recent books out.

Canteen vs. Chow Hall: Let’s Have Enough Love in Our Hearts for Two Wars

After much consternation and many compromises, AB 474 cleared the Appropriations Committee last week and is headed for a floor vote at the California Assembly. The bill regulates the markups at prison canteens, setting prices at a level that “will render each canteen self-supporting,” which effectively means a reduction in canteen markup rates from 65% to 35% for the next 4 years (until 2028). On January 1st 2028, CDCR may ratchet up the markup rate to make canteens “self-supporting.”

As someone interested in both prisons and food, I’ve organized events that classified correctional institutions as food deserts, and rightly so: the cuisine is horrendous. When I visited a Brazilian maximum-security prison a few years ago, I marveled at the organic vegetable garden that surrounded the facility and enriched the decent and nutritious meals served there. The battle to lower canteen prices reminded me of those experiences and raises the question: would we be so worried and upset about canteen markups if the regular meals were decent?

I think the answer is: it’s all about balance. A few years ago, I attended a panel about food and law, in which one of the speakers, a law professor and farmer, expounded on the need to bring native foods back to the communities, claim ownership of native crops, etc. etc. I raised the question of prison canteens, and the fact that some of the most oppressed people on the planet just want some comfort and simple pleasure from their food and might not be aggressively lobbying for heirloom beans. The guy almost chopped my head off and was incredibly rude and dismissive. By pure coincidence, linguist Janet Ainsworth was in the audience, conducting fieldwork on gender norms in academic settings, and wrote up the following (M was the anti-colonial radical-farmer-cum-academic guy, I was the F Qer who was thrice interrupted):

During their panel presentations, three of the four panelists invoked critical ideological positions as underpinning their presentations—both men and one woman. Specifically, one of the two F speakers referenced Critical Race Theory in her presentation, one M panelist referenced critical theory (unspecified), anti-racism, anti-subordination, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-neo-liberalism in his presentation; the other M referenced critical race theory, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, white privilege, and anti-colonialism in his presentation. Conspicuous by its near absence was feminist theory; it was referenced by one of the F speakers once in a response to a Qer. In immediate response one of the M panelists interrupted and responded critically to her suggestion that feminism had a progressive role to play in the topic; she immediately took an apologetic turn, beginning “Yes, yes, I didn’t mean to say…”

This session was marked by interruptions and negative assessments by the male panelists of the speaking turns of the F Qers. One M panelist interrupted F Qers on two occasions, the other M panelist interrupted F Qer speaking turns on six occasions. This more aggressive M panelist began one of his response turns with “I disagree with everything you said,” his response turn took 3 minutes and 52 seconds. (My qualitative assessment of that turn was that it was only very tangentially related to the point that the initial Qer had made.) The same F. Q’er began a follow-up turn, and after eight seconds, the same M. panelist interrupted again, beginning his turn with “No, what you must understand is…” His turn continued for 6 minutes and four seconds. The same F Q’er tried again to take a speaking turn; this time he interrupted her after four seconds. Two of the F. panelists at this point called him by name twice, in what appeared to be an attempt to open a space to speak for the F Q’er. He ignored both F. panelists and took another two minute and 18 second speaking turn. This M panelist interrupted the speaking turn of an additional F Qer later in the session, and he also interrupted the speaking turn of one of the F panelists in her response to a Qer.

Janet astutely remarked about this exchange:

One striking observation is that the male panelists who in their presentations most explicitly and frequently remarked upon their commitment to left-wing and critical theory stood out in the nature of their interactions with female questioners and co-presenters. They interrupted women, negatively assessed female contributions, and seemed unwilling to engage with them, instead taking long speaking turns that were irrelevant to the points earlier made by women speakers. This sample is far too small to suggest that male academics whose presentations prominently reference their commitments to left-wing political theory are more likely to discursively bully women academics. . . However, it does suggest that merely having an academic understanding of power, privilege, and hegemony is not sufficient to counter the tendencies of some male academics to utilize their discursive privileges to silence and discipline women in the academy even today.

But I digress (thanks for indulging me in this little exorcism; who hasn’t interacted with a chauvinist brute at a conference from time to time?) The point is that we must cultivate enough love in our hearts to fight two simultaneous wars. The short-term fix for the prison nutrition crisis is reasonable pricing at the canteen, because people must have access to something comforting and not torturous to eat. The long-term fix must acknowledge that even a 35% markup is an exploitation; canteen foods are goods that currently have no viable alternative. Incarcerated people can’t choose not to eat them, because the default option is inedible. Consequently, for people who want to eat what their palates recognize as food–100% of the prison population–the canteen has a monopoly, and the markup cannot be avoided. If canteens want to make a profit, improving prison food is the way to go; high pricing for luxury items is fair only if they are truly luxury items, not essentials.

The problem of short-term versus long-term goals is a mainstay in social justice struggles. I see it again and again. During COVID-19, as we describe in Chapter 4 of FESTER, activists had to tackle the trade-off between the short-term struggle to make vaccines accessible and increase vaccine acceptance (short-term life-saving measure) and the long-term struggle to save lives from pandemics and other diseases through population reductions (the only viable long-term solution to the prison disease problem.) The challenge was that the vaccines provided courts and politicians respite from the pressing questions of overcrowding, and were universally used as an excuse not to release nearly enough people.

Similarly, I would like to believe that we all want to eradicate rape culture, and that we all know that is a long-term struggle and a worthy one. At the same time, I would really love it if nobody got raped tonight (a short-term struggle.) For that reason, I advocate sensible behavior and caution: self defense classes, a buddy system, and a lot of judgment and circumspection around any situation involving alcohol. Long-term activists might bristle against this advice because it places the responsibility for rape prevention on the putative victims. This, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense; if you are assaulted it is not your fault! it is the fault of your assailant. And at the same time, we do not live in a world devoid of bad people, and if you get drunk or put yourself in vulnerable positions you are taking a risk that bad people will exploit the situation and do bad things to you.

Want another one? When we voted on death penalty abolition, activists argued it would only entrench life without parole, which was “the other death penalty.” Getting rid of the death penalty was a short-term struggle; getting rid of extreme incarceration, including life without parole, would be a long-term struggle. In response, I wrote this:

Unfortunately, the struggle against life without parole cannot begin until we win the struggle against the death penalty, which is within reach. This is, unfortunately, how political reform works: incrementally, with bipartisan support, and supported by a coalition. As I explain in Cheap on Crime, incrementalism produced the considerable reforms that occurred since 2008, and this one will be no exception.

The prison food struggle exhibits the same characteristics, and I think this requires a dialectic approach. I fully support the fight to reduce markups today, and at the same time I support continuing to fight for a world in which the food one is supposedly getting for free somewhat dulls the necessity for markup reductions. The problem, as we see with prison disease prevention and with rape prevention, is that sometimes short-term and long-term struggles can get in each other’s way. In those situations, I recommend thinking about the viability of the long-term goal and operating accordingly.