Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Rules of Racial Standing Hit Ayanna Pressley

In the wake of the latest Trump racism scandal, which targeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley alongside Reps. Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib, one particularly depressing thing to witness is the simple rote reflexive declaration that they're antisemitic, anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and therefore have it coming.

To be clear: None of the women deserve to be targeted by racist vitriol. That remains true even granted insensitive things some of these women have said (though even the worst offender -- Rep. Omar with her "hypnotize" quote -- still hasn't done anything approaching singling out prominent women of color and saying they should remove themselves from America). You'd think that go without saying, though it apparently needs to be said and said again to all but four members of the GOP caucus. I suppose also if it went "without saying", we wouldn't have a racist President saying them.

Yet there also must be made mention of the particular way this discourse is playing out with respect to Rep. Pressley. Pressley has no history of antisemitism, or anti-Israel advocacy, or anything else. Yet in fulminations about the evils of the "squad", and newly-elected progressive women of color, she's treated as an equally valid target of indiscriminate fulminations about left-wing antisemitism.

This is nothing new for Pressley. But, confronted with the evidence that Pressley has never said, done, or implied anything that gives rise to any inference of antisemitic animus whatsoever, those spitting fire at her seem unbowed. They argue that the fact that Pressley is so proximate to Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez means it is incumbent on her to condemn them -- and if she doesn't, she must be endorsing them (it has to be said here that the evidence of antisemitism from AOC is also needle-thin -- from what I can see, it primarily hinges on (a) calling Israel's response to the Gaza protests a "massacre" and (b) a phone call to Jeremy Corbyn).

That argument -- that if Pressley is not vocally denouncing alleged antisemitism by other Congresswomen, she must be endorsing the sentiments -- reminded me of one of Derrick Bell's famous "Rules of Racial Standing", which he published in his 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well. The fourth rule ran as follows:
When a black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the white community or vocal components thereof deem "outrageous," the latter will actively recruit blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to this call for condemnation will receive superstanding status. Those blacks who refuse to be recruited will be interpreted as endorsing the statements and action and may suffer political consequences (118).
I referenced this dynamic a bit in this post, but the point is the manner in which Pressley is being treated -- guilty-until-proven-innocent, on the hook to constantly condemn (to our satisfaction) this or that "outrageous" thing said by her fellow congresswomen, despite no evidence that she shares any such problematic views -- is nothing new. It is a phenomenon of long standing, and it is noticed.

And let's be clear: this is how Pressley is being treated. She's young(-ish), Black, progressive, and so therefore just defaulted to be a threat. The absence of evidence doesn't deter this assessment in the slightest -- it just causes a slight fallback: now if she isn't spending her days railing against AOC, that counts as evidence of endorsement.

Of course, noticing it does little good. Again, it's not like this phenomenon has gone unremarked upon; it's constantly remarked upon and yet repeats itself over and over again. And so Bell's fifth Rule of Racial Standing tells us that while understanding the rules can give one prophetic power of how racism will operate, "[t]he price of this knowledge is the frustration that follows recognition that no amount of public prophecy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing or prevent their operation" (125).

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Calling Something Racist is Worse Than Being Racist, House Edition

Today, the House of Representatives voted 240-187 to condemn "President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress." A grand total of four Republicans -- Reps. Susan Brooks (IN), Brian Fitzpatrick (MI), Will Hurd (TX), Fred Upton (MI), along with newly-independent Rep. Justin Amash (MI) -- joined every Democrat in voting for the resolution. In case you're curious, Brooks already announced she's retiring, Upton is a major Democratic target in 2020 (and on the retirement watchlist), Hurd -- the sole Black Republican in the House -- is a major 2020 target, and Fitzpatrick is  -- you guessed it -- a major Democratic target in 2020.

In any event, in the course the debate over the resolution, chaos erupted when Speaker Pelosi referred to Trump's racist comments as "racist". Republicans sought to strike that from the record, citing parliamentary rules which forbid calling the President "racist" (see page 190). The rulings against calling the President racist, or saying he's made racist or bigoted comments, or of having run a prejudiced campaign, started popping up in 2016 and 2017 (no such rule can be found in the manual for the 114th Congress). How mysterious. Can't imagine what Paul Ryan and company were thinking when they slotted those in.

We now return to our regularly scheduled political commentary about how liberal snowflakes need to be protected from hurtful speech that damages their feelings and will resort to outright censorship in order to accomplish it.

Monday, July 15, 2019

"Jewish" is an Identity

Donald Trump said some racist things the other day, telling a group of non-White female congresswoman to "go back" to the countries where they "came from" (three of the four targeted women are US-born, the fourth is a naturalized citizen).

I know -- Trump, racism, quelle surprise -- but this time it's actually being called out by name. CNN even showed some actual mettle in doubling-down on the label, running the headline: "Trump denies racist tweets were racist". Kudos to them.

Unsurprisingly, quite a few Jewish politicians and organizations have weighed in on the controversy -- in part because we, too, often are targeted with "go back to .... " bigotry, and in part because Trump decided to rope in Israel into his defense of his racist tirade.

Mostly, the Jewish organizations performed as you'd expect. The conservative ones basically backed Trump. The liberal and centrist ones (that's everybody from the ADL to Bend the Arc, Bernie Sanders to Chuck Schumer) were withering and unsparing. The AJC's statement stood out for its limpness, which is entirely on brand for them at this point ("potshots"?). But I want to take just a second to reflect on the statement of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which wrote the following:
“Every American came from somewhere. Time for everyone in #WashingtonDC to drop the identity politics #racism.”
Put aside the false equivalency -- that this sort of racism Trump is espousing is something that "everyone" in Washington is doing, as opposed to being the virtual sole province of Trump and his backers. What's up with the gratuitous -- dare I say "potshot" -- at "identity politics"?

Here's a news flash: the Simon Wiesenthal Center is a self-consciously Jewish organization (as are all the other groups on the JTA list). Which is fine. But Jewish is an identity! When Jews organize around Jewishness to engage in political action -- whether it's to fight antisemitism, advocate for Israel, defend immigrants, combat White supremacy, urge Holocaust education, or what have you -- that's identity politics! It can be done well or poorly, or in service of good objectives or bad, but there's nothing wrong with it in concept. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is one big tribute to the power of identity politics!

I know the Simon Wiesenthal Center hasn't exactly been covering itself with glory during the Trump administration, but this is ridiculous. The problem with what Trump said is that it's racist -- full stop. "Identity politics" has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Holding Mussolini's Jacket

I have to give Ted Cruz a little credit for coming up with a pithy description of his own historical legacy:
“[Cruz] told confidantes there was ‘no way in hell’ he was prepared to subjugate himself to Trump in front of tens of millions of viewers,” Alberta writes. “ ‘History isn't kind to the man who holds Mussolini's jacket,’ Cruz told friends in 2016.”
No, I imagine it isn't. And don't think we'll forget it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

"Navigating Intersectional Landscapes" for Jews: Half Bad, Half Good, Sadly Incoherent

The Reut Group, in partnership with the JCPA, has written a new set of guidelines for Jewish community professionals seeking to deal with the "challenge of intersectionality" to Jewish engagement on Israel.

It's a fascinating piece, in that I disagree with much of the diagnosis but agree almost entirely with the prescriptions. Normally one sees the opposite -- agreeing with the problem but disagreeing on how to solve it. Here, I think the guidelines do an exceedingly poor job in identifying the issues but -- miraculously -- ends up urging action-items that are very close to what I'd propose anyway. It creates a whiplash document which is myopic in the first half and insightful in the second half. It's a 43-page document that should be started at page 23.

Start with the positive. The guidelines decisively reject uncompromising approaches that effectively write-off huge swaths of the Israel-critical Jewish community unless they agree to become Bibi-cheerleaders. It says that communal "redlines" and definitions of Israel "delegitimization" should be drawn narrowly and with an eye toward a big tent, and suggests that this tent should include even harsh Israel critics (the "wedge" point, the guidelines suggest, should be peeling off "harsh critics" from outright radical anti-Zionists -- the former kosher, the latter not). It notes that many Jewish youth express feelings of "betrayal" when their only pre-collegiate education on Israel consists of simplistic cheerleader narratives, and thus insists we'll need to prepare them for tough conversations. It speaks out against the propensity of some Jewish writers and organizations to effectively carpet bomb the slightest whisper of "anti-Israel" activity from progressive writers and political figures, especially from racial minorities, and says that we should be more willing to unite around issues of common concern even when there are sharp disagreements over Israel. Critics of Israel should be encouraged to structure their concerns in ways that manifest continued engagement (e.g., BLM-sympathizers should aid Ethiopian Jews protesting police violence; immigration activists should work on behalf of Eritrean asylum-seekers, all in ways that try to shore up and bolster humanitarian and liberal institutions currently operating in Israel).

Overall, the document preaches a message of engagement and putting in the work, and understands that overreaction can be as damaging as the initial blow. Finally, while framed around the "challenge of intersectionality", the article doesn't present intersectionality as solely an enemy to be destroyed but rather a resource to be harnessed -- you beat bad intersectionality with better intersectionality (though I might suggest here that part of that project is starting to wean ourselves off the reflexive treatment of intersectionality as a "challenge").

All of these are things that I like. But it's weirdly difficult to see how they got to this fabulous destination given the route that they took in identifying the problems they purport to tackle. The first, diagnostic half of the document almost entirely fails to recognize the fact that Jewish anxiety around Israel stems from tensions emanating from two sides, not one. Yes, there's the problem of people on the far-left demanding Jews "check their Zionism at the door", or submit to humiliating ideological litmus tests before being acknowledged as one of the good Jews. But there's the equal problem of people in the pro-Israel community demanding Jews "check their progressivism at the door", insisting that they are traitors to the Jewish people if they insist on applying progressive values to issues surrounding Israel or even, sometimes, just for being progressives generally. Both sides of this are troublesome, and both sides contribute to the problem.

I suppose the authors might argue that the goal of this document is simply to focus on the "intersectional" aspect of the challenge, and grappling with the challenge of rigid and uncompromising pro-Israel fanaticism is best given its own treatment. One problem with this apologia is that I've never seen a document of this sort written by a body like the JCPA which takes as its "challenge" the way rigid and uncompromising pro-Israel fanaticism prompts American Jewish disengagement. You can't argue for division of labor if you never actually assign anyone to cover the other half of the work. Moreover, the very topography of the document seems to make this problem incognizable: its taxonomy of "American Jewish tribes" re: Israel -- "aligners", "moderate critics", "harsh critics", and "radicals" -- is presented as a continuum from most safe to most threatening. "Aligners" -- those who "consider Israel to be an integral part of their Jewish identity and generally support the State of Israel" -- lock down one side of the spectrum and are presented as wholly unproblematic and uncomplicated figures, as against the "critics" who, though not portrayed as "enemies", are viewed as at-risk.

Yet pretty much any of us in the "moderate" or "harsh critic" camp have a lot of experience with an unnamed and unmarked fifth tribe -- the "zealots". These are the people who radically identify not just with "Israel" but with its most extreme, irredentist settler right, and who actively seek to sabotage or demolish any Israel discourse -- in the Jewish community or outside -- that is viewed as a threat to the Greater Israel project. It is a problem, and an increasingly unforgivable problem, that we refuse to call this group out or treat it as if it isn't a meaningful player. Is it representative of the majority of "pro-Israel" Jews? No. Is it at least as prominent, toxic, and destructive as the anti-Zionist "radicals" that are the "bad guy" focus of documents like this? Yes.

For many Jews, then, the forces which end up yielding disengagement from Israel aren't (just) looming pressures from the far-left, which they may be closer to or more distant from as they traverse from "aligner" to "moderate critic" to "harsh critic". Rather, it's bidirectional -- the left-radicals tug us from one side and the zealots from the other, and (pinching towards the center of the continuum, if not necessarily the political spectrum) we see ambivalence or apathy from the "aligners" or the "harsh critics" who seem unwilling to challenge the bad behavior of their neighboring extremists.

The result is a feeling of being "pulled apart" on the issue of Israel -- "engaging" with Israel means choosing between two equally unappealing forms of zealotry. This was a major theme of the "safe and on the sidelines" study on Jewish student disengagement that came out of Stanford a few years ago: simply put, students felt like Jewish life on campus meant enlisting in a war. Go to the various social justice groups, and they were asked to join a war on Israel. Go to Hillel, and they're called to join a war for Israel. But these students didn't come to college to fight a war, they came take some classes, have some beers, make some friends, and get their psychology degree. They aren't averse to Israel being part of their Jewish lives per se, but they are averse to becoming ideological soldiers in a brutal trench war, and they felt that both "sides" of the fight refused to leave room for anything but fanaticism. So they disengage.

If you want to write about why some Jews are disengaging from Israel, approximately half the story hence has to target overly zealous and uncompromising efforts by putative "Israel supporters" to impose a "my way or the highway" approach that should be and will be flatly unacceptable to huge swaths of contemporary American Jews. The prescription section gestures at this by insisting that "red lines" and "Israel delegitimization" be drawn narrowly. But the failure to explicitly grapple with the far side of the problem comes at cost -- the document is notably vague in actually laying out what is and isn't a legitimate operating case of "delegitimization", and offers virtually no guidance as to how to respond to those forces in the Jewish community which have recklessly and harmfully expanded the in a bid to exclude giant swaths of the Jewish community (consider the mostly successful efforts to bar J Street from the "communal circle" at the institutional level). Likewise, the document commits one of my cardinal sins in that it does not even acknowledge, much less explore, the possibility that there ought to be right-ward "redlines" -- positions associated with the "pro-Israel" right that, if taken, preclude them from being considered members-in-good-standing of the Jewish communal world. It's not an accident that our redlines are only applied to JVP and not ZOA.

If you only read the diagnostic part of document, you'd come away with the impression that the only reason Jews (and non-Jews) are drifting from Israel engagement is because of unreasonable haranguing from an ideological left that thinks Israel can do no right. The idea that the right side of the political spectrum bears any responsibility for the problem -- including the erosion of Israel as a "bipartisan" issue -- is scarcely even gestured at. The simple reality that a deeply conservative government imposing deeply conservative policies and which has deeply entrenched itself as the dominant force in Israeli politics is going to eventually become deeply unpopular with progressives is not even acknowledged. At some point, asking progressives "why don't you like Israel?" is like asking them "why don't you like Mississippi?" It's not some mysterious-cum-mystical antagonism -- it's because they're both conservative places enacting conservative policies which progressives aren't going to like! There's no strategy for arresting that trend that doesn't entail, at least in part, trying to insist on more progressive policies in those locales.

The astounding lack of attention to the way right-wing forces have their share of responsibility for undermining American Jewish engagement with Israel is only underlined by perhaps its only exception. Buried in footnote 21 (in approximately 3 point font) we see this doozy: "Israel’s lack of a credible and persistent commitment to the two state-solution has become a significant stumbling block in Israel’s relations with World Jewry. Any form of annexation in the West Bank would dramatically and potentially irreversibly accelerate that trend." Yeah, no kidding! Talk about hiding elephants in mouseholes! But taking that seriously means that, if your goal is reversing the disengagement of world Jewry from Israel, you need in part to tackle "Israel's lack of a credible and persistent commitment to the two-state solution" -- and that includes taking on the members of the pro-Israel community who outright oppose a two-state solution and are seeking to affirmatively undermine it at every turn. Yet even as one-stateism has become Republican Party dogma, it gets virtually no attention in favor of an entire section on the "Corbynization" of progressive politics -- a serious problem in the UK, but utterly marginal as a feature of American politics. This sort of abject failure of perspective has long since passed the point of indefensibility.

In essence, prescriptively the document seems to tacitly acknowledge that there are a host of bad practices, most of which generate from overzealous efforts to defend a "pro-Israel" position, which end up backfiring and driving Jews and non-Jews away from even a complicated respect for Israel as a state. But it refuses to actually come out and name the problem in the diagnostic section, instead presenting the challenges as emanating almost univocally from the intersectional left. The result is a document that is functionally incoherent -- and I fear that the generally salutary actions it recommends will end up being corrupted and perverted because of an inability to honestly reckon with the full scope of the problem.

At the meta-level, one of the biggest challenges facing Jewish communal cohesion, unity, and engagement -- on Israel or anything else -- is our ongoing practice of giving destructive right-wing forces free passes. We dedicate pages upon pages of agonizing over every fringe-left march or protest or chant, but when the time comes to apply that same discerning analysis to our right-ward colleagues, we clam up. As many good ideas are contained in the prescriptive sections of this guideline, for me it stands out as embodying that trend, and it's one we just can't tolerate anymore.

This doesn't mean suddenly letting bad behavior on the left go unchallenged. But it does mean we need to start developing principles and guidelines that clearly and unambiguously dictate what sort of behavior from the Jewish right crosses the line, just as we already do with the Jewish left. And when the Jewish right does go past its red lines, we need to simply get over our sniveling fear of calling it out by name.

The Terrible Need for "Bad Cops" in Politics

There is one aspect of politics that might stress me out more than any other. It's the necessity of "bad cops".

By "bad cops", I mean hacks that make tendentious arguments that nonetheless serve to push the Overton Window in a desirable direction. I mean flamethrowers who make unreasonable demands out of their party which nonetheless provide countervailing pressure against pushes from one's political opponents. I mean primary challengers against okay-ish incumbents by novices who'd have no idea what they'd do with the car if they caught it, but who manage to put a little healthy fear in entrenched politicians.

I'll give an example: I think the New York gubernatorial race last cycle went about as well as possible. Andrew Cuomo is a talented politician, but his first two terms as governor were spent undermining progressive priorities in a way that really shouldn't be happening in as a blue a state as New York. Cynthia Nixon has no political experience and probably would not make a good governor, but by mounting a credible primary challenge from the left she put enough of a scare into Cuomo that he's been far, far better in his third term. So for me, the ideal outcome is exactly what happened: Nixon runs a credible campaign but loses. Scared Gov. Cuomo > Gov. Nixon > Complacent Gov. Cuomo.

But there isn't any real way to "support" a primary by a candidate who you don't want to win, you just want to be "credible". You can't vote for someone unless they get more than 40% of the vote. And sometimes these things backfire -- Jeremy Corbyn's initial nomination into the UK Labour leadership race, after all, was made by MPs who didn't really want him to win but thought his presence would generate a healthy "debate". Oops. The point is, these things are unstable. You never know when the hack arguments suddenly start being taken seriously as policy (or law) or when the flamethrowers will suddenly seize control of the ship.

Now to be clear, I'm not saying every controversy stemming from the wing to the center is "bad copping". For starters, the center can also "bad cop" towards the wings ("hippie-punching" is a good example).  More to the point, there are obviously perfectly good objections that can made to established practices (and, for that matter, perfectly good primary challenges against incumbents).

But certainly there are cases where we know what's going on is theater -- where the leadership really got the best deal that's feasible, but nonetheless it is beneficial in the long term for some people to yell "sell outs!" because it ends up improving the negotiating position the next time around.

And that's what drives me up the wall: it can and likely is simultaneously true that this sort of agitation is both objectively unreasonable (on occasion, conspiratorial) and that it is politically efficacious towards collective party goals. Even if you don't think that Pelosi is a sellout for not having impeached Trump within her first three months, it's probably useful for Democrats to have a loud and raucous contingent saying Pelosi is a sellout for not impeaching Trump in her first three months -- in spite, not because, of the fact that this is a clearly unreasonable demand. Again, it's healthy for Pelosi to have a little fear bit in her from her left flank. But it'd be supremely unhealthy for the dog to actually catch the car. The mainstream Republican Party certainly benefited from Tea Party extremism. Maybe they thought they were using it cynically, just as their bad cop. But it turned out, they couldn't actually control it, and the damage it's done to the country may well be irreparable.

Again, using the bad cops deeply unstable and risky (as the Corbyn example shows as well). Whether it's a posture taken cynically or earnestly, fraying norms around factual argumentation and reasonable expectations about political behavior are not easily mended once their tactical value has been exhausted.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Who Wants This?

Reports are that Tom Steyer, a billionaire famous for pushing the impeach Trump movement (and for being part of the triumvirate of Jewish-descended financiers -- alongside George Soros and Michael Bloomberg -- that Republicans love to portray as the mysterious cabal of greedy rich-os bringing down America and all we hold dear), is going to announce a run at the Democratic nomination for President.

Why? Why?

Every time I see a new announcement of a Presidential campaign, that's all I can ask. Why? But in particular:

(1) Why does Steyer think that there is a lane for him? What niche is he filling that isn't present in the 25(!) other candidate already running?

(2) Why does Steyer think there will be any enthusiasm for him? What makes him think that there is any non-trivial number of Democratic voters thirsting for an as-yet-not-present option in this race?

That second question is what really baffles me. It'd be one thing if there was some sense in the primary electorate that all the choices are mediocre and a desire for a titanic savior figure. But from what I've seen, if anything the mood runs in the opposite direction -- most Democratic primary voters like too many candidates. They're for Biden right now, but they're also warm on Booker and Harris. Or they like Warren, but also Sanders and Castro. Or they're torn between Buttigieg, Harris, and Inslee. Even the Sanders voters -- perhaps thought to be the most personally wedded to him specifically -- seem to be warming up to Warren (and, in more bizarre cases, Gabbard and/or Gravel of all people).

And at the same time as they're "suffering" from a glut of choices, the prevailing sentiment I've seen is eye-rolling at the ridiculous number of people in the race. Even Steyer had some unique characteristic that could otherwise make him standout, it's going to be virtually impossible for his announcement to be greeting with anything other than "oh God, another one?" At this point I almost want to give props to Mark Zuckerberg of all people, who at least had the good grace to listen when it became apparent nobody was interested in him running for President. So far, anyway.

This all seems so obvious to me that I don't understand how it isn't obvious to Steyer, or Bullock, or Moulton, or Bennet, or Hickenlooper, or Ryan, or any of the obviously-not-going-to-come-close-to-winning candidates who are or are considering running for the nomination. Who do they think wants them? Who do they think wants more candidates?

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Harris, Warren the Big Winners from the First Debate Round

The polls are in, and the big winners from the first Democratic debate(s) are Elizabeth Warren and especially Kamala Harris (as I said -- don't listen to me).

Of course, it's still very early. But right now there's a four person race between Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris -- and a pretty steep drop-off after that.

For me, that means that the biggest loser from the first debate was not actually Joe Biden, but Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg had been right up there in the front-runner conversation, and now he's on the outside looking in. Beto O'Rourke was in a similar circumstance, although he had already seemingly started to fade -- a lackluster debate performance only confirmed the trend. But that Buttigieg, who did not seem to perform particularly poorly (though hardly scintillating either), got separated out from the top-tier of candidates is much more of a problem.

While Sanders is still part of the Big Four, I'm not sure that this is good news for him either. He's already at near-maximum name recognition, and it's far from clear from whom he'll draw supporters as other candidates drop out. The most promising target is Warren -- but now it's more likely that Warren will last to the end, and maybe Sanders will start bleeding his support to her.

The other big mover people have mentioned coming out of the first debate was Julian Castro, but it mostly looks like he went from "complete non-entity" to part of that mid-tier group that's outside-looking-in (like Booker, O'Rourke, and now Buttigieg). Definitely an improvement for him, but not the surge we saw out of Harris.

As for Biden, I agree with Paul Campos that he's in the position of having a massive early lead that you know is going to get eaten away -- the only question is how fast. I don't think he's going to be able to hold it. But he's actually in a fundamentally different position and I'd say better position than Sanders, who affirmatively needs to grow and doesn't have a clear route to doing it. Biden just has to stem the bleeding for long enough that the clock runs out -- though I have to say, that isn't the most inspiring way to limp into a general election.