Friday, October 21, 2016

Trump is not an Act of God

I have, believe it or not, Republican friends (yes -- even here in Berkeley!). None of them "like" Donald Trump, so to speak. For some, that manifests in much the same way that grouchy Sanders voters feel about Clinton -- certainly not their ideal candidate, and they're happy to give off a laundry list of shortcomings, but not manifestly distinct from any other politician on their side of the spectrum who they view as unideal.

But others are very much on the #NeverTrump train, and have reacted to his nomination with a sort of staggered shellshock. They feel genuinely betrayed, completely adrift. Trump is not just an "unideal" candidate, he is the antithesis of everything that they identify with as conservatives.

I do feel bad for these people. Seriously -- I do. And it's worth noting that many of them have endured appalling levels of abuse -- grotesque, threatening, vicious abuse -- for their stance. I don't want to downplay that. But I'm watching and waiting to see if they will really come to terms with the fact that Trump is their baby. Not them, personally, but he is the outcropping of specific choices that Republicans have made over the past eight years (at least). He is not a bolt of lightning. He is not an act of God. He is not (to take the most pathetic rationalization of all) a "Democrat" (there are all manner of ways I could respond to "Trump is a Democrat", but my first instinct is simply to retort "yet note how we managed not to nominate him!").

Donald Trump -- racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, bolstered by the alt-right and trumpeted by the anti-Semites -- is what you get when you spend years playing wink-and-nod with racist conspiracy theories while loudly dismissing any objections as just  "playing the race card." Donald Trump -- paranoid, conspiratorial, unwilling to straight-forwardly commit to accepting the validity of an election he loses -- is what you get when you whip up an unsubstantiated frenzy about epidemics of "voter fraud." Donald Trump -- abjectly unconcerned with facts and openly derisive towards truth -- is what you get when you convince your followers that the media, academia, empirical research, and scholarly inquiry are all thinly-disguised liberal Trojan horses. Donald Trump -- out of control, completely unconstrained by Republican leaders (to say nothing of basic norms of decency), standing at the head of a movement that seems ready to burn it all down -- is what you get when you gleefully celebrate your base taking on the characteristics of an establishment-smashing mob.

It was very clear that many Republican elites thought they could tap into these sentiments and keep them under control. They convinced themselves that "everyone" knew it was rhetoric, it was hyperbole, it was red meat, it wasn't serious, it wasn't representative, it was only a few rubes or hot-heads who actually believed it. Until it wasn't. Until it turned out that most of the base did believe it. Donald Trump is the fruit of a decade of Republican labor. It is easier and more comforting to view him as a divine calamity, particularly for those for whom the Trump movement -- like the Frankenstein's monster it most resembles -- has turned on them with a vengeance. But his emergence is not cloaked in any mystery. And until my shellshocked Republican friends forthrightly grapple with how Donald Trump came to be the representative of contemporary American conservatism, they will never be able to either launch an effective counterattack or -- and this might be what is necessary -- accept that the contemporary conservative movement can no longer be their home.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

More Grading Roundup

In the middle of a paper-grading binge. That means it's roundup time!

* * *

The conservative Arizona Republic endorsed Hillary Clinton. It got death threats in response. Its reply is a stirring defense of First Amendment values that deserves to be circulated widely.

The Washington Post has a fascinating profile on Derek Black, a young man who was raised in the White Supremacist movement and was considered a rising star in that community, who has since come to repudiate his old beliefs. The turning point was when -- after his racist affiliations became known to his college classmates -- an Orthodox Jewish classmate took it upon himself to invite Black to Shabbat dinners. It's a beautiful and touching story about how courageous acts of kindness really can make a difference even in very dark places.

The recent UK parliamentary report on anti-Semitism is a masterclass on how its done. It begins by adopting the MacPherson principle (that the starting point for when something ought to be deemed racist is when a member of the targeted group perceives it as such) for when it is appropriate to consider an anti-Semitism claim, which is correct; it then observes that more than just subjective sentiment of the aggrieved party is necessary to sustain a complaint of anti-Semitism, which is also correct. As Anshel Pfeffer put it: "British Anti-Semitism Report Declares War on ‘Goysplaining.’" I highly encourage everyone to read it in full.

Someone just sent me a link to Unite for Palestine, which is basically the internecine (and inverted) version of the Canary Mission -- an attempt by one wing of pro-Palestinian activists to name-and-shame anyone in their movement who is too concerned about anti-Semitism. JVP is a favored target, which is deliciously predictable.

"First they came for Assange." Then, maybe, they'll come for some other accused sexual predators. We can only hope.

UNESCO formally adopts resolution denying Jewish connection to its own holy sites. In conclusion, it's inexplicable why the Israeli government doesn't heed UN resolutions which are only interested in attaining peace and justice throughout the region.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Mother Jones' Very Familiar Haim Saban Article

Today, I came across a very long investigative piece in Mother Jones by Andy Kroll of The Nation Institution on the connections between Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban and Hillary Clinton. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but think it sounded very familiar. Was it an older article, moved to the top of MoJo's front page because it became topical? No, it's slated for the magazine's November/December 2016 issue. Did I somehow come across an early release copy? I don't think so -- where would I have gotten my hands on that? Yet the feeling persisted and persisted, until I got to this segment:
Saban says he still believes in a two-state solution, but his all-consuming concern is defending Israel and fortifying its relationship with the United States. "For me," he said several years ago, "bringing the American president closer to the people of Israel is a life goal."
One year at the Saban Forum, an annual conference featuring top officials and public figures from the United States and Israel (with the odd Arab leader), the mogul outlined his three-pronged approach for influencing American politics: fund political campaigns, bankroll think tanks, and control the media. In addition to the Saban Forum, he funded a Brookings Institution research center focused on US-Israeli relations. He has tried for years to buy media outlets in the United States and Israel; it wasn't a profit he was after, per se, but "a return with influence," as he once told a journalist.
That did it: I knew I had seen something like that line before (right down to "control the media"). And so I looked into it, and realized I had indeed read such an article -- in 2010 in the New Yorker, where Connie Bruck had published her own long profile piece on Saban. Compare the passage above to one from that article:
[Saban] remains keenly interested in the world of business, but he is most proud of his role as political power broker. His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His “three ways to be influential in American politics,” he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets. In 2002, he contributed seven million dollars toward the cost of a new building for the Democratic National Committee—one of the largest known donations ever made to an American political party. That year, he also founded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C. He considered buying The New Republic, but decided it wasn’t for him. He also tried to buy Time and Newsweek, but neither was available. He and his private-equity partners acquired Univision in 2007, and he has made repeated bids for the Los Angeles Times.
Huh. Yes, I'd say "familiar" is one way to describe the relationship between those two passages. (The New Yorker profile is mentioned -- but not linked to -- once much deeper in Kroll's essay, on an unrelated point). That's probably the most stark overlap, but by and large Kroll's piece reads as basically a slightly rewritten and updated rehash of Bruck's older profile.

While we're on the subject, I remain curious about the "control the media" line. Obviously, "politically active Jewish billionaire says he wants to 'control media outlets'" is rather fraught territory to tread on. It would be one thing if Saban actually said as much -- and hey, brash Hollywood executives have been known to say alarming things -- but you'll note that it isn't actually placed in quotations (the "three ways to be influential in American politics" are apparently a direct quote, but the actual list is Bruck's paraphrase).

Kroll doesn't give a source for his own paragraph -- it certainly seems to track Bruck's closely -- and now we have two sources attributing to a powerful Jewish figure a desire to "control the media" without any indication of what, precisely, Saban said. And again -- maybe he did use the word "control". But the lack of a direct quote here is noteworthy given the decision to describe his position in terms that smack of a classic anti-Semitic trope. If Kroll -- who matter-of-factly describes Saban's "divided loyalties" in his very third paragraph -- has a direct quote from Saban wherein he says he wants to "control the media", he should provided it. If he simply is cribbing from Bruck's prior work, he should say so.

I have no particular desire to laud or indict Haim Saban. I find him an intrinsically interesting figure for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is his Egyptian-Jewish background -- given about a paragraph's worth of relatively similar attention in both essays), but his politics are more hawkish than my own and the beneficence of his influence is no doubt mixed. But I don't think it's too much to ask that an essay holding itself out as a major piece of novel investigative journalism should do more than give a glorified update of another profile published six years ago.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Midwest's Racial Incarceration Problem

Sometimes, when we talk about racial injustice in America, we instinctively think about the American South. And sometimes, when trying to check that instinct, we say things like "sure, things are worse in the South -- but it's actually a problem nationwide."

But it's not always the case that the South is the worst offender. A very interesting post about comparative racial incarceration rates indicates that it may be the upper Midwest -- embodied by my beloved Minnesota -- that actually has the greatest incarceration problem.

The first graphic perhaps bolsters our intuitive notions about the South -- its overall incarceration rate seems far higher than the rest of the country. But if we zoom in solely on the Black male incarceration rate, that gets blurrier.

Here the evidence is more mixed: Some Southern states (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana) continue to do poorly -- but they're joined by states like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. But even this graphic might be misleading, since it doesn't provide a comparative account of how many Black men are in jail versus their White fellows. Oklahoma, for example, seems to throw everyone in prison -- so it stands to reason that it puts a lot of Black people in prison too.

This graphic showcases the Black incarceration rate as compared to the White incarceration rate in each state. And here we can see how the center of gravity shifts decisively to the north, and particularly the upper-Midwest. Minnesota, for example, doesn't really imprison that many people -- but if you are in jail, you're almost certainly Black (or another racial minority -- Minnesota distinguishes itself for having a massive disparity not just for African-Americans, but for Latinos and Native Americans as well).

Now to be sure, we can debate whether the most important metric is the overall percentage of Black men put in prison, or the comparative Black/White figures. One could object that it is strange to excuse Oklahoma's mass incarceration of Black men by observing that it imprisons a ton of White men too. Much of the South performs "well" in the last graph simply because it has elected to pursue a mass incarceration strategy for everybody, and it's hardly a given that this decision is worth lauding. But certainly, these comparative figures are a relevant data point. And they're one where the South significantly outperforms many of its northern peer states. Those of us interested in racial justice need to own up to that.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Resolved: Trump-Supporting Jews Can Never Call Other Jews "Self-Hating"

Donald Trump's latest speech was notable for basically being a "best-of" compilation of anti-Semitic dogwhistles: A mysterious cabal of "international bankers" who are pushing for "radical globalization" and who have "virtually unlimited" financial, political, and media resources. This was after his second debate performance, where virtually every name he dropped as part of the nefarious Clintonite conspiracy was a Jewish one (Blumenthal, Soros, Gruber....). And that, in turn, follows from his more-or-less explicit promotion of a rabidly anti-Semitic alt-right led by David Duke and an array of other neo-Nazis whom Trump has barely brought himself to disavow.

Yet despite this, Donald Trump still has Jewish supporters. We shouldn't overstate the extent of this -- Jews on the whole are overwhelmingly Democratic to begin with, and even among Republicans Jews have been prominent members of the #NeverTrump movement. I simply observe that Trump continues to have some Jewish supporters. The Republican Jewish Coalition still hasn't pulled their endorsement, for example. Sheldon Adelson remains a high-profile backer. And the New York Jewish Week, in the course of endorsing Hillary Clinton for President (it's first endorsement in its history), especially chided the Orthodox Jewish community for being willing to back a candidate that so openly flouts their purported values of "piety, modesty in terms of sexual contact and respect for leaders with spiritual and intellectual authority."

So these Jews exist, albeit as a small minority of the whole. And to those Jews whom -- after all the contempt that Trump has ladled onto our community and our values -- continue to support Trump, I'll simply say this. I would never call you a "self-hating Jew". I loathe that term; I virtually never use it, and I won't use it here. But if you vote for Trump, you forfeit the right to ever call other Jews "self-hating".


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Strength, Repentance, and Jewish Diasporism

What is complete repentance? It is so when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offense and the offender refrains from doing so because he has repented, not out of fear or lack of strength.” -- Maimonides

To be contrite in our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection. -- Abraham Joshua Heschel

Another Yom Kippur has concluded, and as my dad likes to say, the best part is that we're never farther away from another Yom Kippur than we are at this moment. A favored pastime of Jewish intellectuals this time of year is to point out various sins of the Jewish community as a whole -- Israel is a frequent target, though not the only one -- and urge repentance.

I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, framed properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, my home Rabbi gave a compelling sermon about the need to create a positive Jewish spiritual identity that went beyond "survive!", arguing that our communal Jewish institutions had given my generation the short shrift by failing to conceptualize Judaism as anything other than Fackenheim's 614th Commandment (a Commandment which, to be fair, actually does resonate with Millennial-generation-me). Repentance is about becoming better than we were before, and it's never a bad thing for the Jewish community to be better. The idea of being a "light unto nations" imposes a heavy burden on ourselves, but one we should be proud of striving towards even as we know our light could always shine brighter.

I thought about this while reflecting on Mira Sucharov's thoughtful column about the new "non-Zionist" synagogue that recently opened in Chicago. As Sucharov observes, the synagogue is not really "non-Zionist" in the way that she is a "non-NFL fan". It is by no means indifferent to Zionism. It has very strong opinions about Zionism and Israel generally. In a sense, they care a lot about Israel (in the same way that Sucharov does). But in a sense, it seems quite different. Perhaps they "care" about Israel in the same way they "care" about North Korea: "they simply think that Israel is responsible for a significant amount of evil in the world, and are working to try and rectify it -- there is no sentimentality behind it, anymore than efforts to end North Korean brutality are motivated by deep caring about North Korea."

Maybe that pushes too far -- the synagogue does seem to "care" especially about Israel because it is Jewish. But even here, the linkage to Jewishness is of a contingent and regretful kind: they don't want Israel to change so that it becomes a better emblem of Jewishness in the world, they view it as objectionable that it represents Jewishness to begin with -- that it is a Jewish state. They're concerned with Israel because it gives Jews a bad name, but they don't otherwise view Israel as legitimately part of a Jewish future. Instead, the synagogue is based around the concept of "Diasporism" -- that the Jewish home is everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because Jews should view their home as wherever they happen to reside. Nowhere, because there is no particular spot -- Israel included -- that we can claim as ours.

The ideal Jewish role in diasporism is a critical one -- we imagine ourselves as the conscience, the gadfly, the light unto that nation. Sometimes, of course, diasporism keeps us busy simply to remain a surviving group, a clinging-by-the-fingernails group, a deeply marginalized and vulnerable group. By definition we are not the dominant group, the powerful group, the in-control group. We certainly are not the oppressor group.

Prior to the establishment of Israel, the Jewish existence was diasporic. It did, largely, take on the qualities identified above. It can and is romanticized, of course -- more focus on the first sentence (conscientiousness and critique) and less on the second (vulnerability and marginalization). The reason diasporism failed in the 20th century is that, between the roughly 50 years of having a state and 50 years of not having one, Zionism decisively beat diasporism on the all-important "not nearly being annihilated in a cataclysmic genocide" scoreboard. But there is no question that having a state, having a place where Jews were more than just a critical voice but voice, a dominant voice, an in-control voice, a powerful voice was a very novel experience for Jews. And one upshot of having power is abusing that power. Of using that power to deeply, seriously, significantly wrong others. As Israel as done. As happens with power. Power gives one the opportunity to do things: terrible things and great things alike. The same dynamic that allows Jews to govern ourselves rather than exist as supplicants, also allows us to dominate others rather than coexist in equality. The same dynamic that allows Jew to save ourselves rather than pray for salvation, also allows us to hurt others rather than to respect their dignity. The coin of power allows either and both to be purchased -- one cannot have the opportunity for one without the opportunity for the other.

Diasporism sees Jewish wrongs -- genuine wrongs -- and yearns to go back to a time when Jews didn't act that way. And it is true: before there was an Israel, there was also no occupation, no Gaza incursions, no military law over Palestinians, no West Bank barrier, and so on. Jews in the diaspora did not need to worry about occupying anyone; we had no nation that could occupy. We would never be responsible for promulgating unjust laws; the laws were not ours to promulgate. We had no risk of significantly hurting others; the hand on the sovereign sword was not ours. Even our uprisings and resistances were blessed in their hopelessness. In Max Weber's terms, we could live a pure ethics of conviction, with zero concern for the ethics of responsibility. There is no true responsibility in diaspora, nothing really falls on our shoulders.

Diasporism is, at root, the Jewish fear of Jewish power. It knows that powerful Jews have the potential to be bad Jews -- in fact, it sees powerful Jews acting as bad Jews -- and its solution, its teshuvah, is to give up the trappings of power and return to the disempowered diaspora state. But as Maimonides observes, this is not repentance. The man who cuts off his tongue so that he cannot slander his neighbor has not repented, he has made true repentance impossible. Complete repentance must coexist with the opportunity, the strength, the power to commit the sin once again and the free choice not to. To "repent" for the sins derived from Jewish power by abolishing that power is no repentance at all -- it is a tacit belief that Jewish power will always, unavoidably, inherently be sinful power. It is a choice precisely to avoid the hard work of repentance, to avoid uncomfortable holiness of having to be contrite in our failures.

Diasporism is in some ways the mirror image of a completely self-satisfied Zionism, the sort that is convinced that nothing is Israel's fault, that all the problems and tribulations of the region are completely attributable to the malfeasance of Palestinians or other Arabs (or the UN, or the EU, or Iran....). In both cases, there is a complacency in (imagined) perfection. And both, in their own way, exhibit a preference for Jewish weakness, a desire to not have the choice to do right.

So on this Yom Kippur, I say we reject both. I say we recommit to Jewish strength -- including the strength to recognize and correct our sins, not because we have no choice, but because we once again are faced precisely with that choice.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Three Things I'm Scared Of Right Now

A new NBC/WSJ poll taken in the aftermath of the Donald Trump sexual assault comments has Hillary Clinton up a whopping 11 points in a four-way race (it jumps to 14 points in a two way). FiveThirtyEight has her chances of winning the presidency at 82%; Daily Kos Elections has her at 94% (and while I wouldn't normally trust a partisan site like Daily Kos, DK Elections is the successor to the old "Swing State Project" site -- a group I very much trust and whom I'm found to be eminently impartial and reliable in their electoral analysis). The polls look good, and that makes me feel good.

But still worried. Here are three things that will keep me up at night until the moment Hillary Clinton gets a check mark next to her name on election day.

(1) From Brexit to the Columbia peace deal, this year it seems like polls have consistently underestimated the electoral allure of right-wing resentment. Do they underestimate it by enough to overcome an ever-widening Clinton lead -- and Clinton's far superior campaign organization and ground game? I don't think so, but who knows? This one boils down to "can I trust the polls", and while the answer to that isn't always yes, it's never reliably no, so I'm trying to put this one aside.

(2) If Trump wins, how much unrest will we see in America's streets? Trump's "Second Amendment" comment raised the question of whether his supporters would even accept a Clinton election (and it took a long time for him to say if he'd do so when answering that question directly in the first debate). But there is a simmering mix of anger and fear of a Trump presidency in many corners of America too -- anger that America has not been living up to its promises of equal justice under law, and fear that Trump is the manifestation of White Americans preference that we continue not to do so. If there are marches or demonstrations in American urban centers, we could see a genuine, military-style crackdown from a Trump administration. It's not like he has much care or respect for the bounds of law.

(3) Russians hacking the polling machines. This one might be my greatest fear, because even if we catch it, it would still throw our nation into chaos without clear route to recovery. The risk is real, and I'm honestly not sure why Russia wouldn't try it. Imagine how it would play out: We start seeing suspiciously high Trump numbers in precincts he shouldn't be close in. The President and the head of the CIA announce that they are sure that the polling machines have been compromised by a Russian intrusion. Does anyone think any Republican would believe it? They'd immediately go in on how Obama and Hillary are trying to steal the election! Even if the evidence of Russian tampering is clear, it will no doubt be technical and not amenable to "smoking gun" images or videos. Circumstances like this require trust in our governmental institutions, and the rise of Donald Trump is the rise of a large swath of Americans who have been willing to believe anything and everything about Obama, Clinton, and the entire federal government. There's no way they'd accept a hacking story, even if it was entirely true

2016 Presidential Debate #2: Quick Reactions

I have never, in my life, seen a debate where expectations where set so low for one of the candidates. Donald Trump would have done "better than expected" if he managed to go the whole evening without being kicked off the ballot by his own party. And yet, at the start, he managed to possibly sink below a bar that was literally lying on the ground. He looked like hell. He could not stop sniffing. His answer to the question about his sexual assault braggadocio was beyond awful. His constant whining about the terrible biased moderators was simply pathetic. And then there was his horrifying promise to jail Hillary Clinton when the night was over -- a statement that goes well beyond "will Donald Trump be bad for America" and crosses into "will Donald Trump preserve democracy in America?"

He did, to be sure, get better as the night went on. For the most part, "better" just meant that he was merely incoherent -- repeating buzz words and talking points without even the semblance of substance behind them. Still, you could at least spot some potentially plausible themes (Clinton is all talk, no action) that could have resonance. And Clinton, for her part, didn't seem as comfortable with the format as she did in the first debate. Her big strength the first time around was basically acting as if Donald wasn't in the room -- refusing to engage him, refusing to give him oxygen. The more free-wheeling town hall format (and Trump's incessant interruptions) seemed to nudge her towards feeding the troll Trump, and not to her benefit. Finally, it has to be said that Trump's last answer ("say one nice thing about your opponent") was actually, genuinely, not-grading-on-a-curve excellent.

But still, the absolute best you could say for Trump was this was a draw (CNN's instant poll gave Clinton a solid victory, YouGov gave her a narrower win). And a draw isn't going to cut it for a candidate who is falling behind and whose  campaign is floundering.

So right now, I'm less focused on the horse race aspects, and more on where we are as a nation. Ezra Klein got it right a few days ago:
But the question isn’t whether Trump has any decency. We’ve known for some time that he doesn’t. The question is whether we have any decency — whether we will elect this man, or even come close to electing this man, knowing all we know about him.
What's sad about tonight is the way it represents such a retrogression for our nation. The world is changing at a breakneck pace, and with these changes come new and novel concerns. The problems that have emerged -- getting universal health care for everyone, ensuring that equality is true in practice as well as creed, overcoming unprecedented environmental hazards that threaten our entire ecosystem (just to name a few) -- are both difficult but also solvable if we put our heads down and work on them. Yet what the Trump candidacy has shown -- even if he loses -- is that we're still stuck on the basics. "Do we jail our political opponents?" "Do we brag about our ability to assault women?" "Do we impose flat bans on entire religious groups?" This is all 101-level material, and yet this is what we are spending our political efforts on.

America deserves better than this. But we're not going to get it, not because Hillary Clinton isn't qualified to tackle these issues -- she absolutely is -- but because Trump has dragged us back from a mature democracy to a faltering, barely functioning one. And that is truly unforgivable.

(See my reaction to the first debate here)