Wednesday, December 04, 2019

What To Do With The Two Truths About Kamala Harris

Ever since Kamala Harris prematurely ended her once-promising presidential bid, I've seen a host of progressive takes making roughly the same claim about two simultaneously "truths":

  1. There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to have preferred Senator Harris as one's number one candidate; and
  2. Senator Harris was held to a higher and more unforgiving standard because of her race and sex.
And indeed, both of these things are true. Obviously, people are allowed to have policy beliefs that align with other candidates more than Senator Harris. And equally obviously, racism, misogyny, and misogynoir also factor in to how people weigh various issues and commitments in assessing the different candidates, as well as in governing how people move along the spectrum of "not my speed, but that's okay" to "she-devil COP!"

But what I haven't seen is a lot of people taking the next step, and asking what we do with these two truths.

This isn't, after all, just a Kamala Harris problem. These truths will emerge in any circumstance where we believe that unjust social prejudice is systemic and ingrained, such that it will manifest not just in fits of irrational hatred but also in "normal politics". An important implication of viewing racism and sexism as systemic is that it will still exert force -- often considerable force -- in political and policy disputes where there are perfectly valid reasons to take a variety of different positions. So the remedy can't be "don't oppose Kamala Harris" (there are legitimate reasons not to support her!), but neither can the existence of legitimate reasons to oppose Kamala Harris be taken as decisively falsifying any influence of racism and/or sexism.

Obviously, this is a question I've pondered for awhile, since it roughly corresponds to how I think the antisemitism-Israel relationship works (there are perfectly valid reasons to dislike many things Israel does, and also Israel gets held to a more exacting and unforgiving standard because of its Jewish character). And there too, the answer can neither be "never oppose Israeli policies", nor can it be "because there are legitimate bases to oppose Israeli policies, antisemitism isn't an issue." The uncomfortable truth is that antisemitism still operates even in the arena of legitimate opposition to Israeli conduct, and by the same token the fact that antisemitism still operates in that arena doesn't in itself delegitimize the validity of opposing Israeli actions.

Boiled down this way, the problem is even thornier than many have let on: under conditions of ingrained, systemic racism and sexism, there is probably no way to have a discourse about Kamala Harris that is not affected by racism and sexism. There's two trade-offs here: the one I already mentioned, where Harris opponents can't say "there's no racism or misogyny at work here, we have legitimate reasons for our views"; but also another one where Harris proponents can't say "in any case where we can say racism or misogyny is doing work, that case is per se delegitimated."

Why can't the latter claim work? Because one implication of viewing racism and misogyny as pervasive social forces is that there isn't a way to extract a "pure" discussion of her that is innocent of them. They'll always be there. Which means -- since again, the conclusion can't be "everyone is obligated to support Kamala Harris" -- we have to figure out what it means to ethically participate in a political discourse about prominent Black women in conditions where racism and misogyny simply will be present. People are not taking that problem seriously enough, because they retain a fantasy whereby via either sufficient cognizance or self-discipline we can neutralize the effects of racism and misogyny and drop them from our analysis. If that's not possible, and the racism and misogyny must always factor in even as they don't control, we're in far more discomforting terrain.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Post-Thankful Roundup

I was thankful on Thanksgiving, but now the holiday is over and I'm back to being misanthropic.

* * *

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles Kate Manne (congrats on her baby, by the way!).

I'd find these complaints about how the right is rewriting Mizrahi history to suit its political agenda more compelling if the left hadn't completely abandoned this arena for years (with occasional exceptions for hopelessly idealized histories that are equally political, just with different motivations).

A new survey on British antisemitism is out and making waves. I think several of their methodological choices are questionable, to say the least, which prevents me from endorsing its conclusions without reservation. That's unfortunate because there is some interesting data in there, but it's occluded by the authors' own manifest ideological biases. I might write separately on this.

Shocking-not-shocking, part one: A Jewish member of the McGill student government was given an ultimatum to either withdraw from a trip to Israel or resign (she's doing neither, and daring the body to impeach her). Shocking-not-shocking, part two: A non-Jewish student government member going on the same trip was weirdly overlooked and given a pass.

Ohio legislators introduce bill threatening life imprisonment for any woman, girl, or doctor who has or performs an abortion. "Abortion", here, includes not reimplanting an ectopic pregnancy, which is currently not medically possible.

Anti-Vaxxers make headway in Samoa; dozens of people die of measles in Samoa.

Is there a word -- presumably, a German word that's four words smashed together -- for the distinct feeling of anger one gets at a person or object precisely because one knows one can't reasonably be angry at that person or object? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

We Need More (and Better) Polling on BDS--Ask Me How!

A new poll, from the left-wing "Data for Progress" outfit, has dropped on BDS. This is the second poll that's devoted significant attention to BDS to have been released in the past month (I talked about the first, which came out of the University of Maryland, in this post).

The main takeaway I'm getting from reading these polls is, first and foremost, that most people don't know that much about BDS. The UMD poll, for instance, found that strong majorities of respondents had heard either "a little" or "nothing" about BDS; the Data for Progress memo acknowledges that it got an abnormally high amount of "not sure" responses even after dedicating lengthy paragraphs explaining to respondents what BDS (supposedly) is.

This actually is reflective of a larger methodological problem facing polls like this. They want to generate data that's neither just noise or "I don't knows". But since most people don't know anything about BDS, that means the surveyors need to explain what BDS is. This, in turn, creates two problems:
  1. "BDS" is a fragmented idea; there are a host of different tactics and programs which have at one form or another fallen under its ambit. Any effort to explain BDS in a remotely brief fashion inevitably will end up elevating and promoting a particular iteration of BDS over potential competitors.
  2. The more description one has to do, the more opportunity there is to inject surveyor bias -- describing BDS in terms that reflect the questioner's own support or opposition to the movement.
In the case of both surveys, but especially this new Data for Progress one, it is pretty evident that the questioner is at the very least BDS-sympathetic. The cynic might say that all these polls are therefore demonstrating is that when BDS is described in exactly the manner its supporters would want it to be described (It's non-violent! It seeks nothing more than the end of the occupation! Opponents want to take speech pathologists out of the classroom because of their beliefs!), it gets a respectable amount of support. Fancy that! Draw up a push poll pushing in the opposite direction, and it's likely you'd get different results.

Still, one could nonetheless find these surveys useful as a means of message-testing, i.e., telling us whether particular ways of framing BDS are likely to gain a sympathetic hearing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, framing BDS relatively narrowly -- targeted divestment from a company that "provides services and equipment to Israeli prisons" -- generates support in a way one would suspect might dissipate if one instead illustrated its demands more broadly -- say, "severing ties with all Israeli colleges and universities". BDS critics will accordingly say that these messages are based on lies -- BDS, after all, isn't narrow in this way. But as I've written elsewhere, I expect BDS to behave like other social movements in that it will moderate as it mainstreams. So I actually do think polls like these are emblematic of and may accelerate a trend whereby "BDS" supporters will coalesce around narrower actions like targeted consumer boycotts of particular companies (e.g., settlement goods), and jettison more ambitious actions like blanket boycotts of all Israeli companies, period.

That said, I'd actually like to test my hypothesis that more moderate forms of BDS poll better than more radical versions. And I'd also like to sidestep the problem that most people don't know what BDS is, and the problem of injecting my own biases in describing to them what BDS "actually" is.

So if someone wanted to fund my survey -- and if you do, feel free to email me -- what I'd do is avoid asking about BDS (other than a raw, unadorned "do you support or oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel" [yes/no/not sure]), since it's a term that it seems most people don't know and is quite pluralized even for those who do know it. Instead, I'd just ask questions about support for various campaigns or policies that have, at one time or another, been promoted under the BDS banner, to see what people actually do and do not back.

Here are my rough ideas for questions:
1. Should products from Israeli companies operating in the West Bank be labeled as coming from "Israel" or "the West Bank"? [Israel/West Bank/other/not sure]
2a. Some people support a consumer boycott of Israeli products which are made or manufactured in the West Bank. Do you, personally, support such a boycott? [Yes/no/not sure]
2b. Some people support the US government banning the sale of Israeli products which are made or manufactured in the West Bank. Do you, personally, support such a ban? [Yes/no/not sure] 
3a. Some people think investors such as pension funds and university endowments should divest from specific companies operating in Israel or the Palestinian territories which are accused of assisting in human rights violations against Palestinians. Do you, personally, support such divesting? [Yes/no/not sure]
3b. Some people think investors such as pension funds and university endowments should divest from all Israeli companies. Do you, personally, support such divesting? [Yes/no/not sure] 
4. Some people think America should place conditions on foreign aid to Israel, for example, by requiring that such aid not be used to support settlement construction. Do you support placing such a condition on foreign to Israel? [Yes/no/not sure] 
5. Some people think that Americans should refuse to do business with all Israeli or Israeli-owned companies operating in the United States. Do you, personally, support boycotting all Israeli or Israeli-owned businesses? [Yes/no/not sure] 
6. Some people think that American universities should sever institutional ties with all Israeli colleges and universities (for example, ending research partnerships, study-abroad programs, and student exchange programs). Do you, personally, believe American universities should sever institutional ties with all Israeli universities? [Yes/no/not sure]
7. Some people think that Israeli teams should be forbidden from participating in international athletic competitions, such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Do you, personally, support barring Israeli national teams from international athletic competitions? [Yes/no/not sure]
8. Some people think that Israeli artists and cultural figures should not be invited to perform at American theaters and centers. Do you, personally, support a policy of refusing to invite Israeli artists and cultural figures to perform in America? [Yes/no/not sure]
9. Some people think that American colleges should not host talks from Israeli political or academic officials. Do you, personally, believe colleges should not host talks given by Israeli political or academic officials? [Yes/no/not sure]
10. Some people think that American governmental officials should not work with counterparts in the Israeli government (for example, by traveling on trade missions to Israel or participating in training exercises with Israeli colleagues). Do you, personally, believe American governmental officials should refuse to work with counterparts in the Israeli government? [Yes/no/not sure]
11. Some people think that Jewish student organizations at American colleges should be defunded, and that other student groups should refuse to work with them, because these Jewish student organizations are "pro-Israel". Do you, personally, support defunding and/or refusing to work with Jewish student organizations because they are "pro-Israel"? [Yes/no/not sure]
My hypothesis is that we'd see significant differences in levels of support as we moved through these different questions. And if there is significant stratification across these various questions, that suggests (a) that asking people whether they support "BDS" doesn't tell us that much, because the term encompasses a huge variety of different proposals which carry different levels of support and (b) that support for "BDS" is not "in for a penny, in for a pound" -- people can support "BDS" while not supporting all campaigns which fly the BDS flag.

I'd also like to ask a few follow-up questions the answers to which I think might be very illuminating:
12. In general, the decision by a corporation to refuse to do business with Israeli customers or Israeli businesses because they are Israeli should be ... [Protected, as a matter of free speech/Prohibited, as a form of nationality-based discrimination/not sure]
13. Which of the following statements do you most agree with?
(a) We should encourage closer connections between Israelis and Americans, as a means of transmitting shared values and facilitating understanding across cultures; or
(b) We should sever connections between Israelis and Americans, as a means of signaling disapproval of Israeli policies and putting pressure on Israelis to change them.
14. Some people believe the state of Israel should be eliminated and replaced by a state of Palestine. Do you believe the state of Israel should be eliminated? [Yes/no/not sure]
Anyway, if you'd be interested in the answers to these questions and have access to funding for survey work, let me know! My contact details are very available on the internet.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LVI: The Impossible Burger

Have you tried The Impossible Burger -- the plant-based veggie patty that actually tastes like a regular, meatified hamburger? I have -- at White Castle, of all places. Impossible Burgers are pricier than their dead-animal counterparts, and I figured a slider was a cheap way to try it out with minimal risk in case I didn't like it.

(A friend told me that I was especially brave to try an Impossible Burger at White Castle. I remarked that it would have probably been braver to eat the meat patties there).

How was it? Well, my assessment is in line with the conventional wisdom, I think: it's not the best burger I've ever had, but it's not the worst either, and most importantly it does taste like an actual burger. That puts it head and shoulders above any other competitor, as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, if you're like me and you've had an Impossible Burger, take a moment to thank -- or blame -- your local Jew. Because ...
[E]nter a new food-borne Jewish plot: the menacing Impossible Burger.
You may recognize that creation as a non-meat-based patty that claims to be indistinguishable in taste and texture from a traditional hamburger.
But one Joseph Jordan and one Mike Peinovich claim to have uncovered the sordid truth. They announced on their paywall-protected white power podcast — that the fake meat is, as you may have suspected, part of a Jewish scheme to destroy the white race.
It is an odd accusation (aside from its essential oddness), since the scientist-founder of Impossible Foods Inc. is a lily-white gentleman by the name of Patrick O. Brown. But who knows? Maybe his decidedly un-Jewish name is as fake as his burgers, he has bleached his skin and hidden under his T-shirt lies a tallis kattan.
It’s not entirely clear how the newfangled burger ties into the Jewish plot. But it apparently has something to do with the purported dangers of soy and an intent to, as Messrs. Jordan and Peinovich assert, “make it impossible for working people to be able to afford meat, make it impossible for working people to drive automobiles, make it impossible for average people to live in an industrial society.”
And should that case somehow prove less than convincing, Mr. Jordan adds, “They wanna make us into India!”
Making things even more undeniable, he adds that “the new breed of hyper-wealthy Judeo-capitalists in the tech industries especially” want to usurp industries currently run by “goys.”
Mr. Peinovich then provides the coup de grâce: “Oh, you’re not gonna believe this: it’s kosher!”
I do believe it, actually, seeing as the Impossible Burger is -- again -- a plant-based product.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

"Pinkwashing", Hen Mazzig, and the Silencing of Mizrahi Jewish History

I have mixed feelings about Hen Mazzig. But I have unambiguous feelings about the justification SJP Vassar just gave for protesting his talk on "The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East: Forgotten Refugees." at Vassar College the other day. It really demonstrates the impossible toxicity of the manner in which SJP seeks to police Jewish -- and often especially minority Jewish -- voices.

The author, Ezra Mead, begins with the nominal affirmation that "[t]he stories of Mizrahi Jews and their struggle both outside and within Israel deserve attention." But by contrast, he argues, "there is no room for 'diverse viewpoints'" or "'free exchange of ideas'" around Israeli military actions in the Palestinian territories.

But of course, Mazzig's talk was not offering [SEE UPDATE BELOW] any viewpoint ("diverse" or otherwise) on the occupation or Israeli military policies, it was -- again -- a talk on "The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East" (i.e., Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews), and he was going to tell the story of his own families dispossession in Tunisia and Iraq that ultimately led them to come to Israel. Mead is engaging in a non-sequitur -- unless, of course, Mead thinks that the mere fact that Mazzig is an Israeli Jew who is not openly contemptuous of his state's existence automatically makes anything he chooses to speak upon an apologia for Palestinian dispossession.

Which is, of course, exactly what he thinks.

It is no surprise, then, that Mead also accuses Mazzig of "pinkwashing", for I've sometimes described "pinkwashing" as encompassing nothing more than being "gay, Jewish, and not visibly burning an Israeli flag". Again: Mazzig's talk was on the history of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East (with a particular focus on his personal family history). It's far from clear that he was going to offer any significant discussion of his sexuality, specifically -- it is certainly a part of his identity he is quite open about, but it did not seem to be the direct focus of the talk itself. But no matter: a gay Jew talking about anything Jewish- or Israel-related is presumed to be and intrinsically coded as part of a plot. You know Jews -- they're only after that one thing.

The fact of the matter is that SJP protested this talk because Mizrahi Jewish history is an uncomfortable subject for them. It does not fit comfortably in the boxes that anti-Zionists (or Zionists, for that matter) wish to lay out for it. Mazzig's talk probably wasn't speaking directly to the IDF or the settlements or the occupation or military operations in Gaza. But it would speak very directly to the brute fact that the most tangible social accomplishment that has occurred under an anti-Zionist banner has not been the enfranchisement of Palestinians (even in circumstances where they live under anti-Zionist political jurisdictions) but the massive dispossession and virtual eradication of ancient Jewish communities throughout the Middle East.

The last thing the SJP wants to do is own that history. So they obstruct that conversation by re-narrating Mizrahi Jewish political narratives generally as being right-wing apologias for Israeli state action no matter what their substantive content is, presumably with a narrow carve-out for those few Mizrahi Jewish activists whose politics are suitably harmonious with SJP's preconceived political commitments about Israel -- i.e., the ones in which they don't have to reckon with what anti-Zionism has tangibly, brutally, concretely meant for that community.

"There is no 'free exchange of ideas' to be had about forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing" indeed.

UPDATE: Hen says that at his talk "I did speak about the occupation and voiced my opposition to it and discussed Palestinians." My guess -- again, given the title -- is that this was not the primary focus of the talk (nor did it have to be!), but perhaps I am mistaken. The broad point remains (if anything, it is strengthened given that Hen contra his SJP "interlocutors" is not "ignoring" Palestinian issues): Mizrahi Jews, Hen Mazzig included, are entirely within their rights to narrate their own history without pausing every forty-five seconds to say "and by the way, the occupation is terrible".

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Labour Candidate Advised Holocaust Deniers on How To Avoid Being Expelled From Labour

This is a hell of a story:
A Labour Election candidate organised and ran a secret Facebook group which advises party members, including alleged Holocaust deniers, how to beat charges of antisemitism. 
Maria Carroll, a Jeremy Corbyn ally who is standing in the marginal seat of Camarthen East in Wales, co-founded and administered the site which instructed Labour Party members accused of antisemitism on how to avoid expulsion. 
Among those who joined the group are members who cast doubt on the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and others who repeated the antisemitic trope that there is an international ‘Jewish conspiracy’ controlling politics, the economy and the media.
The Mail on Sunday has established that Carroll personally advised alleged Holocaust deniers. Yesterday she said she had not seen the social media posts in which they circulated these repellent views.
I want to sit on this last paragraph for a second, because what it means is Carroll's defense boils down to the following: "I was so convinced that all the Jews complaining about antisemitism in Labour were lying that I didn't even check what people were being accused of before I jumped to their assistance!"

Again, that's the damage-control version of this story. It really hammers home the depth of the problem here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Deval Patrick and the Return of the Ballad of Johnny Unbeatable

Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has entered the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, thus joining the many, many candidates for the nomination who I (a) like and (b) am basically annoyed at for running.

For months now, I've been puzzled with every new entrant into the Democratic field. What's their lane? What makes them look upon the (literally!) dozens of excellent people who already declared for the race (and also Tulsi Gabbard) and think "there's a niche here that nobody but me would be occupying"? How can it be that we have what seems to be a historically strong primary field and yet people still cast their eyes outward for an option not on the menu?

But over the past few weeks, other aspects of my personal life have given me renewed insight into what I think is going on. Here's my best thrust:

Democrats want to beat Trump. That's all we want. We're desperate for it. This primary is barely about ideas or vision or policy disputes. The overwhelming question driving us is "which candidate will beat Trump in 2020?" And of course, since we expected Trump to lose in 2016, we're feeling especially anxious about our own apparently malformed instincts on the question -- we don't know how to answer the question we're asking.

What we want is "Johnny Unbeatable". Johnny Unbeatable is the candidate who is guaranteed to beat Trump. He (or she) has all upside, no downside. Every aspect of their biography, every vote they've taken, every policy stance they've taken, every speech they've given, is perfectly tailored to appeal to swing voters while revving up the base. They can lock down Wisconsin and Michigan while turning Arizona and North Carolina (and even Georgia and Texas!) blue; they are a comforting presence for Boomers and Gen-Xers while representing exciting, sweeping change for Millennials and Gen-Z. If Johnny Unbeatable was the nominee, we could rest easy knowing the election was safe in hand.

The problem, of course, is that there is no Johnny Unbeatable. There can't be, even in concept. Not only is nobody perfect, and not only do elections carry intrinsic uncertainty, but we don't know what Johnny Unbeatable looks like. Take gender as just one example: Is Johnny Unbeatable a woman, designed to rev up the base of pink pussy hat wearers radicalized after Trump's inauguration? Or is he a man, a safe choice who'd better appeal to heartland voters? It seems Johnny Unbeatable would have to be a woman and a man -- combining the "best" political attributes of both -- but for the love of God not non-binary (you see the problem?).

No candidate can be Johnny Unbeatable, which means all candidates who have declared will always have that residual feeling of existential dread -- they could well lose -- attached to them. The quest for another option, another choice, stems from that persistent feeling of dread and anxiety that none of the candidates can fully dispel. Those Democrats on the outside of the race can sense that anxiety as much as anyone else, and see -- in some ways accurately -- that none of the declared candidates has an unbreakable grip on their supporters. Everybody is looking for something they don't yet have. We're all still looking for Johnny Unbeatable.