Friday, August 07, 2020

Tennessee Primary Night

Tennessee had a primary tonight. There aren't really any competitive general election races in Tennessee, so I wasn't paying too much attention to the primaries either. But a few things worth noting:
  • Tennessee's Senate race wasn't going to be competitive, but everyone thought they knew who the Democratic nominee was. Attorney James Mackler had the DSCC endorsement and raised millions of dollars. Nobody else in the field had broken out of 5 digits in fundraising. Yet Mackler ended up taking third, with the victory going to virtual unknown Marquita Bradshaw. This wasn't on anyone's radar screen (while Bradshaw is definitely a progressive, this wasn't a case where there was some big grassroots energy burbling up against the establishment). Bradshaw will once again be the prohibitive underdog against GOP nominee Bill Hagerty. I admit that every time something like this happens -- a complete unknown randomly secures a major party nomination in a high-profile race -- I brace myself for some embarrassing revelation about something they once said on Facebook or a controversial job they once held.
  • Once again, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) faced a credible primary challenger (this time from Shelby County Democratic Party chair Corey Strong). And once again, he had nothing to worry about, throttling his opponent by a 70 point margin. Strong's explanation for why he got into the race is unintentionally hilarious: he acknowledges that Cohen (a) has a great voting record, (b) support Obama administration policies and opposed Trumpist policies, (c) is a national leader, and (d) has been deeply attentive to his district. So what exactly does he think the angle is? Eventually people will learn.
  • Tennessee's 1st congressional district has the longest Republican winning streak in the nation. So when the seat is open, a lot of Republicans jump at the chance to go to Washington. This year, the winner -- with just 19% of the vote(!) -- is Diana Harshbarger. Five candidates had double-digit vote tallies -- the field was that fractured. Meanwhile, I can't figure out how to say "Harshbarger" without sounding ridiculous.
  • The most serious primary challenge of the evening came against Nashville-based Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who is considerably more conservative than his district demographics suggest is justified. He survived Keeda Haynes' attempt to take him out from the left, albeit by a rather underwhelming 53-44 margin. That might give Haynes some inspiration from a rematch (look at Cori Bush and Marie Newman), but there are rumors floating around that the Tennessee GOP might try to gerrymander this seat out of existence now that the Supreme Court has waved the green flag at partisan redistricting.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Should Peter Beinart and Co. Ally with the Israeli Right?

One of life's little paradoxes is that a prerequisite for a one-state solution, which many on the left support, is Israel formally annexing the West Bank, which most on the left bitterly oppose.

I was thinking about this in relation to Peter Beinart's bombshell announcement that he no longer supports a two-state solution but instead will now back a secular, one-"state for all its citizens" solution. Many have noted that this proposal has essentially no backing among any constituencies of note in either Israel or Palestine (in both, the main divide is between two-staters versus "one state for me but not for thee" sorts).

But, in another of life's little ironies, the camp in Israel who probably comes the closest to supporting Beinart's view and those of "left-wing" one-staters abroad is ... the Israel middle-right. A great many of them are, of course, avowed supporters of a one-state solution. But many of them forthrightly say that in that one state all residents should gain full citizenship and voting rights. President Ruvi Rivlin is in this camp, but it also includes folks with a more hardline reputation like Tzipi Hotovely. It also has representation in the rank-and-file -- interviewing some of the right-wingers who have joined recent anti-Bibi protests that have rocked Israel, we saw people who claimed to be security "hawks", delighted at the prospect of annexation, but only if "Palestinians living there receive full rights."

We shouldn't overstate things. For one, there are plenty of folks on the settler right who are equally clear that their "one-state" vision is one where Palestinians are permanently subjugated and/or expelled. And in the case of folks like Hotovely, I can't help but think she hasn't quite thought through the implications of one-state with democratic equality with respect to our right-wing politics (Hotovely thinks that mass Jewish migration to Israel will preserve a Jewish majority, but even if that's the case it is very unlikely that the Jewish right she's a part of will be able to maintain its hammerlock on political power once 40% of voters are non-Jewish). 

Yet I can't help but think that one state with nominal equal rights will be the inch that gives a mile -- even if people like Hotovely get cold feet, it will be much harder to resist more extensive equality claims in this context than in the status quo. It's even possible we'll end up seeing what I've termed the "Czechoslovakia gambit" -- one state leading to two states.

Ultimately, the fact is that with the left in Israel essentially moribund, the most viable political actors who could push for something resembling "one state with equal rights" lie on the Israeli right. There is yet another layer of irony here, since frustration with the anti-democratic and illiberal actions of the Israeli right in its decades of power are largely responsible for people like Beinart abandoning the two-state solution. Given that history, can Beinart and company stomach working with them? Politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

New Short Essay: "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews"

AJS Perspectives -- the "popular" magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies (the AJS Review is their academic journal) -- has just released its new issue on the subject of "hate". My contribution is entitled "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews". An excerpt:
Many people love “Jews”—that is, the concept of “Jews” they've constructed for their own purposes. They envision a particular role that “Jews” are assigned to play, and so long as Jews stay in that role we may genuinely be loved. But when Jews—actual Jews—do not deign to stay in the roles assigned to “Jews,” this favor yields to shock, then betrayal, then hatred.

What “role” are the Jews assigned? It varies. Some love Jews as “noble victims,” eager to sacrifice themselves on the altar of selfless universalism. Others value Jews as loyal foot soldiers in service of eschatological religious warfare across the globe. Some love Jews as harbingers of Christ, the instrumental prelude that sets the stage for and is completed by Christianity’s epic. And some adore those Jews who volunteer to intone that soothing chant —“anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”—whenever called upon to do so.

Jews who stay at their assigned post may well be loved, and there are some Jews who—by coercion or by choice— do fill these roles. Nonetheless, these concepts of “Jews” are built by non-Jews, for non-Jews. For the most part, Jews will fail to live up to the ideal imagined “Jew.” And they will be hated for it. Love for “Jews” yields hatred for Jews.
It's not a long essay, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Monday, July 27, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Alpha House

I'm surprised it took me this long to watch Alpha House -- not only would it seemingly scratch the illusive West Wing itch, but it was the project that took Garry Trudeau away from my beloved Doonesbury. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I didn't watch it.

Alpha House centers on four Republican Senators who live together in a Washington, DC row house (based on real life!). It's sort of like The West Wing, except the Senate instead of the Presidency and Republicans instead of Democrats, and set in "the real world" (Obama is the president during the series, for example). The four main characters actually do a decent job running the gamut of Republican archetypes of the mid-2010s: the smart but probably corrupt one (Robert Bettencourt of Pennsylvania, who also does a good job as a Black Republican); the lazy, coasting off name-recognition one (Gil John Biggs of North Carolina, played to perfection by John Goodman as a former UNC basketball coach); the cluelessly homophobic but possibly closeted one (Louis Laffer of Nevada), and the hyper-ambitious but sex-addicted wunderkind (Andy Guzman of Florida, definitely channeling some Marco Rubio).

Is it good? Yes. It's main drawback is that it was clearly cancelled prematurely. But its two seasons are definitely worth watching. Other thoughts:
  • The other main players on the show are the Senators' key staffers, who are all -- in true DC fashion -- overworked and underappreciated. They generally do a good job playing straight man to their bosses' antics, to good effect. The lesbian couple that's not exactly closeted but not exactly out either, given the known politics of their party, is a particularly good touch.
  • There's a scene early in the series where a house guest walks in on John Goodman coming out of the shower. It's shot in such a way such that the bare ass of Goodman's character almost certainly is a body double -- which makes me wonder how one casts for that. "Wanted: John Goodman ass lookalike"?
  • Janel Moloney, aka Donna Moss, has a fabulous arc as the hyper-conservative Tea Party Senator from North Dakota who carries a gun on Capitol Hill and says her favorite painting is of the British burning down the White House because it symbolizes what she wants to do to government. I don't know if making her Senator from North Dakota was specifically meant to be fan service, but the one cameo scene where she's on a panel with Bradley Whitford and just immediately tells him to "shut up" definitely was. I wonder how many takes it took because she accidentally called him Josh?
  • Speaking of the recurring characters, Wanda Sykes is in the series as the quartet's next door neighbor and friend (who is also a Democratic Senator from Illinois). Wanda Sykes really should be in more things.
  • We've got just enough distance that some of the Obama-era specific jokes are funny again. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of making the Benghazi committee permanent, so that "future generations" would not be deprived of the opportunity to investigate it.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Marvel's Runaways

Times are getting desperate in the Schraub/Rodde household. We've watched every back episode of Community at least ten times by now. But deep in the bowels of "recommended for you" on Hulu came a real contender for our attentions: Marvel's Runaways. We just finished the first season (of three) -- should you watch it too?

Marvel's Runaways is about a group of high school friends who discover the charity their parents all volunteer for is actually an evil teenager-sacrificing secret society. "Friends" is a bit of a ragged descriptor -- though the kids all grew up together, at the start of the show they've grown apart (partially because they're teens now, partially because one member of the group apparently committed suicide). The discovery of their parents' secret does end up bringing them back together, but the show does a good job of underscoring that the differences in their personality and gripes with one another are real and can't fully be papered-over merely by circumstance. The parents, incidentally, are in the same boat -- somewhere between co-workers and friends, not really liking each other but having a sort of affinity and bond that is (I imagine) unavoidable when you've collectively been working together in a secret society for over a decade.

Oh, and some of the kids also have superpowers. Inhuman strength, for one, or an ability to talk to her parents' pet dinosaur, for another. One of them glows with strobing lights that she can pulse as energy, and also can fly. This is useful given that they're now lining up against the aforementioned subterranean evil death cult. As usual, one of them appears to only have "good at computers" as his skill, which, I'm not denying is useful, but did make him seem a little extraneous when the gang was lining up together for a fist-fight.

Scattered thoughts follow:
  • Though a Marvel series (is it part of the MCU continuity? I'm not sure), its focus on a group of high schoolers meant that for me it gives off strong vibes of Buffy and Veronica Mars. It's not as good as either of those shows, but even being grouped together in the same thought as such august company is a good sign.
  • I'm a sucker for shows which portray villains as regular people with basically regular lives and motivations, and Runaways very much does that for the parents. They are not, by and large, mustache-twirling evildoers toasting their plans to bring hell and brimstone down on the world.
  • The strength of the show is in the actors. All of the main players, both adult and teenager (though its most impressive in the latter) are very strong. Even though the kids are in some ways archetypes (The jock! The goth! The perfect daughter!), they nonetheless feel fully realized and complex.  I even can overlook the strangeness of James Marsters not sounding like Spike (for the record, he's an American actor--it's the British accent in Buffy that's a put-on)!
  • Also on that note, the kids all are recognizably the children of their parents without being clones, which is very nicely done.
  • Of the parents, the Yorkes (the nerdy over-sharing Jewish scientists) are my favorites. They're freakin' adorable.
  • Of the kids, nominally Molly is supposed to be younger than the rest, but she doesn't actually look any younger. But for the most part, that isn't a huge distraction. Also, that she's perpetually taking naps in the aftermath of big dramatic moments is a nice character beat -- the little peanut is all tuckered out!
  • The weakness of the show is the story, and in particular the story's pacing. They really slow-walk the core mystery of the show. A full season in, and we still have barely any idea what exactly the bad guys are trying to do, or even who they really are. The result is a great cast fighting against a very shaky script.
  • The opening theme music is very evocative. It reminds me of the Mass Effect: Andromeda opener, which I'm probably the only person who finds memorable.
Overall conclusion: it's pretty gripping in spite of itself, mostly because of a really strong cast. If you like Veronica Mars and Buffy, this won't replace those shows by any means, but you'll probably have a good time watching.

Friday, July 24, 2020

I Have To Talk About Omar and Melton-Meaux, Don't I?

I really don't want to. I really, really don't. But sometimes something falls too close to your wheelhouse to ignore it. And with separate antisemitism controversies hitting both Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and her main Democratic primary opponent Antone Melton-Meaux within a few days of one another, I -- writer on antisemitism and former resident of Minnesota's 5th congressional district -- probably can't sit this one out. As much as I want to. Which I do.

Both candidates are under some fire for things put in campaign communications. Melton-Meaux released an "FAQ" which included the questions "Why do you have so much support from Jewish people/pro-Israel people" and "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" (to the latter of which he replied "no" and noted his opposition to many policies undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu). Omar's allies said that by implying that Jews only care about Israel-related issues and supposedly conflating "Jewish people" and "pro-Israel people", he was invoking in veiled fashion a dual-loyalty trope.

Omar sent out a campaign mailer accusing Melton-Meaux of being in the pocket of conservative, big money interests, with all of the named donors being Jewish (plus a "Michael from Scarsdale, New York"). This was alleged by Omar's opponents to be an allusion to his opponent being "bought" by Jews (cf. fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer (R) sending out a mailer naming three Jewish billionaires who had "bought" control of Congress).

What do I think?

Most importantly, while I don't think there is no fire behind this smoke, obviously a lot of the high dudgeon on display here from both sides is really just shots-of-opportunity. That's not exactly surprising, given the nature of politics and all, but still disappointing. I also reiterate my point that while people outside of the 5th District only care about this race for Israel/antisemitism/Islamophobia reasons, the dynamics within the district are generally concentrating on other things (including whether Rep. Omar is more concerned with her national profile than with the particular needs of her district).

On the specifics: Melton-Meaux's FAQ is clearly styled as responding to "questions" that amount to hostile whisper-campaigns (i.e., that he's a stalking horse for far-right Jewish and/or pro-Israel interests). On one level, this is why I don't really see the first question as conflating "Jewish" and "pro-Israel" -- aside from the fact that they are listed separately, in context it denotes two variants of a similar question he receives (and the questioners probably aren't too fastidious about the distinction).

But the problem with such whisper-campaigns is that it can be really hard to respond directly to the allegation without in some way legitimizing or retrenching it. Imagine being asked if a candidate supports "the gay agenda" -- you can't really answer "yes" or "no", because the entire way the question is framed makes answering it a trap. This is why you don't accept your opponents' framing of questions, as any halfway competent campaign should know. Doing otherwise means you suddenly are putting out statements answering questions like, well, "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" There's no good answer to that question, which is a good sign that Melton-Meaux shouldn't be asking it to himself. To the extent that some Jews cringe while reading it, he has no one to blame but himself.

As for Omar. While all of the named persons in her mailer are Jewish, none of them are specifically identified as Jewish (the theme of the mailer is that many of his opponents' donors are backing him solely because they hate her, which is probably true).  But on face, this doesn't distinguish her mailer from Emmer's, or Trump's 2016 "closing argument" ad which featured Hillary Clinton and then three Jews associated with money -- George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein (none of whom were explicitly identified as Jewish either). For those in the right circles, Scarsdale is well-known as a very Jewish and very rich town (hence its appearance in the "JAP battle rap", featuring "two hard-as-nails she-brews from SCARSDALE!"). It is fair to say that few people in Minnesota are likely to know this though (had she called out donors from St. Louis Park, by contrast, everyone in her district would know what she meant even as nobody outside the Twin Cities would have a clue).

On the whole, my real takeaway is feeling more convinced than ever about the need to think about antisemitism less as a question of motives and more as a question of impact. It strikes me as implausible that Melton-Meaux was intentionally trying to antagonize the Jewish community by loudly disavowing his support; it was an awkward effort by a novice campaign staff to respond to a smear -- but one that nonetheless retrenched the perception that the Jewish community is a force one needs to declare his independence from. Melton-Meaux may be a political newbie, but he has an obligation to be attentive to that dynamic and not blunder into traps quite that obvious.

With respect to Omar, I likewise find it highly unlikely that her campaign staff went on a hunt for rich Jewish donors to her opponent in a sly bid to dog-whistle at her opponent being owned by the Jews. Nonetheless, it is probably the case that the Jewish associations of the people cited -- while not likely to be picked up by many if not most of her readers -- likely do help make the attack land more effectively for those who do spot the pattern. I've written elsewhere about how one thing antisemitism does is it greases the wheels of plausibility; when you're trying to tag your opponent as in the bag for big Wall Street money (or Marxism, or "globalism" for that matter) it just feels more right when there's a Jewish hook to go along with it. It's in accord with deep-seated background intuitions, it makes the entire package feel more harmonious. This is one reason why I think someone in the Omar campaign could have reasonably been expected to check and see whether everyone they're talking about is Jewish -- and if not, find some different names (one has to think that there are some non-Jewish rich people who also are pumping money into her opponent's campaign, yes?).

But ultimately, I think this is all relatively small fries. The hypocrisy is perhaps more bothersome than anything else. I get the frustration from Omar's allies that they think she's constantly being pelted with small-ball nonsense on the antisemitism front, and so perhaps they think turnabout is fair play when they can accuse Omar's opponent of being the "dual loyalty" trope guy (you can almost feel the catharsis from here!). But either they think stuff at this level is fair game or they don't; they can't have it both ways unless they really do believe that antisemitism can legitimately be treated as instrumental political football. And on the other side, regarding the conservative media ready to stand up and shout about "yet another instance of Ilhan Omar being antisemitic!" -- unless they're willing to concede that the bulk of the Jewish community was absolutely correct in saying that the contemporary GOP, what with its brazen targeting of Soros, Bloomberg, Steyer, etc., is shot through with antisemitism from root to branch, they need to sit the hell down. As always, however strong or weak you think the case for Ilhan Omar being antisemitic is, it's far less strong than the case for the GOP being antisemitic. If I have to listen to one more attempted gotcha from the Republican Jewish Coalition about Jewish Democrats staying out of the 5th District endorsement game, when they're affirmatively trying to put this guy into a Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, I'm going to have an aneurysm.

Okay, I've done my duty. As a palate-cleanser, please read this lovely column by a Minnesota Jewish Republican explaining, in touching and heart-felt terms, why he considers Ilhan Omar a dear friend. It really is a nice piece of writing from a man whom I have to assume has decided he never wants to have any role in Republican Party politics again, because any public dictation about Ilhan Omar that's friendlier than "she's a she-devil" is grounds for immediate ex-communication from the party. And, just so nobody thinks I'm endorsing one way or the other (I'm not, and will not), read as well this column from Avi Olitzky explaining why he is such a fan of Melton-Meaux.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rate That Apology, Part 10: Ted Yoho

I was going to do a "rate that apology" entry for Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who reportedly called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a "fucking bitch" after a heated conversation about their differing policy views (Yoho denies saying that, claiming he instead called her comments "bullshit"). But Chris Cilliza in essence beat me to it. There's a transcript of Yoho's "apology" at the link, but in sum Yoho:

  • Says he apologizes for  "for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had," whatever that means.
  • Maybe denies saying the words at all, but maybe not? He says "The offensive name calling, words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding."
  • Concludes by affirmatively refusing to apologize "for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country." Dude, nobody asked you to.
Ocasio-Cortez does not appear to have accepted this apology, pointing out that Yoho "didn't even say my name."

Grade: 2.5/10