Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the Necessity of Debating Discrimination

The gods of the internet displayed their sense of humor today. Just as an article titled "Is Anti-Semitism the Only Bigotry That’s Subject to Debate?" crossed my twitter feed, I received an email invite to the Cato Institute's "The First Amendment vs. Anti-Discrimination Law: A Preview of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on the Eve of Oral Argument" event (featuring a Cato speaker up against an NAACP appellate litigator).

When it comes to Jews' comparative status as a marginalized group, there seem to be two dueling schools of thought -- completely opposite, yet seemingly unaware of the other's existence. The first will look at a wrong done to Jews and say "they would never say that about any other group." The second will look at a wrong done to someone else and say "they would never say that about Jews." Jews either stand in for perfect protection or unique vulnerability.

Both sides are wrong of course. They would say it about Jews; they'd say it about other groups too. We could all use a dose of humility regarding the pane of glass we cannot see.

The proximate argument, about whether we should "debate anti-Semitism", comes from the fall-out from a left-wing panel at the New School (including several JVP bigwigs and Linda Sarsour) discussing antisemitism, and the university's offer to have Tablet Magazine organize its own panel to provide an alternate perspective (Tablet spurned the offer in sharp terms).

Clearly, at least some of the sturm und drang here stems from a pretty naked obfuscation about what it means to have a "debate" on anti-Semitism. Obviously, debating "is anti-Semitism bad" would be offensive. But it's absolutely necessary to debate "what is anti-Semitism -- what is its definition, what are its contours, what effects does it have, what falls in and out of its ambit?"

'The latter form of debate is obviously perfectly valid -- I do it all the time. And, it should be unnecessary to add, such debates are had about other forms of bigotry all the time. We know this precisely because sometimes we do see attempts to suppress such debates under the guise that even recognizing the existence of a debate is tantamount to justifying the bigotry itself. And I'm hardly confident about how certain issues of importance to the Jewish community will fare if we are too quick to run to "even having a debate with the likes of you legitimizes bigotry."

From my vantage, we live in a world where a great many people have the wrong idea about "what is anti-Semitism" (and, for that matter, "what is racism", "what is sexism", "what is transphobia", and so on). Consequently, I want people to change their perspective on those issues -- and a great way to do that is by having and promoting debates and discussion. It strikes me as a spectacularly misconceived appraisal of the status quo vantage to think that people's default assumptions about anti-Semitism -- formed without debate, discussion, or deliberation -- are well-formed and in-line with what we take to be necessary to facilitate Jewish equality in social and political life.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On Trusting White People, Redux

Ekow Yankah has a column in the New York Times about whether his children will be able to be friends with White people. People are reacting with the usual levels of charity and grace, and so I thought it might be worthwhile re-up this post I wrote on the subject back in 2008. It was inspired by the following passage from W.E.B. Du Bois' Darkwater (1920), responding to the question, from a roomful of students, "Do you trust White people?"
You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world’s you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Calling a Moratorium on Attacking Linda Sarsour

It's back-to-back big media David. Fresh off yesterday's call in the Forward for a "Democratic Hillel", today I'm in Haaretz urging Jews to lay off the histrionic attacks on Linda Sarsour.
Linda Sarsour is not perfect. There is plenty she has said and done that is the valid subject of critique, and on anti-Semitism, in particular, she has much to learn. But she is not the monster she is made out to be, and the level of vitriol directed her way rings eerily familiar. To wit:

Linda Sarsour is a lot like Israel.

No doubt neither would appreciate the comparison. But it fits. Both have done genuinely objectionable things, ones which it is perfectly proper to call out. But in both cases, there is something about them that causes people on the internet to go absolutely wild and lose all sense of perspective and proportion.

And in both cases, there is not a lot of mystery about what that "something" is.
Incidentally, "Linda Sarsour is a lot like Israel" is my entry in the "how can I get everyone on the internet to hate me?" contest.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Time for a Democratic Hillel

I have a new column for the Forward on why Hillel International needs to become a democratic organization. In other countries, most notably the UK, Jewish student organizations are run by the students themselves, with national elections yielding national leaders who set (when necessary) national policies (in the US, the recently revived American Union of Jewish Students is seeking to promote a similar model).

Hillel stands out for just how undemocratic it is -- its national leadership structure is almost wholly unaccountable to the students it purports to serve, leading to a sizeable democracy deficit and reasonable questions about whether its more controversial decisions (e.g., in applying the Partnership Guidelines) are actually legitimately representative of the will of young Jewish students. If these decisions were made by elected student leaders, they'd both be more likely to reflect the actual views and concerns of young Jews, and have political credibility and legitimacy as the authentic expression of Jewish democratic preferences.

Monday, November 13, 2017

#NeverIsNow is the ADL at its Best

I just got back from the ADL's "Never is Now" summit against antisemitism and all other forms of bigotry and hate. My relationship with the ADL is somewhat complicated, though on the whole I'd characterize myself as a friendly gadfly. I've said nice things about them when they're doing their job right, and I've been sharply critical of them when they're screwing that important job up.

That said, it was the ADL staffer who is probably the most common recipient of my ... let's call it "constituent concerns" (to be clear -- it's never her who is the problem, she's just my primary point of contact) ... who invited me to the conference as her guest. So while I've had my differences with the ADL along with my points of agreement, I've never found them unreceptive to critique and conversation.

And I have to say, this conference was exactly what the ADL should be.

The ADL is in a bit of a tough spot right now. If you talk to people on the left, they'll say the ADL is basically a tool of the establishment, acting as if the "alt-left" is equivalent to the alt-right, embedded in a pattern of policing left-wing Jewish activism while dancing around the fact that vicious hate and bigotry have penetrated the mainstream, elected-office level right.

Meanwhile, on the right, they're trying to push the narrative that the ADL is basically a liberal advocacy group (Jonathan Greenblatt was part of the Obama administration, didn't you know?), a partisan political organization that's barely distinct from the NJDC, committing the cardinal sin of attacking the hatred and bigotry of figures even when they call themselves pro-Israel.

As far as I'm concerned, the liberal critics are closer to the mark than the conservative ones, though the ADL isn't quite the hopeless establishment toady they're sometimes made them out to be. Still, it has been my observation that the fear of these right-wing attacks causes the ADL to get a bit gunshy in clearly and unequivocally (a) calling out right-wing bias when it isn't simply the province of neo-Nazis and (b) making clear that it will stand up for and protect the right of liberal Zionists (particularly young liberal Zionists) to express their Zionism in ways that include often sharp criticism of Israeli state policies.

But say what you will about the ADL generally: based on what I saw at this conference, they were hitting the right notes.

The first breakout session I attended in the afternoon was about "What young Jews are saying about Israel and why we have to listen." The tenor of the panel was generally one of quieting alarm rather than raising it: young people are not abandoning Israel in droves. They are not crazed radicals (they are a bit resentful that a small sliver of students on the extremes dominates news coverage and the public perception of young college students). They do often have serious concerns and criticisms about Israeli policies -- as is their right -- and any engagement efforts which don't give those criticisms room to breathe will and should fail. And while BDS certainly was raised as an issue (as it should), it didn't dominate the discussion and there was no effort by the moderator or by anyone else to turn the conversation in that direction.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in that panel was when one of the panelists spoke of how J Street U students were treated at a UN anti-BDS conference (a non-Jewish speaker at the conference called them all antisemites -- to roaring applause -- and then they were told they should go to Gaza and be beheaded by Hamas). That story got audible gasps from the room. I don't think many of the people in attendance had heard about that happening, and it very vividly illustrated the degree to which certain conservative elements in our community have been abusing young liberal Zionists in the name of "pro-Israel" advocacy.

At other times, conference speakers were quite explicit in linking the rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred to the Trump candidacy and administration. Threats were illustrated not just with sound bites from Charlottesville (this was the first time I'd actually heard the chant "Jews will not  replace us", and it was genuinely chilling) but with excerpts from Donald Trump speeches. It never devolved into a bash-the-GOP-fest -- nor should it have -- but there were no kid gloves around the fact that the Republican Party coalition, as currently constituted, is part of the problem.

Several other panels I witnessed were likewise simply outstanding. A conversation on diversity within the Jewish community (including African-American Jews, a Canadian-American member of the Bene Israel community, and the head of the Ugandan Jewish community) was superb and nuanced on an issue near and dear to my heart (a side note -- while I think there could have been more diversity across the different panels, it did not seem like all the ethnic minorities were shunted into this one "diversity" panel).

During the afternoon plenary, a conversation featuring American University student body President Taylor Dumpson, former White Supremacist-turned-counterextremism activist Christian Picciolini, and Whitefish, Montana Rabbi Francine Roston stole the show. Dumpson (the first African-American woman to hold her position) spoke powerfully about the vicious harassment she received upon her election, and how the response of her community and the ADL offered a model for activism and effective anti-hate response. Piccilioni gave a deeply personal account of his path into and eventually away from White Supremacy, and gave hope to those who believe that any remotely cohesive effort against racism and bigotry needs to think about how to get racists and bigots to ... do something else (he also had the funniest line of the conference when he said he'd been "working with the ADL for twenty-five years ... if you count the period where they included me on lists of top White supremacist leaders").

Overall, it was a conference that had its eye firmly on the ball. It wasn't a left-wing hatchet factory, but it wasn't shy about its progressive orientation. It wasn't going to give BDS a free pass, but it wasn't going to act as if that was the be-all-end-all of young Jewish communal experience. It was proud of Jewish diversity, but it was also well aware that we have a lot of work to do inside our own synagogues and centers to make sure our spaces are welcoming and equitable to Jews of all hues.

It was, in short, the ADL at its very best. Kudos to them, for putting on a great conference.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Great Moments in Juxtaposition

Mila Kunis described a visit to her childhood home, without sparing mention of the antisemitism she had experience. And so we get this fantastic bit of editorial juxtaposition:
Some residents of Chernivtsi, including people who knew the Kunis family, took offense at her unemotional description of the trip and at the 2012 interview, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
“We still have a large Jewish community, so talks of ‘anti-Semitism’ are nonsense and insulting,” one resident, Lyudmila Skidova, was quoted as saying. 
Last year, the words “death to the Jews” were spray-painted on the city’s main synagogue.
The absence of Jews may not stop antisemitism, but it's not a prerequisite for it either.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Chaos is a Ladder

Following a new WSJ report indicating that Russian twitter bots backed Donald Trump from the very beginning (when his campaign was a joke, rather than today where it is a far, far crueler joke), Kevin Drum asks what motivated them to step in so early. Here are his guesses:
  • It was just a test. Social media manipulation was new to the Russians too, and they figured Trump might make an interesting test of how effective it could be.
  • In the early days, you had to be very, very cynical about the United States to think that a race-baiting blowhard like Trump had a chance to win. Maybe Putin knew us better than we knew ourselves.
  • The Russians never really thought Trump had a chance of winning. He just seemed like a good vehicle to sow a bit of random chaos.
  • This whole thing started at a fairly low level by some guy who’d been pushing to “really try out this social media stuff.” His superiors finally got tired of him and told him to knock himself out. This low-level guy, it turns out, was a big Trump fan for personal reasons we’ll never know.
I vote "chaos". It's hard to remember now, but back when it seemed impossible for Trump to win the prevailing wisdom was "but even if Trump doesn't win, his candidacy could do lasting damage to our democratic fabric." That was the goal -- that Trump actually won the damn election was an improbable bonus. It's the same story behind Russia trying to horn in on BLM protests in Minnesota, or setting up both anti-Muslim protests and counterprotests in Texas. The goal is to destabilize, to make people trust each other less, to blur who is actually taking what position and instead confirm that everyone is the worst version of what their enemies imagine them to be.

And they've been extremely good at it. We were far more vulnerable to this form of manipulation than we ever dared imagine -- not the least because of rapid epistemic silo-ing and a profound mistrust of "mainstream media" sources (not to violate Broder's Sacred Principle, but the problem isn't symmetrical -- it was massively accelerated by the complete cloistering of the mainstream right into the Fox/Breitbart/Tea Party ideological echo chamber. There's just no parallel to this amongst mainstream progressives).

But yeah. Russia no doubt has preferences with respect to outcomes -- it's not an accident that they clearly wanted Trump to win and Hillary to lose -- but they also benefit simply from unleashing chaos and watching what develops. Trump made for an excellent agent of chaos; we've already seen the damage he has caused to previously-bedrock principles along issues like rule of law or (formal) racial egalitarianism.

Score a big point for Putin then. Well-played.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Labour Members Are Only Human

Discussing analogies of Israel or Zionists to Nazis, the Chakrabarti Inquiry on antisemitism in the UK Labour Party concluded that such comparisons are "incendiary", "intended to be incendiary", and "bring the Party into disrepute." It thus took the firm and decisive stand that Labour members should ... "resist" saying such things.

I questioned at the time whether the "temptation [is] really that overwhelming." But apparently the answer is yes: for Labour has just overturned the expulsion of yet another "Nazis were really Zionists" member (recall this is what got Ken Livingstone suspended, but not expelled).

Basically, Labour seems to view comparing Israel and/or Zionists to Nazis the way you or I might view a decadent chocolate dessert. Probably not good for you, and certainly not something one should indulge in regularly -- but can anyone blame you if you succumb to temptation every once in awhile?


Monday, October 30, 2017

What It Will Take for Trump's Base To Turn

Three of Donald Trump's confederates have now been indicted on counts related to Russia-collusion (one has already pled guilty). Trump's nationwide approval ratings are at an all-time low. So now is either a strange or a great time to ask -- what will it take for his core base to finally turn on him?

And the answer is: I'm not sure they ever will.

The reason isn't necessarily that they approve of what he's doing. But think of what it would mean for a Trump partisan to really, truly, turn on him.

It would mean admitting that the people they hate most -- the media, the liberals, the academics, the dreaded "elites" -- they were right. That the Trump backers who thought he'd "drain the swamp" or bring back coal jobs, or tackle the opioid epidemic or whatever it is they believed Trump would do, were hoodwinked. Just like we told them they would be.

That's deeply humiliating, and ultimately, that's the key barrier to Trump's base turning on him.

So I suspect they'll deny it for as long as they can. And they can for a long time. There's nothing that will compel them to come around, of course. Media reports? They're biased! Job losses? Impossible to trace those back to Trump policies; maybe it's liberal sabotage. Criminal indictments? That's the deep state. There will always be an out, or an excuse, or a dodge.

Reckoning with what really happened, admitting that one's mortal enemies had it right all along, well, that would take a pretty big dose of personal responsibility. And we all know how modern conservatives fare on that metric.
"There comes a point in every plot where the victim starts to suspect; and looks back, and sees a trail of events all pointing in a single direction. And when that point comes, Father had explained, the prospect of the loss may seem so unbearable, and admitting themselves tricked may seem so humiliating, that the victim will yet deny the plot, and the game may continue long after."

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Honor Beatings in Portugal

A man beat his wife, allegedly after she had an affair. He was not sentenced to any prison time. Now, a Portuguese court has upheld that decision because the woman's affair "dishonored" her husband. The court cited the Bible as justification for its lenient sentence, noting that under biblical law adultery was punishable by death (so what's a little beating?).
"Now, the adultery of the woman is a very serious attack on the honor and dignity of the man," the ruling, signed by Judge Joaquim Neto de Moura, said. "It was the disloyalty and the sexual immorality of the plaintiff that made (the defendant) fall into a profound depression, and it was in this depressive state and clouded by the revolt that carried out the act of aggression, as was well considered in the judgment under appeal."
[...]
"This case is far from having the seriousness that, generally, is presented in cases of mistreatment in the context of domestic violence," the ruling says. "On the other hand, the conduct of the defendant took place in a context of adultery practiced by the plaintiff."
In addition to that, the court also cited a 19th century Portuguese law which recommended only symbolic penalties if a man kills his adulterous wife.

In conclusion, because the nation is European and predominantly Christian and the religious text cited is the Bible, we'll never hear about this case again.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What Jeff Flake Can Do

Some more churlish reactors to Senator Jeff Flake's highly public call-out of President Trump -- for example, myself -- have been in turn criticized by those who think we're basically expecting Republicans to stop being Republicans. They're not going to stop supporting conservative policy priorities just because Trump is now backing them. And so Kevin Drum asks what, short of impeachment, someone like Flake can realistically do to tangibly oppose Trump (other than deliver rousing speeches to that effect)?

First, we might observe that if opposing Trump shouldn't convert conservatives into liberals, neither does opposing Trump convert terrible policies into acceptable ones. But the easy answer to the above question is "oversight". Holding hearings, launching investigations, having probes. There's no shortage to choose from, and a few well-positioned GOP Senators could really force these issues into the public eye in a way that'd be impossible for the Trump administration to ignore.

And here's where we do see a tension between "being a Republican" and "opposing Trump" where we can reasonably expect someone like Flake to pick the latter, and where he has not yet to date done so. There's no question that these probes and investigations would hurt the Republican Party. Rep. Trey Gowdy, he of BENGHAZI! fame, not only admitted as much, but basically said that's why he had no interest in launching any serious investigations. If the public narrative becomes "Trump administration mired in scandal", that will hurt the GOP nationwide, up and down the ballot.

But while it might be unreasonable to say "Jeff Flake should become pro-choice in order to 'stop Trump'," it's not unreasonable to say "Jeff Flake should be willing to sacrifice Republican political success in order to stop Trump."

We saw a similar dynamic recently when Paul Ryan refused to endorse censuring President Trump over his Charlottesville comments because it would be "partisan". On one level, it was a transparently absurd dodge: if Ryan endorsed the censure motion, it'd literally be the opposite of partisan -- it'd be bipartisan. But on another level, what Ryan almost certainly meant was "passing such a resolution would help Democrats more than Republicans." Speaker Ryan made clear that he wasn't willing to condemn White supremacy if doing so would hurt his party. Likewise, he won't encourage meaningful oversight of the Trump administration if doing so will hurt his party. It's not a policy barrier, but a partisan one -- Ryan won't take actions against Trump insofar as they might damage Republican political standing. And there's no justifying that.

So that's an arena where we can reasonably demand Flake do certain, tangible things. He can keep his far-right, substantively atrocious policy views, and keep voting on them. But if he isn't willing to use his remaining time as a Senator to investigate Trump -- hold hearings, launch probes, support subpoenas -- even where doing so likely will give Republican politicians an ongoing series of bad news cycles, then I think it's entirely fair to say that his "opposition" is of a false and cowardly kind.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXVII: The Armenian Genocide

There's an antisemitism scandal at Rutgers University, and this one doesn't involve Jasbir Puar (she does have a new book coming out though, criticizing Israel for not killing more Palestinians. You think I'm joking).

No, this one centers around microbiology professor Michael Chikindas, whose social media feed contains a veritable smorgasbord of antisemitism, from calling Judaism the "most racist religion in the world", to putting up images claiming Jews control everything from the Federal Reserve to the sex trafficking industry, to posting a cartoon where a Jew literally steals money from poor children to give it to Israel. Oh, he also wants everyone to know that Israel has a lot of gay people (I guess "pinkwashing" doesn't work on everyone).

But let's cut through the old and hone in on the new.
In one post, Chikindas claimed, “Israel is the terrorist country aimed at genocidal extermination of the land’s native population, Palestinians,” and added: “we must not forget that the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated by the Turkish Jews who pretended to be the Turks.”
Now, I've actually tracked Jewish discourse around the Armenian genocide before. I was sharply critical when Jewish organizations soft-played the issue to appease Turkey, and I was vocal in praise when they moved towards recognition. But this is the first time, I think, that I've heard that Jews actually orchestrated the genocide while "pretend[ing] to be the Turks." Crafty!

Fortunately, Chikindas claims he has Jewish descent and even used to be married to a Jew (hey, just like Alice Walker!). So any concerns about antisemitism are obviously spurious.

But just to remove all doubt, Chikindas says he is absolutely open to having a "civilized" conversation about his claims, e.g., "These jewish motherfuckers do not control me. They can go and fuck each other in their fat asses."

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going (Home)

Yeah, it was a rousing speech. But as with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's retirement, I can't help observing that Jeff Flake's brave declaration that Donald Trump is an intolerable threat to the republic goes hand-in-hand with him deciding that it would be just too dang hard to actually stay in a position where he could effectively fight it (not that -- on matters of substance anyway -- he has been fighting it. Flake's backed Trump 92% of the time since inauguration).

Monday, October 23, 2017

On Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Gender Violence, and Power

Last week, a post by Mahroh Jahangiri on the popular feminist blog Feministing lumped in "Zionism" with "racism, colonialism, [and] militarism" as part of the "systems of violence ... built to uphold white supremacy" which create "gender-based violence."

Unsurprisingly, many in the Jewish community were sharply critical. Feministing stood by its author, tweeting at its followers to "read this on #MeToo, racism, & Zionism."

If you read the post in question, this is a strange tweet. It's strange because the post is not actually "on" Zionism in any meaningful respect. By that, I don't mean that it presents a false, or caricatured, or strawman version of Zionism. I mean that the only mention of Zionism at all in the post comes as follows:
Though this should be obvious, in this moment it bears repeating: gender-based violence does not exist without other systems of violence, especially those built to uphold white supremacy (such as racism, colonialism, zionism, militarism). 
Zionism appears as a parenthetical aside, and other than that goes unmentioned (there's a similar, parenthetical inclusion of Israel later on). So what is going on here? (Warning: This post is lengthy).

I.

Framed as it was, Jahangiri's parenthetical operates less as an argument "on" Zionism than it does a presupposition. It seeks to smuggle in as a presumption several assertions about Zionism that are -- to say the least -- seriously contested and problematic, such as that it is "built to uphold white supremacy", that it is of familial resemblance to racism and colonialism, and that it is implicated in creating gender-based violence.

In an excellent new essay on "blocking" (a concept I'll return to in a moment), feminist philosopher Rae Langton discusses the sometimes insidious role of presuppositions as a discursive move. Consider the statement "That pitcher throws like a girl!" Most directly, it is saying "that pitcher throws poorly," and we might agree or disagree with the statement. But it also presupposes a few things -- that there is a way to throw "like a girl", and that throwing "like a girl" is a bad thing. Notice that even if you disagree with the statement -- "no, the pitcher doesn't "throw like a girl'" -- one does not automatically or naturally contest the presuppositions.

One thing presuppositions can do, then, is they can smuggle in content as shared presumptions without directly justifying it or opening to critique, in contexts where the content might otherwise be far more vulnerable to challenge. The person who, if asked directly, would sharply deny that girls are necessarily bad athletes or throw pitches in a distinctively bad way, may well casually nod if his friend says "that pitcher throws like a girl."

"Blocking" disrupts such presuppositions. If someone says "even George could win the race," that "even" presupposes that George is an unlikely candidate to win (and again, note how nodding or shaking one's head wouldn't naturally be read as contesting the "even" part). If one responds instead by saying "whaddya mean, 'even'?", then one has blocked the presupposition. Of course, it still can be argued for as an assertion -- one may well have perfectly good reasons why George is a long-shot -- but that places the discussion on a very different terrain from when it was presupposed.

To be presupposed is a nice place to reside, if you can get there. It takes your position out of the rough-and-tumble of contestation, and into the nice, comfortable space of shared background assumptions. If someone challenges a presupposition, they automatically come off as a sort of spoil-sport or nitpicker -- the type of person who insists that you justify every god-damned thing (what kind of fanatic invests this much effort over a parenthetical?). Presupposition, hence, isn't just a description, it's also a move -- a tactical effort to place a particular position on the status-quo high ground and implicitly disadvantage efforts to dislodge it from its perch.

Reading Jahangiri's relevant passage clearly is written to present substantive views about Zionism as presuppositions that need not be argued. The structure -- a parenthetical aside, basically a throw-away, casually given to add a bit of illustrative flair -- is not one you use when you know (or want to admit) that you are making a contestable point. To demonstrate, imagine her parenthetical read as follows:
especially those built to uphold white supremacy (such as racism, colonialism, zionism, militarism, cubism).
The reader there would probably pull up short: "Hold it -- why 'cubism'?" And anyone familiar with Jewish humor knows the ensuing retort: "Why 'zionism'?"

The critical response to Jahangiri, then, is an attempt to block a back-door attempt to smuggle in presuppositions about Zionism. Feministing's after-the-fact attempt to say that the post was "on" Zionism is disingenuous, it seeks to recharacterize as an argument what was actually an attempt at rhetorical fiat. That the fiat could even plausibly work for Zionism (in a way it couldn't for "cubism") itself shows that the dimensions of power in this context are not necessarily what they're always perceived to be.

Of course, there is still much to be said about the argument as an argument. And here I might surprise some of my readers when I say that there is a valid and important connection to be made between Zionism and gender violence. However, that connection isn't what Jahangiri presents it as, and once again her discursive framing seeks to presuppose an array of incorrect (and often quite damaging) assertions about Zionism vis-a-vis other social practices that do more to obscure than they do illuminate the issue.

II.

"Wherever there is a position of power," Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney wrote, "there seems to be potential for abuse." And since Zionism is, in some places, a position of power, then there is the potential for Zionism to construct and buttress gender violence.

Framed that way, this may sound unremarkable precisely because it applies so universally. Hollywood is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence. Socialism is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence. Evangelicalism is, in some places, a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gender violence.

Gender violence follows power, and power, as Foucault reminds is, is ubiquitous. Hence, gender violence is also ubiquitous. There is no space where one is free from power, and so there is no place where power can't be corrupted and turned towards gender-based violence and oppression.

And to be crystal-clear on the matter: there is nothing that exempts "left" or "progressive" spaces from these risks. From Black Panthers to Bernie Bros, progressive organizations and movements have never been remotely exempt from dynamics of gender violence. Franz Fanon speaks of women who "ask to be raped," in the same way that there are "faces that ask to be slapped." The "Comrade Delta" affair in the Socialist Workers Party is another example. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz's writings on gender violence in lesbian communities provide another. Power, of a particular kind, circulates in these communities too, and that power can and is leveraged to enact sexual violence.

We might think that this universalism, this ubiquity, itself makes it wrong to speak of the link between Zionism and gender violence because its not saying anything unique. "Yes," it might be conceded, "Zionism is linked to gender violence because all social practices are. But that makes the decision to particularly focus on Zionism more suspect, not less, since it implies that there is something distinctive about Zionism that actually is common to virtually any social phenomenon."

Yet this argument is wrong. Power is not an undifferentiated thing; that power is everywhere doesn't mean it operates the same everywhere. Gender violence operates through power, which means it will predictably adopt the idioms, pathways, and mechanics opened up by power. And because these will differ from position to position, there need to be particular discourses about sexual violence that are particular to specific arenas or dimensions of power.

How, for example, does gender violence act upon power in "repressive," Victorian communities? Well, it sharply delineates who are good (pure, chaste, virginal) girls and who are bad (classless, promiscuous, available) girls; or it tells women that sexuality is a duty owed to their husband (whose identity they've merged into, so no such thing as marital rape). In another community -- the "liberated" community of the sexual revolution -- power interacts with gender violence differently. Now it's about showing that you're not a prude or a square, that you're hip and with it, that you don't have hang-ups -- all of these, too, are easily leveraged for the purposes of sexual abuse, but clearly they're different and need a different narrative from the discourse we'd apply to Victorian sexual predation. To speak of power and gender violence as an undifferentiated whole would almost certainly obscure how it specifically plays out in one context or the other, and most likely both.

For that reason, we should expect that -- in places where Zionism is powerful, gender violence will play out in distinctively "Zionist" ways. It will "speak the language", if you will; it will have a character distinctive to the arena(s) of power it operates within. The activities of Lehava -- the far-right "anti-assimilationist" group which threatens Jewish/Arab interrelations -- is an obvious example of gender oppression shock troops acting through an explicitly Zionist lens (that 15 of their members -- including their head -- were just arrested likewise demonstrates that "Zionism" contains more than just this chord).

So I do think that it is important to work through the interrelation of Zionism and gender violence in a distinctive way. However, I think this is important for the same reason why it's important to work through the interrelation of anti-Zionism and gender violence in a distinctive way. Just as Zionism is, in some places, a position of power and thereby constructs a distinctive forms of gender violence, in other places anti-Zionism occupies a position of power and it, too, buttresses its own versions of sexual oppression.

It's worth noticing how Jahangiri's parenthetical -- placing "zionism" alongside things like "colonialism" or "racism" -- presupposes this potentiality away. Just as adding "cubism" to the parenthetical would obscure the meaning Jahangiri wishes to evoke, so too would altering it to read "racism, colonialism, zionism, antizionism, militarism" would no doubt be met with puzzlement. She seeks to link gender violence to various malign political movements; not to power as a general social feature. The implication is that gender violence comes attached to bad politics, and this itself opens the door to particular forms of victim-blaming and gaslighting that rely upon the rhetorical and political moves Jahangiri is making. If sexual violence is treated as a function of things like "racism" or "colonialism", what does one do when one's particular domain doesn't clearly lend itself to that narrative? What happens if the person who assaults you is a fellow in your anti-war group, or a leader in your anti-colonial resistance cell? In fact, we know exactly how the narrative plays out in those context: keep quiet, it didn't really happen, it's for the cause, you don't want to play into the enemy's hands, only a traitor or a turncoat would slander us so, if it happened here it can't be rape.

The ability to latch onto those narratives is, itself, a form of power that enables and insulates sexual violence, and it is an ability that one doesn't see unless one crafts a broader narrative of gender violence inside "good" politics. One can elide the problem by seeking to trace it all the way back to some corruption instilled by white supremacy, and maybe sometimes that's plausible. But for many women, this is a cloud of dust kicked up to obscure a more straight-forward truth: "this man assaulted me, and he was able to do so and get away with it because of the progressive modalities of power we were a part of." And while I don't think Jahangiri would endorse the claim that gender violence doesn't manifest inside "good" political spaces, this demonstrates the pernicious aspect of presupposition -- just like with the man who agrees the pitcher "throws like a girl," it gets us to affirm things indirectly that we'd never say directly.

In any event, what would a narrative of a specifically anti-Zionist form of gendered violence look like? It could start with the widespread expulsion of Middle Eastern Jews from Arab nations, an expulsion carried out under an anti-Zionist banner and one in which sexual threat and violence was very much a tool in the oppressive toolbox. It is a marker of the "success" of this violence that there are now very few Jews left to be subjected to anti-Zionist gendered violence in many of the spaces where anti-Zionism as a form of power is at its apex -- a fact that can easily be confused with denying anti-Zionism as existing at all as a meaningful form of gendered power (upon arriving in Israel, Middle Eastern Jews then faced separate victimization -- also often very much gendered -- by an Ashkenazi elite. Recent Mizrahi history overflows with such oppression, and unfortunately precisely because there is such a cornucopia of examples to choose from contemporary writings on the gendered oppression of Mizrahim are easily able to cherry-pick their favorites to advance either a Zionist or anti-Zionist historiography. The problem of using genuine oppression as a stalking horse for other political commitments is an issue I will return to below).

Moving forward, we could turn to a putative feminist activist in Egypt who specifically urged rape and sexual harassment be deployed against "Zionist" women as a means of anti-Zionist "resistance" -- culminating in the chilling warning "leave the land so we won't rape you." In Egypt, anti-Zionism occupies a position of power, and here we see how it can easily accommodate gender violence constructed through a sort of anti-colonialist resistance. Zionist are, after all, "raping" the land -- so why isn't turnabout fair play?

These are severe examples. But the mechanics can play out more subtly. In certain feminist spaces, anti-Zionism carries power, and it uses that power to expel, eliminate, or otherwise exclude certain women -- generally Jewish women who either are Zionist or don't perform non- or anti-Zionism in a sufficiently flagrant manner. We saw this, or attempts at this, at the Chicago Dyke March, at Creating Change in Chicago (Jahangari, writing for Feministing, endorsed that one too), at Columbia University, at the "targeting" by JVP of Jewish Queer Youth for infiltration and disruption. If these places are designed to be spaces of resistance to gender violence (and they certainly hold themselves out that way), then these acts of exclusion are instances of power -- acting through anti-Zionism -- functioning to make women and sexual minorities more vulnerable and more prone to such violence. And this form of violence, in turn, gets laundered and insulated through the particular frame of anti-Zionist power which acts to legitimize or even valorize it.

I don't actually want to pursue this further; my point isn't to provide a comprehensive gendered account of either anti-Zionist or Zionist violence (I'm not sure I'd be qualified to do so in any event). And if you're reading this as "Zionism isn't the problem, anti-Zionism is!" you're missing the point, in more ways than one. Zionism and anti-Zionism are distinctive, but not distinct, in that they can and do create and buttress their own forms of gender violence just as any other site of power can.  Any effective counter to these distinctive forms of gender violence needs to explore the phenomenon of gender violence in these arenas as distinctive -- that is, they need know what makes gender violence work here rather than some abstract and general theory of what makes it work everywhere.

III.

So why, then, does this all feel so damn hard? We need a narrative of gender violence enabled by Zionism, just as we need one for anti-Zionism, just as for Hollywood just as for Evangelicalism just as for policing.

It feels hard in part because the people most excited to craft these narratives tend to have ulterior motives. They do it because they don't like Zionism or anti-Zionism, and they want to make their target look bad. This tends to lead to quite partial (in all senses) analyses and casts a pall over the whole endeavor -- but it also demonstrates some of the dialogical prerequisites necessary to do the analysis right. To illustrate, consider another case of a social practice which very much needs a distinctive analysis of its linkage to gender violence: Islam.

Islam (like -- to be clear -- Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism ....) is in some places a position of power, and therefore in some places constructs and buttresses gendered violence in a distinctive way. Yet to speak of a distinctively "Muslim" form of gender violence makes many of us blanche, and for understandable reasons. All too often, the people who are purporting to draw out this distinctive connection are doing so as a stalking horse for other -- Islamophobic -- politics. Their goal isn't really to provide an accurate or cohesive picture of how Islam-as-power and gender violence intersect. It's to present Islam is a distinctively bad, corrupt, oppressive, or backwards.

Endeavors of this sort aren't really hard to spot. Sometimes, the bad faith lies right there on the surface: Islamofascism Awareness Week is "that magical time of year when Republicans briefly pretend to care about gay rights." But the more comprehensive tell is in the tone the analysis takes. There's a palpable sense of excitement, of glee, in uncovering how Islam really, truly, fundamentally, inalterably is misogynistic. And as a result, their constructions of Islam are sharply essentialist and unyielding in declaring that the only authentic, legitimate, viable Islam is the sort that oppresses women. The last thing these interpreters want is for resources to emerge within Islam, getting their power from Islam, which can serve as points of resistance against gendered violence. The entire point is for Islam to be irredeemably corrupt; any actual pathways opened up for Muslim women are accidental and immediately sacrificed if they risk admitting that Muslim women qua Muslim women might have agency, that Islam is something that can give to them and not just take from them (for all the talk about liberals not backing "Muslim feminists", it's the conservatives who truly hate them insofar as they're Muslim feminists and therefore must be hypocrites, delusional, and/or liars. Ex-Muslim feminists, now they're a different story....).

Thin as her parenthetical is, there's no real question that something quite like this is Jahangari's project. Grouping Zionism in with entities like racism and colonialism presents it -- presupposes it -- as ontologically irredeemable, flawed to its essence (again, this is why "anti-Zionist" can't fit -- even if she conceded that it could manifest through gendered violence, she'd want to insist it was and could be more than that). And because it's the anti-Zionism, not the anti-sexism, that motivates the inquiry, Jahangari wants this to be true. The last thing she wants is resources emerging within Zionism that could counter or resist gender violence, even though that'd seemingly be a net gain for the fight against misogyny. Such a prospect is inconceivable, indeed contradictory, to her; it is like the prospect of a "feminist racism" -- impossible in concept and undesirable in practice. Zionism is a diseased tree, all of its fruit must likewise be poisonous. The predictable result is that she will ignore, overlook, or dismiss the myriad ways in which one could find gender- (and otherwise-)egalitarianism within and through Zionism.

This is the reason why speaking about distinctively Zionist or anti-Zionist "forms" of gender violence is hard. It's because they're very often stalking horses for other, less savory political commitments; or are easily co-opted into their service. There's good reason for suspicion as to motives, and good reason for suspicion as to accuracy. Without a deep and comprehensive understanding of Palestinian and Arab history, experience, and oppression, and (probably) without significant sympathy for and affinity towards Palestinians and a desire to see them fully vindicated in their quest for national liberation and equality, the author of an "anti-Zionist form of gender violence" is likely to get it wrong, often in very serious ways. Likewise, without a deep and comprehensive understanding of Jewish history, experience, and oppression, and (probably) without significant sympathy for and affinity towards Jews and a desire to see us fully vindicated in our quest for national liberation and equality, the author of a "Zionist form of gender violence" is equally likely to badly misstep. Put simply, it is not unreasonable to demand that persons undertaking the politically and ethically delicate task of tying Zionism (or anti-Zionism)  to gender violence be persons who have shown themselves aware of the full complexity of the issue and who are not inclined to engage in a political hit job.

All of this is a way of saying that, just as discourses that are anti-colonial or anti-racist or anti-Zionist (or Zionist) don't stand outside of patterns of gender violence, neither do discourses about gender violence stand outside of racist, colonialist, or antisemitic or Islamophobic patterns. And that brings us to the final point I want to make, which is about the website which published this essay.

The Feministing tag for "Racism" has dozens upon dozens of entries. So does "Transphobia" Likewise "Islamophobia". That's good. That shows they are invested in those issues, recognizes their importance, and has some familiarity with their complexity and nuances. It doesn't make them beyond reproach -- that's not my place to say -- but it does suggest that these are matters they take seriously and can speak on with some authority.

The tag for "Anti-Semitism" has two posts. And one of them never actually mentions anti-Semitism at all (the other is from three years ago).

One need not demand perfectly equal time to think that maybe, just maybe, for a globally-oriented anti-oppression site antisemitism is more than a two (rounding up) post problem. But evidently Jewish oppression is not something Feministing writes a lot about, and there is no evidence that it is something it knows a lot about. That's not condemnable in of itself -- lots of people don't know lots of things -- but it might suggest that arenas involving Jews are arenas they shouldn't write on. There's little evidence that Feministing is the sort of place where one would find "a deep and comprehensive understanding of Jewish history, experience, and oppression", let alone "significant sympathy for and affinity towards Jews and a desire to see us fully vindicated in our quest for national liberation and equality." Lacking those qualifications, it is exceptionally unlikely that Feministing is a good candidate for exploring this issue in a non-oppressive way, and it shouldn't make the attempt. There are plenty of Zionist-identified websites who like nothing more than regaling everyone with how hopeless backwards, regressive, illiberal, and repressive Palestinian society is (towards women and everyone else), and they should desist as well -- they're not helping anyone, I sincerely doubt they're trying to help anyone, and they're not good at their jobs.

But Feministing certainly aspires to greater heights than that, so I don't feel bad about subjecting it to more comprehensive critique. This controversy was, in no small part, Jews telling Feministing that its presuppositions about Jewish political practices were wrong, stilted, and offensive. Thus far, Feministing hasn't shown itself receptive to the critique; it clearly thinks what was said was wholly inbounds and offered no basis for objection. We can be a bit perplexed about what undergirds its confidence on the matter, given Feministing's general lack of attention to the issue. But that never seems to stop anyone. The heart of antisemitism in its epistemic dimension is the perceived entitlement to talk about Jews without knowing about Jews.

One suspects that, even if they read this post, the editors of Feministing won't make any adjustments in response to it. There's almost no pressure on left-wing websites to talk about antisemitism, and there's even less pressure on them to not talk about other matters of concern to Jews if they don't talk about antisemitism. There are other discourses of power operating on and around Jews which rationalize this behavior; most notably the trope of Jewish hyperpower which takes "ignoring Jews" and reconstructs it into "resisting overbearing Jews Zionists" (and how easy would that be to deploy here: "Zionists -- so touchy and fragile that a single parenthetical aside can spawn a 4,000 word essay!" If it's not already clear, I tip my cap to the cleverness of the move if nothing else).

The next most likely (which is not to say likely) move is to start writing on antisemitism more -- but from a perspective that just happens to be perfectly harmonious with the political positions they wanted to hold about Jews prior to starting. Such a move would be very easy to pull off -- I'm sure a dozen JVP activists are already primed to volunteer -- but that wouldn't make it any less of a bad faith maneuver. It lets the tail wag the dog; instead of accepting the potential that positions might need adjustment in response to a Jewish narrative, it seeks to adjust which Jew they listen to for the sake of preserving a set of political commitments arrived at prior to any serious reckoning with Jewish voices. (Incidentally, the appeal of this particular tactic explains why groups like JVP are so often gatekeepers seeking to exclude other, more mainline Jewish voices, from inclusion in the feminist tent. If one needs a Jewish voice, and they've made it so they're the only Jewish voice in the room, then a lot more people will be relying on them and their power gets magnified tremendously. And the real kicker is that they can insulate their privileged position by recharacterizing the absence of other Jews -- which they facilitated through exclusion -- as proof that Jews-not-them don't deserve to be in the room and can justly be ignored).

If they did want to ethically broach these topics, they'll have to challenge themselves more than that. But to be honest, I'm not sure the groundwork is ripe for Feministing, specifically, to do this work at this time (which isn't to say that nobody can do it). There's no rule that says every site has to be qualified to tackle every form of injustice. Feministing has a serious blindspot on Jewish issues, and if they set about resolving it based on commitments they formed by and through the exclusionary practices they're supposedly seeking to rectify, the "reform" will almost certainly be a corrupted and partial one.

There's a lot to be said on Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Gender Violence, and Power. Someone -- probably not Feministing -- should get on that.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Report: Russians Also Targeting BLM Protests

A new report indicates that Russian operatives tried to create their own series of protests following the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota. A front organization, named "Don't Shoot Us" and claiming affiliations with the Green Party of Minnesota and Black Lives Matter, tried to draw protesters away from a scheduled march on the Governor's office in St. Paul.

In a sense, this isn't surprising. Russia has clearly tipped its hand as to its strategy -- sowing chaos by trying to intentionally blur political narratives. The infamous "Boston Antifa" account, which presented a version of antifa that seemed perfectly calculated to prove right-wing talking points until it accidentally publicly posted that it was tweeting from Vladivostok, Russia, is a great example.

Fortunately, BLM activists in Minnesota are less credulous than, say, Texas conservatives, and spotted that something was fishy with the group, and rapidly uncovered that it was a sham operation (though I don't think they realized it was Russian in origin). Still, this is worth noting as part of the ongoing efforts by Russian actors to sabotage American political discourse -- it is not isolated, and it is not an idle threat.

Egregious Professor Roundup

I got an email from an academic in Italy addressed to "Egregious Professor David Schraub." Apparently, that's a common issue because "egregio" has a meaning closer to "excellent" in Italian. Nonetheless, I kind of want to change my Twitter handle to "Egregious Professor."

* * *

This is a from last year, but Jacob Levy gives a qualified defense of "safe spaces" in the academic context that is really fantastic, and well-worth a read.

Fifteen Jewish extremists arrested in Israel for threatening Arabs, including the notorious Bentzi Gopstein.

The Montana Republican Party is the sort of place where, if you bodyslam a reporter, you'll have to fend off criticism -- from those who say you should have shot him.

Kevin Williamson has an interesting piece on the pathologies of poor White communities. I don't necessarily endorse it, but it is a rare example of someone taking the way we talk about poor Black communities and earnestly applying those same standards to Trump-backing Whites.

Bezalel Smotrich is a dick in every single possible aspect, so his remarks on the "me too" campaign are entirely on-brand.

Remember how I said "Not Knowing "Zio" is a Slur is an Indictment, Not a Defense"? Yeah, same thing applies to not knowing that portraying George Soros as tentacle-monster encircling the globe is antisemitic.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jewish Lessons From a Teach-In

Syracuse University Professors Zachary Braiterman recounts his experiences volunteering to provide a perspective on antisemitism at a "teach-in" organized in response to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally. It's thoughtful, nuanced, and recounts a mostly (though not entirely) positive experience. The most important thing it emphasizes is that -- to reiterate -- influence is wielded by the people in the room. If you're worried that discretely Jewish experiences of and vulnerabilities to the rising tide of far-right extremism are not being fully or fairly aired, then put yourself in a position where you're airing them.

The way that Zachary got on this panel was straight-forward: he volunteered. None of the organizers asked him about Zionism; nobody put him through an "are you a good Jew or a bad Jew" battery of questions. That isn't to say that such things never happen, but here they didn't. And when it turned out that the original date for the teach-in was to be Rosh Hashana, the fact that Zachary was in the room meant that he was well-positioned to facilitate a change of date while there was still time to do so.

Again, the experience wasn't entirely seamless. While Zachary relates that his talk resolutely did not speak about Zionism or anti-Zionism, an audience member took it upon herself to try to draw a link between Zionism and American militancy. But the fact that someone like Zachary was on the panel meant that he was the one who got to address that question. Again, what benefits we see from being in the room.

In some respects, Zachary's account reminds me of the experiences I relayed in this post (only even more positive). At the root, his experience and mine are hopeful accounts of what happens when  you insist on being in the room and actually show up. I don't pretend like every story traces such a happy arc. But it remains possible, and so I remain optimistic.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Liberal Academia Fails Again

A new study by Kyle Dodson of UC-Merced finds that, while student-student interactions have a politically polarizing effect (liberals push further left, conservatives move farther right), student-faculty interactions tend to moderate students (liberals and conservatives each move closer to the center). Obviously, something has gone awry in the liberal academy's indoctrination machine.

In all seriousness, while I'm not surprised by this finding, I do think it is worth kvelling over a little bit. Group polarization is a well-established phenomenon, and most professors are left-of-center, so one might expect that student engagement with professors would push left-wing students further left. That this doesn't happen even granted the political composition of the professoriate speaks very well of our professionalism and sense of intellectual mission.
With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. "[T]he results indicate -- in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators -- that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes," Dodson writes. "While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas -- a hallmark of the college experience -- challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions."
I'm not a fan of moderation for moderation's sake, but I'm a big fan of getting people to reassess their political priors and consider the validity of views-not-their-own. So go us!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Many People Are The Real Threat To Free Speech

Right-wing hecklers shouted down and ultimately forced the cancellation of talk by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College. The hecklers were protesting Beccara's efforts to protect immigrants against predation by the Trump administration.

I mention this story in part because FIRE is the body who picked it up (I periodically hear people claim FIRE doesn't care about free speech violations emanating from the right, but that has not been my experience and this represents a good counterexample). I also mention it because it is a clear example of a free speech violation on a college campus. I do not mention this story to play "right-wingers are the real threat to free speech in this country" game.

The fact is, lots of people don't like free speech; mostly when it's exercised by groups they dislike. Sometimes it's right-wingers at Whittier, sometimes it's left-wingers at William & Mary (what a terrible example to pick, by the way, as the fulcrum for "protest is speech too". Yes, it is, precisely because the overwhelmingly majority of the time it does not manifest as censorial disruption as it did at W&M).

That they actually indict free speech on the regular doesn't stop them from racing off to cry "free speech" when the speaker is someone they like -- the lead heckler at Whittier, as FIRE observes, is rather flagrantly ... opportunistic, we'll say ... on this issue; one could see George Ciccariello-Maher on the other side (as the National Review rightly observes, in GCM's case not believing in academic freedom doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it, but it's fair to call things what they are).

It's perhaps not surprising that this issue -- like so many others -- has devolved into little more than partisan point scoring and desires to push a narrative. But the fact is that there are threats to free speech from all over the political spectrum. I don't tend to think college campuses should be the epicenter of this conversation, particularly when the President of the United States is talking about shutting down broadcast television networks whose coverage he dislikes. Yet even on campus, one can see plenty of offenders on both sides.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Many Voices of Silence

One of the more vexing questions raised by the recent flurry of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein was why, if "everybody knew", nobody spoke up? Why did people -- colleagues, victims, friends, press -- stay silent for so long? Is it right to blame them (all of them? some of them? which ones?) for not talking? Why?

On this subject, I'd like to share a story (I might have written about it before, though if so I can't find it) from when I was in college.

I was working a summer job at a law firm. Two of my closest friends from that summer -- also college students, both women -- worked together in the mail room; I worked by myself in another wing of the office. What that meant was that we didn't really see each other during working hours, but we did eat lunch together pretty much every day.

About a week before the end of the summer, in our daily lunch walk, one of them said she wanted to ask me something personal. She said that she thought she was being sexually harassed by her supervisor, and she wanted to know what I thought she should do about it. Should she say anything? Should she report it? The summer was about to end anyway; maybe she should just ride it out.

The "thought" part is important, because part of the conversation was her being unsure whether what was happening was sexual harassment. She seemed to be consistently talking herself into and out of her own position on the matter. She'd say things that to my mind clearly sounded like harassment, but when I'd concur in the assessment she'd second-guess herself and start redescribing the events more as if he was just sort of a generically lousy boss. Then eventually she'd reach the end of the pendulum and return back to it being harassment. She went back-and-forth in that vein for awhile, and never really settled on a conclusion.

I'm not really sure why she thought I'd have any unique insight. I wasn't any older than them, and had no particular experience in the area. The best advice I could give -- and to this day I don't know if it was good advice -- was that if she felt like it was sexual harassment she should report it, and if she felt like the guy was simply a bad supervisor she should wait out the week and leave.

Meanwhile, the second friend -- who also worked in the mailroom and to whom I periodically was turning to for clarification -- was making gestures and facial expressions to the effect of "I want absolutely no part in this." I could tell this all was bothering her as well, but she was firmly on the "don't say anything, don't do anything" side. I asked her why.

She told a story of being harassed at her middle school. And there was no "thought" there: she was being groped in the halls, people were tearing off her blouse, it was truly sickening behavior. And what did she do? She did complain. She and her parents went to the principal, told him what was going on, and demanded he put a stop to it.

The result? Nothing happened.

Well, not "nothing". The principal wasn't happy to have this thrust on her plate, and so now the administration started retaliating against her for complaining. Her entire position at the school became untenable. So she transferred to a different school -- one less convenient and less academically prestigious.

The moral she learned was "don't complain about sexual harassment." Hence, she made clear, she would neither confirm, nor deny, nor participate in any way in any conversation about any sexual harassment she or her friend may or may not have experienced in the mail room.

I'm not entirely sure how this story ended, but I don't think anybody ended up saying anything to the powers-that-be. Why not? Well, I didn't in part because I don't think either of them wanted me to, in part because I didn't know what I should say, and in part because I didn't view it as my place to speak (particularly given Friend #2's vivid description of the potential consequences for them if I talked). I imagine Friend #2 didn't talk because of the "lessons" she learned the last time she tried to fight back against harassment. And if Friend #1 didn't talk, it might have been because she was afraid the same might happen to her, or because she ultimately wasn't confident in her own credibility as a complainant, or because the end was in sight and she just wanted to put things behind her.

There are all sorts of reasons for all sorts of silence. One of my personal mentors, Martha Nussbaum -- surely one of the most powerful (in all senses of the term) women in the world today -- spoke incisively about why she never reported her sexual assault and why, even now, she continues to think it was and would continue to be useless to have done so. Silence can be complicity, and sometimes it's nothing more than that. But sometimes it is much more than that. Silence is the function of an entire network of power in which everybody feels alone, everybody feels powerless, everybody feels like they can't make a difference and that the only thing that will be gained from speaking up is hurting those who deserve it least.

Put another way, the condemnations of those who "knew" and said nothing often act as if the problem was just lack of character virtue -- if people cared more, then they wouldn't remain silent. This, to my estimation, dramatically understates the cultural forces which encourage and demand silence at every turn. The forces are not -- or are not just -- threats of reprisal. They're also bonds of trust ("you promised you wouldn't say anything if I confided"), norms of role ("it's not your place to do this for me"), and desires for lost privacy ("I just don't want this to become the center of my life"). When I hear about something that "everybody knows" but nobody says, my assumption isn't that "everybody" is a callous monster. I assume that there is something deeper going on.

When it comes to sexual assault, silence occurs in isolation, while resistance comes in groups. This is why one woman catching Weinstein bragging about sexual assault on a wiretap set up by the NYPD didn't bring Weinstein down, but many women telling a reporter (who lacks guns, or handcuffs, or prison threats) causes a cascade. Taken alone, we can't imagine how our speaking up could possibly make a difference -- it will only bring trouble. They stay silent because if they speak up:
  • They'll be threatened ("you'll never work in this town again"); and/or
  • They'll be ignored ("she's just seeking attention"); and/or
  • They'll be mocked ("what makes you so special that you think Harvey Weinstein would make eyes at you?"); and/or
  • They'll be shamed ("what did you think you were getting into, going to a meeting with him alone?"); and/or
  • They'll be discredited ("Weinstein is a public figure; if he was a predator there's no way he could've kept it a secret for so long.").
And after all that heartache? Weinstein remains untouched, but the accuser has to live with the knowledge that her accusation meant nothing.

But when enough people refuse to cooperate, that massive array of power, which felt like it was an impregnable fortress, starts to topple like dominos. The people who could end your career in Hollywood now need to rush to show they're not beholden to a tainted figure like Harvey Weinstein. The "attention" oddly dissipates because it's spread across so many victims. The mockery falls flat because it is evident that Weinstein was a serial assailant. The shame doesn't stick because so many verify how he got so many women in a vulnerable position.

But the thing is, it's difficult to make that jump from being relatively alone to relatively in a community. It requires a lot of things, and courage is certainly one of them. But again, I don't think the problem is simply one of bad hearts. It's about bad culture. And I don't expect things to change much until that culture is unwound.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"It Could've Been Worse" is the Ultimate Non-Sequitur

Israel Bonan writes on the history of Egyptian Jews and the significant oppression -- culminating in violence and expulsion -- that characterized their experience in the 20th century.

It's a reply to Eyal Sagui Bizawe, who also wrote about the 20th century history of Egyptian Jews. Bizawe's column is somewhat peculiar, since it doesn't rely deny the reality of historical oppression so much as it seems cranky that it's being talked about as a form of significant oppression. It's replete with logic like "well, yeah Jews were expelled from Egypt, but not all of them so ... why should we call it 'expulsion'?" Or "yes, there was violence directed at Jews and Jewish neighborhoods, but 'pogrom' -- that's overselling it, no?"

Basically, Bizawe seems to think it's a sort of trick, or a form of dirty pool, for Egyptian Jews to argue that a significant (not the only, but a significant) component of their recent social experience was discrimination by the Egyptian state and society. It's unfair, it's reactionary, it's harboring a closet right-wing agenda. None of these contentions are particularly persuasive, and Bonan's column does a good job refuting them. But read them both and decide for yourself.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXVI: Charlottesville

Charlottesville was a "turning point" in our national conversation about racism. By that I mean "lots of people sort of acknowledged racism still existed and was scary, and then proceeded to not alter any of their other political priors in any meaningful way such that within two weeks it was as if nothing had changed whatsoever."

But who was responsible for this hitherto unfathomable display of open white supremacy? Oh, I think you know who:
[REP. PAUL] GOSAR: Well, isn’t that interesting. Maybe that [the Charlottesville rally] was created by the Left.
VICE News: Why do you say that?  
GOSAR: Because let’s look at the person that actually started the rally. It’s come to our attention that this is a person from Occupy Wall Street that was an Obama sympathizer. So, wait a minute, be careful where you start taking these people to.  
And look at the background. You know, you know George Soros is one of those people that actually helps back these individuals. Who is he? I think he’s from Hungary. I think he was Jewish. And I think he turned in his own people to the Nazis. Better be careful where we go with those.  
VICE News: Do you think George Soros funded the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville? 
GOSAR: Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?
Interesting indeed. On behalf of the Jews, thanks, Rep. Gosar, and thanks to the Republicans of Arizona's 4th congressional district for electing him!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The New Trump Administration Push To Blow Up Energy Markets

David Roberts has a great post on efforts by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to essentially blow up the wholesale energy market in a naked effort to protect coal (and, to a lesser extent, nuclear) power plants from free competition. Basically, he proposed a new rule that would guarantee coal and nuclear power plants a positive return on their investments, regardless of whether their power capacity was used or even is economical. Whereas other power plants (ranging from wind to natural gas) make money based on their ability to compete effectively in the marketplace, a few preferred operators would get their profits guaranteed.

Nominally, this is because they uniquely contribute to grid "resilience" by being a source of power able to ramp up quickly in the event of a major disruption (like, say, a major weather event). The problem (well, the short version of the problem) is that all the relevant studies -- including those conducted by the DOE under the supervision of Secretary Perry in the hopes that they'd confirm his political preferences -- conclude that coal and nuclear power don't actually improve grid resilience, and that, in fact, the grid is generally quite reliable and resilient right now (and only improving). So the only real upshot is to serve as a massive intrusion on the market in favor of uneconomical coal power.* It's thus no surprise that one Republican former FERC commissioner described it as "the antithesis of good economics," or that simply said it would "blow the market up."

The whole article is worth your read, both as an introduction to how energy markets work (Roberts is great at explaining for a lay audience) and as an entry in the infinite-series of "Republicans don't actually care about market competition.

After laying out a litany of obstacles to passing the rule -- ranging from wall-to-wall opposition in the energy sector (outside of coal/nuke lobbyists) to severe time pressures to a complete lack of legal or policy justification necessary under the relevant statutes, Roberts concludes by saying the future of this proposal depends "on just how hackish and partisan FERC is willing to get." In other words, hold on tight.**

* As Roberts notes, while nuclear power is in a somewhat different boat from coal, this rule is also terrible policy as applied to supporting nukes.

** FERC is actually normally a relatively well-run agency, but at the moment it is controlled by Trump partisans who are, shall we say, not typically concerned with abiding by standards of technical expertise. So we'll see.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The (Ex-)CBS Executive Who's (Not) the Next Google Software Engineer!

After the horrifying massacre in Las Vegas this weekend, one CBS executive (business-side, not content-side) put up a Facebook post saying she was "not even sympathetic" to the victims because, as country music fans, they were probably Republicans and thus partially culpable for the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

She was fired.

I don't have a particular problem with that. Her comments were obviously repulsive, and if CBS decided that they were beyond the pale, casting doubt on her ability to work empathetically and sensitively with others, then this remedy seems well-within bounds.

And it seems most people agree. Because we haven't heard her compared to the Google software engineer. Or the Mozilla CEO. Or, on the other side, NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.

What to make of all this? I don't think that it's actually a lack of principles, precisely. Rather, I think this demonstrates that we need to make judgment calls, and that there's no substitute for nuanced, critical consideration. A pure "free speech" position can't work in the private sector, and few of us seem to desire it anyway. At the same time, a "if you don't like the political line the company forces you to espouse, you can get a new job" line doesn't seem to map onto our intuitions about free speech or political freedom either.

It requires thinking. And sometimes, it's the easy, unthinking cases -- the uncontroversial termination of an executive when her speech really does seem obviously beyond the pale -- that illuminates the thought that needs to go into the more difficult ones.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hell's Kitchen: All-Stars!

Yom Kippur began this evening, so obviously the smart move is to blog about a food show. But tonight was also the premier of Hell's Kitchen's all-star season! Long-time readers may recall that I pitched my dream lineup for a "heroes versus villains" HK all-stars all the way back in 2011. That was in the middle of Season 9, and we're now through Season 16 -- and since the lineup skews towards recent seasons, most of my picks didn't make it (I think the only exceptions are Ben from Season 7, and Jen and Elise from Season 9).

Still, the entire lineup consists of people who at least made it to black jacket territory, which distinguishes it from certain shows where "all-star" somehow includes people who didn't even make it into the top half of their season.* So I'm largely happy, and think it's a decently strong set. I fully expect Robyn to melt down in spectacular fashion, but other than that we'll see how people do!

* Back in the 1980s NHL, there were 21 teams and 16 playoff spots, leading one wag to quip that "if WWII was a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs." Project Runway all-star seasons are rapidly approaching similar status.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Who Doused the GOP with Truth Serum?

Something very strange is going on. Republicans are suddenly being remarkably ... candid:

Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), on why deficit hawks aren't saying anything about the Trump tax cut busting the budget:
It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led. It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), on what's motivating Republican primary voters:
All this time I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.
And of course, an Alabama GOP County Chairman on how he'd respond to charges that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore is "anti-Muslim":
I'm anti-Muslim too.
All are stand-outs, but I have to give extra-credit to Massie for explicitly including himself as a "craz[y] son of a bitch."

Monday, September 25, 2017

Return of the Muscle

In 2015, during anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri, a journalism professor named Melissa Click gained notoriety by calling for "muscle" to expel student journalists attempting to cover the proceedings. Click was widely censured and eventually fired.

I'm not convinced on the "firing" part (there are substantial due process questions that have yet to be answered persuasively), but the censure portion was entirely appropriate. A free press is essential to an open society. Seeking to block, obstruct, or threaten journalists for doing their jobs is utterly incompatible with a commitment to free speech. What Click did was utterly contemptible.

Yesterday, a Missouri journalism student who was covering the Jason Stockley verdict protests published his account of what happened to journalists at the scene. He is not doe-eyed about the protesters -- while most were non-violent, a few were not and particularly as the main protest died down some were engaging in destruction of property (and were, unsurprisingly, not thrilled to be filmed in the act of destruction of property). But the journalist was also quite clear and emphatic in his ultimate verdict:

At this event, the police officers were far more threatening to journalists than were the protesters.
The SWAT truck stopped, and heavily armored officers carrying assault rifles poured out, screaming at us. Thinking that they would likely ignore the journalists and go after the demonstrators, we stopped and put our hands and cameras in the air. Most of the demonstrators were wearing black, their faces covered with bandanas, and some had weapons. The journalists, on the other hand, were dressed the way we often are — in button-down shirts, with press credentials and cameras plain to see. The difference was obvious. 
And yet most of the demonstrators escaped while nearly all of the SWAT officers grabbed the journalists by our necks and forced us against a brick wall. An officer pulled my respirator off my face and threw it into the street and then pulled my helmet back so tightly that the fastened strap began to cut off my air supply. Our hands were immediately zip-tied tightly behind our backs, and I was unable to breathe or remove my helmet. I tried in vain to choke out the words — “I can’t breathe.” A photographer next to me noticed and loudly said to an officer behind us, “You need to take off his helmet, he’s choking.” The officer looked at him, then at me, and said “I can’t hear you” and walked away. 
I was eventually able to use the wall next to me to nudge my helmet back onto my head. Now able to speak, I turned to the officer in charge and asked, “Am I under arrest?” His reply was: “Shut up, mother------.” 
The SWAT officers then yanked us onto our feet and walked us toward a police van. As we were being shoved into the van, the officer in charge stopped us. “All of you dumbasses are going to jail tonight. Stupid mother-------.” Then he turned to one of the other officers and said: “Throw these stupid b------ on the van.”
Everyone who censured Melissa Click should be equally loud in denouncing the actions of these St. Louis Police officers (arguably, they should be more emphatic -- there is special danger in such assaults on the free press occurring under color of law -- but I'll settle for "equally"). They won't, of course. As always, free speech has many fair-weather friends, and in a world where a guy can body slam a journalist and then cruise into the House of Representatives it's hard to speak of the health of our commitment to an open press.

But principles are principles, even in their breach. Sometimes, the "muscle" is a wild-eyed academic thinking she's "protecting" student activists. Sometimes, it's police officers claiming to be "protecting" the streets. Both are contemptible. But there's no doubt that only one will become a national story.