Sunday, July 05, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Gentleman Jack

I remember seeing ads for Gentleman Jack when Game of Thrones was ending, and being intrigued. The show is about the real-life Anne Lister, and 18th century British landowner who dressed in masculine clothes and lived relatively openly as a lesbian and is often cited as participating in England's first (non-legally sanctioned) same-sex marriage to her partner Ann Walker.

But I never did see it then, and it was only the rapidly dwindling stockpile of television brought upon by the lockdown that finally caused me to watch it (seriously: I think I've seen every good episode of Community -- which is most of them -- at least a dozen times at this point). Should you join me? Some quick thoughts to help you decide:

  • The early episodes (and, as I recall, the advertising), leans pretty hard into a "she's a badass landlady! Look at her collecting rents from the tenants without mercy or tolerating any nonsense!" framing. This is a bit odd to watch in the present political moment.
  • It is a sign of how far we've come as a society that this series could even be made -- not because it features a lesbian relationship, but because even ten years ago I think it would've been seen as homophobic the way that she "recruits" (she may even use the word) Ann Walker to be her lover.
  • Yes, the two characters are named Anne and Ann. It's not that confusing. Usually. But keeping all the other side characters straight is a nearly impossible endeavor.
  • My reaction towards Ann Walker generally took the following arc, occurring over two episode cycles: "Damn, that woman is messed up." "Oh wow, she's had a really tragic life though." "But damn that woman is messed up!" "Oh my gosh, there's just an endless reservoir of tragedy for her isn't there?"
  • The show also features Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, as Anne's far more conventionally feminine sister Marian. It's very interesting to see Whelan play a character that is about as far from Yara as possible. But the show does something I very much like in resisting the cliched juxtaposition of the liberated, modern Anne against the straightlaced, intolerant, conservative Marian. They clearly have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, but it seems to have almost nothing to do with Anne's sexuality. Moreover, it is made evident at various points that Marian is in many respects more liberal than her sister -- particularly with regards to class issues and respectful treatment of servants. In all, Anne's family is shown to be pretty well accepting of her.
  • My head canon is that this show is the prequel to Downton Abbey, and I refuse to be dissuaded on the point.
Jill and I are a sucker for a good period drama, preferably one without gratuitous violence, and Gentleman Jack scratches that itch. Is it transcendent? No. But it's worth a watch if you're into the genre.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Come 2021, Jews Should Prepare for a "Stabbed in the Back" Narrative from the Right

A recurrent feature on this blog are conservative commentators who are just baffled that Jews vote Democrat. Don't we realize that Republicans are our best friend? When we will be come to our senses.

In general, the tone of my posts is relatively jocular -- it amuses me to watch Republicans twist themselves into an emotional knot, unable to grasp why Jews continue to be such a reliable Democratic voting bloc. It's funny because the conservative disbelief is based on their own willful blindness to the priorities of most Jews. They assume that Jews (a) only care about Israel and (b) express "caring" about Israel in terms of providing carte blanche support to the most right-ward manifestations of Israeli politics towards Palestinians. In reality, the eternal mystery of why Jews vote Democrat is not that difficult to solve. It boils down to two things:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
But I think, if Joe Biden wins in 2020, we might have to brace ourselves for this sentiment to evolve in a more dangerous direction. In 2020, Jews will undoubtedly vote much the same way they've always voted: for the Democrat, in overwhelming numbers. From the vantage of the right, this will be especially inexplicable. Trump moved the embassy. He recognized the annexation of the Golan. He gave the green light to West Bank annexation. He's called Ilhan Omar an antisemite literally dozens of times. What more could Jews want?

If Republicans were truly interested in engaging with Jews as political equals, this might invite some introspection: maybe what Republicans think Jews want (endless occupation coupled with Islamophobic hysteria) is not what Jews actually want. But introspection in the face of Jewish critiques is not exactly a Republican strong suit. So what's more likely is for befuddlement to transform into resentment. The ungrateful Jews -- we gave them everything and yet still they defy us! A philo-semite is an antisemite who loves Jews, the saying goes, and it doesn't take much for obsessive unrequited love to turn into seething passionate hatred. When the turn comes, it will come quickly.

More so than at any point in my lifetime, the Republican Party under Trump has latched onto a self-identification as "friend of the Jews", our bold centurions standing between us and the antisemitic hordes of the radical left and the Muslims. This self-image has thus far been more or less impervious to the Jewish identification of the Republican Party under Trump as the prime driver of antisemitic hate and violence threatening Jews in America today. So when Jews in the next election do what we've done in every other election -- vote Democratic by overwhelming margins -- it will be seen as not just inexplicable, but a betrayal.

The tides of Trumpism have already paved the way for a resurgence of right-wing antisemitism -- we're already seeing it manifest in Soros conspiracies and "globalism" and "replacement theory". I firmly believe that the only reason it hasn't gotten more explicit is the historical accident that Trump has Jewish relatives. But Trumpism after Trump will not be so constrained (one already hears murmurings to the effect that Trump's decaying political fortunes are the fault of Jared Kushner). The right is primed and ready to accept a message of Jewish perfidy, and it will be accelerated by the GOP's wounded insistence that they are entitled to our adoration.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

How To Lose a Primary, 2020-Style

So far in 2020, four House incumbents have lost renomination to their seats (five if you count New York Democrat Eliot Engel, though absentee ballots in New York haven't been tabulated). But there are ... differences between what causes a Republican and a Democrat to lose their own party's nomination.

For example, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was one of the most conservative members of his caucus -- opposing abortion rights, gay rights, and Obmaa care -- despite representing a D+6 seat. If you're wondering how he got elected in the first place, the answer is that the seat was previously held by his own father who -- in classic machine fashion -- won renomination and then announced his retirement, inducing the local party to hand the nomination to his son. He was defeated by Marie Newman, who narrowly lost a challenge in 2018 and by all appearances is a perfectly normal Democrat. This is not at all abnormal.

Contrast that to what happened last night, where Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) was stunningly unseated by conservative activist Lauren Boebert. Nobody had the race on their radar because Tipton, who enjoyed Trump's endorsement, hardly seemed to have committed any sins against the conservative movement which would generate primary opposition (The Onion notwithstanding). So what was it about Boebert which caused her to surge to victory? Well, she's a qAnon-endorsing conspiracy theorist whose main claim to fame is running a bar called "Shooters" where the staff openly carries guns and which defied orders to shutdown in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

Of course, it's not always better when the incumbent loses because of their apostasies -- particularly when one considers what counts as "apostasy" in the modern GOP. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA) also enjoyed Trump's backing, but lost renomination in a "drive-through convention" to far-right challenger Bob Good. Riggleman's wrongdoing? He officiated a same-sex wedding for two of his former staffers. That's enough to get you bounced in the 2020 Republican Party.

But I guess Republicans did manage to dislodge their most openly White supremacist member this  year -- so good on them for that.

Monday, June 29, 2020

What's the Right Way To Oppose Annexation?

After last year's Yom Kippur, I wrote about a question I posed to some foreign affairs mavens at my synagogue regarding what is the "right" way to pressure or induce Israel in furtherance of American policy objectives. We spend a lot of time talking about what's off the table (e.g., no BDS) -- okay, fine, but what is on the table?

This question, I think, needs to rise back to the forefront of our mind as Israel contemplates annexation. Annexation does not enjoy the avowed support of most American Jewish organizations, but there is deep ambivalence over what tangibly those organizations will do if annexation nonetheless proceeds. The AJC has already announced it will defend annexation if Israel chooses it (it complained that the headline "We'll defend annexation if needed" was misleading, but the article text literally says "If annexation ... comes to pass, we will make the strongest possible case" for it). The ADL apparently will not defend annexation but is cagey on what forms of opposition it will and won't support (more on them in a second).

But this is a conversation we need to have now. When a foreign nation does something we don't like, opposition can mean a wide variety of things, from "quiet grumbling" to "send in the troops". Hopefully, nobody is suggesting invading Israel to stop annexation; likewise, any serious opponent of annexation needs to agree to something more than just a murmured "it wouldn't be my choice but ...." Between those poles, though, there's a lot of space to maneuver.

Which brings us back to the ADL. A few days ago, Jewish Currents made a big splash when it wrote about a leaked ADL memo outlining proposed strategies for responding to annexation. One reason I often give JC a side-eye is that they let their political slant so nakedly seep into their reporting that I don't have confidence that they're reliable relays of the views of their interlocutors. I don't think they'd falsify quotes or anything like that, but the interpretations they make and they inferences they draw are self-serving and often quite dubious. And unfortunately, here they for some reason did not to my knowledge release a copy of the memo itself, meaning we're relying heavily on them for both content and analysis. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to be a disjuncture between what JC imputes to the ADL, and the words they actually quote from the ADL's memo.

The memo, for example, makes clear that the ADL will not be defending annexation or Netanyahu, and that there must be "space for local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s [annexation] decision." Moreover, it is particularly attuned to the problem where criticism of the critics falls disproportionately on the heads on prominent minority figures, and cautions that this must be avoided as well. On the other hand, the memo also suggests that it will oppose certain legislative actions that would impose more tangible punishment on Israel. The primary focus of the memo appears to be on relationship managing with major Democratic figures (particular in the CBC and other minority caucuses) -- respecting the validity of criticizing annexation while wanting to avoid a brush war akin to l'affair Omar.

Yet you'd barely get any of this from the tone of the JC article (and it is accordingly not at all how the article has been largely received). The article rather presents the ADL as plotting to sabotage anti-annexation politics and undermining opposition to the policy; its concerns about relationship-preservation and avoiding flashpoints seen as a barely-disguised attempt to muzzle all but the most perfunctory and non-threatening murmurs of discontent. In the course of accusing the ADL of seeking to undermine opposition to annexation,  the JC barely even admits that the ADL explicitly indicates it will not be defending annexation (in sharp contrast to the AJC). The tone of the article is that, insofar as it is seeking to moderate language and concerned about preserving relationships, the ADL in effect is running interference for annexation even as it pretends to oppose it. All Jewish organizations have an obligation to support whatever proposals or  rhetoric end up emerging under the banner of anti-annexation politics -- and any organization which doesn't commit to doing that should be seen as disingenuous in opposing annexation to begin with. It is reminiscent to a complaint about "tone-policing" -- that given the major looming injustice of annexation, any attempt to contest particular anti-annexation rhetoric or proposals as too extreme or aggressive should be seen as a means of deflecting attention away from the bigger issue.

The problem is that the ADL is absolutely right and reasonable to be concerned that valid concern and opposition to annexation could spiral into something a lot uglier and less defensible, and that Jewish organizations should absolutely be on the lookout to tamp down on flashpoints. And more to the point, we're already seeing some of this ugliness explicitly defended on exactly the argument the JC proffers. Over in the UK, we're seeing a clear version of this at the intersection of two significant actions by the Labour Party leadership: first, sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour shadow cabinet after she praised an article falsely accusing Israel of being behind the chokehold tactics used against George Floyd, and second the announcement that if annexation proceeds Labour will back a settlement boycott. The line from the Corbyn diehards is, more or less, that the decision regarding the former means the latter doesn't count; that in the time of annexation if you're objecting to conspiracy theories about Israel being behind racism in American policing, you don't truly oppose annexation at all (read some of the replies!).

There are, in other words, two horns to the dilemma. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to insist that annexation by Israel needs to be met with real, tangible consequences, and that the ADL and other Jewish groups must not obstruct that. And it's entirely plausible that the range of responses that the ADL deems "acceptable" will be too narrow and too weak, and if that turns out to be the case they should be criticized for it. Theoretical opposition to annexation cannot be paired with practical opposition to any and all tangible moves taken against it. That's why we need to start thinking now not just about our redlines of what goes "too far", but the alternatives of  "what's in bounds". If we can't give a realistic answer to that, then it will indeed be hard to take "opposition" to annexation seriously.

But on the other hand, recognizing the need for tangible action does not entail stepping aside and accepting any policy or rhetoric that styles itself as "action". Any time a foreign nation undertakes a provocation, one will see arguments for taking a hardline and arguments for defusing tensions, and it is a lie that only the hardest of hardliners are taking the provocation "seriously". If "opposition to annexation" spills over into "racism in America is the product of an Israeli plot and how dare you call that out as antisemitic with annexation on the table?", that's the sort of thing which doesn't help anyone -- not Jews, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Black people. Trying to avoid that outcome -- preventing righteous tailored fury from bursting into an unbounded and uncontrollable conflagration -- is neither illegitimate, nor wishy-washy.

If -- God forbid -- Israel carries through with annexation, my hope is that the response of American progressives everything necessary to clearly communicate its unacceptability and to promise proportionate consequences, and nothing that pours unnecessary fuel on the fire or seeks to sabotage the relationship between Jews and our allies. It's a large ask. But if it is to happen, it will require both moral courage -- to call an injustice an injustice and respond accordingly, as well as empathic connections -- to maintain relationships of care and concern. Both prongs matter, and committing to one should not and must not be seen as sacrificing the other.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rosa Diaz: The Face of Police Brutality

While it obviously is not anyone's top priority, many media observers have been wondering aloud about how Brooklyn Nine Nine will address the changing public perception of policing when it returns for its next season. Already, Terry Crews has suggested that several completed scripts have been scrapped as showrunners realize that they need to adapt. But it is going to be a very delicate line to walk. Since the show almost certainly is not going to return as a post office sitcom, it can't ignore the issue, or carry on as if the last few months haven't happened. Yet it probably can't do a full police abolition narrative, while if it takes a reformist approach it will be criticized for being too timid and out of touch.

As much as I love the show, I don't know if this is a hole it can write itself out of. But as I've thought about it, I keep on returning to one potential plotline:

Rosa Diaz gets kicked off the force for police brutality.

Now before I go further, I want to make two things clear.
(1) I adore Rosa Diaz. She's possibly my favorite character on the show. She's a queer icon. Stephanie Beatriz is a treasure.
(2) Rosa Diaz is definitely the main cast character most likely to physically abuse a suspect. Her whole character is based on her being violent, aggressive, and hot-tempered. She literally jokes about committing police brutality in the show's second episode!
It's not hard to imagine the scenario. Rosa is chasing a suspect through New York City alleys. She has to jump over dumpsters and garbage, she's hot, sweaty and frustrated. When she finally catches up with the guy at a dead end, she's basically snarling. And so even though he's cornered and not a threat, she takes him down -- hard. Which someone records, and it goes viral.

At this point, the squad divides. Jake, still hopped up on his childish notions on what it means to be a bad-ass cop, backs up his old friend from the academy; while Amy, in a new leadership position and more exposed to political fallout can't bring herself to defend Rosa's actions. Terry is sensitive to police brutality, having recently experienced a racist confrontation that nearly turned violent, and is surprised to learn that this is one area where Holt -- while not exactly approving -- is a man of his generation of cops, thinking that a rough take down of a suspect is business as usual and not worth getting riled up about. Hitchcock and Scully choose opposing sides for arbitrary reasons. Boyle is paralyzed by indecision.

Jake seizes on the notion that if he can prove the suspect really was guilty of a crime, Rosa's actions will be seen as justified. He works the case feverishly until he eventually discovers that the man Rosa injured had some drugs in his apartment -- a triumph, until Amy points out the obvious so what? So what if the guy smoked a few joints? Does that mean he deserved to be abused? Is Jake really going with "he's no angel"?

And so the resolution is not that Rosa is let off the hook, or learns a valuable lesson, or has the squad unite behind her. The resolution is that Rosa is fired from the NYPD (and, I imagine, written off the show).

Does it have to be Rosa? Could it be a random Nine Nine beat cop we had never seen before instead? No. It has to be Rosa, because it has to be someone we care about. The problem of police abuses is misjudged if it's viewed as the product of a few sadists hidden from public view. Those people exist, but the larger issue is that police abuse occurs by men and women who are in other respects normal, likable, courageous -- people who do good things, have friends who care about them and who care about others, people who in other contexts may do good or even heroic deeds. The Florida cop who attacked a peaceful protester, the one with 79 use of force complaints in three years? He also stopped a suicidal woman from jumping off a bridge. I bring this up not as an excuse -- just the opposite. It is to hammer home the gravity of the problem. This is the banality of evil at work; we deceive ourselves if we think it is a problem that is restricted just to some anonymous snarling monsters. We have to get used to the idea that police violence (like all injustices) are perpetrated by people who look familiar to us.

It has to be Rosa because it has to be someone who has already been fully fleshed out as a human, with the full array of human relationships and feelings and sentiments and history that humans carrying with them. It has to be someone we care about. Only that will give the issue the gravity it deserves.

Israel as Contagion

There's a narrative bubbling in certain areas of the left which seeks to tie American policing abuses to cross-training exchange programs some police departments do with Israeli counterparts. The narrative has its roots in Jewish Voice for Peace's "Deadly Exchange" campaign, which uses the claim as a means of further its campaign to see Israel isolated and ostracized in global society. As the issue of police violence surges to its place at the top of the public's deliberative agenda, the deadly exchange claim likewise attracted those eager for a anti-Israel or antisemitic hook. Just yesterday, new Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey -- a prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally and one-time rival for party leadership -- from her position in Labour's shadow cabinet after she approvingly shared an article where actress Maxine Peake claimed, without evidence, that "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services."

This is not true. Many have cited an Amnesty International report where, they say, it is proven that Israeli police train their American counterparts in human rights violations. But Amnesty has since come out and said explicitly that "Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported." This is not surprising, as the content of these exchange programs by all accounts rarely, if ever, focuses on what we might euphemistically call "interpersonal" or "tactical" elements of police activity (it generally concentrates on strategic questions regarding operational responses to mass atrocities -- a subject upon which Israeli security forces sadly carry much expertise).

So what is going on? The stock response from those objecting to the link is the simple but truthful observation that American police hardly need Israeli help on the subject of how to harass racial minorities. Some have argued that, because it is true that there are Israeli and American policing exchange programs (and apparently some Minneapolis officers had partaken), it is ipso facto fair to draw a connection between American abuses and those training seminars -- without any regard to what actually is or is not done in those programs. The argument, in effect, a contagion theory: anyone who associates with Israelis, we can assume, is at least partially corrupted by the contact. They're worse off coming out than coming in.

In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones.

This is an unorthodox but I think ultimately more accurate way of understanding what antisemitism does. We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Primary Day Predictions (Kentucky and New York)

It's primary day in America, with some big races in Kentucky and especially New York. Why not lay down a marker  of some predictions?

Kentucky Senate: McGrath defeats Booker. Over/under: 15 point margin.

NY-03: Tom Suozzi (incumbent)

NY-09: Yvette Clark (incumbent) -- but with less than 50%.

NY-10: Jerry Nadler (incumbent)

NY-12: Carolyn Maloney (incumbent)

NY-14:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,(incumbent), and it's not close.

NY-15: Richie Torres breaks from the pack and defeats the loathsome Ruben Diaz Sr.

NY-16: Jamaal Bowman defeats Eliot Engel (incumbent) by a surprisingly comfortable margin (~10 points).

NY-17: Mondaire Jones in a tight race.

Keep in mind: I'm not very good at predicting things. But we'll see how I do?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

After Bostock, Was It All Worth It?

It's been interesting to watch conservative reactions to the Bostock decision (holding that Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination, because that discrimination necessarily is also "because of" sex). Some of the usual suspects have been relatively muted -- likely because the outcome the Court reached is actually overwhelmingly popular. But there certainly are some on the right who are very upset. Josh Blackman collects anonymous examples here. Right-wing commentator Josh Hammer urges conservative judges to abandon procedural legal reasoning entirely in favor of an unabashed substantive commitment to social conservative principlesSenator Josh Hawley claimed the decision represents "the end of the conservative legal movement."

It's more than just Joshes, of course. And the theme of this critique is, as Hawley alludes to, the question of whether it was all worth it. The claim is that social conservatives, at least, have been holding their noses and voting Republican for years because "the judiciary". But if the conservative judiciary gives them results like these, is the bargain really worth it? The murmur is that after Bostock, the jig is up, and conservatives will no longer come out to support a GOP whose judges have betrayed them.

If you're a liberal reading this, it's rather striking. The undisguised insistence that judges should vote in alignment with conservative policy objections (up to and including explicitly disavowing neutral legal proceduralism!) is amazing to see -- less because of the content and more because it's being said out loud. But more incredible is the idea that this Supreme Court has represented anything less than a massive triumph for contentious right-wing causes. The Court of Citizens United, of Trump v. Hawaii, of Hobby Lobby, of Janus, of Masterpiece Cakeshop -- none of that registers? Is it really everything or nothing?

I, of course, heartily encourage social conservatives to adopt this reasoning and decide its not at all worth it. Rise up by sitting down, and showing the Republican Party what's what! But that's because it's obviously self-serving for me: the result of social conservatives staying home and fuming because the Supreme Court only backs them 80% of the time instead of 100% of the time is, in five or ten years, a Supreme Court that backs them 40% of the time.

Indeed, the most important lesson liberals could learn from watching, agape, the social conservative reaction is "if this strategy looks ridiculous to you coming from the right, it's equally farcical when it's threatened from the left." You don't win by staying home, and you're not playing hardball when you insist on everything.