Thursday, September 21, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXV: War!

There is a class in the political science department here at Berkeley, titled simply "War!" (the exclamation point is included). It explores the concept and practice of war from an international relations perspective -- does it follow political science "rules"? Can it be rational? Are there cultural, geopolitical, or demographic markers that make one more or less war-prone? Of course, it's taught by a Jew.

If that "of course" caused a cocked eyebrow just there, well, you aren't Valerie Plame, who ushered in the Jewish New Year by sharing an essay titled "America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars." Shana Tova indeed! It includes such lovely suggestions like demanding the media "label" Jews when they appear on television, "kind-of-like a warning label on a bottle of rat poison." So that's nice. Missing is the apparently trivial fact that Jews are significantly less likely to support Middle Eastern wars than the American population writ large.

Plame has already completed the cycle that started with "yes, very provocative, but thoughtful," proceeded onward to "Just FYI, I am of Jewish decent [sic]", over to "put aside your biases and think clearly," and finally coming to rest on an apology.

Fun bonus fact: The site she shared from is the Unz Review, which was a key driver in directing antisemitic harassment at me personally following one of my Tablet articles (e.g., the infamous "are you this Jew?" email).

But one can't help but feel for Plame, who says she just "didn't do [her] homework" on the venue. I mean, who could have known that an article titled "America's Jews Are Driving America's Wars" would be published on an antisemitic site?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living in the Machinery of Death

Being a clerk on a United States Court of Appeals was one of the truly great honors of my life. It was a fantastic experience, which included the chance to have a direct hand in the development of American law, to occupy a front-row seat to observe how the legal sausage is mad, and to work side-by-side with some exceptional attorneys and for a federal judge who was a fantastic friend and mentor.

But I've also remarked that, during the tenure of my clerkship, I often felt as if I was "ruining far more lives than I was validating." One arena of law which provoked that feeling was criminal law, where truly obscene oversentencing was a daily occurrence. Another area was immigration.

By the time an immigration case reaches the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the median adjective describing the appealing immigrant is probably "doomed". This is due to a confluence of factors -- the laws on the books are immigrant-unfriendly, the immigration judges are often immigrant-friendly, and the standard of review for immigration claims at this stage is exceptionally immigrant-unfriendly. What that meant in practice was that, over and over again, I found myself reading files of people who insisted that they'd be hacked to death if they were deported back to Central America, then assisting in perfunctory one paragraph orders denying their appeal.

The risk (of being hacked to death) wasn't made up. I was generally quite persuaded that they were at serious risk of violent attack if they were returned to their home countries. But, as I said, the law is quite unfriendly, and since the persecution was rarely the result of direct governmental animosity or membership in a cohesive social group, there was usually nothing to be done. On the rare occasions where there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, I tried my best -- and most of those cases I was unsuccessful. But even the cases where there was even a implausible shot were few and far between. For the most part, the legal rulings were straight-forward -- hence why they could be expressed perfunctory, single paragraph orders.

The law is straight-forward and it is clear. That does not change the reality of the situation. It is fair to say that the true villains here are the politicians who write and the people who demand laws which regularly enable such horrible outcomes. Fine. But the fact is I was a gear in a machinery of death, one that destroyed families and ruined lives. In terms of how much culpability you want to assign to me, personally, or other agents of the federal judiciary, legal formalism is a fine consideration to take account of. But appealing to it to deny the nature of the machine -- not to say "it's not my fault" but to say "that's not what was happening" -- is a psychological numbing agent. We run to it because it's terrible to have to face up to the reality of the situation.

The Austin American-Statesman reports on a recently deported immigrant -- snatched outside of a courthouse where he was facing a few minor misdemeanors -- who was just found murdered back in his native Mexico. Murdered, just as he told a federal court he would be in a futile effort to stave off his deportation.

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero had a criminal background. Not a serious one, but not a spotless one either. In this, he is little different from many Americans who have a spot or two in their past. Which itself raises the DACA question posited by, among others, my friend Joel Sati. DACA is for perfect immigrants -- those with not a single blemish on their record, those who perfectly fit a respectability narrative. Of course, it's understandable that, in unfavorable conditions, you latch onto the best stories you can. It's no mystery why DACA or the Dream Acts are framed the way they are.

But Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was not a murderer, or a rapist, or a child abuser. More to the point, he did not deserve to die. If or when DACA is passed, or a Dream Act, or some other comparable piece of immigration reform make it through Congress, it will undoubtedly exclude many, many Juan Coronilla-Guerreros. Not perfect people, but not bad people either. And despite the fact that they aren't hardened criminals, or "bad hombres", or incurable monsters, they'll continue to be deported, in circumstances where the results are entirely predictable -- ruined lives as best, death and maiming at worst.

We should still pass a DACA bill. We should do what we can, in the imperfect world we live in, bounded by the terrible political constraints that bind us.

It will remain a machinery of death. I'm not about casting blame; feel guilty or innocent at your own discretion. But don't deny the nature of the machine.

What If Black Liberty Mattered?

Jacob Levy writes on the history of "liberty" as a trope in American racist movements, and the corresponding flirtation that many libertarians have had with White supremacy. Levy's essays for the Niskanen Center have been consistently superb -- I already wrote on his fantastic defense of identity politics as against the Mark Lilla critique -- and this is no different. Give it a read.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pondering Planets in Science Fiction

A couple of planet-related thoughts I've had over the years in the context of Science Fiction (movies, books, games, etc.)

1) Sometimes, in Science Fiction, something -- an artifact, a person, a dataprint -- will be lost (lost less in the sense of "I had it but dropped it" and more in the sense of "lost to the sands of time"). And where this is a plot point, the heroes usually will "find" the MacGuffin by figuring out what planet it's on (e.g., Luke Skywalker at the end of Episode VII).

I always found this rather striking. Imagine you're searching for a particular human being, and you're told "he's on Earth" ... and that being enough to go on. Even if there weren't a single other human being on the planet, Earth is still really big, at least from the perspective of finding a single guy. There's a ton more sleuthing you'd need to do! It's amazing to me how most "planets" are reducible to basically a square mile of (monolithic) terrain -- anything that's there, is there.

2) In any multiplanetary society, it is taken pretty much for granted that the smallest unit of practical governance is the planet. Sometimes it's larger than that (a galactic federation, or individual star systems), but there's virtually never subplanetary political divisions that are deemed salient on an interstellar level. "Earth" might have a representative on the Galactic Council, or the "Terran Federation" might, but "America" and "China" never do. That actually strikes me as more or less plausible, but it is interesting -- and it strikes me that if humanity ever does spread outside of our home planet we will rapidly coalesce into some form of global government -- at least for the purpose of managing space affairs.

3) Returning to the "planets are big" thing, you know what job must really be low-prestige in science fiction land? An "intraplanetary" transporter or military member. Imagine there exists Starfleet, and you're part of the Navy. Not the Space Navy, just the old-fashioned water Navy that protects ocean-going ships. Somebody has to do it -- again, planets are large and there will have to be substantial intraplanetary trade which will need protection from pirates or rescue from storms or whatnot. But goodness, imagine trying to pick someone up at a bar with that job -- working on a coast guard cutter when there are literal starships flying across the universe. That's rough.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Today in Academic Freedom

Yesterday, I published a column in Ha'aretz on Berkeley's response to the Ben Shapiro speech. I noted that, since the Berkeley administration actually did exactly what it should have done in ensuring that Shapiro's juridical right to speak was protected, and since the Berkeley community largely followed through and responded to his speech through perfectly legitimate means (counterspeech, non-violent protest, flyers, questioning), perhaps we could now move on the substantive merits of what signal it sends when Ben Shapiro is invited at all.

It's been a banner couple of days for academic freedom, after all. For example:

* Harvard administrators overruled its own History Department's decision to admit Michelle Jones, a woman who rose to prominence for conducting top-level historical research while incarcerated in Indiana, to their graduate school. Reportedly, the decision was motivated in part by what conservative media outlets would say if Harvard admitted "a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority."

* Harvard also withdrew a fellowship offer previously extended to Chelsea Manning, this time in response to furious objections from conservatives in the intelligence community who deem Manning a "traitor." Manning was convicted of leaking classified information, and had her sentence commuted after serving seven years in prison. Corey Lewandowski, who assaulted a reporter, and Sean Spicer, who epitomized the "post-truth" ethos of the Trump administration, remain fellows in good standing.

* The University of Maryland is investigating the termination of a Jewish professor, Melissa Landa, from the College of Education. Landa contends that her relationship with her colleagues soured after she began organizing against antisemitic comments by (now-former) Oberlin Professor Joy Karega (Karega was eventually terminated after spreading several antisemitic conspiracy theories on social media; Landa is an Oberlin alum). Several of Landa's students have released an open letter criticizing her termination, describing her as an "ally" and "one of the few professors who is an expert in helping students examine their own biases."

* A lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was suspended after tweeting that he enjoys teaching "future dead cops." The New York City Police Union wants him fired, but New York Times columnist Bari Weiss wrote a lengthy essay explaining that, while the lecturer's views were offensive and reprehensible, it is important both for CUNY students and police officers to be exposed to ideas that discomfort them and respond via counterspeech rather than demand censorship [error: column not found].

* The University of North Carolina's board of governors shut down a civil rights center at UNC Law School which ruffled conservative feathers by litigated desegregation and environmental impact suits. I had already written about this controversy here, noting the incredibly ad hoc justifications given for what was obviously a political power play ("we just think law schools should focus less on practical training and more on esoteric, Ivory Tower theorizing!").

So that's where we stand. One suspects that some of these cases will gain great notoriety within certain political factions while others will be wholly ignored; switch the factions and you no doubt switch the cases that matter. As we've long since learned, academic freedom has a lot of fair weather friends. But as these examples indicate, the assault on academic freedom does emanate from a single source. You either defend the norms which let a university function, or you don't. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Eternal Mystery of Why Jews Vote Democratic

People sometimes ask me why Jews vote Democratic. There's no real mystery behind it. The explanation is simple:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
As we look at Donald Trump's poll ratings amongst Jews -- far lower than even his catastrophic nationwide ratings -- we see this born out. On every issue save Israel, Jews think Trump sucks. And on Israel ... Trump still is significantly underwater, and well below where Barack Obama polled on that issue at his nadir. It's just not that mysterious why an overwhelmingly liberal electoral subgroup would keep voting for the more liberal of the two parties.

But, you know. 2014 2015 2016 2017 will be the year Jews finally come to our senses and realize who truly loved us all along!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I'm Sick of Smug-Takes on Berkeley Offering "Counseling"

Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro is coming to campus this week. Shapiro will be followed this month by Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, and Milo Yiannopoulos, as part of a Berkeley "free speech week".

In a long email outlining the various campus policies that would be in place to facilitate all these speeches (and as I've consistently argued, having been invited by authorized community members they do have a right to speak free of censorship or material disruption, though of course not from non-intrusive protest or criticism), Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos mentioned that, among other things, counseling services were available for any students who felt "threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe."

And the internet went wild.

I don't need to collect links -- here's an example, but they're not hard to find. Across the entire political spectrum of the mainstream media -- you know, center-left to hard-right -- there was near-uniform glee in dumping on coddling Berkeley administrators and infantile Berkeley students who need counseling just because they're hearing "ideas they disagree with."

I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing this. It's lazy, it's a cheap shot, it's intellectually incoherent, and above all it's mean-spirited. Berkeley isn't wrong here. And it's detractors are showing more about what's missing in their character than the most stereotypical Golden Bear hipster.

For starters, Berkeley is a big place. Its total enrollment is over 40,000 students. These young people come from a range of backgrounds, and at any given time across that 40,000 there will be persons who are struggling, or experiencing crises, or feeling threatened, or any other permutation of personal circumstance and emotional troubles you can imagine. I've already written recently about how all of us -- self-satisfied declarations notwithstanding -- intuitively understand how certain speech can truly wound deeply, in a manner which we can all empathize with. That doesn't mean we ban it (and offering counseling doesn't "ban" anything), but it does mean that there's a genuine phenomena that we can and should attempt to address

So let's be empathic. Let's imagine, amongst Berkeley's 40,000 students, that there is a student who is struggling. Maybe he's away from home for the first time and having difficulty adjusting. Maybe she feels in over her head in classes, finding that work that got her an A in high school is barely scraping a C at Berkeley. And then let's add more to it -- maybe he's just found out that he's now at imminent risk of deportation from the only country he's ever truly known. Maybe she's found out that, though she proudly served her country and is a veteran of the American armed forces, the President of the United States publicly declared her to be a burden on the US military who should never have been allowed to wear the uniform.

Now let's remember who Ben Shapiro is.

Ben Shapiro thinks that trans individuals suffer from a "mental illness" and gratuitously misgenders them for the primary purpose of causing offense. He refers to DACA as President Obama's "executive amnesty". Pretty much the only reason he isn't an avowed member of the alt-right is that they happen to hate him too. He's not an intellectual. He's not one the great thinkers of the right. His oeuvre, his raison d'etre, is to be a hurtful provocateur. That's what he brings to the table.

And let's be clear: this, the above, was why Ben Shapiro was invited to Berkeley. It wasn't because he offered "a different view." And it certainly wasn't because of the intellectual candlepower he has on offer. The people who invited Ben Shapiro to UC-Berkeley did so because of, not in spite of, the hurt he will dish out to already-vulnerable members of the community.

The students I outlined above -- already struggling, buffeted by political dynamics which very much are designed to dehumanize them -- now have to reckon with the reality that a non-negligible chunk of their colleagues are glad they're feeling that way. They actively want to accelerate the process. They'll go out of their way to invite speakers to reiterate and emphasize the point.

Honestly, I don't blame them if they could use a venue to talk out their feelings a bit. It strikes me as spectacularly uncharitable, a colossal failure of basic empathy, to think otherwise. Then again, what is our polity going through now but a colossal failure of basic empathy?

After the election, I made a similar comment (which I cannot find) when people again made fun of college kids who expressed deep hurt and fear upon the election of Donald Trump. This, too, was attributed to fragile millennial snowflakes who don't know how to tolerate hardship. And I remarked that the man now faced with being expelled from the country is not scared because he's frail, and the woman who was the victim of a sexual assault is not despondent because she's weak-willed. We've seemingly moved past "don't punch people who think you're subhuman" (okay) to "don't be sad that people think you're subhuman" (really?).

Some are arguing that the real problem with offering counseling is that it doesn't teach the kids "resilience". First of all, I wonder what they think goes on in counseling sessions -- my strong suspicion is that they are precisely about fostering resiliency so that students are better able to cope with such annoying trivialities like "I may be torn from the only home I've ever known at any moment and a sizeable portion of what I thought was my community will cheer as they drag me off." The objection here isn't so much to lack of resilience as to the university having the temerity to try and teach it -- like objecting to wilderness training because shouldn't real men already know how to survive outdoors?

Second, it is hard not to hear in this objection a deep resentment at the fact that today, even now, some people still do proactively care about the feelings of others. The argument seems to be that "fifty years ago if someone felt marginalized on a college campus nobody gave a shit. Today, some people -- including a few holding administrative positions -- do care, and for some reason that's a step backwards for society." One can hear more than a little of the typical mockery associated with using therapy of any sort -- though I admit I hadn't heard it manifest this overtly in some time -- which suggests that only persons of pathologically fragile mental composition could ever need something as lily-livered as counseling. Again, I find this argument hard to relate to, seeing as its genealogy is so thoroughly bound up in nothing more complicated than pure cruelty. Shorn of the feelings of superiority it generates, can anyone actually defend this?

Others complain that students shouldn't be going to therapy in response to such speech, they should be responding in other ways -- debate, protest, donations, activism, any thing else. Of all the objections, this is the one that is the most difficult to credit. Does anyone think that the only way Berkeley students will respond to Ben Shapiro's speech is by going to counseling sessions? That Friday morning, all 40,000 of us will march into whatever center houses our mental health professionals and demand to be soothed? Of course not. Of course there will be debate, and protest, and donations, and activism. And you can bet that however such actions manifest, people will still find a way to denounce the entire response tout court -- unjustified actions like violence, yes, but also silent protest, but also waving signs, but also pure condemnatory speech (especially if that speech dares use the dreaded -ism or -phobic suffixes).

Finally, let's dispense with the notion that this is all being triggered by students who can't tolerate "ideas they disagree with." For starters, it's notable that while Alivisatos' email does not in fact refer to any speakers in particular, everybody simultaneously assumed they were talking about Ben Shapiro while at the same time being aghast at how anyone could possibly need counseling after hearing Ben Shapiro. Me thinks they protest to much. But more to the point: Berkeley regularly hosts speakers who will present ideas many on campus will disagree with. This week, David Hirsh is giving a talk on "Contemporary Left Antisemitism" -- surely, many on campus would resist his conclusions. Later this term, National Review editor Reihan Salam will be speaking on immigration policy -- with no known objections or protests planned.

So the problem isn't ideas people disagree with. The problem is Ben Shapiro, and Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. One doesn't invite them to campus because they're presenting important ideas which need to be reckoned with. There are plenty of conservatives who fit the bill, and when those conservatives show up they are typically met with little fanfare. But if you're inviting this contingent, you're doing it because you like hurting people. That's their comparative advantage, that's the thing they can offer over and above all of their competitors.

It neither bothers me, nor surprises me, nor offends me, that this offends certain students. If some portion of those students are in an emotional place right now where they feel like they need counseling, I encourage them to get it. If others want to protest the speech, I support their right to do so within the parameters of the law. If still others want to attend the speech, or subject Shapiro to harsh questioning, or pen scathing op-eds in the Daily Cal, I applaud them all for it. And each of these options got pride of place in Alivistos' email.

All of these are valid responses. None of them are worthy of scorn, none of them signal any deficiency in our student body. What is far more worrisome is the reaction of the so-called "adults" in the media, who have grown so fond of bashing kids-these-days that they've seemingly forgotten the need to reason, much less to empathize.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Roots of Hating DREAMs

In cancelling DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions positively cited our nations' immigration policy shift in 1924, when we enacted racial quotas to sharply limit immigration from "non-White" parts of the world. At that time, Jews were part of the "non-White" horde, and these new laws were integral in keeping out Jewish refugees attempting flee Nazi atrocities before and during World War II. It was a policy of death, enacted on a foundation of racism. No wonder Sessions loves it.

There probably aren't that many Jewish DREAMers today, but the Forward found at least one -- a young man from Venezuela who's lived in America since he was six. He came to this country legally along with his mother, who had a work visa. Unfortunately, when she died of cancer while he was still in elementary school, that visa was canceled without him being aware of it. This is just one example of many showing why the "rule of law" attack against DACA kids is utter nonsense. What exactly is the lesson supposed to be: "That will teach you to let your mom die of kidney cancer"? It's grotesque.

Attorney General Sessions said that, in ending DACA, we are not saying that DREAMer youth are "bad people." He's right. We're saying we are.

Americans have no birthright to a country we can be proud of. We write our own history. As Richard Rorty once observed: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." We decide what sort of country we are, and that means it's on our shoulders when the decision we make turns out to be ... this.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Who We Thought They Were, Part II

The headline said: "Why a Republican Pollster is Losing Faith in Her Party." I immediately thought: "I bet it's Kristen Soltis Anderson."

I was right.

I've known Kristen since high school -- we were on the debate circuit at the same time, albeit she a few years older than I. It's been a bit weird watching someone you know become, you know, an official Big Deal (fun fact: Washington Post reporter Bob Costa was also part of this same era of debaters -- the conservative Student Congress set has done very well for itself!). Kristen was always on the more moderate side of her party, and as a pollster had long been pushing reforms to the Republican Party to make it more appealing to young voters -- tamping down on right-wing social issues and focusing on matters of economic opportunity.

But the reason I knew this article was talking about Kristen wasn't because she's a moderate, per se. It's because as a pollster, I suspected Kristen would not be able to shrink from a reality that many others in her ideological camp -- more intellectual, moderate, thoughtful Republicans -- are somehow still in denial about:

The brand of politics represented by Donald Trump is, as of now, the dominant form of Republicanism in the United States.

It isn't an aberration. It isn't a hijacking. It isn't a tiny minority that's somehow taken over.

Most Republicans fundamentally like the things Donald Trump does and the politics he represents. And that includes him at his most wretched -- for example, the aid and comfort to the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Quoth Anderson:
Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Illinois Representative] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”
The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.
Polls showing Trump’s approval among young people falling to 25 percent or less justify her pessimism. And yet, as she noted, Trump’s approval among Republicans, while slightly eroding, remains at about 80 percent. Only one-fourth of GOP partisans criticized his handling of white-supremacist groups in a recent Quinnipiac University national survey.
That's the key point. Most Republicans of Anderson's political orientation simply won't admit that white nationalism is not some fringe phenomenon in their ranks. It is, as of now, the dominant position in Republican Party politics.

I can understand why Anderson thinks the Republican Party is worth saving. One could certainly say there are elements of conservative ideology that are not tied to White racist resentment and are worth preserving and defending. But those engaged in that project need to be honest about the status quo. And the status quo is that what drives the median Republican voter, right now, isn't economic opportunity or limited government or human liberty or any of the other markers that might justify an intellectually and morally defensible conservatism. It's a vicious form of identity politics that manifests in and celebrates things like DACA elimination, the Arpaio pardon, the transgender service ban, the Muslim immigration ban, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

They are exactly who we thought they were. Some recognize that now. Most remain in denial.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

These Are Jewish Trump Voters

If you asked me to describe a Jewish Trump voter without sparing the snark, I'd have trouble topping how they talk about themselves:
[Elise Freedman] fears “an elite globalist movement that has control over what we hear and what we read. I think there’s a deeper conspiracy going on with George Soros funding the antiestablishment organizations, from Black Lives Matter to Antifa.” The media “is complicit” in this scheme, she believes, adding that the White House contains “saboteurs” remaining from the previous administration who are undermining the president in their ongoing effort to bring him down.
What's extra wild is that they almost all say that the real worry is growing antisemitism on the left. And listen, left antisemitism is a real and scary thing we should all be attentive to. For example, we can justly worry that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, left antisemitism could evolve into people believing in a self-described "conspiracy" of "elite globalists", working hand-in-hand with the media and the deep state, using their Jewish money to undermine civilization as we know it.


Whither "The Good Place"?


NBC's comedy "The Good Place" returns soon for its second season -- excellent news for anyone who saw season one (if you haven't seen season one, stop reading this post -- because, again, *spoilers* -- and binge it on Netflix or Hulu). But it'll be interesting to see what direction it goes in its sophomore year.

The big twist at the end of the first season is that the titular "Good Place" was a lie. Eleanor and all of her friends were in "The Bad Place" all along -- the entire set-up was an elaborate construct to get them to torture each other while they all thought they were in paradise. Michael, the architect of their afterlife "neighborhood" and seeming friend and ally, was actually the puppetmaster behind it all.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the "person who seemed by all appearances to be an ally is actually the big bad!" twist genre (it almost completely ruined "Dollhouse", for example). The question is whether the character's behavior up to that point continues to make sense with the knowledge that they were secretly playing for the other side. Jill and I rewatched the first season yesterday (yes, we started and finished it in one day), and I think that Michael passes that test, albeit not with flying colors -- there are a lot of instances where it seems like he is (for lack of a better word) nicer than he should be given what his ultimate objectives are.

But one major alteration that this twist causes is that, from the audience's vantage, it dramatically changes the stakes for the characters. In the first season, the drama surrounding the core quartet was "would they be caught" and/or "would they be sent to the Bad Place". In season two, that drama will mostly be absent -- they already caught and they already  are in the Bad Place, even if they don't know it yet.

So I think the big shift in Season Two will be a reorientation of perspective towards Michael.

Of the main characters, Michael is the one we've gotten to know the least (if only because most of what we thought we knew about him was a façade). Moreover, if the stakes have functionally dropped for the quartet, for Michael they've risen astronomically. At the end of Season One he had to beg for the chance to reset his grand experiment, and while Shawn agreed he also warned Michael that he was "way out on a limb". And while we don't know if Michael's description of "retirement" was accurate, the way Shawn talks about it to Michael in private suggests that it may well be, and it represents the consequences if Michael does not successfully create his auto-torture machine this time around.

Meanwhile, Michael's gambit in round two is to separate the four torture targets from one another in the hopes that they don't form a merry band of support and mutual growth. But that also makes it harder for them to truly torture each other. Eleanor's new soulmate -- a hot but seemingly shallow mailman -- is exactly the sort of person she could settle down into, if not a truly "happy" existence, than at least a comfortable one that doesn't keep her perpetually on edge. I can imagine Season Two focusing on Michael's increasingly frantic efforts to ensure that his targets are unhappy without either giving up the ruse or building up a sufficient relationship between them to create a repeat of Season One.

In any event, I'm excited to see where "The Good Place" goes. It's one of the funniest and most creative shows on television, and the only place where one is likely to see characters reading books by T.M. Scanlon to boot. The question is whether it can maintain that momentum and emotional edge in the new world its written for itself. Color me optimistic.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Ideological Jewish Police Force"

I've long been struck by how the Jewish hard-right and the Jewish far-left mirror one another with respect to how they view the American Jewish mainstream. Think about it:
  • Both complain repeatedly about how they're supposedly excluded from mainstream Jewish conversations.
  • Both think most Jews are idiots and/or traitors for not backing them, and say so at every opportunity.
  • Both are seemingly baffled as to why most Jews don't like them, notwithstanding that they -- as per above -- think we're idiots and/or traitors and say so at every opportunity.
  • Both are bi-national curious.
This is a thought I've had for awhile, but it really sprang to the fore while reading this remarkable column by Nachama Soloveichik complaining of an "Ideological Jewish Police Force" targeting that poor, beleaguered minority -- the conservative Jew. Tell me, how familiar does this litany sound?
It is not pro-Jew to wield political ideology as a religious weapon. 
It is not pro-Jew to demand allegiance to a singular belief system. 
It is not pro-Jew to fan the flames of ant[i]-Semitism and anti-Zionism (often two sides of the same shekel) with disproportionate attacks on Israel. 
It is not pro-Jew to dictate what it means to be Jewish.
It even includes the ur-complaint: "[I]s there a danger in being too quick to label everything and everyone anti-Semitic?" (Donald Trump enters the oval office and suddenly everyone discovers their sense of nuance).

But even still. Leave out number three, and you've got the list of demands from every progressive Jew who objects to the community's alleged over-policing of left-of-center community members. It is a remarkable convergence -- one that makes me wonder if the author is even aware of it.

Color me dubious. But it remains the case that -- were it not for the fact that they hate each other -- ZOA-types and JVP-sorts would have quite a lot in common.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Boxing's Not Dying, You're Just "Colorblind"

I, of course, am watching the big fight tonight -- Miguel Cotto vs. Yoshihiro Kamegai. Why, what are you watching?

In all seriousness, I do think Mayweather/McGregor is a sideshow. That didn't stop me from putting money on Mayweather (half on Mayweather to win straight, and half on Mayweather plus the "over" on rounds), but as a boxing match it's only competitive if Mayweather has gotten old since his last fight. And that's not that interesting to me. While Cotto/Kamegai isn't exactly a toss-up fight, it should be exciting and at least it's a match-up of boxers. Plus it won't cost me $100.

But since we have another moment where boxing is in the public eye, I wanted to flag this article in the Washington Post about the future of the sport. For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that boxing is "dying", now restricted to an older fan base who are not interesting as advertising demographics. The real energy, the line goes, is behind MMA. And certainly, the latter sport has seen explosive growth over the past decade. But the WaPo article reveals that the CW about boxing has been largely misconceived. 18-29 year olds are the most likely to call themselves boxing fans (39%), and at similar rates to MMA (37%). Overall, boxing and MMA have roughly the same proportion of fans (25% for Americans call themselves MMA fans, 28% boxing fans).

So what's driving the narrative on boxing? While the article doesn't harp on this, the big difference is along the dimension of race. Non-whites are far more likely to consider themselves boxing fans than are whites. While just 17% of white people identify as boxing fans, for blacks that jumps to 52% and for Latinos its 61%. Amongst women, just 8% of white women are boxing fans, compared to 40% of nonwhite women (a significantly higher rate than the 25% of white men who characterize themselves as boxing fans).

To be sure, boxing was in some ways shooting itself in the foot by keeping so many of its big fights on premium cable networks or PPV, where younger fans often didn't have access to them. That consideration was a major factor in Top Rank's just-announced four year deal with ESPN, part of a larger shift in recent years of boxing over to basic cable and even network television.

But it's hard not to think that a large part of why people thought "boxing is dead" was because white people were less invested in the sport. Amongst black and Latino communities, boxing is still incredibly popular; it was just that their interest didn't "count" in assessing the vitality of the sport.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Free Speech and Emotional Injury

In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, decided City of Manchester v. Phelps-Roper. The case involved a city ordinance which prohibited picketing within 300 feet of a funeral service. The ordinance was challenged by (and pretty much aimed at) members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who had made a habit of protesting funerals of American soldiers because in their estimation God hates America for our various sinful practices (most notably tolerating homosexuality).

In an opinion by Judge Diana E. Murphy, the court unanimously upheld the ordinance as in keeping with the First Amendment. It was a decision that united both the court's liberals and its conservatives (though the Eighth Circuit is perhaps America's most ideologically lopsided court in terms its conservative bent -- Judge Murphy was at that point one of just two Democratic appointees on the court). I was clerking for Judge Murphy at the time, and I was proud to see the opinion released.

What immediately brought this back to mind was a decision earlier this month by a different Eighth Circuit panel upholding a similar Nebraska ordinance prohibiting picketing near funerals. But what I was particularly struck by, and what is germane to more current political controversies, was the rationale for why the ordinance was upheld.

America is famously absolutist in its free speech jurisprudence. Nonetheless, even absolutism is never quite absolute. Courts have allowed certain types of speech restrictions -- such as those which regulate only the "time, place, and manner" of speech without regard to its content -- albeit only after subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny. Such regulations must be "narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest" and allow for "ample alternative channels for communication."

Why did the ordinance in Manchester survive that test?
A significant governmental interest exists in protecting their privacy because mourners are in a vulnerable emotional condition and in need of "unimpeded access" to a funeral or burial....
Manchester’s ordinance only restricts protests for a relatively short period, tailored to encompass a mourner’s time of highest emotional vulnerability and no longer.
In the Nebraska case, the court similarly focused on the extreme emotional injury mourners are likely to suffer when encountering picketers at a funeral. It quoted expert testimony that "vulnerable mourners can suffer significant emotional injury due to the picketers’ presence," and concluded that "Mourners, because of their vulnerable physical and emotional conditions, have a privacy right not to be intruded upon during their time of grief."

None of this is counterintuitive, of course. When one is burying a parent, spouse, or child, the sheer emotional agony of having one's services disturbed by protesters screaming about how God hates you is simultaneously impossible to imagine and yet all too evident. Nobody finds it odd, or weak-willed, or oversensitive to assert that the emotional injury caused by this speech -- which is just speech, just pure unadorned words -- is very real. And a unanimous court -- conservative and liberal alike -- found that this injury, in this context, could support a type of restriction on speech.

I mention all of this because, as someone who identifies as a free speech absolutist, I have read far, far too many of my putative allies dismiss the entire concept of an "emotional injury" caused by speech as nothing but snowflake-millennial nonsense. What kind of coddled baby do you have to be to say that your emotional health justifies a restriction on free speech?

This retort, of course, is an effort to take a hard problem and turn it into an easy one. The reality is that we have no trouble recognizing that -- in the right circumstances -- speech can cause extreme emotional injuries to persons with perfectly strong wills and tolerant hearts. And if I can imagine the sort of extreme emotional anguish I can envision being triggered by some homophobic thugs protesting a family members' burial, perhaps I can also imagine that sort of anguish resulting from a public speaker at, say, a university declaring one's religious group vermin, or one's ethnic group's entire presence in America parasitic, or one's sexual identity a disease, or one's gender worth nothing beyond sexual gratification. And if I don't condemn the first of these as the product of "intolerance" or emotional fragility, then perhaps I ought not be so quick to attribute that malady to the others.

Yet regular readers of this blog know that I do not support efforts to ban such horrible, injurious speech on college campuses. Why not? What does the free speech absolutist say to all of this?

I say that the Manchester ordinance did not distinguish between "good" and "bad" picketing -- it was "content-neutral" and justified on the basis that funerals were not a place where it was necessary to support the full to-and-fro of political and social exchange. I observe that college campuses are not like that and cannot be made like that, because they are designed as forums for the exchange of ideas and there would be no way to regulate the emotional injury caused by some speech without making appraisals as to content. I note that neither Berkeley nor any other campus would want an ordinance prohibiting picketing within 300 feet of a university. I say that emotional distress is not just caused by unjustifiable speech, and that sometimes being shaken up or made anxious is an important part of the learning process. Finally, I say that the Manchester ordinance was justified not because the Westboro Baptist Church's speech was wrong (though I obviously think it was) but because nobody deserves to accosted that way at a funeral -- but college campuses are not like funerals.

What I do not say is that the emotional injury isn't real, or isn't serious, or exists only in the mind of millennial babies who have never had to deal with a contrary thought.

Speech can cause emotional injury -- real ones, genuine ones, whose gravity we recognize, whose damage can be severe, and whose harms are not always resolvable by "counterspeech". If one is a free speech absolutist, one has to accept that those injuries are sometimes the cost of preserving the free exchange of ideas. But to pretend that there is no cost is an exercise of denial. I know the piper I have to pay.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Re-Recognizing Racism: The Case of Tucson's Mexican-American Studies Litigation

A federal court invalidated an attempt by the state of Arizona to shut down a Mexican-American Studies curriculum in Tucson high schools, concluding that it was motivated by racial animus. The opinion is here, and it is just brutal on the primary architects of the law and its enforcement: Tom Horne and John Huppenthal.

What's striking about this opinion is that it doesn't flinch from the ascription of a racist motive. The program in question improved educational outcomes and was favorably reviewed in an audit ordered by the very officials whose avowed agenda was to destroy the department. Reviewing statements and practices by the major players behind the bill, the court's opinion concludes in no uncertain terms that the reason this law was passed and applied against Tucson's Mexican-American Studies program was because of bias against Mexican-Americans.

I strongly suspect that the willingness to make that determination is impacted by our current political climate. For all the whining that conservatives have engaged in about always being called a racist every which way, for the most part when it comes to official organs of government that had pretty much fallen off the table. There was an unspoken agreement that the "racism" charge was just too, well, mean to form the basis of high-level normative discourse.

And so, even a few years ago, for a federal judge to accuse a high-ranking state official of being motivated by racism would have been virtually unthinkable.  Courts dealing with racial discrimination suits would bend over backwards to couch their judgments in ways that would not be read as simply concluding that the defendants were being bigoted. Unfair, maybe; inconsistent, perhaps; unlawful, occasionally -- but not the dreaded "r" word. It wasn't seen as plausible that someone of prominence and prestige could be so crass as to be racist.

What's different now? One change is that conservatives on the Supreme Court have diced up our constitutional protections against racial discrimination such that only conscious, intentional discrimination qualifies. So judges who made have in past years relied on face-saving alternative rationales for invalidating discriminatory policies now have no choice but to say, flat-out, "this was done because of racial bias."

But I also think there's a greater psychological willingness to draw the inference of discrimination. The rise of Donald Trump demonstrated that explicit racial animus remained a live force in American politics, one that had a significant presence even amongst "elite" and "respectable" figures. Moreover, while in past years we might have worried about the backlash of flatly declaring a significant political figure racist -- how rude! -- now the calculus has changed. For it turned out that wearing kid-gloves around the racism issue in no way dissipated White racial resentment -- no matter how delicately one tip-toes around the issue, certain White people are just aching to thunder "are you calling ME a RACIST?". And so there's really not a lot of reason to beat around the bush anymore.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What's The Opposite of "Partisan"?

One of Paul Ryan's constituents, a local Rabbi, asked him if he'd support a resolution censuring President Trump for his grotesque "both sides" response to White supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Ryan declined, saying that the resolution would be "partisan".

Obviously that's a tremendously cowardly response, and if that was all to say on the matter it might not be worth remarking on. Paul Ryan is nothing if not a political coward.

No, what's more striking about it is that it's obvious nonsense. Allow me to break it down simply:

Democrats introduced a resolution censuring Donald Trump. If Paul Ryan, a Republican, supported that resolution, it wouldn't be "partisan". It'd be bipartisan. That's the opposite of partisan!

What Ryan means, I suspect, is that Democrats would benefit more politically than Republicans would from passing this resolution, even if it had supporters on both sides of the aisle. And that may well be true. But let's be clear: that's the partisan reasoning here. Sometimes doing the right thing in politics means doing when it's hard, or when it's uncomfortable, or when it helps the other side more than it helps you. If you're not willing to issue a clear denunciation of white supremacy and its apologists because you're worried about the electoral fallout, you're a coward, but you're an obvious partisan coward as well.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Being in the Room

MaNishtana, a prominent African-American Jewish writer, has a bracing but well-worth-it post on the (generally White) Jewish reaction to a racial justice march being scheduled for Yom Kippur. In some ways, I consider it to be part of the same conversation I was having in my "On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi" post, although the march here -- being focused on police violence -- is more specified than that.

MaNishtana makes several points, but the core observation is simple: Decisions are made by the people in the room. If even one reasonably-observant Jew or Jewish organization had been involved in the march's organization, they could have pointed out the conflict in advance -- prior to the public announcement of its date. What does it say about us that none of us were in that room? How does that comport with our supposedly fervent desire to be included?

This also relates to the Jewish complaints about Black Lives Matter (really, the Movement for Black Lives platform -- the fact that many of the critics don't know the difference again belies at least some of the sound and the fury). If it seems like they take a hostile stance towards matters important to Jews, can't that be explained at least in part based on who is showing up? This was Jonathan Zasloff's point and one I concurred with in my own assessment of the MBL platform language -- it was, in part, a case of being out-hustled. When Jews aren't present, people who don't really know or care about Jews (or worse, those actively hostile to Jews) get to set the agenda. That those groups beat us to the punch in terms of getting a critical mass of influence inside these emergent grassroots organizations is not something to be proud of.

I also think MaNishtana makes a critical point about the overreliance of White Jews on the legacies of 60s, and particularly Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. As he observes, this is starting to border on "Party of Lincoln" territory: "If your most significant proof of social engagement and moral uprightness is an event from *three* generations ago, then that is a problem, and you need to figure out why." I agree that it is time to retire the 1960s as proof of Jewish "showing up" for racial justice. It's time for us to make our own history.

So all of that is an endorsement of a necessary critique. Yet, in keeping with my other post, I still think it's important to provide the counterweight. In any conversation about who isn't "in the room", there are explanations that suggest the absent group doesn't really wish to be there, and there are explanations that focus on ways they might be deterred from showing up. In feminist history, there were many instances of predominantly white women's groups "unintentionally" marginalizing women of color, in ways that almost certainly never would have happened if women of color were "in the room" in any significant numbers. And some of the white women would then wonder why they weren't in the room -- didn't they know they were welcome? Didn't they know they were desired? This was taken as axiomatic; it wasn't even considered that there might be reasons why they weren't in the room and that they might not actually feel welcomed or desired.

It is true that many mainstream Jewish organizations simply were flat-footed in getting involved in movements like Black Lives Matter, and their absence is what let groups and persons with a more hostile tone towards Jewish concerns take the lead. Some of that is an issue of medium: Compared to the 1960s, Jewish political organizing has shifted significantly in an institutional direction -- large organizations which seek to connect with and influence other large institutional players through means like lobbying, amicus briefs, political donations, and so on (think AIPAC, ADL, AJC, and so on). These groups actually have solid connections with the institutional elements of the Black community (e.g., the NAACP, or the Congressional Black Caucus) -- one of the reasons why I think the supposed Black/Jewish crack-up is widely exaggerated -- but they are not well-geared towards handling incipient grassroots activism that for the most part did not proceed through these channels. Beyond whatever ideological differences they might have from more institutional Jewish groups, one reason groups like IfNotNow are gaining momentum is that they have the agility to be part of this style of grassroots, street-level activism, in  a way that the hulking behemoths of the Jewish community simply cannot match.

All that said, there absolutely were Jews who really did "show up early" for these causes -- and, importantly, there were non-trivial efforts to push out them out of the room. The case of St. Louis Rabbi Susan Talve is a clear instance of that. The Jews kicked out of the Chicago Dyke March were showing and had been for years. Ditto those at Creating Change -- by definition, they were showing up. Or consider the headline Stacey Aviva Flint got hit with in the Atlanta Black Star when she expressed her ambivalence towards the MBL platform due to its Israel language: "Black Jews Stood with ‘BLM’ Until It Questioned U.S.’ Unrelenting Support to Israel." It's not a universal by any means; indeed, as I noted in my last post there is a strong and significant tradition of African-Americans in particular rejecting efforts to leverage their political organizing as a fulcrum to marginalize or exclude Jews. Certainly, the narrative that African-Americans are especially bad on this issue is simply unsustainable. But in left spaces such exclusion happens often enough such that many Jews will be hesitant to jump into the unknown -- a hesitation that cannot be reduced down to simple white fragility.

All of this flows naturally from the same suppositions as above: decisions are made by the people in the room. The same logic that says Jews should be in the room if they want the decisions to reflect Jewish concerns also tells us that people who want to subordinate Jewish concerns should try to push Jews out of the room. And the logic of racial capitalism, in turn, explains why dissident Jewish factions (in these contexts, generally anti-Zionist Jews -- though in other spaces right-wing Jews occupy a similar role) are often the prime movers perpetuating this exclusion: excluding other Jews enhances the power of the remaining Jews in circumstances where it is symbolically important to have a Jewish presence (as "diversity", or as a bulwark against charges of antisemitism). Put another way: JVP tried to push out Rabbi Talve because a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Talve are present and active is one where JVP has less influence on BLM than a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Ralve are excluded. It is a rational political strategy.

So we shouldn't be surprised that there will be barriers to mainstream Jewish participation in these movements -- plenty of people have an incentive to throw those barriers up. This doesn't mean that such barriers are the whole story anymore than it means Jewish apathy to racial justice is the whole story. As I said, I'm presenting a counterweight, not a counterargument.

There's one further thought that sprang to mind on this. There is a tension between the logic of the "if you want to influence the decisions you have to be in the room" argument" and the normative request that Jews or other Whites ought not "police" POC-led initiatives. MaNishtana's critique posits that Jews should have had enough presence and power within the organization setting up a march for racial justice such that they could ensure that the date didn't fall on Yom Kippur. Fair enough. But surely we all know that there are other critiques of (particularly, but not exclusively White) Jewish standing in such spaces that focus precisely on our alleged propensity to take over the spaces -- to arrogate decision-making power to themselves in a way that impeded Black self-determination of their own struggle. This controversy was what lay behind the decision by SNCC to forbid Whites from holding leadership positions in the organizations (which led to the expulsion of several Jewish leaders). Years later, in the early 1980s, it led to a boycott of the class Jack Greenberg was co-teaching with Julius Chambers on race and the law at Harvard Law School. Greenberg had helped argue Brown v. Board, succeeded Thurgood Marshall as chief lawyer for the NAACP, and was founding member of MALDEF. He was certainly someone who had absolutely been "in the room"; whatever else the controversy might have been about it, it couldn't be about that. That said, Black students were not wrong to be concerned that Harvard's record of hiring Black professors was appalling, and that there was something especially grating about the implied suggestion that even in the field of race the only option was for the class to be (co-)taught by a White guy.

I don't want to simplify these stories -- I think they are complex, and I think often they were more a case of Jews being caught in the cross-fire of a valid impulse towards self-determination than any conscious desire for antisemitic exclusion. At the same time, I think Jews are particularly vulnerable to this sort of "critique" due to antisemitic tropes wherein the Jews is portrayed as all-powerful, all-controlling, conspiratorial, pulling the strings, taking over the movement, and so on. The result is a catch-22 where, too often, there is virtually no gap between "why aren't Jews showing up" and "why are Jews dominating the space?"

Any non-trivial Jewish presence and participation -- particularly when it takes a critical form -- will quickly be recoded in this way. Rosa Maria Pegueros recounts her experience on a email list for contributors to This Bridge We Call Home where two -- two -- messages mentioning Jewishness were enough to elicit complaints that the listserv was turning into (in Pegueros' words) "a forum for Jews." I can relate (the complaint discussed in that post about "excessive" focus on Jewish issues was triggered by my own stint guest-blogging at Alas, a Blog. Barry Deutsch, the owner of the site, observed that even with my contributions the number of posts tagged "racism" outnumbered those tagged "antisemitism" by more than an 8:1 margin). Reacting to the Creating Change fiasco, one Jewish commenter lamented the exclusionary impulse which tried to kick out Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ organizations, but was more concerned that the Jewish community was publicly and effectively organizing to resist it, sympathetically describing the sentiment of conference attendees "that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies." (What they were "dictating" was that an LGBTQ conference shouldn't arbitrarily and at the last minute exclude either Israeli LGBTQ organizations or the North American Jewish LGBTQ groups who partner with them).

Like with the last post then, my ending line is meant to be ambivalent. There absolutely is a propensity within the Jewish community to rest on the glory days of the 1960s as an excuse for why we need not do the hard work of jumping back into the racial justice fray today. That needs to stop, and while different people participate in the cause in different ways, simply venerating dead Jews who marched with King is not actually a form of participation. Yet a full look at why -- to the extent it is so -- Jews are hesitant to fully link up with contemporary social justice organizing has to critically engage with the full structure of antisemitic exclusion, an inquiry which necessitates a deep dive into how antisemitism and Jewish marginalization manifest historically and contemporaneously. It can, after all, be simultaneously true that some Jews don't want to participate in contemporary racial justice causes in any way beyond the perfunctory, and that others really are trying to "show up" but face genuine barriers, both prejudicial and structural. And on the situation of White Jews particularly, I firmly believe that an intersectional analysis that seriously looks into what Whiteness and Jewishness do to one another is the only way to get a clear handle on the actual circumstances being faced here.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Subbing Out Roundup

I took my final subfield exam today, in the History of Political Thought. For those of you who don't know, "subfield exams" were introduced as a means of exploring the "chicken" game: the student really doesn't want to study (for obvious reasons), and the examiner really doesn't want to fail the student (since that would necessitate writing and grading another exam). The equilibrium is for the student to level a deeply mediocre exam, and the examiner in turn to excoriate the student in comments before passing him or her. How it made the jump to Political Theory remains unknown.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm feeling good about my History of Political Thought Exam. But I am very tired, and about to hop on a plane to celebrate a friend's engagement. So ... roundup!

* * *

Leon Wieseltier on Charlottesville, Trump, and the alt-right. He doesn't pull punches. Definitely worth a read.

Somebody finally did a profile piece on rural people of color.

Fascinating article on Egyptian Israeli Arabs, and their strained relationship with a state nominally at peace with Israel.

Zachary Braiterman gives his spin on the perennial "are Jews White" topic.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why antisemitism needs to be seen as a distinct axis of oppression.

Very much enjoying this article by Rae Langton on "Blocking as Counterspeech."

What's worse than refusing to pay out valid worker's compensation claims to undocumented immigrants? Refusing it and using the claim as an excuse to deport them from the country. Grotesque.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hungry for Apples?

There's an episode of Rick & Morty where Rick is trapped in a simulation by alien scammers seeking to steal some of his scientific discoveries. But somehow, Rick's idiot son-in-law, Jerry, is in the simulation too. Not wanting to be distracted from the primary mark, the aliens cap Jerry's part of the simulation at 5% power and let him be.

The result is a "simulation" of a human experience that is comically skeletal. Jerry's coworkers respond to every question with a simple "yes!" A few pedestrians (bodies reused) speak a single phrase on loop when they're not phasing into and out of trees. The radio plays "human music", a series of isolated beeps and boops.

Jerry loves it. He "sells" an ad campaign ("Hungry for Apples?"), has sex with his barely-mobile wife ("the best sex I've ever had!"), even talks himself into a promotion and an award for his apples slogan. Eventually, he declares it not just the best, but the most meaningful day of his life -- at which point simulation suddenly ends. Jerry is devastated; Rick patronizingly consoles him by asking "So what if the most meaningful day in your life was a simulation operating at minimum complexity?"

I was thinking about this in relation to the Russian bots which spread pro-Trump and pro-Putin propaganda throughout the right-wing ecosystem. The people who write these posts can barely speak English. They by design have no grasp on reality. It's not just that they appeal solely to people's baser instincts, it's that they appeal to these instincts in a transparently moronic way. They are a simulation of political reality, running at 5% complexity.

And yet a huge chunk of Americans are never happier than when they are gobbling it up. They love this. It's not just that they don't realize that it's all fake. It's more pathetic than that: they've never found more meaning than that which they get from automated Russian twitter accounts spitting out half-literate reactionary fantasies too stupid for Rush Limbaugh to run.

Basically, Trump's base is a bunch Jerrys. That was today's epiphany.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Two Jewish Stories

No substantial commentary. Just felt like linking to the following stories about some very different Jews.

Ha'aretz does a feature where they interview people coming and going at Israeli airports. This one features a discussion with a Ugandan Jew who just finished his first trip in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Forward ran a piece by a woman raised in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel who ended up attending Wellesley, and what happened when her father came to visit her at college.

Both  are interesting reads. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi

The second job I wanted to be when I grew up was a cartoonist (the first was omelet chef at a Marriott. Little kids have weird goals). I loved Calvin & Hobbes, and later Dilbert, Doonesbury, Foxtrot, The Boondocks, and many others. My ambition, alas, quickly foundered against the reality that I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But occasionally I still draw cartoons in my head (where their artistry and technical virtues are unimpeachable).

My most recent imagined cartoon is set in Auschwitz, 1944, where a portal opens up and a time-traveler steps through. It is a literal "Social Justice Warrior" -- from the future, armed to the teeth, and ready and eager to "punch some Nazis". After completing his task, some Jewish inmates approach to thank him for rescu--


He clocks them too. "Did I say 'Zio-Nazis excepted'?"

I was thinking about this after reading this tweet by Ferrari Sheppard, where he says "Can't be anti Nazi pro Israel."

I read that tweet, in turn, shortly after reading this thread by Sophie Ellman-Golan urging White Jews to "join" the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence we saw in Charlottesville.

It is, she says, a fight Jewish institutions have been "shamefully late" in adopting as our own.

I reflect on this, and I'm torn. My thoughts are scattered; they fly all over the place.

Consider the ADL -- called out by name by Ellman-Golan. I recall excoriating them for selling out liberal Jews in their appalling silence on David Friedman's "kapo" comments. Then I think of the immense pressure the ADL has come under from the right, which accuses it of taking too hard a line on right-wing racism. I remember the shamefully equivocating tweet ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt put out yesterday, drawing equivalence between Nazi and "antifa" violence. Then I remember the following tweet thread which was so much better. I also remember how a sizable chunk of the negative responses to Greenblatt's original equivocation somehow managed to work "Israel" into the message -- because that's what it's always about, isn't it? I consider how it seems many of the ADL's critics are eager, even happy, to infer the worst about it. They like the idea of "Jews who don't really oppose Nazis". They seem to revel in the idea that the Jews aren't anti-Nazi to their satisfaction.

The Jewish community -- institutionally and otherwise -- is a varied and diverse bunch. That variation and diversity applies as much to our presence in social justice organizing as anything else. The explanations for this diversity will be similarly varied.

After all, I, too, have written fusillades decrying the tepidity of many Jewish groups in calling out the ascendant tide of right-wing racism. So clearly I concur there's a problem here.

At the same time, I also think that there's something truly grating at the idea that Jews have to prove themselves "anti-Nazi." Mia Steinberg wrote something very telling about how this debate plays out for Jews: "Instead of 'would I have stood up to Nazis in WW2', the thought experiment for me has always been 'would I have survived?'" The Holocaust was not an arena for Jews to prove our moral valor, and when our reaction to Nazism doesn't adopt appropriately heroic tones that is not proof of Jewish "complicity" in anything. The celerity with which people seem eager to tell Jews we're the new Nazis, or we don't care about Nazis, or we're not responding to Nazis in a way that gives non-Jews sufficient confidence that we're really anti-Nazi, is degrading and infuriating.

Yet again -- I can't fully go down that road either. Surely, the groups like ZOA who have explicitly lined up behind the Trump/Bannon alt-right wing have no moral legs to stand upon. And even as I bow to no one in downplaying the seriousness of the growing clouds of antisemitism, Ellman-Golan is simply right -- I refuse to tolerate people denying this -- that in its current manifestation in the United States Black people are more violently targeted by the forces of White supremacy than are Jews. That doesn't mean Jews aren't targeted, and aren't targeted in ways that are worthy of genuine fear and concern. But it is not wrong for there to be a focus on racist violence, so long as that focus doesn't come via denying the reality of antisemitic violence.

But  (once more around, and here's where I really want to land) can we honestly say -- unblinking, looked-in-the-eye, full-stop -- that when Jews don't throw themselves into these movements that the primary explanation ought to be "because Jews don't care about Nazism"? Can we be so confident that the movements in question "will fight for us"? The fact of the matter is, too often Jews -- from Chicago Dyke March to Creating Change to Slutwalk -- do try to participate in these movements, and are cast out, or turned aside, or subjected to humiliating ideological litmus tests where we're guilty until proven anti-Zionist. That's part of the reason -- not the sole reason, but part of the story -- why I shy away from protest movements. I don't know that they "will fight for us". That is not something that simply can be wedged into our presuppositions as a demanded default. Much the opposite:
As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 
It grates when this is denied, when people act as if the only reason Jews "don't show up" for social justice (to the extent that we don't) is because we're too indifferent or too fragile or too embedded in our own privilege to really care. Such a view doesn't take seriously real practices of exclusion; it assumes them away because it takes "they will fight for us" as an axiom rather than a (often quite dubious) proposition that must be demonstrated. It's the "why do all the black people sit together in the cafeteria" question of Jewish social activism. If Jews are "late" to the social activist party -- and I don't necessarily concede that we are -- perhaps part of the reason is that social convention requires a truly grotesque amount of preparation, costuming, covering, hedging, eliding, and self-effacing before the Jew is admitted through the doors. It's exhausting. And it's hard to blame people for not wanting to show up, when those requirements are allowed to persist unexamined.

Finally, when talking of these exclusions we should be clear that this is not even primarily, let alone solely, a POC thing. Indeed, Black people in America have consistently demonstrated their intolerance of antisemitism and their willingness to stand with Jews against antisemitism even in their own community. That history has to be part of the story too. The story of Black-Jewish relations simply isn't -- much as conservative hagiographers might wish it so -- one of self-sacrificing Jews altruistically defending civil rights only to be sold down the river by ungrateful African-Americans who dived headfirst into antisemitic conspiracy-mongering.

What it boils down to is this:
  • Jews are genuinely threatened by the rise of the alt-right. This is a movement that affects us in a real, tangible way -- not as allies, not as "fragile" White people, but as a vulnerable group that is genuinely imperiled by these social forces. Acting as if Jews don't have skin in this game is a form of antisemitism denial.
  • Currently, the tangible manifestations of extreme-right identity politics have a greater impact on the material conditions of black and brown lives than they do that of White Jews. That assessment in no way falsifies the first bullet point.
  • All non-Jews, to varying degrees, benefit from the social privileges and prerogatives that exist under conditions of antisemitic domination. This assessment in now way falsifies the second bullet point, it merely establishes a kyriarchical relationship where (in the contemporary American context) racial domination has greater punch than also-extant antisemitic domination does.
  • The relationship between (proximately-European) Jews and Whiteness is a complex one. Such Jews clearly do not enjoy an unadulterated White privilege (as the seething hatred of White supremacists makes clear). But it is also clear that we enjoy a great many of these privileges and prerogatives on a day-to-day basis. While possession of these privileges does not falsify the existence of antisemitism, neither does experiencing antisemitism falsify the existence of these privileges.
  • Some Jewish groups have been derelict in their duties to combat this right-wing menace. It is our obligation as Jews to insist that our communal representatives fight against far-right extremist movements both because they threaten us as Jews and because they threat others -- Black people, brown people, queer people, and more -- who may or may not be Jewish.
  • To the extent that some Whites Jews haven't partaken in anti-right resistance movements in the stock ways typically demanded of White allies, the explanations that apply to White people generally who don't "show up" are not always inapposite. But they are frequently incomplete, and a serious conversation needs to be had about the politics of antisemitic exclusion that afflicts Jews who very much do wish to be involved in left-wing activist spaces or otherwise participate in contemporary progressive politics. This conversation cannot take "they will fight for us" as an axiomatic entitlement.
Do these not fully fit together? Then they don't fully fit together. As I said, I'm torn. I don't claim to fully fit together on this.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Nothing About Charlottesville is Shocking

People keep saying they're "shocked" by what's happening in Charlottesville.

Or they're shocked by the failure of the President to give a clear, unambiguous condemnation of White supremacist and neo-Nazi violence. I saw someone on TV say he "could not understand" how the President of the United States could sit back and keep quiet on vicious White nationalist violence done as part of his movement and in solidarity with him.

I don't find it shocking. I don't find it difficult to understand at all. It's only shocking, it's only hard to understand, if one cannot allow yourself to fathom racism as a live explanation.

We've made it so that "racism" is a charge so serious it cannot be spoken. It's so extreme that the very fact that an event is happening in America or a person of even moderate prominence is saying something automatically falsifies the hypothesis. And so when overt racism crashes to the surface, we're left dumbfounded -- unable to understand. This thing that by stipulation cannot be, is. And so we're shocked.

We shouldn't be. Objectively, there's nothing shocking about a country which has been explicitly White supremacist in structure for far longer than it's even been nominally egalitarian seeing White supremacy manifest. There's nothing shocking about a people who have never been forced to seriously reckon with having committed treason-in-defense-of-slavery to proudly carry up that mantle today. There's nothing shocking about a political movement that was built entirely around "White racial resentment" showing the colors of "White racial resentment."

Likewise, there's objectively nothing shocking that a man who rose to political prominence via racist demagoguery and conspiracy-mongering being fine with racism. There's nothing shocking that a President who craves adoration and is adored by nobody more than White supremacists will side with his adorers. There's nothing shocking that Mr. "Obama was born in Kenya" and "grab 'em by the pussy" and "build that wall" and "total shut down of Muslim immigration" and "sheriff's star" will act exactly how he's always acted, every time he's had the opportunity to do so.

Nothing about Charlottesville should shock us. It is entirely in keeping with the character of the ascendant political movement in America, the one that currently helms the Republican Party, the one that currently occupies of the office of President of the United States. To be "shocked" at this is to be in willful denial of the reality in front of us. It is symptomatic of a sort of pale innocence that, as Baldwin put it, itself constitutes the crime.
As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battlesmoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived,—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted. Here is whither the might and energy of modern humanity has really gone.
-- W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of White Folk," Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920).
I always found it a disservice that we only read Du Bois at his most conciliatory. His later work has more bite and more sting. Does his indictment hurt? Do you find it too simple or too sweeping? Well don't boo -- vote! It has always been in the power of White folks to falsify this hypothesis. We had the option in Reconstruction, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 1920, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 2016, and we didn't take it.

There are of course other moments when we came closer to taking it; Du Bois, sadly, didn't live to see them. We can be proud of those moments, but can we honestly deny that they were our aberrations? We can, actually, but it is up to us to supply the proof -- not by reaching back into a glorified history, but by stretching forward and crafting a future that is so consistently egalitarian, so bereft of racial strife and struggle, that we could justly say that a future Charlottesville is an act of madness. It's possible. Such is the virtue of democracy, that it always continues to be in our power.

But that is a possible future, and if present trend lines hold not the most probable. Right now, there's nothing shocking.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Boycott .... or Else

One interesting but often-overlooked aspect of the debate over the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott act is how it merges two very distinct cultural arenas where Israel boycott politics play out. In the United States, the BDS movement is (for the time being) largely about individuals or small organizations making their own decisions of conscience. Now to be clear, one can make a bad decision "of conscience" -- a baker who refuses, as a matter "of conscience", to bake a cake for a gay couple would be a great example. So I don't mean that as an apologia.

What I mean is that Israel-boycotters, in the US, are making a decision that by and large is not tied to state-coercive power. That may well be less the result of any principled limitations and more because prospective boycotters do not have the political power to enlist state-coercive power, but it is a descriptive quality that is fairly noted. Likewise, the line between "boycotts" or "conscience" and "discrimination" is a thin one (as the anti-gay cake-bakers demonstrate). But there is at least a plausible claim that liberty allows one to expressively refuse to associate with those one hates -- even if one's hatred is nothing but hatred, even if the expression is naught but prejudice.

Internationally, things are different. "Boycotting" Israel, in many parts of the world, is an exercise of governmental-diktat, a feature of state coercion and an impediment to human liberty. Iran, for example, just handed down a lifetime ban against two soccer players who (while on the roster of a Greek team) participated in a match against an Israeli squad. Another Iranian journalist just was granted asylum in Israel after Iran threatened to prosecute her for "spying" due to her publication of articles in an Israeli newspaper. A Bangladeshi politician was charged with sedition after meeting with an Israeli official in neighboring India; Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and citizens are forbidden from traveling there. The original law that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act is modifying was addressed to the latter problem -- states which were seeking to mandate a boycott against Israel as an exercise of coercive state power (in my post, I discuss this as the secondary boycott problem).

In these contexts, the movement to boycott Israel takes on a (more) unambiguously illiberal bent. It's primary function is as an annex to state repression. To speak of the movement to boycott Israel as an international movement without considering these contexts is badly incomplete. To be sure, one can, I think, defend the right of individuals to boycott whomever they like as a form of free expression (subject, of course, to the difficult parsing that requires vis-a-vis anti-discrimination requirements -- a parsing that itself has not been addressed with requisite seriousness). But a discourse about boycotts that takes "free speech" as its foundation but which does not account for these cases is fundamentally dishonest. The fact that the movement to boycott Israel has, in its original (and longest-standing) manifestation taken such a clearly oppressive form is something that should be dwelled upon.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Israel's First Arab Supreme Court Justice Retires

Salim Joubran, the first Arab Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, has retired (he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70).

I had the pleasure of getting to hear Justice Joubran speak at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was an engaging and witty presenter (I particularly liked his musings on what would happen if he became the deciding vote in a case determining "who is a Jew" under Jewish law). As a Justice, he's been a defender of gay rights and a skeptic of Israel coddling illegal outposts in the West Bank. He's also been, unsurprisingly, the subject of attacks from right-wing ultras, but hearteningly he was backed by none other than Bibi himself (and other Likud heavy-hitters).

Best wishes to Justice Joubran on his retirement.