Monday, November 29, 2021

The Sovereign's Grace, Kosher Food, and BDS at UofT

A BDS resolution passed by students at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus is in the news, primarily because of one interesting wrinkle: it specifically addresses the matter of Kosher food sources. In particular, while the resolution sweepingly targets goods, services, and events which it deems implicated in Israeli apartheid, it offers a narrow carve-out for Kosher food products if "no alternatives are available." The specific policy language is this:
Efforts should be made to source kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid. However, recognizing the limited availability of this necessity, then exceptions can be made if no alternatives are available.

The resolution was, for what it's worth, sharply criticized by the President of the University.

I do want to focus on this Kosher food issue, though, because it raises some interesting issues. The specter of the student government policing how Jewish students gain access to Jewish food -- seeking to ensure that Jews obeying the dictates of their faith do so in a way that satisfies a political litmus test set by the student union -- understandably rankles many Jews on campus (not the least because one suspects there are sharply different opinions between the student government and the median Jewish student about what it means for a food organization to "normalize Israeli apartheid"). Yet, at one level, this language was almost certainly meant as a conciliatory gesture -- an accommodation meant to alleviate burdens placed on Jewish students by the resolution by treating Kosher food options more leniently and opening the possibility of exemption. There is history here: a few years ago the UofT graduate student union made headlines for refusing to support Kosher food access on campus, on the grounds that the campaign was allegedly incompatible with BDS commitments. This was highly embarrassing for the union, which was forced to issue an apology. I strongly suspect that this provision of the new resolution was meant to avoid, or at least, ameliorate, the prospect of a repeat. I can even imagine the student union being surprised and hurt that their kind-hearted, magnanimous gesture is being thrown back in their face with such revulsion.

And yet. Often times, supporters of BDS lean so hard on the trite truism "Israel and Judaism are not synonymous" that they begin to act almost as if any connections between the two are wholly  idiosyncratic and coincidental. It can end up verging on the comical: "Israel is related to Judaism? Why, I had no idea -- in any event, that interesting factual tidbit, which never occurred to me until just now, certainly has nothing to do with anything I'm doing." But increasingly, it is becoming impossible to overlook the obvious fact that BDS commitments, interpreted expansively, necessitate significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious life, including aggressive and systematic policing of which Jews are okay to talk to or work with. The SunriseDC fiasco was one manifestation of this, the AMP position paper seeking to establish rules regarding when it is okay to collaborate with Jews is another. The myth that "BDS" will or perhaps even could be pursued in such a way that only incidentally and idiosyncratically affected Jews qua Jews (as opposed to "Zionists" or "settlers" or "occupiers") is collapsing.

Even if in the minds of the resolution drafters they were resolutely thinking about Zionists, Zionists, Zionists, and not Jews, Jews, Jews; there was no avoiding the reality that in practice the brunt of the impact would be felt far more in the latter capacity than in the former. Indeed, while virtually none of the entities which support BDS are in a position to impose regulatory burdens on the Israeli state, they absolutely can regulate their local Jews, and so it is the local Jewish community that in practice will predictably be the main venue through which these campaigns actually regulate conduct (I am hardly the first to note that BDS does far more to injure diaspora Jews than it does to harm Israel in any concrete way, let alone motivate Israel to alter its conduct). Who is most likely to have a speaker, or a food product, or a program, that potentially runs afoul of the guidelines (and who is most likely to have their speakers/foods/programs checked and rechecked and placed under the finest microscope to ensure they satisfy the relevant political litmus tests)? It's the local Jewish groups (and not just on matters that directly relate to Israel, either). The effect of these mandates is to place Jewish groups under constant, humiliating surveillance and interrogation to ensure they're not stepping out of line ("Wanna support the miners--what's your position on Zionism?" Or for a campus example, just ask Rachel Beyda). 

Critics sometimes argue that if the Jewish community in North America is that tied up with the Jewish community in Israel, that's an "us" problem. But it is simply not reasonable or feasible to expect the Jewish community writ large to wholly disentangle itself from a place where nearly half the world's Jewish population (and well more than half of the non-European Jewish population) lives and which is central to Jewish religious worship, history, and culture -- particularly given the depth of the "disentanglement" demanded (whereby nearly any connection whatsoever is sufficient to be deemed "complicit" or "implicated"). And again, that sort of insistence on a sweeping and dare I say revolutionary reorganization of Jewish public life is necessarily one that represents a "significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious" affairs. Even if one supports that revolution, and even one supports it so fervently that one is fine with it taking place via external non-Jewish compulsion, at the very least those making this demand cannot plausibly hold to the comforting myth that "we're not talking about Jews". They are, inescapably, and Jews are not doing anything unfair or unreasonable in calling it what it is (a few proponents of the revolution -- some Jewish, some not -- are open in saying "yes, we are targeting the Jews for compulsion because the Jews need and deserve to be compelled", and at the very least I appreciate the honesty).

History provides many examples of edicts placed upon the public whose effects would be to make Jewish public life difficult or potentially impossible. And sometimes, the sovereign in his grace would agree to the possibility of dispensation or exemption for Jews, or at least worthy Jews or sufficiently well-connected Jews, or for the Jews who impressed him and garnered his favor. Much of Jewish political history has been the project of begging for the establishment of these exemptions, begging for them to actually be effectuated, and then begging for them not to be removed or retired when the sovereign's mood changed. And on the one hand, the prospect of these exemptions existing is better than them not being available at all. On the other hand, their presence really hammered home the degree to which the Jews were at the mercy of the sovereign's whim; it illustrated in stark tones who was the law-maker and who was the supplicant subject.

The UofT clause on Kosher food is heir to this tradition. The broad sweep of the resolution risks making Jewish qua Jewish life on campus intolerable (there is a reason why the Nexus definition of antisemitism specifically includes as a species of antisemitism "conditions that discriminate against Jews and impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life."). The law-makers in their beneficence thus offer the possibility of an exemption, if those seeking it come with the right amount of supplication and prove their worthiness by demonstrating to the student union's satisfaction that there is absolutely no "alternative". How gracious! But in its grace, it actually lays bare something previously obscured. In so many words, what the student union is doing is developing an official bureaucratic apparatus whose job specifically is to regulate and oversee Jewish religious life -- with no question regarding who ultimately holds the power and who comes in as a mere petitioner.

Ironically, when there was no exemption at all it would be perhaps easier to cling longer to the myth that the impact on Jews qua Jews is mere idiosyncratic coincidence. The drafters surely would concede that there might be some people who might happen to be inconvenienced by the resolution and it just so may happen that some number of them (who can really say how many) might be Jewish -- but such is life! These things happen! Here, by contrast, the prior history of the Kosher food issue meant that the student union here finally had to admit to itself "yes, thinking about Israel and Zionism means also thinking about Jews" (lack of definitional identity notwithstanding). And in doing so, and in actually being somewhat responsive to that thought, it made visible the actual power dynamics in play that perhaps previously could be denied.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Journalistic Defectors

One of the more dangerous players in contemporary discourse -- or at least one of the types that makes me the most nervous, anyway -- are people who are trained as journalists, who know the forms of the genre, but now are working consciously and intentionally as advocates.

Adam Kredo -- he of Kamala Harris' pot-gate -- is one example. Before joining the Washington Free Beacon, he was a relatively well-respected "neutral" journalist working for the Washington Jewish Week. Now, nobody confuses what he does for the Beacon as dispassionate journalism (except maybe Kredo, who claimed -- apparently with a straight face -- that at the Beacon he remains a straight news reporter who is "not in the opinion biz"). Nonetheless, there's little question that Kredo is more effective as a purveyor of partisan hit pieces precisely because he knows how to write an article in a way that follows journalistic conventions. Get quotes from alternative sources, ask subjects for comments (that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't is a bonus), do much of the heavy narrative lifting not by direct accusation but in terms of presuppositions and framing -- it works in a way that more direct propaganda doesn't. I suspect the "news-ier" side of Fox News (not Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, but the parts that present themselves as straight coverage) fits this mold too.

On the other side of the street, one can see similar characteristics at Jewish Currents. Again, many of the people writing for Currents have clear talent as journalists, and their stories track journalistic conventions. They aren't obvious agitprop. But they're great examples of how, if you know what you're doing as a journalist, you know how to push every convention to the limits of its tolerance band in a way that gets you to something pretty close to agitprop while still looking on face like a regular investigation. If every choice of framing is meant to accentuate one side's story, if every presupposition of the relevant political climate or social atmosphere reaffirms a particular point of view, if every inference or interpretation is just a little credulous to the right people and cynical to the wrong ones, the result is an article in which all the constituent elements are defensible as fair but the net result is intentionally one-sided (their piece on Ritchie Torres I think works as a decent example of what I mean).

I've sometimes said that the "evil" version of me would make a good press secretary, because I think I'd be very good at spinning effectively. This is a version of that -- if you're a journalist, you know how the narrative machine works, and knowing how it works you also know how to break the machine. And as parts of a political toolkit this is very effective; arguably even necessary, even as it is also intentionally manipulative and kind of hackish. The reason "evil" me is a Press Secretary rather than actual me is that in real life I don't have the stomach for that sort of work. Which is not the same thing as saying that either I or the people I admire are perfectly virtuous or fair-minded in how we relate to our own interlocutors. We have times our biases shine through too. But there is, I submit, a difference between unknowingly being swayed by one's personal biases, or even a temporary lapse acknowledged as a wrong, and knowingly and self-consciously trying to align one's work product with one's biases to the maximum extent possible.

In any event, I suspect the people who do this are in fact decently self-conscious about what they're doing -- they don't (contra Kredo) actually think they're not engaged in opinion; they're relatively open about their agenda. Press them, and they might say something like "all news coverage has a political agenda behind it; the difference is that we are self-conscious about it, whereas the people who think they're doing straight news are more likely to be unconsciously parroting orthodox Pablum without recognizing that's a view too." And I have some sympathy for that critique, actually. We all could stand to be more reflective on what our biases and presuppositions are. But I also think there is a difference between actually trying to understand issues on their own terms and be fair to subjects one is covering, versus just going through the motions of it because "hey, everyone has an agenda right?" Such is the curse of many liberal values (objectivity, neutrality, even-handedness, etc.): they're simultaneously impossible to achieve, and yet things are so much worse when people stop even trying to achieve them.

Demystifying the very much non-neutral "mainstream" coverage norms need not necessarily take the form of "replicating those norms, but intentionally and in service of a different political program." But in practice, it often does, and the result is I think work product that is very slick, very effective for its chosen audience, and very dangerous for the project of fair-minded discourse.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

AMP Presents: Chicken Soup for the Zionist Infiltrator Soul

Some of you are familiar with the name David Miller, a British academic widely denounced for antisemitic conspiracy mongering from his erstwhile perch at the University of Bristol. Perhaps the most notorious, if also darkly hilarious, entry into his antisemitism portfolio was when he denounced Jews and Muslims making chicken soup together as a "Trojan horse for normalizing Zionism."

Of course Israel have sent people in to target that, to deal with that. Particularly through interfaith work … pretending Jews and Muslims working together will be an apolitical way of countering racism. No, it’s a Trojan horse for normalising Zionism in the Muslim community. We saw it in East London Mosque for example, where East London Mosque unknowingly held this project of making chicken soup with Jewish and Muslim communities coming together. This is an Israel-backed project for normalising Zionism in the Muslim communities.

More than perhaps anything else, this subjected Miller to well-deserved mockery and scorn -- the poster child for "anti-Zionist" antisemitism taken to its fanatical extreme.

Now, the organization American Muslims for Palestine put out a position paper on when it is appropriate for Muslims to collaborate with Jews that pretty much crystallizes the Miller view into a policy document.

The title of the paper is "AMP's Report on Working with Zionist Organizations", but they are otherwise quite clear that this is actually a series of litmus tests for Jewish groups, specifically -- the opening line of the document is "This memo is intended to provide the American-Muslim community with a set of criteria by which to determine whether or not to work with various Jewish organizations." 

On that question, of whether Muslims should or should not work with Jewish organizations, the answer AMP gives can be summarized as "virtually never, with virtually none of them". It concludes with a literal good Jew/bad Jew list where the former includes JVP, IfNotNow, and a couple of organizations whose memberships effectively overlap entirely with JVP/IfNotNow, and the latter includes ... well, basically everyone else -- including the ADL, AJC, Hillel, local JCRCs, and local Jewish Federations. Also sitting in the "bad" category are most local synagogues, which the report characterizes as sitting in a "gray area" -- the vast majority should probably be avoided or at most handled with a Hazmat suit, but AMP does do the favor of linking to a helpful list of JVP-approved acceptable synagogues which are "safe" to collaborate with. The list numbers about two dozen. In total. In the entire United States. Thanks, guys.

Much could be written about this document, along many dimensions. I did have to smile when I saw that they intentionally were modeling their call for exclusion on Hillel's "standards of partnership" -- well-played (and yes, this position paper does serve if nothing else as an indictment of the more fundamentalist interpretations of those guidelines). Less amusing was the insinuation -- echoing Miller -- that the "American Jewish establishment" is actually comprised of "front groups" run out of the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, an especially egregious form of antisemitism that even the JDA denounces (B.7). Finally, it was noteworthy to see AMP expressly characterize these "standards of partnership" as emanating out of and required by the BDS movement -- no longer limited to Israel itself, or members of Israeli society, now BDS guidelines surrounding "complicity" in Israeli wrongdoing serve to demand extirpation of Jewish groups in America too. Again, it was always obvious that the train has no brakes -- this was always the final destination of that particular ride.

But perhaps the most interesting part was when AMP tries to answer the question of "if these organizations are so sinister, why is it that they reach out to the Muslim community in the first place?" Here AMP really channels its internal David Miller:

There are a few reasons for [Jewish organizations'] continued attempt at collaboration--all of which involve using the Muslim community to further their own political agendas. [emphasis added]

One of the core reasons that Zionist organizations continue to engage the Muslim community is that it provides these organizations with cover for their bigotry. When accused of Islamophobia for example, they can point to previous work with the Muslim community as evidence against those claims....

In addition to providing themselves with cover, Zionist organizations use these opportunities to infiltrate the Muslim community. Doing so serves several purposes. Firstly, it allows them to pursue a policy of “containment through other means.” By having to engage with these organizations, the Muslim community’s time and resources are deployed away from more serious efforts and from the real issues, in turn preventing the community from achieving its real priorities. Additionally, by generating a conversation around topics such as Israel’s right to exist or terrorism, they’re generating a conversation that was otherwise not present and infusing the community with an agenda item that was not there in the first place--further dividing and redistributing precious resources and muddling the narrative.

[Finally], infiltration of the Muslim community gives bad actors the opportunity to work towards defusing American Muslim commitment to Palestine....

It is notable that AMP explicitly commits to the notion that these efforts at engagement are always taken to be in bad faith, done for sinister agendas and ulterior motives masked by an insincere desire for dialogue or community-building. There are no good faith initiatives that falter in the face of an allegedly incommensurable value conflict; rather, it's you know the Jews -- they're only after that one thing. It is one thing, after all, to accurately observe that persons or groups accused of bigotry will often point to prior good acts they've done vis-à-vis the harmed group as apologia or mitigation. It is quite another to suggest that Jews cynically try to stockpile a resume of good deeds as a preemptive strike to justify future wrongdoing, and that warding function is the actual motivation.

If AMP really had the courage of its convictions here, they could accommodate the prospect that many if not most of these Jewish organizations have perfectly sincere desires to develop relationships; to listen, teach, and learn from one another. The argument would be that, while these motives are themselves noble and salutary, the importance of this issue is such that redlines have to be drawn even if the result is ostracizing people who really do seem nice enough -- an unfortunate consequence of an essential political program. But AMP cannot resist the temptation to speak in terms of monsters and ogres -- a crusade against evil that establishes by definition that anyone skewered must be an evildoer, and now we do return fully to Miller's "Zionist chicken soup" outlook on life -- shrieking to anyone who will listen that the most innocent of things masks terrible, nefarious purposes. One has to think here they might have self-sabotaged: the sort of person who is inclined to believe this histrionic accounting of what the Jews are after probably wasn't racing to collaborate with Jewish organizations to begin with; the presumed target audience (of Muslims who have been working with, or are considering working with, Jewish organizations) may be less likely to find this ghoulish description resonant. 

Of course, one ambition of a paper like this is to head off the sorts of intercommunal engagements that would conclusively demonstrate the presuppositions of this paper are absurd. It is easier to justify "don't talk to the Jews" if one believes the Jews only talk to infiltrate and manipulate, and it's easier to believe Jews only talk to infiltrate and manipulate if one doesn't talk to the Jews. Conveniently self-insulating, that. In fairness, it may be that certain sorts of positions (on Israel or Palestine or Jews or whomever) may become more difficult to hold after engagement. But my view has always been that, while there is no obligation to simply agree with members of outgroups on any given issue, a position that is so fragile that it cannot even survive an encounter with Palestinians or Israelis, or Jews or Muslims, is probably not a position worth defending to begin with.

It seems clear that one thing AMP is trying to do here is mirror (what it takes to be) the Jewish model on policing Israel discourse inside the community -- closing ranks around a unified voice that is tightly bordered around anti-Zionist norms, with dissidents tarred as threats to communal unity at best, sellouts at worst. Again, the reference to Hillel's standards of partnership is not just a rhetorical gotcha. That said, the paper stands out for its extreme, uncompromising approach to relations with the Jewish community -- one shot through with antisemitic stereotyping and ultimately, if it were successfully enforced, incompatible with just and equitable relationships between our communities. If AMP is replicating anyone here, it is not even Hillel, it's ZOA.

But we should ask: is AMP's attempt to freeze out coordination and cooperation between Muslims and (nearly all) Jews is a reflection of newfound power, or is a reflection of newfound weakness? That is, is the AMP paper the result of an emboldened pro-Palestine movement that now sees the realistic opportunity to go for broke and establish new rules and norms entrenching its influence and locking out opposition? Or is it reflective of anxiety over a corroding position, a rear-guard initiative to try and hold the line on norms of belief and conduct that they see collapsing?

I can see the case for either story. The "emboldened" story would hold that the positions on Israel and Palestine AMP wants to hold are, if not predominant, then are at least now mainstream enough such that one can present and defend them in unadulterated, uncompromising form. Elements of pro-Palestinian activism which for years were simply complete non-starters -- things like BDS, advocating dissolution of Israel outright, presenting all Israelis are illegitimate colonizers -- now are slowly transitioning out of the activist hardcore and into "regular" journals, political debates, and campaigns. Whereas in years past the groups like AMP were not strong enough to be able to credibly threaten dissidents and defectors with punishment (What would the threat be? Ostracism from a fringe organization with no significant political sway?), now there is both sufficient internal unity and sufficient external influence to be able to extract actual costs, and the AMP position paper is a formal attempt at declaring that these penalties will be paid. AMP's paper is, under this view, a sign of a movement coming into its own and transitioning from fringe to at least semi-mainstream, with a new ability and desire to flex its muscles (and, perhaps, a desire to turnabout what it sees as its own unjust exclusion and marginalization for many years at the hands of the American Jewish community).

The "anxiety" story, by contrast, suggests that AMP is responding to a perceived decay in norms of unity and uniformity around revanchist anti-Zionism that they are trying to shore up. Developments like the Abraham Accords are fostering increased curiosity amongst Muslims to engage and interact with Israel on a basis that, while certainly not uncritical, is perhaps less overtly antagonistic than AMP would like. A Muslim woman was the national head of J Street U; the Muslim Leadership Initiative continues apace. Even the Lara Alqasem case, while mostly presented (correctly) as an example of attempted Israeli state repression, was also a case where the former head of a campus SJP chapter decided to enroll in a graduate program at an Israeli university (BDS supporters, while not passing up the opportunity the denounce Israeli malfeasance, also were clear in their dismay at Alqasam's flouting of BDS mandates). Much of the rhetoric in the AMP paper -- appeals to unity, concerns about losing a united front, fretting of being distracted or taken into infighting -- is the language of a group which feels like it is losing rather than gaining ground. Under these circumstances, AMP's position can be seen as a response to threat -- an attempt to retrench weakening norms which no longer were deterring "bad behavior" (much in the same way Hillel's partnership guidelines were themselves responsive to a perceived deterioration in what was previously seen as uniform Jewish student support for Zionism). 

Although these two stories seem competitive with one another, there is a sense in which they both carry some truth. Attempts to impose ideological uniformity and crackdown on dissident voices are most common in periods of transition, as old orders and understandings fizzle but new ones have not yet been fully developed. While it is true that some mechanisms for squelching dissent requires some amount of power, it also is the case that groups on the fringe can often afford to maintain ideological conformity precisely because there are no opportunity costs to doing so. One cannot give up opportunities for power or influence that weren't available to begin with, and one cannot fracture a movement that is too small to develop significant cleavages. Any small group that starts to rise in influence experiences these growing pains; there is a freedom in being tiny and insignificant which contracts rapidly once true pluralism emerges (and you can play for true stakes on the table).

Social movements, I've long argued, "moderate as they mainstream". This is a tendency that immensely frustrates the original hard core of the movement which views this moderation as a form of selling out. It is simultaneously the case that the success of the pro-Palestine movement is why we'll see more folks like Jamaal Bowman in Congress sharply criticizing Israeli policy and floating conditioning foreign aid to Israel, and the case that, when people with Jamaal Bowman's views enter in Congress, they're more likely to do things like visit Israel or vote for Iron Dome right alongside sharply criticizing policy and floating conditioning aid. As we're seeing right now with Rep. Bowman, trying to resist the pairing of the former with the latter is why one sees such aggressive efforts to slam the door and draw the redline. But again, this dynamic trades on both increased power and increased weakness: power in that one's views matter (politically speaking) to mainstream actors in a way that they didn't in years past; weakness in that playing in the mainstream pool means that one is subjected to influences and pressures and relationships that previously were purely hypothetical.

I do not know enough about AMP to venture whether it is even capable of successfully promulgating norms of engagement within the American Muslim community that are akin to the (real or imagined) norms that have long existed within the American Jewish community. But the broad strokes of the move here are familiar. This sort of uncompromising call for ideological conformity is neither wholly coming from a position of strength nor of weakness. It is in a very real sense more extreme than what one would publicly see articulated in years past, but partially that stems from a panic that this sort of extremism is unsustainable -- it is a myth, a "happy" fantasy, to think that the relationship of American Jews to American Muslims can be redirected so it flows only through JVP. Ultimately, just as Hillel was never going to be able to successfully clamp down on Jews thinking more critically on Israel and on Palestine (no matter what its high-level machers might want), I suspect that AMP also will not actually be able to stem the tide of Jews and Muslims working together, learning together, dialoguing together, and, perhaps, coming to a new and jointly resonant vision of justice about Israel and Palestine together.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Dying, and Mourning, Politically

One of my greatest nightmares is that a loved one of mine will die "politically". What I mean by that is that their death will occur as part of something political or politicized. A terrorist attack would be a prime example; dying during a protest would be another. When a loved one dies, all one wants to do is grieve; and be surrounded by those who join and support you in your grief. But unlike dying in, say, a car accident, a political death doesn't allow that.  One cannot, truly, be left alone to grieve. One is forcibly kept in the center of an ongoing political maelstrom at the precise moment when one most deserves respite.

The most obvious horror is that some people might minimize or even justify your loved one's death, and they might do it to your face. Even if they don't directly target you, in a political death there will inevitably be people on the "other side", and they aren't going to just pack it in and call it quits because your loved one died (the thing about dying politically is that typically yours is not the first death attached to that politics). And then there are the people who are on your side, or who present themselves as such; they might try to recruit you as a symbol for a particular cause or banner. Suddenly, your tragedy is their debating point. If one does "want" to enlist in a given political project, the effort one must expend to make sure one does it right is mental energy one simply doesn't have -- which won't stop others from judging you; which wouldn't stop me from judging myself.  Or maybe one actually rejects the politics of those claiming to speak on your behalf; the act of repudiating those who are supposedly standing in solidarity with you would be delicate under the best of circumstances -- try to imagine balancing it in the absolute worst of circumstances.

It's a horrifying thought. And the worst part is that these terrible things the mourner is subjected to aren't, for the most part, even wrong. Political deaths are political, and the politics of political deaths don't pause because your loved one dies. While there are certain cruelties -- taunting, mocking, crowing -- that could be justly labeled beyond the pale (not that this labeling does much to deter anyone), it is not realistic for the world to stop thinking about the political issue your circle has just unwillingly punctuated. The world continues when a loved one dies a normal death too, but at least it typically has the decency to ignore you for awhile. In a political death, the world continues its path straight through you. I don't know how people handle it. It strikes me as one of the worst things I can possibly imagine.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Radicalizing on Guns

If you were to ask me the one issue I think I've "radicalized" on over the past few years, it'd probably be the issue of guns. A few years ago, my view on guns would be sort of a standard soft-liberal answer: I have no issue with guns per se, but we need common-sense regulation (assault weapons ban, background checks, and so on), and while I'd vote for any of these reforms if I were a member of Congress, it isn't an issue that would exercise me that much. Now, I find myself returning over and over to "guns are one of the central problems" holding up a host of important and salutary social reforms, such that if we don't tackle the scourge of widespread gun possession, we'll never get anywhere. So in that sense, I've radicalized on guns more so than on maybe any other issue. 

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think of guns as being a common "the issue" where people are being radicalized right now. Certainly, plenty of people have held very strong views on guns and gun control for a long time. But when I think of the issues where you see people talk about a really sharp swing in their views over the past few years from a starting position of "not really something I have strong feelings on" to, I think of things like "abolition" or "Israel/Palestine" or "anti-wokeism" or "anti-capitalism". Guns, for lack of a better way of putting it, seems to be socially speaking in a similar position to where it was several years ago -- or if there is movement, it's the typical jockeying for position around the margins.

How did I get here? I grew up in the era where school shootings were a major part of the public discourse (I was in middle school when Columbine happened), and that "discourse" was probably the main point of intersection between myself and guns as a kid. I did not grow up in an area where gun ownership was common (I don't think I knew of anyone who owned a gun), nor in an area where gun violence was a regular feature of life (though the "beltway sniper" rampage occurred while I was in high school); my personal experience with guns was firing one once while at sleepaway camp. As I recall my earliest views on guns, they were much as described above -- supportive of common-sense limits, but coupled with some amount of nervousness about meddling with part of the Bill of Rights.

Fast forward into adulthood, and for the most part guns remained marginal to my thinking. I read some books about the importance of armed self-defense to the civil rights movement, which I found interesting and modulated my thinking on the issue somewhat. I also came across the "Top Shot" reality TV competition series, which I viewed as a useful peek into what I took to be the healthy version of American gun culture. I still identified with a vague liberal gun control outlook, and indeed, as a lawyer, my pro bono practice actually centered around work for the Brady Campaign. I even applied for a job with the Brady Campaign -- but I withdrew after the interview, precisely because I felt that if you worked at Brady you should be a "true believer", and I didn't consider myself to be one on the matter of guns.

What changed? First, it was thinking through how to reduce the footprint of potentially-violent police interactions in our lives. For example, noticing how often violent police encounters occur in the aftermath of traffic stops, one might ask "why does the guy who gives tickets for turning right on red need to be armed and dangerous"? Recognizing that some officers may need to be armed for their jobs, could we not disarm our traffic cops?

Of course, part of the reason why traffic cops are armed as if they're infiltrating a violent drug cartel is because we've enlisted traffic policing into a convenient workaround to negate the Fourth Amendment -- it's not about traffic laws, it's about finding some ticky-tack rolled through a stop sign excuse to pull someone over so one can search them for drugs. But in part (and these are not unrelated), it's because we know there is a solid chance that the driver of the car is armed, and potentially the sort of armed man who thinks that turning-right-on-red is his God-given right as an American so don't tread on me, and police officers never want to be a situation where they are outgunned by a civilian. The proliferation of guns in the civilian population means that there needs to be a counter-proliferation in the police population.

And the knowledge that anyone one encounters could be armed with death-dealing firearms also predictably impacts how police officers treat ordinary policing encounters. Reading a steady drumbeat of qualified immunity decisions involving police violence, often (though not always) against unarmed victims, it becomes very clear how much both constitutional doctrine and policing policy operate under the shadow of a view where everyone around the police is a potential threat. This is the "warrior cop" mentality: A nervous twitch or a furtive glance has to be viewed as a potential precursor to drawing a gun, because, well, there are a lot of guns out there, and officers are only human. "What would you have them do?" But if that's the question, it's a question that presupposes a rider "What would you have them do in a country where guns are everywhere and anyone could be packing?" To the extent that rider is what generates the hapless and helpless inability to respond to the problem of "police keep killing people in situations where it was eminently avoidable", then the rider reflects the problem. The judicial system and much of our political reaction has not-altogether-unreasonable sympathy for the position well-meaning officers are placed in, even as that sympathy itself is demonstrative of a broader systemic failing.

This extends beyond policing. As Charles Pierce put it, the proliferation of firearms throughout the populace "transforms any mass event into a potential firefight." Guns being everywhere means any public outing now is potentially life-or-death -- all the more so ones that have controversy or heated passions. When Ta-Nehisi Coates said that he'd "rather die by shooting than live armed",  he was getting at the notion that in order to have a gun on you during an active shooting, you'd need to live armed. The gun doesn't just teleport into your hand in the moment of need, it needs to be on your person as you live your life -- including when you're playing with your baby, including when you're drunk, including when you're depressed, including when you're furious, including when you've just had an emotional argument with your ex. To have a gun on you during a shooting is to have a gun on you in those moments too. But when guns are everywhere, we all to some extent have to live that life -- or least, live on the far side of it. All of us now, when encountering the belligerent drunk at the bar or the depressed just-laid-off coworker or the furious protester or the incensed ex-boyfriend, now have to wonder -- on top of everything else -- "are they armed"? The mere act of living in public becomes a sort of haunted house -- we're all forced to eye each other warily and wonder if they're going to get us (which, for some of us, then becomes "so I better get them first").

And every time I look for a solution to this, I run into the brick wall of "it won't work unless we tackle the gun epidemic"? Focus on those who actually engage in gun violence? Doesn't resolve the prospective anxiety of not knowing who is a potential threat, and doesn't have anything to do with the problem of extra-twitchy officers shooting at unarmed individuals. Disarming (non-specialized) police? It'll never happen in circumstances where police officers can reasonably say that they are liable to encounter armed individuals not just in specialized raids on violent cartels but in their ordinary beat work. Get rid of qualified immunity? As much as courts overuse rhetoric like cops being forced into "split-second decisions", some of this is a matter of symptom rather than cause; we know from too many experiences that juries have sympathy for officers who are reacting in the face of uncertainty in a world we know is awash in dangerous firearms. Criminal liability? Same problem: the panicked uncertainty of "anyone could be a danger" doesn't mesh well with guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; once the gun is in hand, it's too easy to imagine "wouldn't I panic in a similar fashion?" And maybe if there gun wasn't in hand, the panic would be the same, but the result wouldn't be.

The ultimate tragedy is that the sort of response that recognizable, non-monstrous humans make when feeling threatened -- not barbarians, not sociopaths, but people we can see ourselves in -- is one that, when one has a gun, often will result in people being maimed or killed. And the more guns there are, the tighter hair-trigger we'll all be on vis-a-vis feeling threatened. Guns -- both their actual presence, and the pervasive knowledge that they could always be present -- raise the stakes of confrontation to intolerable levels. It's a one-way ratchet, and there's no way down from it save by clearing guns off the street.

Hence my new radicalism. I don't need to believe that everyone who owns a gun is a secret militia member or yahoo or has some toxic masculinity fetish going on. And while it is abundantly clear that the humanizing sympathy towards persons who respond violently to feeling threatened is very much mediated by race, the core problem would persist even if it could be somehow deracialized (which, of course, it can't). The problem with guns is not that gun owners are not "law-abiding", and so it cannot be resolved by more stringently enforcing laws about guns. The problem is that, particularly in highly pluralized and polarized society, there is no way to preserve a functioning public square when everyone knows everyone else is capable of dealing death at a moment's notice; when every fight and every protet and every confrontation and every moment of negative emotion has immediate life-and-death stakes. That's not civilization, that's Hobbes' state of nature. Remember the old saw about "God made Man, Sam Colt made 'em equal?" Hobbes' state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short because it presents a state of affairs where all people are fundamentally equal in their ability to kill one another. Entering civilization was supposed to remove us from that hell. Instead, we've recreated it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Interesting Prospective Aftermath of Jamaal Bowman and the DSA

While I don't actually harbor ill-will towards Rep. Jamaal Bowman, I admit to feeling just a bit of schadenfreude when I heard he was facing expulsion from the DSA for the mortal sin of ... voting for Iron Dome and visiting Israel and Palestine. "I never thought the insignificant gnats would nip at my face ....!" indeed. Anyway, the DSA's national political committee is now saying that addressing Bowman's misconduct is its "highest priority" (a revealing choice of prioritization, to be sure), but it will seek to meet with Bowman's office before deciding on any sanctions.

I do admit to being intrigued at how this will play out. First thing's first: Bowman does not need (if he ever did) the DSA. He's safe in his district without them, they don't do much for him politically (indeed, I suspect that of all squad members, Bowman is the one whose base is least DSA-tied, with the possible exception of Ayanna Pressley). So the extent to which he decides to placate them is not going to be significantly dictated by political calculations -- it will be fairly thought of as reflective of his own beliefs, residual loyalty, affinity, and so on. In other words, while that doesn't mean that any response to DSA other than "f--- off" is inappropriate, if he decides to placate the DSA, it's not because he's been backed into a political corner.

In any event, there are broadly speaking three types of responses Bowman could give to DSA's demands here (albeit these are more a spectrum than hard-and-fast divides). He could fully give in, admitting error and committing to holding the DSA's hard line in the future, choosing the DSA and effectively jettisoning any relationship he'd have with the bulk of Jewish constituents and national Jewish organizations. He could try to walk some middle line -- throwing some placating bones towards DSA while not committing to shifting tangible positions on Israel in the future -- in an attempt to straddle both sides. Or he could stand his ground, defending his position and holding his own line about what the right progressive stance towards Israel and Palestine is, without much regard to making DSA happy.

The first move would be the most straightforward: the DSA would claim victory, Jewish organizations would be infuriated. It'd definitely be news, and it'd show the DSA has the ability to flex, but I'm not sure there'd be much interesting to say about this other than that it would communicate to any future politician who is DSA-curious that they will not be permitted to take anything but the most uncompromising position on Israel if they want to stay in the tent. Again, that'd be a serious development, but not one I have much to say about. I think it is fair to say that taking this step would permanently sabotage Bowman's relationship with the bulk of mainstream Jewish organizations, so there isn't a lot of use of gaming out potential responses here. The response would be "you're dead to us."

The second move is always the politician's temptation, but I doubt it would work here. Trying to stand in the middle will most likely satisfy neither side; he'd just make everyone angry at him. It's possible that DSA is looking for a face-saving way of keeping Bowman in the tent, but more likely than not any resolution that'd be seen as acceptable to them would be viewed as betrayal by the mainstream Jewish community, and vice versa.

So to some extent, I merge the second and third move together, insofar as I expect both would result in Bowman taking serious fire from the DSA (up to and including expulsion). Maybe he can form a support group with Liz Cheney. Again, I don't think Bowman needs the DSA to be politically successful, so this is not going to threaten his career in any way. But what I'm most interested in is how the rest of the "squad" would respond if the DSA turns its guns on Bowman. Do they stand up for him? Do they take public steps to affirm him as a valuable comrade? Or do they let him twist? It's never been fully clear the degree to which Squad members' relationship with the uncompromising left vanguard embodied by the contemporary DSA is one of true believers; this would give us an interesting glimpse into their headspace. Defending Bowman would suggest that they find DSA's antics to be obnoxious purity politics that is less ideologically helpful than it is a thorn in their side (it would also demonstrate loyalty to a friend); it wouldn't necessarily entail breaking with the DSA but it might prompt the DSA to take that step itself (or back down). If they stay silent, it would suggest they either are tacitly okay with this sort of hardball play from the left, and/or that they fear the backlash they'd endure from their far-left base for whom anti-Israel politics are ride-or-die issues.

It is often asserted that those inside these sorts of highly-regimented, orthodox political movements secretly hate the sense of compulsion -- the knowledge that if they step a toe out of line the penalty is ostracism and expulsion -- but they tolerate it out of fear that if they criticize, well, they'll be targeted for ostracism and expulsion. Sometimes that's true, though there are plenty of people who are probably fine with the constant hunt for heretics (at least until the gnats come for their face). In any event, right now the Squad is independently powerful enough that it could survive -- and survive without too much trouble -- attempts by the DSA to enforce this sort of iron-fisted discipline around Israel. The big question is whether they want to -- and that aftermath is one I'm interested in watching play out.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Antisemitism is a GOP Growth Opportunity in Minority Communities

When Marjorie Taylor Greene found herself approvingly quoting Nation of Islam conspiracy theories and noting the "common ground" between the GOP and the NoI, many laughed. Others pointed out that the synergy should not surprise: there really is a lot of common ground between the two. Conspiratorial antisemites should flock together. It is hardly a surprise that Louis Farrakhan has had his share of praise for Donald Trump; nor should it shock that one of Trump's most prominent Black advisors, Omarosa Manigault, tried to do outreach connected the Trump administration to Farrakhan. When one looks at the younger generation of "Blexit" style Black conservative leaders who are exciting the contemporary Republican Party, antisemitism is often part and parcel of their appeal. Omarosa was one example. Candace Owens -- she of the infamous apologia for Hitler -- is another. Mark Robinson, the new Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina and a rising star in the state GOP, has the Jewish community in a near-panic after a bevy of antisemitic (and otherwise bigoted remarks) which he has not retracted -- the most blatant being the claim that the movie Black Panther was the project of an "agnostic Jew" whose sole agenda was "to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets." Similar trends have been observed among Latinos in Miami -- a crucial "battleground" community whose unexpectedly shift back to the right in 2016 and 2020 has kept that state in the Republican column.

An underappreciated reality is this: antisemitism is one of the most obvious avenues for the GOP to make inroads in communities of color. To be sure, this is all relative -- we're talking about how to move from 10% of the Black vote to 15% of the vote; the vast majority of Black Americans are not antisemitic and are not going to be swayed over to the GOP side of the ledger by antisemitic appeals. Still, the Hirsh/Royden paper measuring antisemitic attitudes in the American population specifically found a massive spike among young conservatives, and specifically young conservatives of color (Latinos and African-American). I've joked that this finding has "something for everyone" partaking in the debates over where antisemitism is most threatening (the left is happy it can blame the right, and the right is happy it can blame Black people). But their finding really does have significant implications for where the "low hanging fruit" is for Republicans trying to bolster their vote share in minority communities, and it is very likely the GOP will start explicitly chasing that vote sooner rather than later.  

The obvious truth about someone like Louis Farrakhan is that he is a conservative figure and his ideology is far more harmonious with the right than the left. The same is true for others in the Black community who share Farrakhan's broader outlook. This obvious truth has been obscured, partially by the idiosyncratic reasons that Farrakhan and his NoI have connections to some on the progressive left, partially because the brand of conservatism he represents (deep mistrust of public institutions, xenophobic fear of contamination by "outsiders", conspiratorial ravings about the true powers governing society), when racialized through a Black perspective, often present White people and America as the "institutions" or "outsiders" or "powers" that are indicted. But on the latter, particularly, as the GOP has gotten increasingly comfortable with overt and often violent anti-government rhetoric, there are more and more opportunities for overlap here. Railing against "the CIA" or "the FBI" or "the banks" or the "globalists" -- those words will sound very similar coming out of either camp, and will likewise resonate similarly no matter who is speaking them. Marjorie Taylor Greene is doing nothing more than recognizing what was already before her eyes. And to the extent that attacks on "Whites" seems to be an insurmountable hurdle, well, redirecting those attacks onto the Jews is a prime opportunity for "compromise" that can satisfy both parties (Eric Ward's seminal "skin in the game" article expressly identified this in exploring how he, as a Black man, could enter far-right spaces -- the presumed common ground and foundation for alliance that could unify Black Americans and the far-right was explicitly that of antisemitism).

Again, Farrakhan is not representative here -- this post is not about how the GOP will win majorities of the Black community. I'm just saying that, however large this sector is in the Black community, it is a sector that is ripe for  As the GOP gets more explicitly captured by folks like Marjorie Taylor Green, these commonalities are going to become more apparent and become more tempting to leverage. And anyone who thinks that genuine concern or fair-feeling for Jews is going to stop Republican strategists from pushing that button is out to lunch. It is, simply put, too tempting a target. The overlap is already present, the votes are there to be had, and the Republican Party has no scruples to speak of when it comes to converting hateful rabble-rousing into electoral success.