Thursday, September 23, 2021

Too Big To Fail (at a Coup)

Tell me where Adam Serwer is wrong here:
Those who attempted to subvert democracy have faced few political or legal consequences. As is typical, some rioters are facing prosecution while the elites who tried to overthrow the election through more bureaucratic or procedural means remain in good standing with their peers. The failure to impose accountability for an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order will encourage further such efforts.

Meanwhile, those rare Republicans who did stand up against this attempt to destroy American democracy are the only ones dealing with real political consequences from their party, facing primary challenges, being forced into retirement, or being stripped of their leadership positions. Republican officials who were unwilling to use their office to overturn the election results are seeing challenges from Trump devotees who will, should the opportunity arise again.

If Trump had succeeded, many of those downplaying the former president’s actions would today be rationalizing an American coup.

Not only is this right, it is inarguable. The biggest lessons from January 6 are (1) in the political sphere, elite conservatives have near-infinite layers of insulation from consequences, no matter how far they stray blitz across the line of democracy and rule of law and (2) there is no illiberal, anti-democratic, or unlawful act taken by Trump and his lackeys which -- after a two or three week cooling down period -- elite conservatives will not find it in themselves to rationalize, explain away, or contend that "Biden/Harris/Clinton did the same thing, but worse." Minor nobodies may be sacrificed here and there, but if you get big enough in the right-wing ecosystem, it is impossible to fall from grace (unless you do the truly unthinkable heresy of standing against Trump for any reason on any subject).

#TeamVaccineNanoBot

As of today, approximately two-thirds of Americans have received at least one COVID vaccine shot. I am, of course, one of them (fully vaccinated), and thus far George Soros' nanobots have not rewritten my genetic code to turn me into a zombie-servant of Silicon Valley (that we know of!). Maybe it's still to come.

But here's the thing for all you vaccine-resisters out there. We're down to two alternatives. Either it is the case that -- as is suggested by literally 100% of all available evidence -- the various catastrophic consequences of vaccination, up to and including becoming a mindless drone reprogrammed by Bill Gates' microchips, are not going to happen. Or, the majority of us already are 'chipped and ready to rumble, and you might as well join Team Vaccine Nanobot while the getting is good. With two thirds of America already onboard, what do you think will happen to those backing the losing horse?

Either way, get your vaccine already. It's a no-lose bet!

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Breaking: UC-Berkeley Students Protest Against Allowing Israeli Politician To Speak on Campus

A petition -- launched by a UC-Berkeley student organization, and now with ~8000 signatures -- demands that the UC-Berkeley admin "take action" to prevent a former member of the Israeli Knesset from delivering a presentation on campus

While purporting to "fully support freedom of speech," the activists contend that "we stand against hateful indoctrination and explicit lies being sold to an audience at an academically sponsored event." Hence, the petition demands that the faculty member who invited the speaker be "held accountable", insisting that campus officials must take "immediate administrative action" against him and to ensure that the Israeli speaker is not given "an academic platform to spew her propaganda". "If no action is taken immediately," the petition states ominously, "we will have proof that our university does not care about its academic, intellectual, and moral standards."

Of course, such protests against permitting Israelis to speak on campuses like Berkeley perhaps does not surprise certain readers, who have heard tale of an emergent campus culture of censorial illiberalism, perhaps particularly when it comes to Israel and Israelis.

But I do wonder how many of those unsurprised readers might be a little surprised to learn that the Israeli politician in question is Haneen Zoabi,* and the student group seeking to bar her from campus is (the right-wing pro-Israel group) Tikvah. Apparently, the movement to obstruct engagement with (certain) Israeli perspectives runs deeper than we thought!

* I am, needless to say, no fan of Zoabi, and I am likewise no fan of the faculty member who invited her to campus or his assessments of who is and isn't a useful contributor to academic discourse. But my belief in academic freedom as ensuring an unqualified right for campus community members to host and engage with speakers of their choosing, free from any de jure or administrative sanction, is not tied to my personal agreement or disagreement with any given speaker. I am not an especial fan of Nir Barkat either, but I understood the attempts to shut down his talk at San Francisco State for what they were. And, to the extent the claim is that Zoabi's talk is not balanced by other academic offerings at UC-Berkeley that provide a different vantage point on Israel, that is flatly spurious -- Berkeley has one of the largest and most vibrant Israel Studies programs in the country, recently supplemented by a $10 million gift, and offers a wealth of stellar programming -- from talks to courses to study-abroad programs -- on Israel-related issues from a variety of perspectives.

(For the record, this petition is from a few years back -- I thought it looked familiar! -- but it nonetheless is illustrative of how the wheel turns on these sorts of things).

Friday, September 17, 2021

Bye Bye Nine Nine

*Spoilers*

Brooklyn Nine Nine had its series finale today.

Jill and I have watched the show from the beginning -- we were hooked from the first TV ads featuring "Detective Right-all-the-time" and "Detective Terrible Detective" (as opposed to you latecomers who only got onboard after "I Want It That Way"). It was a stellar show, no question about it, and I am sad to see it go.

This final season was a bit rocky -- I think everyone knew it would be, as they revamped the season entirely following the protests over George Floyd's murder. They didn't take my advice on story arcs, though Rosa did indeed leave the force. And at some level, the last season did in some ways reinforce the semi-popular narrative that all cop shows are "copaganda" -- precisely because it did try to tackle injustice and abuse in policing seriously (or at least, as seriously as a comedy program could).

The penultimate episode, where Jake gets suspended from the force, is what sealed it. Objectively speaking, what happened in that episode was what should have happened in every wild and wacky plot Brooklyn Nine Nine did throughout its entire run. All of Jake's fantasies about living out Die Hard or Speed or any other old cop movie staple completely blew past the fact that he's living a fantasy while being an armed state agent in a world of real people. Of course it would be irresponsible, of course it would mean innocents get caught up and hurt. The reason these things work on TV-land is partially because of suspension of disbelief, partially because every bone in our narrative-driven bodies expects some twist or turn that vindicates Jake after all. Even in this episode, where it was obvious that such a "twist" wouldn't be coming, one still felt the dissonance -- once it became clear that the episode would finally play it straight for once, it all just felt wrong. In a world where the potential for adverse consequences were real, Jake stops being a funny, I-don't-wanna-grow-up enthusiast, and just is a completely irresponsible jerk. A show that didn't make the police look good just wouldn't be fun.

All that said, the series finale itself did a stellar job bringing the show in for a landing. Jake leaving the NYPD to become a stay-at-home dad was exactly how the show should have ended -- him finally learning how to grow up indeed. Getting one last heist episode was a must, and it is incredible how the show managed to keep that concept fresh over eight iterations (Hitchcock winning, and winning in the most uncreative way possible -- he just paid Bill $40 for the trophy -- was fabulous). It was nostalgic and funny and reunifying in all the best ways -- really, a pitch perfect way of saying goodbye. Unlike, say, The Good Place finale, which was excellent but also wrecked my soul, I could actually watch this episode again. Arguably, it was the best episode of the entire season.

And so, if we do have to say goodbye, this was the episode to do it. We got to see most of our favorite characters one more time, having fun, doing what they love, being extra -- and it does help that the heist is completely divorced from actual police work, so the undertone of abject irresponsibility is lessened enough so that it can be comfortably ignored.

Ultimately, Brooklyn Nine Nine which almost certainly would have been eclipsed by the politics of the time if it wasn't just too good to dismiss. That is to the tremendous credit of the actors, writers, and showrunners who made it great. From day one, it proved itself far better than a vehicle for Andy Samberg to get wacky. It demonstrated the incredible comedic chops of dramatic actors like Andre Braugher, and made folks like Terry Crews and Stephanie Beatriz into genuine stars (though lord knows whether Beatriz will ever be able to move beyond her "Rosa voice" -- fun fact: I'm pretty sure "Rosa high on cold medicine" and "Rosa sarcastically chipper" is just Stephanie Beatriz speaking normally).

So, one last time -- Nine Nine! (NINE NINE!)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

On a Certain Genre of Journalism-Apologia from Tablet to the Nation

Yesterday, YIVO held a panel on "The Jewish press today", featuring top editors from the Forward, JTA, and Tablet Magazine. In the run-up to the panel, I suggested that the Tablet editor, Alana Newhouse, should be sharply questioned on why they continue to publish Liel Leibovitz. This was in the immediate wake of his article decrying synagogue COVID restrictions as a form of idolatry, but that was hardly his only offense, nor were Tablet's dodgy journalistic choices limited to Liel. Remember their alarmingly chummy interview with the infamous antisemite Kevin MacDonald? Or Lee Smith calling arrested 1/6 insurrectionists "political prisoners"? Or the article on California Ethnic Studies that highlighted a completely fabricated antisemitic quote?

In any event, I thought that, on a panel dedicated to the Jewish press, Tablet's representative should be asked about whether her choices adequately met the standards we should expect out of Jewish (or any) journalism. I wasn't alone. But I also got pushback. One of my longtime readers thought Newhouse would have an easy response to me:

"[In my opinion] she will tell you that she publishes a wide variety of opinions from various parts of the political spectrum and she doesn't believe in censoring voices bc leftists want a veto, and [in my opinion] she will be correct in saying so."

I suspect this is correct -- that is how the response would have gone. In a different article addressing yet another Tablet/Leibovitz journalistic controversy (where he accused the Forward of having "lost [its] mind" for reporting that Trump admin official Sebastian Gorka had ties to Hungarian neo-Nazi groups), Newhouse waxed lyrical on precisely these points. The backlash to the Gorka piece was reminiscent of "Stalinism", and no, they would not give in. She urged readers not to "isolate yourself inside an echo chamber where the only views you engage with are the ones you currently hold. Choose to read writers and publications that challenge your own biases—even, or especially, if your goal is to sharpen the overall positions and loyalties to which you already feel existentially committed." Tablet's critics "want to control ... what is permitted to even get close to our brains, because we can’t be trusted to think or feel for ourselves." But they will not yield in kowtowing to orthodoxy, or the demand that they limit the full diverse range of opinion expressed on their pages.

This move is of a certain genre, and the fellow-travelers in it are familiar with the lyrics. Bari Weiss' fiery resignation letter to the New York Times quoted Adolph Ochs' prescription that the editorial page be "a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion"; she decried a new "orthodoxy" which silenced any view that deviated from that of a rarefied elite. She had, immediately prior, written that if the Times refused to publish Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton's "send in the troops" editorial, it was effectively saying that "the view[s] of more than half of Americans are unacceptable." Agree or disagree, Cotton is representing a real perspective that needed to be grappled with.

One hears the refrain eloquently presented in the Harper's Letter, and far more crudely presented in the self-labeled knock-off "Jewish Harper's Letter", and echoed in every lamentation that free speech has been supplanted by cancel culture. I won't belabor the point -- the genre is familiar. But I do want to flag one more example I came across today, relatign to The Nation's hiring of Mohammed el-Kurd as its new Palestine correspondent.

I have only passing familiarity with Mr. el-Kurd. I know of him wishing PTSD on every American soldier, and I know of him calling Zionism a "death cult", and I know of him calling for the removal of Israeli "colonizers" (given that he views all of Israel as a colonial entity, this can fairly be seen as a call for the forcible expulsion of all of Israel's Jewish population) and I know of him blasting Human Rights Watch for criticizing Hamas' "indiscriminate" rocket fire. This is a sampling of his oeuvre, not a full one, but I don't think a cherry-picked one either. He promises to bring to the table an authentic, angry voice of the Palestinian street which does not sugar-coat its indictment of Israeli and Zionist barbarism and sadism with dustings of "co-existence" or "acknowledging the pain of the Holocaust" or "of course terrorism is wrong." It is a real view, an authentic view, that isn't heard in (some segments of) western media.

Anyway, here is The Nation's statement on el-Kurd's hiring.

Reading the text, it checks all the genre boxes we already saw from Tablet and Weiss and their travelers:
  • Citation to "free speech"? ✅
  • Acknowledgment that not everyone will agree, but the perspective is important? ✅
  • Importance of "challenging mainstream narratives and assumptions"? ✅
  • Appeal to elevating "silenced" voices, and suggesting that not publishing this writer is akin to refusing to entertain any divergent perspective? ✅
  • Implying that critical backlash is tantamount to "intimidation"? ✅
Here's the thing: the reason this is a genre? Is because every value in that checklist is a real, genuine, important value. Free speech is important. Hearing from perspectives one doesn't agree with is important. Challenging mainstream narratives is important. Elevating voices not typically heard is important. And attempts to live out these important values can often be subjected to severe backlash that attempts to intimidate a platform out of entertaining the view, or to see it whittled down to the most palatable, soft pablum. Everything The Nation is saying here about preserving open discourse and dissenting views, is genuinely important, just as it is when Newhouse or Weiss or the JILV say it. The classics are classics for a reason.

But. Notice the way that The Nation's framing paints itself into a corner before it even begins. It makes its defense on structure, which has both the great advantage and disadvantage of bracketing entirely the question of substance. It applies with equal force literally no matter what the writer says -- the anodyne point crudely converted into an outrage by the frothing Twitter mob, the provocative point which makes even sympathetic readers cock an eyebrow but which nonetheless communicates a message worthy of pondering, and the outright racist or hateful or malicious false point that really should be grounds for editorial intervention. Indeed, at one level it tacitly thirsts for the most offensive, extreme, or unreasonable viewpoint -- for these are the ones through which one can truly show your steadfast will and iron resolve to stand with the beleaguered dissident against the roaring mobs. The provocateur is the point.

And so The Nation has effectively lashed itself to the mast -- now any accommodation to criticism or backlash means giving into intimidation, means "silencing" a dissident voice, means kowtowing to the mainstream, means betraying free speech itself. Having condemned them all as tools of censorship, The Nation cannot now easily access the normal tools of editorial oversight and judgment.

And that leads to tragic (journalistically speaking, anyway) consequences. When I found that fabricated quote in Tablet's ethnic studies hit piece -- again, a flagrant, no-bones-about-it falsification -- Tablet refused to issue a correction or acknowledge error. And at first, I couldn't figure out why. Why were they digging in? Why not just take the obvious L, acknowledge "this piece wasn't up to par", and move on? The answer I came up with, and I still think is the best explanation, is that it is the dark fruit of their "anti-cancel culture", "free speech" commitments -- it is the epilogue to the genre convention they're living out:
Persons who have drank of these waters believe we are overwhelmed with attempts at censorship, sugar-coating, and kowtowing to online gangs. For such persons, then, there is no greater betrayal, no greater cowardice, than acceding to the demand for a retraction. It doesn't really even matter if the claim under attack was justified or not; it ceases to be about defending the claim on its merits. The "principle", such as it is, is to stand up to the mob. Anyone who fails to do that is weak.

[...]

We cannot disconnect this from the sense of grievance which inspired some, albeit not all, of the popularity of the initial article. There is a segment of the Jewish community (and other communities) which views Ethnic Studies as so much PC claptrap, a sop to loud and angry minorities who want to silence anything and everything that doesn't present America as a bigoted hell-hole. They read the Tablet article and understood this curriculum as reflecting the ambitions of this cohort, they view the critiques of the article as Tablet being besieged by this cohort, and if the article was retracted they'd view Tablet as having been captured by this cohort. Ironically, Tablet's credibility with its readership (or at least large chunks of it), depends on them not correcting even obvious mistakes. Many of the folks who couldn't care less about the realities of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (the author of the article now forthrightly admits that it doesn't matter what's in the curriculum; she thinks it's a poisonous idea no matter what it teaches) would never forgive Tablet if seemed to be giving in to "the left" (whatever that means). 

One can predict a similar dynamic here. When a goodly chunk of the appeal of your writer is that he gets the right type of reader to "stay mad", and when you've already staked your credibility on the idea that it would be a failure of ethics, a betrayal of journalism and free speech itself, to give an inch to anyone who is mad, then it doesn't really matter why people are mad. It's already baked into the cake that they will be mad, and that that's their problem. It's not just a matter of "they knew who he was when they hired him." The entire discursive framework they used to promote his hiring now would make it impossible to disavow him, anymore than Tablet could disavow a factually wrong smear on an Ethnic Studies article without losing its "anti-woke" cred.

How can this all work? Well, it is, after all, true -- and by no means irrelevant -- that many readers (on this subject and quite a few others) do get and stay mad for partisan, biased, or outright stupid reasons, and a journal which lacked the backbone to tell those readers "sorry, but you're going to have to stay mad" isn't going to be doing its job. Again, the classics are classics for a reason. But that truth offers a refuge to hide from a different truth, which is that sometimes the mad readers are mad for good reason, to which the rote appeal to "free speech" doesn't suffice as a response. 

Lashing yourself to the mast of this particular "free speech" genre certainly comes with some benefits, and it shouldn't surprise to see this move appear across the political spectrum. But it is not always virtuous, and it is never cost-free.

What To Make of Mean Progressive Bosses

Buzzfeed has a story about House Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)'s alleged terrible treatment of her staff. It reminds me a bit of the worker/boss antagonisms that torpedoed the NYC mayoral candidacy of left-wing activist Dianne Morales ("torpedoed" may be a strong word, since Morales never was winning that race to begin with, but you get what I mean). 

Certainly, it is not only stalwart progressives who get hit with the "bad boss" tales -- Amy Klobuchar was a prior subject, and she's very much on the moderate end of her party. Still, the Jayapal accounts do feel as if they're part of a trend of "progressive hero is actually a monster to her own workers" stories. What do we make of that trend? A few potential explanations:

  1. There is no underlying trend. Progressive bosses are no more likely to be abusive than any other boss; if they are the target of more media stories on the subject, it is solely because of the tantalizing hypocrisy angle and/or other reasons the media targets progressives.
  2. Something about progressive labor ideology lends itself to being a bad boss on a personal level (e.g., concentrating on formal labor rules and agreements encourages the implicit underselling of the importance of "soft" standards of interpersonal conduct).
  3. Progressive bosses are more likely to be women and/or of color, and so are held to higher standards of conduct because of misogyny or racism (this seemed to be Jayapal's official response, and Klobuchar has echoed it too).
  4. Progressive bosses are more likely to be under-resourced or over-demanded, and these additional burdens get passed along to staffers creating a disproportionately unbearable work environment.
  5. Progressive employees are more likely to be sensitive to bad treatment and have a lower tolerance for it, and so are more likely to deem (and report) a given set of working conditions as bad or abusive (whether this is because they are overly sensitive and unrealistic about "the real world" or because they haven't had their internal sense of human worth beaten out of them yet is an exercise for the reader).
Other explanations welcome.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Going Local: My Op/ed on Vaccine Mandates and the Portland Police

Since I'm now an official Portland resident, I decided to write an op/ed for my local paper, The Oregonian: "Portland Police Should Not Be Exempt from Vaccine Mandates."

As some of you know, the city of Portland attempted to impose a vaccine mandate on the Portland Police Bureau, but backed off after union officials threatened a wave of vaccinations. In general, Oregon police have been viciously opposed to vaccine mandates in the state

My op/ed's argument is simple. Put aside (though we shouldn't) the fact that COVID has been the most lethal killer of police officers over the last year. The same justifications which support a vaccine mandate for teachers or health workers support a mandate for police officers as well. 

Even if we accept that some government employees need not be covered by vaccine rules, the police are the last agency that should be able to claim an exemption. The police are a public-facing agency that interacts with some of the most vulnerable Portlanders in unpredictable settings on a daily basis. Unlike, say, the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicles agency, which can enforce a mask mandate or shunt unvaccinated customers into online services, the Portland police largely cannot control when and in what contexts they interact with members of the public. They can’t decline to investigate a crime until they’re certain the criminal is wearing a mask. They can’t refuse to interview a witness until they confirm she’s not immune-suppressed.

Moreover, we can't overlook the thuggish nature of the way in which the Police Bureau responded to the prospect of a vaccine mandate. Threats of mass resignation are characteristic of police departments which simply do not accept the fact that they are under civilian control and subject to civilian oversight. The claimed entitlement to flout local authorities is flatly toxic to principles of rule of law and democratic governance.

In terms of feedback I've gotten, it's about what you'd expect. Some praise, some "why do you hate cops" (I want fewer cops to die on the job from a deadly disease, what's your view on that?), some accusations of being a "bootlicker" for BigPharma because I'm not promoting Merck-manufactured ivermectin. 

The most substantive response has been to note a provision in Oregon code which only allows vaccine mandates for certain public officials if pursuant to a state or federal order. The Portland mandate was initially justified under a state vaccine mandate issued for healthcare workers; the nominal cause of the city's retreat was clarifying guidance from the state saying the mandate "probably" didn't capture police officers. A few readers too-cutely suggested that the reason Portland police were in an uproar had nothing to do with resisting a vaccine mandate per se, but was solely because Portland was jumping ahead of the order of operations specified in state code.

This strikes me as, shall we say, implausible. Nonetheless, in my piece, I said if that provision was the only holdup, then the obvious solution is for Gov. Brown to clarify that police officers are included (or issue a separate rule to that effect). If the backlash has nothing to do with a claimed entitlement to resist lawful regulation, then the Police Bureau and Portland officers should have no problem with the Governor's office issuing such a rule. Indeed, they should welcome it since -- to reiterate -- COVID is the single deadliest threat police officers face today.

Of course, we're not naive and so we know the precise scope of Gov. Brown's orders as authorizing sources for Portland's vaccine mandate is not driving the action. Portland police don't like being told what to do -- that's the prime motivator here. But as public servants, they need to get used to it. Whether it stems initially from the city or the state, vaccine mandates for police is the right public policy, and law enforcement shouldn't be able to bully its way to an exemption.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The End of "Shared" "Sacrifice"

My 9/11 story is not particularly special. I was in high school when the news reached us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Initially, I thought that meant some small hobbyist plane had missed an approach and smacked into the side of the building. The reality -- a full passenger jet (soon to be two) deliberately ramming the building and bringing it down -- didn't cross my mind until TVs went on and rumor became visual. Even though I lived outside DC, and so we definitely knew folks who worked at the Pentagon, I don't know of anyone who knew anyone directly who died or was hurt in the attack. We could see the smoke from across the Potomac river though.

In the days that followed, America was famously united. President Bush's approval rating -- in the doldrums due to the bitterly controversial way he became president in the first place -- skyrocketed. Everybody came together. Democrats basically stopped being an opposition party. Some of that was good. Not all of it. There is a difference between refraining from taking easy political potshots at tough but necessary sacrifices, or not exploiting understandable collective depression and angst for political gain, versus wholesale refusal to debate serious and sometimes dangerous steps taken under the guise of "national security". Nonetheless, it was undeniably inspiring to witness how, in the face of crisis, we'd at least try to unite as a nation and we'd dig in our heels and sacrifice to get us through the dark period.

I have heard some folks ask, hypothetically, what would have happened if, at the outset of COVID, Donald Trump had come out aggressively for masks and vaccines and lockdowns -- demanding a shared sacrifice and seriousness of act and purpose that befits the crisis of a global pandemic. The insinuation is that the polarities would flip -- in our hyperpartisan age, we'd see the GOP proudly endorse and embrace all of the things they now liken to tyrannical Nazism, while Democrats would be found angrily denouncing masks and spreading conspiracies about vaccines.

The first part may be true. The second isn't. We might have seen a small uptick in woo-woo Malibu sorts refusing to get vaccinated because it contains "chemicals" or something. But the experience of 9/11 suggests that the overall liberal response would have been to embrace the seriousness of the moment. Democrats wouldn't oppose vaccines just because Trump was promoting them; they wouldn't foster chaos just to stick it to the "other side". As much as lockdowns suck, they wouldn't have riled up public frustration at a necessary health measure and thrown it in Donald Trump's face.

Over two hundred times as many Americans have died from COVID as died on 9/11. If you count "excess deaths" (which includes people who didn't have COVID but whose deaths nonetheless can be attributed to it -- e.g., because a swamped health care system couldn't give them the care they needed), we're probably around a million deaths -- about a 9/11 a day, from the time pandemic started in earnest.

The degree to which "shared sacrifice" permeated the national mythos after 9/11 makes it all the more despicable how resistant so many Americans have been to anything that even approximates a "sacrifice" in response to the pandemic. I put "sacrifice" in quotes because some of the things GOP pols are literally comparing to the Gestapo are almost comical in their triviality. Wear an extra square foot of fabric on your body. Get a safe vaccine for free. I'm not saying nothing about the pandemic is difficult (parents with younger school-aged children, in particular, have taken a beating we should all acknowledge). But so much of the "sacrifice" we've asked for is so minimal, and yet people refuse to do it.

There is no "shared" sacrifice in America. There is half the country which is willing to do what's needed to get us through a crisis, and another half whose only concern is of themselves. The "unity" after 9/11 was a mirage -- it was the former group agreeing to be united in a crisis with the latter group doing what it wanted to do anyway. When the roles reversed, and the first group asked the second to actual sacrifice just a smidgeon to keep America safe, they refused to do it, and threw perhaps the largest and longest temper tantrum this nation has seen in my lifetime.

It was always despicable. In the shadow of 9/11, it's even more so.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

How California's Jewish Community Sealed Its Win in the Battle Over the State's Ethnic Studies Program

The California legislature has passed AB 101, a law mandating ethnic studies instruction for all high school graduates starting in 2030. The bill was passed with the strong support of California's Jewish legislative caucus as well as Jewish community leaders throughout the state. This marks a decisive moment in the years-long battle over Ethnic Studies, where Jewish activists successfully rallied to reject an early, antisemitic draft curriculum and instead worked tirelessly to create pathbreaking course plans and curricular resources that ensure antisemitism and Jewish experience takes pride of place in state schools.

Unsurprisingly, the die-hard opponents of the bill -- those who insist that Ethnic Studies must always and ever be antisemitic -- are, well, dying hard. AMCHA, one of the leading groups on the Jewish right trying to muster opposition to Ethnic Studies, lamented in a press release that the law "Open[s] the Door to Antisemitic Curricula". While admitting that the new law actively disavows the antisemitic first draft and urges local school boards not to use it, AMCHA says the bill "does not, and cannot, prohibit a school district from using the antisemitic first draft of the model curriculum" (or other potential antisemitic alternatives).

AMCHA may not even be correct about this: the statement from the California Jewish Legislative Caucus contends that its amendments to the bill "expressly prohibit the use of curriculum that was rejected because of concerns about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias". And at the very least, the law puts up several hurdles in front of any school board that wishes to adopt out from the state-recommended curriculum -- both in the form of heightened public meeting and deliberation requirements for opt-out districts as well as demonstrate that its proposed alternative does not "reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination". To the extent there are potential antisemitic Ethnic Studies courses still under consideration, these provisions -- and the last one in particular -- seem to provide, if not an insurmountable hurdle, then the highest hurdle the California legislature can reasonably impose.

But even taken on its own terms, we should reflect on just how weak AMCHA's objection actually is. Their headline is that the law "opens the door to antisemitic curricula". But that isn't true -- if, as AMCHA puts it in the body of its statement, the problem is that the law doesn't prohibit a district from adopting antisemitic curricula, then there is the inconvenient problem that California school districts already weren't prohibited from adopting such a curriculum. The law doesn't open any doors; at worst, it doesn't fully slam one shut.

Framed that way, though, the opposition to AB 101 becomes even harder to swallow. The choice is between a world where districts are free to adopt antisemitic curricula with minimal restriction, and one where their freedom to do so is at worst highly circumscribed by specific state disapproval, heightened regulatory restrictions, and the placement of the very-much-not antisemitic model Ethnic Studies curriculum as the default offering. Those concerned about antisemitism in California schools obviously should pick door #2, and so it isn't surprising that AMCHA has been very lonely in its crusade against the law.

And as we mark this moment, I want to reflect on how it might demarcate a sea change in how the Jewish community relates to these "identity politics" brouhahas which have sapped so much of our collective energy over the past few years. After a period where it seemed as if reactionary forces could simply mutter "intersectionality" in a foreboding tone and get the entire Jewish press to snap to attention, it was striking to see just how thin the opposition to California's reformed curriculum was. The infamous Tablet article which resorted to outright fabrications (in addition to smearing a one-of-a-kind curricular unit devoted to Mizrahi Jewish history as "crude" and divisive) to make its case was one example. AMCHA's press release blaming  AB 101 for a problem that would be worse in its absence is another. Far from driving the conversation, the efforts to tar any and all Ethnic Studies offerings in California as irretrievably racist or antisemitic had surprisingly little influence on Jewish communal discourse.

One can tell these critics are a bit disoriented. They expected that they would be at the vanguard of a righteous Jewish battle against the evils of Ethnic Studies. Instead, they found themselves mostly alone and entreating against the overwhelming Jewish communal consensus that was positively oriented towards the idea of Ethnic Studies and committed to constructively working through and fixing any flaws. Faced with the possibility that Ethnic Studies was not, contrary to the unfalsifiable hypothesis, immune to reform or alteration to accommodate Jewish voices, the critics were left befuddled and disorganized.

To some extent, I think this might be the story of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values as well. At first, I thought it was an example of prominent mainstream Jews engaging in another round of ridiculous and destructive hyperbole directed at caricatured versions of anti-racist scholarship. And I still think that, but now I want to attach a rider to "mainstream". Increasingly, I think JILV came into being because its progenitors think the "anti-woke" movement is losing ground in mainstream Jewish circles. They can't trust the big name organizations and federations to fight these fights anymore, so they need to go independent. JILV is not a vanguard, it is a rear-guard -- a group of bitter dead-enders who can sense that the tides in Jewish communal life are changing and that the organizational consensus is moving away from reflexive (and often ill-informed) condemnation and towards collaboration and mutually-affirming constructiveness.

As a marker of the change, there are worse symbols than the passage of AB 101 -- a diverse group of Jewish organizations and politicians who put in the work and can take pride in its fruit, standing over largely routed and vanquished opponents who did not notice the sands shifting under their feet.