Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Moving Into Port(land)

The movers come tomorrow and Wednesday, and then on Thursday we depart again -- this time for Portland. Knock on wood, we will be there for a long, long time (though ideally not in this apartment -- not that there's anything wrong with it, but we do plan to buy a house in a year or so).

Doubt I'll be blogging much, if at all, until we're settled in. Enjoy the rest of the Olympics!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

What If We Treated "Liberty" Like "Intersectionality"?

My second lesson of being on the internet is:

2. No matter your ideology, there will always be someone profoundly idiotic who largely agrees with you, and someone profoundly idiotic who largely disagrees with you. Neither fact should be unduly weighted.

I was thinking about this today in relation to an argument I sometimes hear made by critics of "intersectionality" (or "critical race theory" or "microaggressions" or other like terms). Persons, such as myself, will often chide them for "criticizing" a strawman, caricatured version of the term. What they call "intersectionality" bears little resemblance to what one would find if one read the actual, primary source scholarly literature on the subject. In response, these critics might (with varying degrees of begrudging) concede the point -- but, they'll rejoin, these academic sources bear little resemblance to how the terms are being used "in the wild". Their criticism isn't of an academic text, it's of a political practice, and so it is entirely fair game to attack "popular" (if unsophisticated or sophomoric) iterations that holds themselves out to be "critical race theory" from social media influencers, overzealous college students, faddish activists, and so on.

Sometimes, even these examples will betray a lack of context or interpretive charity. But it is not difficult, no doubt, to find genuine cases where someone flies the banner of intersectionality in order to say something profoundly stupid or genuinely offensive. That, after all, is the thesis of my Rule #2. There will be idiots who call themselves "intersectionalists", and (this is a corollary to the rule) they will not be that hard to find.

But here's the rub: we could do this for any political ideology or concept. "Individualism," "freedom", "democracy" -- pick your favorite. 

Take "liberty". As a concept, "liberty" carries a robust philosophical pedigree -- there is much worth reading and contemplating regarding what liberty means, what its contours are, what its political utility is, and what it conceptually can and cannot do. At the same time, right now there are a host of people who, flying the banner of "liberty", are promoting outright crankish and idiotic politics -- claiming "liberty" means the right to hold massive unvaccinated public gatherings without any meaningful health safety measures during a pandemic, or "liberty" means one shouldn't even be exposed to others wearing a cloth mask.

These people are morons. And indeed, in terms of raw numbers, there are far more of these morons than there are morons endorsing "intersectionality". Yet how weird would it be for someone to point to such morons in order to dismiss the idea of "liberty" as a concept? Imagine how it would go: 

Sure, Mill or Hayek or Berlin may be interesting thinkers, but I'm talking about what 'liberty' means 'in the wild.' In practice, 'liberty' means MAGA nutjobs spreading conspiracy theories about how vaccine passports are akin to the Holocaust. That's the 'real' public meaning of freedom today. Therefore we must recognize 'liberty' as a toxic ideology, ensure that the dangerous idea of 'liberty' is one we mustn't ever teach to our children, and whenever anyone in the U.S. or around the world appears to be mobilizing for 'liberty', we must do whatever we can to stem the dangerous tide that threatens our very way of life.

It wouldn't fly, and it shouldn't fly -- not because the identified nutjobs aren't nutjobs, but because the existence of said nutjobs most certainly does not warrant the conclusion that "liberty" is itself inherently dangerous, much less support a campaign to extirpate "liberty" theorists from our educational domains.

When it comes to "liberty", we fully understand that we can indict and dismiss the inevitable idiots who will adopt it as their ideological cloth without suggesting that said idiots' existence means the whole concept of "liberty" is corrupt. The same should hold true for other theories. I do not doubt there are genuinely foolish people who fly the flag of intersectionality or critical race theory or microaggressions. That makes it entirely non-distinct from literally any other prominent ideology or political concept, and it is not cause to sacrifice our own commitment to intellectual fairness and rigorous inquiry.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Assorted Olympic Thoughts

Today is the last day of my beach vacation. It's been a blast, though at some level this was a terrible weekend for me to be at the beach, since it's the Olympics. I love the Olympics, and so for much of the past few days I was all too happy to stay inside and watch obscure sporting events rather than do, you know, beach things (don't worry: I got my share of wonderful-horrible boardwalk cuisine).

The coldest hot take around the Olympics is that they should be abolished -- every "hard-bitten" lefty curmudgeon has their version of this essay somewhere on their hard drive. Interestingly, I agree with several of the underlying criticisms of the Olympics, specifically that they're (a) corrupt as all hell and (b) not even close to the economic boon to their host cities they're promised to be (if anything, they're often an economic albatross). I'll spot both of those, but nonetheless I am pro-Olympics on the simple basis that it is a very rare example of a truly global event that brings representatives of all nations together for something fundamentally happy. I think it is essential to have something of that ilk, and there isn't anything else I can think of that fills or could plausibly full the niche. It is a product of our (dare I say it?) neoliberal era that both the pitch for and against the Olympics is fundamentally economic in character -- the promise of economic revitalization in favor, the reality of resource maldistribution against. The Olympics is not and, just as importantly, should not, be anyone's urban renewal program. The sooner we recalibrate expectations -- that hosting the Olympics is, essentially, a favor to the rest of the world (or, more charitably, a pure prestige/pride project) -- the better we'll be.

Oddly, I am pro-Olympics in the same way I'm pro-United Nations. I think the UN also is a fundamentally corrupt and dysfunctional organization that, to say the least, doesn't follow through on the overwhelming majority of its promises. Nonetheless, I think it is important to have something like the UN just because we need some forum where the nations of the world can come together and express -- in however muddled, inchoate, diplomatically garbled form -- their opinions. Even when it turns out those opinions are kind of hypocritical garbage -- well, that's useful information too. So I happily cop to many of the "abolish the UN" criticisms, without having any interest in actually abolishing the UN.

With respect to these Olympics specifically, my favorite storyline so far definitely is the Austrian cyclist who won gold primarily because the rest of the field forgot she existed. Other highlights have included Katie Ledecky smashing the field in the 1500m, Ariarne Titmus gutting out wins against Ledecky in shorter events (and of course, her coach's viral celebration), the random Tunisian swimmer winning gold out of lane eight as his country is embroiled in political chaos, and the Mongolian judoka, who defected from Iran because his country was forcing him to throw matches against Israelis, dedicating his silver medal to Israel.

The biggest story, of course, is Simone Biles withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition. Biles, predictably, is getting heaps of racist abuse from MAGA sorts who get an obvious erotic thrill out of tearing down talented Black people. To some extent, the only thing that needs to be said to this is "how many medals have you won?" When it comes to the GOAT's decision to compete or not, I'd be entirely fine with an exchange rate here: one medal entitles you to one minute of criticizing Biles.

My favorite sport is boxing (albeit not, oddly, Olympic boxing), and there's an interesting parallel to the Biles discourse in the form of boxing fans criticizing boxers for "quitting". Take a ten count, retire on the stool, or don't emphatically declare to the referee that you want to continue, and you've "quit". At one level, of course part of boxing is that you get punched hard in the face and yet you still keep going. Indeed, much of the appeal of boxing, for me, is the superhuman feats of will that are demonstrated in the ring -- you've been punched in the face so hard you actually topple over, and yet you still continue!  So there's a level in which it comes with the sport that we ask people to keep competing even when they're hurt and wobbled. On a deeper level, it is frankly absurd for fans to be judgmental of fighters who decide they're not in a position to keep getting punched in the face. We're not in their shoes, we don't know what they're going through. A bunch of sideline warriors talking about how tough someone else should be -- in terms of literally asking them to spend more time being violently assaulted -- always rubbed me the wrong way.

Boxing is, in many ways, just a more extreme iteration of all athletics. Some of the most iconic moments in sports history have been when the greats overcome tremendous adversity to nonetheless get the job done -- Michael Jordan with the flu, Kerri Strug on the vault, Kirk Gibson's hobbling home run. We're allowed to be in love with those moments. But ultimately, the athletes are the professionals, and they know what their bodies can and can't do. While not as viscerally violent as boxing, gymnastics is an exceptionally dangerous sport -- all the more so when your head isn't in the right spot. Simone Biles knows the difference between the ordinary pressures and pains of competition, and something that threatens her ability to safely and effectively compete at the level she expects of herself.

The thing is, objectively speaking the "problem" solves itself because it regulates itself. Simone Biles is, it should be needless to say, plenty tough, mentally and physically -- if she wasn't, she'd never have won all those medals. She won a world championship with a kidney stone, for crying out loud! So when someone with her talent and track record tells the world "I'm not in a position to compete at the level I need to", it is the height of arrogance for the rest of us to even indulge in the flicker of thinking "eh, I bet she's exaggerating." Again, obviously high level athletics requires participants to make the choice to dig down against adversity and pain and pressure to nonetheless perform. But by definition, someone at Biles' level does not lack the ability to do that; if she actually did lack that ability it wouldn't be an issue because we'd have never heard of Simone Biles in the first place.

All of this is to say, we were right in our initial instinct: the only person who has any right to criticize Simone Biles is Simone Biles. The very history that makes people feel entitled to demand she keep going is the same history that should compel us to defer to Biles' own assessment of her own situation. She knows competition. She knows pain. She knows her body. She became the GOAT because she knows all these things; nobody wins all those medals while being deterred from competing by a pinprick. So if someone with all that history and all those victories and all those medals says "not today", we should have the humility to trust her.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Gone Beachin'

FYI everyone, I'm on vacation through Wednesday. We're in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware right near the boardwalk, and I'm happy as a sitting duck.


The picture is Michael Bedard's "Sitting Ducks", which was featured on the wall of the beach house we stayed in the first time my family took me to Rehoboth Beach as a kid.



Thursday, July 22, 2021

Pre-Portland Thoughts

Our move to Portland is rapidly approaching -- more so, because tomorrow Jill and I are actually going to the beach for a long weekend, so we have even less time left in Chicago than the calendar would indicate.

It's an interesting time to be moving to Portland. Fortunately, the city seems not to have been incinerated off the face of the earth. But it still is among the go-to references for conservative pundits looking for an urban hellhole ravaged by antifa and anarchists. "Don't let our city become another Portland!", they say. Meanwhile, the people I've met in Portland all universally rave about how incredible the city is. Other cities should be so lucky as to become another Portland.

Short stint back in Chicago notwithstanding, we're functionally moving to Portland from Berkeley, and that's clearly the best way to do it, because all the potential negatives of Portland are like baby versions of what you'd encounter in Berkeley. Homelessness crisis? I didn't see one person masturbating on the sidewalk on my visit. Housing prices? It's so cute what people outside the Bay Area think is expensive! Pretentiously crunchy granola vibes? Please -- Berkeley will take that granola, spit it out, and then eat it again freegan-vegan style.

So we're really just left with all the positives, including (normally) beautiful weather, lush greenery, a great restaurant scene, and a population that is markedly united in deep city pride. I wish there was an NHL or MLB team in town, but you can't have everything.

I'm so excited -- I can't wait for us to begin our new lives in the City of Roses.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Other Horseshoe

I was reading a fascinating review by Yair Wallach about how antisemitism was combatted during the 1917 Russian Revolution,* and he made an observation which in retrospect is very obvious but for whatever reason had never fully clicked with me before.

Many of us are familiar with the idea, often referred to as "horseshoe theory", that antisemitism serves a conduit between left and right-wing politics. Antisemitism bridges the left and the right, so that persons who begin in one milieu can end up finding affinity with persons in the other, united by shared antisemitic beliefs.

But Wallach observes that there is another potential "horseshoe" vector between left and right -- this one running through "anti-antisemitism". Here, left and right overlap based on real and perceived affinity for fighting antisemitism. Persons who feel, rightly or wrongly, that the left is not taking a strong enough stance on antisemitism, that it excuses antisemitism, that it has become infected by antisemitism, may -- need not, but may -- become enamored with right-wing actors who are every day loudly banging the drum calling out exactly these cases of antisemitism.

Just as the left, even if it may start from a principled position of "anti-imperialism" or "decolonialism", regularly finds itself keeping company with (and worse -- being sympathetic to!) outright antisemites whose Israel hatred is merely a subspecies of their Jew hatred, so too are there persons who begin from a genuine anti-antisemitism posture who find themselves in the company of, and eventually even sympathetic to, Islamophobes and other right-wing bigots for whom "fighting antisemitism" really just means hating Muslims and other non-White persons.

This is not something limited to antisemitism, either. One can see versions of this coming out of feminism (some feminists who truly hate what they see has the repressive characteristics of the hijab eventually floating into outright hostility to Muslims) or even anti-racism (some anti-racists whose beliefs in racial self-help and self-empowerment eventually lead them into hierarchical nationalism). If anything, what this demonstrates is that our politics are less organized and coherent as the simple left/right binary would have one believe -- there are all manner of tunnels, thoroughfares, and crossings that offer opportunities to quickly travel from one side of the ideological spectrum to the other.

But certainly this is something I have observed -- sometimes seemingly in real time -- in the Jewish case. The rise of the neo-neoconservatives is one example -- starting as liberals, such persons' travel to more conservative territory is very much greased by a perceived affinity for the sort of anti-antisemitism discourse emanating out of the right. A similar concept was alluded to when I spoke of the knife's edge of radicalization -- the right stimulus can cause someone to rapidly tumble over into ideological terrain seemingly incompatible with their own proffered beliefs. Bret Weinstein was a Bernie Sanders backer, after all! Now he's claiming liberal values are best being protected by the likes of Tucker Carlson.

Weinstein, for his part, illustrates another important point -- that the start of the journey across the horseshoe can very much be prompted by legitimate grievances. Based on everything I've read, Weinstein was indeed treated poorly by his community at Evergreen State. That doesn't justify him becoming a member of the intellectual dark web, anymore than legitimate grievances against the Israeli state justifies one becoming a tankie. But insofar as we're less interested in identifying who we can legitimately chide and more interested in undermining pathways towards people on the left adopting  right-wing politics, it's important to dispassionately map out how these journeys progress. 

And there's no question that at least some persons -- I have many, many more names in mind beyond Bret Weinstein, but I don't want to call anyone out -- make the trek over in part by traversing the causeway of "anti-antisemitism". Surely, anyone reading this knows of whom I speak.

It is unfair, and a gross exaggeration, to conflate noting the horseshoe's existence with saying that any progressive concerns in this arena are tantamount to indulging in right-wing politics. That's true if our horseshoe's base camp begins with legitimate concerns about Israeli policies, and that's true if our horseshoe begins with legitimate concerns about antisemitism in the left-wing, or Muslim, community. Taking the horseshoe seriously means not conflating anyone who expresses concern over the occupation with a David Duke aficionado, and not conflating anyone who expresses concern over Corbynist antisemitism with a Tommy Robinson fanboy. That sort of cheap gotcha politics can only be indulged in by people who don't take the underlying issue seriously at all; viewing it as fundamentally benign enough that it can turned into political sport.

For the rest of us, though, the darker truth is that the horseshoe -- insofar as it is a conduit between left and right -- is both a danger and a temptation. It's a danger because of the prospect of losing people to the right. It's a temptation because of the prospect of gaining people from the right. The conduit flows both ways. It takes a lot of discipline to know of the conduit's existence and even, gingerly, to try to reach through and pull people out of reactionary politics, without falling through it oneself and coming out the other side. That's true regardless of whether the consonance you're pulling on is emotive hostility to Jewish self-determination or snarling suspicion towards Muslim power; seething resentment of (((globalist financiers))) or furious loathing of (((cultural Marxists))).

If we're being honest with ourselves, all of us probably know which version of the horseshoe we're more vulnerable to. Some of us are more likely to be tempted by persons whose pure, uncompromising loathing of Israel is intoxicating even as it spills out and over into hatred of Israelis and Jews. Others of us are more likely to be seduced by those whose vocal, prideful denunciations of antisemitism is mesmerizing even as it laps against the walls of race-baiting and conspiracy-mongering.

We can pound our chests all we want and how very dare you the premise, and I don't need anyone to raise a hand and admit to anything.

Just -- be mindful. The conduit is there. Know yourself, know your weaknesses, and don't walk through it.

* Which is, of course, a very different question than how antisemitism was "combatted" -- which is to say, implemented -- by the Communist government after the revolution was over. The review (and I assume, the underlying book) do not pretend that the actually-established Communist regime was anything other than a disaster as far as antisemitism was concerned.

Are We Pro- or Anti-Enlightenment? And Other "Anti-CRT" Questions

On the one hand, the Jewish Journal's latest screed against the "Cultural Marxism" of Critical Race Theory, embarrasses me as a Jew -- not the least because (((cultural Marxism))) is a well-known antisemitic dogwhistle. On the other hand, the screed also embarrasses me as a political theorist, since the column's treatment of the political theories and theorists it mentions is so scattered and incoherent one can hardly remember what the underlying argument is supposed to be.

Some of the puzzles I was left with:
  1. I thought Voltaire was a hero of free speech and Enlightenment liberalism. But here I'm told Voltaire actually is an evil harbinger of contemporary leftism.
  2. For that matter, is the Enlightenment a good thing? I thought the anti-CRT folks were casting themselves as last guardians of the dying Enlightenment tradition, but here the Enlightenment is presented as a utopian nightmare opposed to "individual rights" and "free expression."
  3. I thought CRT was bad because it supposedly presents biological race as an immutable and totalizing feature of the self. But here its bad because it recognizes race is socially constructed?
  4. What the hell is a "collectivist belief system" in this context? Telling me it is just "other words" for saying that race is socially constructed, racism is endemic, and racial progress tends to occur when it is to the advantage of racially dominant groups is less illuminating than one might think. Is "the new antisemitism" also a "collectivist belief system"?
  5. When did Cheryl Harris promote the outright abolition of private property? Because it sure wasn't in her "Whiteness as Property" article. Is this just Christopher Rufo spreading lies again (all signs point to yes)?
  6. What is the relationship of "cultural" to "Marxism" in "cultural Marxism"?
  7. And what makes any of this non-class based activity "Marxist" in the first place? Is "Marxism"  now just any theory that claims a certain group is discriminated against and wants to change society so that it no longer is? Is Zionism "Jewish Marxism"? Was the American revolution "American Marxism"? (And if that is the definition then I still can't figure out what "cultural Marxism" could possibly mean)?
  8. How on earth can "tech-titans and corporate leaders" be pursuing a Marxist agenda? If it's their agenda, isn't that a pretty glaring hint that the agenda -- whatever else it is -- is not "Marxist"?
There are so, so many more, but enough is enough. We sure could use a bit more rigorous inquiry, though.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Coming Now: Abolishing Qualified Immunity for Everyone But Killer Cops

A few weeks ago, I flagged remarks from Justice Thomas raising the prospect that the Supreme Court might get rid of qualified immunity for everyone but abusive police officers. Justice Thomas' rationale was that police officers have to make "split-second decisions" and so should receive more deference from courts, whereas, say, college administrators "have time to make calculated choices" regarding the policies they impose and so perhaps should be held to a stricter standard.

It is of absolutely no surprise to me to see the Eighth Circuit become (to my knowledge) the first court to race through the door Justice Thomas opened, in a case concerning the University of Iowa's application of non-discrimination policies to religious student organizations, in a context where that meant a Christian student group (InterVarsity) could not deny a leadership position to an individual who refused to affirm that same-sex relationships were against the Bible. Denying qualified immunity, the panel wrote:
We acknowledge that the intersection of the First Amendment and antidiscrimination principles can present challenging questions. See, e.g., Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, 138 S. Ct. 1719, 1732 (2018) (noting that the conflict between Colorado’s anti-discrimination law and a baker’s First Amendment rights created “issues [] difficult to resolve”). “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011). And, if applied properly, it protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Id. (citation omitted). 
But as Justice Thomas asked in Hoggard v. Rhodes, “why should university officers, who have time to make calculated choices about enacting or enforcing unconstitutional policies, receive the same protection as a police officer who makes a split-second decision to use force in a dangerous setting?” __ S.Ct. __, *1 (2021) (Thomas, J., statement regarding denial of certiorari). What the University did here was clearly unconstitutional. It targeted religious groups for differential treatment under the Human Rights Policy—while carving out exemptions and ignoring other violative groups with missions they presumably supported. 

Way to get off the blocks quickly, Eighth Circuit!

I'd note that, while I don't think the court's decision in this case is clearly incorrect under governing precedent, I also don't think it is as "clear" as the court suggests. The court relied heavily on the fact that the university approved another student Christian group (LoveWorks) which required leaders to affirm support for gay relationships, claiming that such a requirement "violates the [university's] Human Rights Policy just as much as" InterVarsity's anti-gay requirement. But, at least as I read the record (and it is a bit murky as presented in the opinion), that isn't necessarily true.

If the university purported to deregister InterVarsity because no student organization could require a religious statement of faith as a leadership prerequisite, then I agree allowing LoveWorks' statement of faith but not InterVarsity's is viewpoint discrimination. But it seems that InterVarsity was deregistered not because statement-of-faith requirements were always banned, but because InterVarsity's statement violated the university's Human Rights Policy because it "effectively disqualif[ied] individuals from leadership positions on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity." LoveWorks' statement, by contrast, obviously does not disqualify individuals from leadership on basis of sexual orientation, nor  does it appear to disqualify individuals along any other characteristic protected by the Human Rights Policy. So if Iowa's Human Rights Policy is itself considered viewpoint neutral -- and the panel agreed it was -- then the university's different treatment of LoveWorks and InterVarsity may not be viewpoint discrimination but rather a product of just correctly enforcing the policy.

This observation doesn't necessarily end the story in the university's favor -- there is some evidence of targeting religious groups for heavier university scrutiny, and the manner in which the university decided how to interpret the Human Rights Policy's requirements differently for different sorts of organizations may run afoul of the Supreme Court's new "most-favored-nation" doctrine regarding religious exemptions to generally applicable rules. As I said, the record seems a bit murky and I'm not sure that the ultimate decision against the university is wrong here under the prevailing precedents. 

But when I warned that the potential two-tracking of qualified immunity doctrine -- keeping it "for police officers using violent force, but abolish[ing] it for public university officials contending with the judiciary's rapidly evolving and often seemingly arbitrary campus free speech jurisprudence" -- this is very much the sort of case I had in mind. The intersections of free speech and anti-discrimination doctrine are indeed a nettlesome subject, no matter how much courts pretend they are easy, and university administrators are going to make some wrong calls whether they have time to "calculate" or not.