Thursday, November 28, 2013

Beyond Good and Evil

Ta-Nehisi Coates says some very wise things regarding whether Stephen Alec Baldwin is a "bigot":
Alwan believes that we shouldn't, "make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves." I reject the notion that "bigot" is a "global judgement." Aside from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, no single white person may be more responsible for the destruction of slavery than William Sherman. But Uncle Billy was—even in his own time—a reconstructed bigot and white supremacist. This is neither shocking nor particularly complicated. There is no reason why one could not, on the one hand believe, that slavery should have ended, and also believed that black people were inferior and worthy of a lesser place in society. "Bigot" is not a polite way of saying "child-molester" or "serial killer" or "genocidal maniac" or even asshole. And it does not automatically blot out one's other qualities such as "caring father," "good husband," "charitable giver," or "supporter of marriage equality."

Black people—who have spent much of the history living around, working for, or working with actual bigots but have not had the luxury of dismissing them "globally"—understand this. I suspect that women—who have, for some time, had to live around, work with, and work for sexists and misogynists, but have not had the luxury of "globally" dismissing them—understand this too. And I suspect the LGBT community, where people must function in families with other people who believe their lifestyle to be a sin, understand this as well. If you are gay your father or mother could be a "homophobic bigot," but you might well love him all the same. For a significant period of American history it was common for black people to have fathers who were white supremacists. Some of us hated our fathers. But for many of us, the feeling was somehow more complicated.

The ability to "globally" label anyone is a privilege that people who live with a boot on their neck don't really enjoy. We see people as complicated, because we must, because your tormentor one moment might be your liberator the next. This is not theoretical. In 1863, General James Longstreet led an Army that kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. Ten years later, Longstreet was leading black soldiers in a courageous, if doomed, campaign against white terrorists in Louisiana.
This is a very important insight. In contemporary parlance, "bigot" or "racist" or "anti-Semite" all refer -- and can only refer -- to someone on par with Hitler or the Klan (that is to say, "genocidal maniacs"). This seems like it should be a great victory for the anti-racist, anti-anti-Semitic, and anti-bigotry crowd. It isn't. As Coates observes, it flattens the enormous pluralism that comprises a racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise bigoted social sphere, which includes a wide range of attitudes and behaviors that often lie quite far from (and may be held in opposition to) these blood-thirsty extremes. But perhaps more importantly, it stunts our ability to think about bigotry in all but the most superficial and unproductive ways.

As the defense of Baldwin demonstrates, structuring our thoughts about bigotry so it is synonymous with "unmitigated evildoer" only acts to shield the majority of bigoted attitudes and activity from scrutiny. The analysis becomes simple: (1) Stephen is accused of being a bigot; (2) to be a bigot is to be a monsters; (3) Stephen is not a monster; therefore (4) Stephen is not a bigot. This applies when we are appraising other people, and it clearly applies when thinking about ourselves: it is a rare person who -- taking the "bigot-as-moral-monster" approach -- will proceed to think "why yes, I am a disgraceful human being with no redeeming characteristics." More likely, we'll reject the appraisal, and aggressively denounce the person who made such a transparently ludicrous and offensive characterization of us.

The net effect of this outlook is that racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry are so serious that they don't exist. It is pretty clear who benefits from that state of affairs, and it is not those still under the heel of these oppressions. It is to the advantage of those who hold onto or benefit from bigotry and oppression to have such things defined as the sole province of history's greatest monsters, for few would be so bold (and fewer would be convinced) that any sizable chunk of the population is such a creature.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Good Fences Make Good Communities

Alex Sinclair has a column up in Ha'aretz where he pleads with his right-wing pro-Israel friends not to attack his pro-Israel bona fides just because he approaches questions of Israeli policy from a more liberal perspective. In particular, he observes a dynamic whereby right-wing "pro-Israel" Jews, no matter how strenuously one disagrees with them, will never have their credentials as "pro-Israel" questioned; whereas for left-wing Jews this happens as a matter of course.
Very rarely do you hear left-wing Jews delegitimize the right-wing’s place in the Jewish community. Right-wing Jews who find themselves in situations where they are the minority amongst left-wingers may be subjected to harshly-worded questions, prejudiced assumptions, and even name-calling that goes too far (most right-wingers are not really “fascists”!) But rarely will you hear a left-wing Jew say that a right-wing Jew’s opinions make him suspect as a Jew. Or that her opinions make her unsuitable to lead a Jewish organization or community. Or that their positions should not be taught to the younger generation.

The same is not true the other way round. Discourse from the right towards the left often spreads beyond name-calling into delegitimization. Left-wing Zionists are accused of consorting with those who wish to destroy Israel, of not really being Zionists, of self-hate, of naivete.
Sinclair appeals for symmetry -- we should assume the good faith of left-wing participants on the same basis as we do our right-ward friends. Neither should be "delegitimized."

I certainly agree with symmetry. But it's interesting to me that I primarily think of this in the other direction: Just as a left-wing Jews' "pro-Israel" credentials are routinely questioned if they reach beyond certain lines, right-wing "pro-Israel" Jews should also find their status up for debate if they step beyond the pale. The point is that, if we want to say the terrain of "pro-Israel" is bounded -- that certain positions cannot be reconciled with being "pro-Israel" regardless of the assertion of the proponents (or even their subjective intentions) -- there must be rightward as well as leftward borders. Yet, as I observed previously, only one direction is policed:
The claim that one can purport to be pro-Israel, and yet act or advocate in ways that do it harm, is fair enough. But it has to be an even-handed principle, and there is little evidence that it is applied to right-wing Zionists, as opposed to only their left-wing peers. This is unjustifiable -- right-wing Zionists are guilty of many of the flaws Rabbi Kaufman identifies, and deserve the same level of chastisement for their breaches.
A bare assertion of good intentions is not sufficient to render a policy program "pro-Israel", and we need to have the space to call out people who stray from certain broad but recognizable boundary lines. But it has to be a two-way street. It can't be the case that right-wingers are free to be Zionist however they choose -- even when they criticize Israeli security determinations, even when they advocate a one-state solution -- while their leftist peers are constantly put under the microscope. There are borders on both sides, and we can't place one under stringent surveillance while leaving the other entirely unpoliced. One can claim to be a Zionist -- even a right-wing Zionist -- and still be a bad Zionist.
It is possible that this is a "second-best" compromise -- it would be better if, as Sinclair requests, that we all respect the good faith of all persons holding themselves out as pro-Israel. But I'm genuinely unsure. That "pro-Israel" is not infinitely malleable and that the Jewish community has the right to define certain borders strikes me as indisputably correct. While those borders should be broad, they should exist. For "pro-Israel" to be an intelligible category, after all, some things need to be excluded from its auspices. The point is that these fences cannot apply only to one side. I think it is a good and valuable thing that one-staters are not viewed as "pro-Israel," but that applies to those on the right as much as the left. If one only has a border on one end of the territory, one doesn't have a defined territory at all.