Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jewish Lessons From a Teach-In

Syracuse University Professors Zachary Braiterman recounts his experiences volunteering to provide a perspective on antisemitism at a "teach-in" organized in response to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally. It's thoughtful, nuanced, and recounts a mostly (though not entirely) positive experience. The most important thing it emphasizes is that -- to reiterate -- influence is wielded by the people in the room. If you're worried that discretely Jewish experiences of and vulnerabilities to the rising tide of far-right extremism are not being fully or fairly aired, then put yourself in a position where you're airing them.

The way that Zachary got on this panel was straight-forward: he volunteered. None of the organizers asked him about Zionism; nobody put him through an "are you a good Jew or a bad Jew" battery of questions. That isn't to say that such things never happen, but here they didn't. And when it turned out that the original date for the teach-in was to be Rosh Hashana, the fact that Zachary was in the room meant that he was well-positioned to facilitate a change of date while there was still time to do so.

Again, the experience wasn't entirely seamless. While Zachary relates that his talk resolutely did not speak about Zionism or anti-Zionism, an audience member took it upon herself to try to draw a link between Zionism and American militancy. But the fact that someone like Zachary was on the panel meant that he was the one who got to address that question. Again, what benefits we see from being in the room.

In some respects, Zachary's account reminds me of the experiences I relayed in this post (only even more positive). At the root, his experience and mine are hopeful accounts of what happens when  you insist on being in the room and actually show up. I don't pretend like every story traces such a happy arc. But it remains possible, and so I remain optimistic.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Liberal Academia Fails Again

A new study by Kyle Dodson of UC-Merced finds that, while student-student interactions have a politically polarizing effect (liberals push further left, conservatives move farther right), student-faculty interactions tend to moderate students (liberals and conservatives each move closer to the center). Obviously, something has gone awry in the liberal academy's indoctrination machine.

In all seriousness, while I'm not surprised by this finding, I do think it is worth kvelling over a little bit. Group polarization is a well-established phenomenon, and most professors are left-of-center, so one might expect that student engagement with professors would push left-wing students further left. That this doesn't happen even granted the political composition of the professoriate speaks very well of our professionalism and sense of intellectual mission.
With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. "[T]he results indicate -- in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators -- that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes," Dodson writes. "While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas -- a hallmark of the college experience -- challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions."
I'm not a fan of moderation for moderation's sake, but I'm a big fan of getting people to reassess their political priors and consider the validity of views-not-their-own. So go us!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Many People Are The Real Threat To Free Speech

Right-wing hecklers shouted down and ultimately forced the cancellation of talk by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College. The hecklers were protesting Beccara's efforts to protect immigrants against predation by the Trump administration.

I mention this story in part because FIRE is the body who picked it up (I periodically hear people claim FIRE doesn't care about free speech violations emanating from the right, but that has not been my experience and this represents a good counterexample). I also mention it because it is a clear example of a free speech violation on a college campus. I do not mention this story to play "right-wingers are the real threat to free speech in this country" game.

The fact is, lots of people don't like free speech; mostly when it's exercised by groups they dislike. Sometimes it's right-wingers at Whittier, sometimes it's left-wingers at William & Mary (what a terrible example to pick, by the way, as the fulcrum for "protest is speech too". Yes, it is, precisely because the overwhelmingly majority of the time it does not manifest as censorial disruption as it did at W&M).

That they actually indict free speech on the regular doesn't stop them from racing off to cry "free speech" when the speaker is someone they like -- the lead heckler at Whittier, as FIRE observes, is rather flagrantly ... opportunistic, we'll say ... on this issue; one could see George Ciccariello-Maher on the other side (as the National Review rightly observes, in GCM's case not believing in academic freedom doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it, but it's fair to call things what they are).

It's perhaps not surprising that this issue -- like so many others -- has devolved into little more than partisan point scoring and desires to push a narrative. But the fact is that there are threats to free speech from all over the political spectrum. I don't tend to think college campuses should be the epicenter of this conversation, particularly when the President of the United States is talking about shutting down broadcast television networks whose coverage he dislikes. Yet even on campus, one can see plenty of offenders on both sides.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Many Voices of Silence

One of the more vexing questions raised by the recent flurry of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein was why, if "everybody knew", nobody spoke up? Why did people -- colleagues, victims, friends, press -- stay silent for so long? Is it right to blame them (all of them? some of them? which ones?) for not talking? Why?

On this subject, I'd like to share a story (I might have written about it before, though if so I can't find it) from when I was in college.

I was working a summer job at a law firm. Two of my closest friends from that summer -- also college students, both women -- worked together in the mail room; I worked by myself in another wing of the office. What that meant was that we didn't really see each other during working hours, but we did eat lunch together pretty much every day.

About a week before the end of the summer, in our daily lunch walk, one of them said she wanted to ask me something personal. She said that she thought she was being sexually harassed by her supervisor, and she wanted to know what I thought she should do about it. Should she say anything? Should she report it? The summer was about to end anyway; maybe she should just ride it out.

The "thought" part is important, because part of the conversation was her being unsure whether what was happening was sexual harassment. She seemed to be consistently talking herself into and out of her own position on the matter. She'd say things that to my mind clearly sounded like harassment, but when I'd concur in the assessment she'd second-guess herself and start redescribing the events more as if he was just sort of a generically lousy boss. Then eventually she'd reach the end of the pendulum and return back to it being harassment. She went back-and-forth in that vein for awhile, and never really settled on a conclusion.

I'm not really sure why she thought I'd have any unique insight. I wasn't any older than them, and had no particular experience in the area. The best advice I could give -- and to this day I don't know if it was good advice -- was that if she felt like it was sexual harassment she should report it, and if she felt like the guy was simply a bad supervisor she should wait out the week and leave.

Meanwhile, the second friend -- who also worked in the mailroom and to whom I periodically was turning to for clarification -- was making gestures and facial expressions to the effect of "I want absolutely no part in this." I could tell this all was bothering her as well, but she was firmly on the "don't say anything, don't do anything" side. I asked her why.

She told a story of being harassed at her middle school. And there was no "thought" there: she was being groped in the halls, people were tearing off her blouse, it was truly sickening behavior. And what did she do? She did complain. She and her parents went to the principal, told him what was going on, and demanded he put a stop to it.

The result? Nothing happened.

Well, not "nothing". The principal wasn't happy to have this thrust on her plate, and so now the administration started retaliating against her for complaining. Her entire position at the school became untenable. So she transferred to a different school -- one less convenient and less academically prestigious.

The moral she learned was "don't complain about sexual harassment." Hence, she made clear, she would neither confirm, nor deny, nor participate in any way in any conversation about any sexual harassment she or her friend may or may not have experienced in the mail room.

I'm not entirely sure how this story ended, but I don't think anybody ended up saying anything to the powers-that-be. Why not? Well, I didn't in part because I don't think either of them wanted me to, in part because I didn't know what I should say, and in part because I didn't view it as my place to speak (particularly given Friend #2's vivid description of the potential consequences for them if I talked). I imagine Friend #2 didn't talk because of the "lessons" she learned the last time she tried to fight back against harassment. And if Friend #1 didn't talk, it might have been because she was afraid the same might happen to her, or because she ultimately wasn't confident in her own credibility as a complainant, or because the end was in sight and she just wanted to put things behind her.

There are all sorts of reasons for all sorts of silence. One of my personal mentors, Martha Nussbaum -- surely one of the most powerful (in all senses of the term) women in the world today -- spoke incisively about why she never reported her sexual assault and why, even now, she continues to think it was and would continue to be useless to have done so. Silence can be complicity, and sometimes it's nothing more than that. But sometimes it is much more than that. Silence is the function of an entire network of power in which everybody feels alone, everybody feels powerless, everybody feels like they can't make a difference and that the only thing that will be gained from speaking up is hurting those who deserve it least.

Put another way, the condemnations of those who "knew" and said nothing often act as if the problem was just lack of character virtue -- if people cared more, then they wouldn't remain silent. This, to my estimation, dramatically understates the cultural forces which encourage and demand silence at every turn. The forces are not -- or are not just -- threats of reprisal. They're also bonds of trust ("you promised you wouldn't say anything if I confided"), norms of role ("it's not your place to do this for me"), and desires for lost privacy ("I just don't want this to become the center of my life"). When I hear about something that "everybody knows" but nobody says, my assumption isn't that "everybody" is a callous monster. I assume that there is something deeper going on.

When it comes to sexual assault, silence occurs in isolation, while resistance comes in groups. This is why one woman catching Weinstein bragging about sexual assault on a wiretap set up by the NYPD didn't bring Weinstein down, but many women telling a reporter (who lacks guns, or handcuffs, or prison threats) causes a cascade. Taken alone, we can't imagine how our speaking up could possibly make a difference -- it will only bring trouble. They stay silent because if they speak up:
  • They'll be threatened ("you'll never work in this town again"); and/or
  • They'll be ignored ("she's just seeking attention"); and/or
  • They'll be mocked ("what makes you so special that you think Harvey Weinstein would make eyes at you?"); and/or
  • They'll be shamed ("what did you think you were getting into, going to a meeting with him alone?"); and/or
  • They'll be discredited ("Weinstein is a public figure; if he was a predator there's no way he could've kept it a secret for so long.").
And after all that heartache? Weinstein remains untouched, but the accuser has to live with the knowledge that her accusation meant nothing.

But when enough people refuse to cooperate, that massive array of power, which felt like it was an impregnable fortress, starts to topple like dominos. The people who could end your career in Hollywood now need to rush to show they're not beholden to a tainted figure like Harvey Weinstein. The "attention" oddly dissipates because it's spread across so many victims. The mockery falls flat because it is evident that Weinstein was a serial assailant. The shame doesn't stick because so many verify how he got so many women in a vulnerable position.

But the thing is, it's difficult to make that jump from being relatively alone to relatively in a community. It requires a lot of things, and courage is certainly one of them. But again, I don't think the problem is simply one of bad hearts. It's about bad culture. And I don't expect things to change much until that culture is unwound.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"It Could've Been Worse" is the Ultimate Non-Sequitur

Israel Bonan writes on the history of Egyptian Jews and the significant oppression -- culminating in violence and expulsion -- that characterized their experience in the 20th century.

It's a reply to Eyal Sagui Bizawe, who also wrote about the 20th century history of Egyptian Jews. Bizawe's column is somewhat peculiar, since it doesn't rely deny the reality of historical oppression so much as it seems cranky that it's being talked about as a form of significant oppression. It's replete with logic like "well, yeah Jews were expelled from Egypt, but not all of them so ... why should we call it 'expulsion'?" Or "yes, there was violence directed at Jews and Jewish neighborhoods, but 'pogrom' -- that's overselling it, no?"

Basically, Bizawe seems to think it's a sort of trick, or a form of dirty pool, for Egyptian Jews to argue that a significant (not the only, but a significant) component of their recent social experience was discrimination by the Egyptian state and society. It's unfair, it's reactionary, it's harboring a closet right-wing agenda. None of these contentions are particularly persuasive, and Bonan's column does a good job refuting them. But read them both and decide for yourself.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXVI: Charlottesville

Charlottesville was a "turning point" in our national conversation about racism. By that I mean "lots of people sort of acknowledged racism still existed and was scary, and then proceeded to not alter any of their other political priors in any meaningful way such that within two weeks it was as if nothing had changed whatsoever."

But who was responsible for this hitherto unfathomable display of open white supremacy? Oh, I think you know who:
[REP. PAUL] GOSAR: Well, isn’t that interesting. Maybe that [the Charlottesville rally] was created by the Left.
VICE News: Why do you say that?  
GOSAR: Because let’s look at the person that actually started the rally. It’s come to our attention that this is a person from Occupy Wall Street that was an Obama sympathizer. So, wait a minute, be careful where you start taking these people to.  
And look at the background. You know, you know George Soros is one of those people that actually helps back these individuals. Who is he? I think he’s from Hungary. I think he was Jewish. And I think he turned in his own people to the Nazis. Better be careful where we go with those.  
VICE News: Do you think George Soros funded the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville? 
GOSAR: Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?
Interesting indeed. On behalf of the Jews, thanks, Rep. Gosar, and thanks to the Republicans of Arizona's 4th congressional district for electing him!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The New Trump Administration Push To Blow Up Energy Markets

David Roberts has a great post on efforts by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to essentially blow up the wholesale energy market in a naked effort to protect coal (and, to a lesser extent, nuclear) power plants from free competition. Basically, he proposed a new rule that would guarantee coal and nuclear power plants a positive return on their investments, regardless of whether their power capacity was used or even is economical. Whereas other power plants (ranging from wind to natural gas) make money based on their ability to compete effectively in the marketplace, a few preferred operators would get their profits guaranteed.

Nominally, this is because they uniquely contribute to grid "resilience" by being a source of power able to ramp up quickly in the event of a major disruption (like, say, a major weather event). The problem (well, the short version of the problem) is that all the relevant studies -- including those conducted by the DOE under the supervision of Secretary Perry in the hopes that they'd confirm his political preferences -- conclude that coal and nuclear power don't actually improve grid resilience, and that, in fact, the grid is generally quite reliable and resilient right now (and only improving). So the only real upshot is to serve as a massive intrusion on the market in favor of uneconomical coal power.* It's thus no surprise that one Republican former FERC commissioner described it as "the antithesis of good economics," or that simply said it would "blow the market up."

The whole article is worth your read, both as an introduction to how energy markets work (Roberts is great at explaining for a lay audience) and as an entry in the infinite-series of "Republicans don't actually care about market competition.

After laying out a litany of obstacles to passing the rule -- ranging from wall-to-wall opposition in the energy sector (outside of coal/nuke lobbyists) to severe time pressures to a complete lack of legal or policy justification necessary under the relevant statutes, Roberts concludes by saying the future of this proposal depends "on just how hackish and partisan FERC is willing to get." In other words, hold on tight.**

* As Roberts notes, while nuclear power is in a somewhat different boat from coal, this rule is also terrible policy as applied to supporting nukes.

** FERC is actually normally a relatively well-run agency, but at the moment it is controlled by Trump partisans who are, shall we say, not typically concerned with abiding by standards of technical expertise. So we'll see.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The (Ex-)CBS Executive Who's (Not) the Next Google Software Engineer!

After the horrifying massacre in Las Vegas this weekend, one CBS executive (business-side, not content-side) put up a Facebook post saying she was "not even sympathetic" to the victims because, as country music fans, they were probably Republicans and thus partially culpable for the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

She was fired.

I don't have a particular problem with that. Her comments were obviously repulsive, and if CBS decided that they were beyond the pale, casting doubt on her ability to work empathetically and sensitively with others, then this remedy seems well-within bounds.

And it seems most people agree. Because we haven't heard her compared to the Google software engineer. Or the Mozilla CEO. Or, on the other side, NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.

What to make of all this? I don't think that it's actually a lack of principles, precisely. Rather, I think this demonstrates that we need to make judgment calls, and that there's no substitute for nuanced, critical consideration. A pure "free speech" position can't work in the private sector, and few of us seem to desire it anyway. At the same time, a "if you don't like the political line the company forces you to espouse, you can get a new job" line doesn't seem to map onto our intuitions about free speech or political freedom either.

It requires thinking. And sometimes, it's the easy, unthinking cases -- the uncontroversial termination of an executive when her speech really does seem obviously beyond the pale -- that illuminates the thought that needs to go into the more difficult ones.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hell's Kitchen: All-Stars!

Yom Kippur began this evening, so obviously the smart move is to blog about a food show. But tonight was also the premier of Hell's Kitchen's all-star season! Long-time readers may recall that I pitched my dream lineup for a "heroes versus villains" HK all-stars all the way back in 2011. That was in the middle of Season 9, and we're now through Season 16 -- and since the lineup skews towards recent seasons, most of my picks didn't make it (I think the only exceptions are Ben from Season 7, and Jen and Elise from Season 9).

Still, the entire lineup consists of people who at least made it to black jacket territory, which distinguishes it from certain shows where "all-star" somehow includes people who didn't even make it into the top half of their season.* So I'm largely happy, and think it's a decently strong set. I fully expect Robyn to melt down in spectacular fashion, but other than that we'll see how people do!

* Back in the 1980s NHL, there were 21 teams and 16 playoff spots, leading one wag to quip that "if WWII was a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs." Project Runway all-star seasons are rapidly approaching similar status.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Who Doused the GOP with Truth Serum?

Something very strange is going on. Republicans are suddenly being remarkably ... candid:

Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), on why deficit hawks aren't saying anything about the Trump tax cut busting the budget:
It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led. It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), on what's motivating Republican primary voters:
All this time I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.
And of course, an Alabama GOP County Chairman on how he'd respond to charges that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore is "anti-Muslim":
I'm anti-Muslim too.
All are stand-outs, but I have to give extra-credit to Massie for explicitly including himself as a "craz[y] son of a bitch."

Monday, September 25, 2017

Return of the Muscle

In 2015, during anti-racism protests at the University of Missouri, a journalism professor named Melissa Click gained notoriety by calling for "muscle" to expel student journalists attempting to cover the proceedings. Click was widely censured and eventually fired.

I'm not convinced on the "firing" part (there are substantial due process questions that have yet to be answered persuasively), but the censure portion was entirely appropriate. A free press is essential to an open society. Seeking to block, obstruct, or threaten journalists for doing their jobs is utterly incompatible with a commitment to free speech. What Click did was utterly contemptible.

Yesterday, a Missouri journalism student who was covering the Jason Stockley verdict protests published his account of what happened to journalists at the scene. He is not doe-eyed about the protesters -- while most were non-violent, a few were not and particularly as the main protest died down some were engaging in destruction of property (and were, unsurprisingly, not thrilled to be filmed in the act of destruction of property). But the journalist was also quite clear and emphatic in his ultimate verdict:

At this event, the police officers were far more threatening to journalists than were the protesters.
The SWAT truck stopped, and heavily armored officers carrying assault rifles poured out, screaming at us. Thinking that they would likely ignore the journalists and go after the demonstrators, we stopped and put our hands and cameras in the air. Most of the demonstrators were wearing black, their faces covered with bandanas, and some had weapons. The journalists, on the other hand, were dressed the way we often are — in button-down shirts, with press credentials and cameras plain to see. The difference was obvious. 
And yet most of the demonstrators escaped while nearly all of the SWAT officers grabbed the journalists by our necks and forced us against a brick wall. An officer pulled my respirator off my face and threw it into the street and then pulled my helmet back so tightly that the fastened strap began to cut off my air supply. Our hands were immediately zip-tied tightly behind our backs, and I was unable to breathe or remove my helmet. I tried in vain to choke out the words — “I can’t breathe.” A photographer next to me noticed and loudly said to an officer behind us, “You need to take off his helmet, he’s choking.” The officer looked at him, then at me, and said “I can’t hear you” and walked away. 
I was eventually able to use the wall next to me to nudge my helmet back onto my head. Now able to speak, I turned to the officer in charge and asked, “Am I under arrest?” His reply was: “Shut up, mother------.” 
The SWAT officers then yanked us onto our feet and walked us toward a police van. As we were being shoved into the van, the officer in charge stopped us. “All of you dumbasses are going to jail tonight. Stupid mother-------.” Then he turned to one of the other officers and said: “Throw these stupid b------ on the van.”
Everyone who censured Melissa Click should be equally loud in denouncing the actions of these St. Louis Police officers (arguably, they should be more emphatic -- there is special danger in such assaults on the free press occurring under color of law -- but I'll settle for "equally"). They won't, of course. As always, free speech has many fair-weather friends, and in a world where a guy can body slam a journalist and then cruise into the House of Representatives it's hard to speak of the health of our commitment to an open press.

But principles are principles, even in their breach. Sometimes, the "muscle" is a wild-eyed academic thinking she's "protecting" student activists. Sometimes, it's police officers claiming to be "protecting" the streets. Both are contemptible. But there's no doubt that only one will become a national story.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

I'm writing this post on my childhood bed, in my childhood bedroom, in my childhood home, for the last time.

My parents recently sold this house, which we've lived in since I was born. This trip was the big "clean out your room" day (through extraordinary effort, I'm proud to say not a single baseball card will be left behind -- fulfilling a promise my parents made to me when I was eight that they'd never throw out my collection).

As you maybe can tell, I'm a sentimental guy. I gave an emotional send-off to this blog's pageview counter, for crying out loud. So you can imagine that this has been a very difficult trip for me.

I loved this house. I loved everything about it. I loved that it had the consensus best front and backyard, perfect for capture the flag. I loved that it had tons of trees and woods for exploring. I loved that it had a huge basement that was ideal for running around in as a kid -- big enough for floor hockey games. I loved that it was packed with nooks and crannies that made it perfect for hide-and-go-seek, and that I knew the perfect hiding spot where nobody would ever find me. I loved my room, with its wall-to-wall desk back behind the bed so I could have all my books in arms reach. I loved a closet that was big enough to house my entire baseball card collection, and enough shelves for seemingly-infinite books plus a few choice pieces of sports memorabilia.

Of course,  didn't really have to deal with any of the stresses of home ownership. I just got to grow up here. And even after I left for college and basically moved out, it was always "home". It was always a place I could put down as a "permanent address" (not a small thing, when you moved five times in five years all across the country). It was always a place where I had my childhood toys, just in case I wanted to bask in a bit of nostalgia. Most importantly, it was always there, a promise that if things didn't work out (and I'm not even sure what I mean by that), I could go back. All the things I was doing in the world, the traveling and working and going to school -- they were not points of no return.

I've always said that I hate change, but I've realized that's not quite accurate. What I hate is not being able to go back. I hate irrevocable change. My ideal life comes with save and reload points. The funny thing is, I virtually never use them (in games, I have a propensity to save before big decisions "just in case" -- then never return to the decision-point again). But just having the option is comforting. And the house was the ultimate reset button. It has always been a part of my life; I've never been without it. And so it doesn't matter that I virtually never spent time there anymore. It's very, very scary to let that go.

Tomorrow, the house is hosting an engagement party for Jill and myself, where some of our oldest friends will get to celebrate a big step forward in my life that I am genuinely excited for. My mom asked if I wanted to do that -- it makes for a bit of an emotional rollercoaster -- but I emphatically did. It will make for a fantastic send-off, and I'm glad I'll get to experience it filled with family and friends once more.

And then, after that, we go to the airport, back to Berkeley, and it's gone forever. I'd love to end this post with some moment of personal growth, or at least catharsis. And I am happy that a new family, with a little kiddo of their own, will live here and form their own memories. But the truth is, right now, I'm just sad. I'm sad to be leaving. I'm sad that when we pull out of our driveway (a driveway which only true experts could back out of without straying onto the grass), I'll never be coming back. It is a permanent, irrevocable goodbye, to something I truly loved.

The grand dame herself:


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXXV: War!

There is a class in the political science department here at Berkeley, titled simply "War!" (the exclamation point is included). It explores the concept and practice of war from an international relations perspective -- does it follow political science "rules"? Can it be rational? Are there cultural, geopolitical, or demographic markers that make one more or less war-prone? Of course, it's taught by a Jew.

If that "of course" caused a cocked eyebrow just there, well, you aren't Valerie Plame, who ushered in the Jewish New Year by sharing an essay titled "America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars." Shana Tova indeed! It includes such lovely suggestions like demanding the media "label" Jews when they appear on television, "kind-of-like a warning label on a bottle of rat poison." So that's nice. Missing is the apparently trivial fact that Jews are significantly less likely to support Middle Eastern wars than the American population writ large.

Plame has already completed the cycle that started with "yes, very provocative, but thoughtful," proceeded onward to "Just FYI, I am of Jewish decent [sic]", over to "put aside your biases and think clearly," and finally coming to rest on an apology.

Fun bonus fact: The site she shared from is the Unz Review, which was a key driver in directing antisemitic harassment at me personally following one of my Tablet articles (e.g., the infamous "are you this Jew?" email).

But one can't help but feel for Plame, who says she just "didn't do [her] homework" on the venue. I mean, who could have known that an article titled "America's Jews Are Driving America's Wars" would be published on an antisemitic site?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Living in the Machinery of Death

Being a clerk on a United States Court of Appeals was one of the truly great honors of my life. It was a fantastic experience, which included the chance to have a direct hand in the development of American law, to occupy a front-row seat to observe how the legal sausage is mad, and to work side-by-side with some exceptional attorneys and for a federal judge who was a fantastic friend and mentor.

But I've also remarked that, during the tenure of my clerkship, I often felt as if I was "ruining far more lives than I was validating." One arena of law which provoked that feeling was criminal law, where truly obscene oversentencing was a daily occurrence. Another area was immigration.

By the time an immigration case reaches the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the median adjective describing the appealing immigrant is probably "doomed". This is due to a confluence of factors -- the laws on the books are immigrant-unfriendly, the immigration judges are often immigrant-friendly, and the standard of review for immigration claims at this stage is exceptionally immigrant-unfriendly. What that meant in practice was that, over and over again, I found myself reading files of people who insisted that they'd be hacked to death if they were deported back to Central America, then assisting in perfunctory one paragraph orders denying their appeal.

The risk (of being hacked to death) wasn't made up. I was generally quite persuaded that they were at serious risk of violent attack if they were returned to their home countries. But, as I said, the law is quite unfriendly, and since the persecution was rarely the result of direct governmental animosity or membership in a cohesive social group, there was usually nothing to be done. On the rare occasions where there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, I tried my best -- and most of those cases I was unsuccessful. But even the cases where there was even a implausible shot were few and far between. For the most part, the legal rulings were straight-forward -- hence why they could be expressed perfunctory, single paragraph orders.

The law is straight-forward and it is clear. That does not change the reality of the situation. It is fair to say that the true villains here are the politicians who write and the people who demand laws which regularly enable such horrible outcomes. Fine. But the fact is I was a gear in a machinery of death, one that destroyed families and ruined lives. In terms of how much culpability you want to assign to me, personally, or other agents of the federal judiciary, legal formalism is a fine consideration to take account of. But appealing to it to deny the nature of the machine -- not to say "it's not my fault" but to say "that's not what was happening" -- is a psychological numbing agent. We run to it because it's terrible to have to face up to the reality of the situation.

The Austin American-Statesman reports on a recently deported immigrant -- snatched outside of a courthouse where he was facing a few minor misdemeanors -- who was just found murdered back in his native Mexico. Murdered, just as he told a federal court he would be in a futile effort to stave off his deportation.

Juan Coronilla-Guerrero had a criminal background. Not a serious one, but not a spotless one either. In this, he is little different from many Americans who have a spot or two in their past. Which itself raises the DACA question posited by, among others, my friend Joel Sati. DACA is for perfect immigrants -- those with not a single blemish on their record, those who perfectly fit a respectability narrative. Of course, it's understandable that, in unfavorable conditions, you latch onto the best stories you can. It's no mystery why DACA or the Dream Acts are framed the way they are.

But Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was not a murderer, or a rapist, or a child abuser. More to the point, he did not deserve to die. If or when DACA is passed, or a Dream Act, or some other comparable piece of immigration reform make it through Congress, it will undoubtedly exclude many, many Juan Coronilla-Guerreros. Not perfect people, but not bad people either. And despite the fact that they aren't hardened criminals, or "bad hombres", or incurable monsters, they'll continue to be deported, in circumstances where the results are entirely predictable -- ruined lives as best, death and maiming at worst.

We should still pass a DACA bill. We should do what we can, in the imperfect world we live in, bounded by the terrible political constraints that bind us.

It will remain a machinery of death. I'm not about casting blame; feel guilty or innocent at your own discretion. But don't deny the nature of the machine.

What If Black Liberty Mattered?

Jacob Levy writes on the history of "liberty" as a trope in American racist movements, and the corresponding flirtation that many libertarians have had with White supremacy. Levy's essays for the Niskanen Center have been consistently superb -- I already wrote on his fantastic defense of identity politics as against the Mark Lilla critique -- and this is no different. Give it a read.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pondering Planets in Science Fiction

A couple of planet-related thoughts I've had over the years in the context of Science Fiction (movies, books, games, etc.)

1) Sometimes, in Science Fiction, something -- an artifact, a person, a dataprint -- will be lost (lost less in the sense of "I had it but dropped it" and more in the sense of "lost to the sands of time"). And where this is a plot point, the heroes usually will "find" the MacGuffin by figuring out what planet it's on (e.g., Luke Skywalker at the end of Episode VII).

I always found this rather striking. Imagine you're searching for a particular human being, and you're told "he's on Earth" ... and that being enough to go on. Even if there weren't a single other human being on the planet, Earth is still really big, at least from the perspective of finding a single guy. There's a ton more sleuthing you'd need to do! It's amazing to me how most "planets" are reducible to basically a square mile of (monolithic) terrain -- anything that's there, is there.

2) In any multiplanetary society, it is taken pretty much for granted that the smallest unit of practical governance is the planet. Sometimes it's larger than that (a galactic federation, or individual star systems), but there's virtually never subplanetary political divisions that are deemed salient on an interstellar level. "Earth" might have a representative on the Galactic Council, or the "Terran Federation" might, but "America" and "China" never do. That actually strikes me as more or less plausible, but it is interesting -- and it strikes me that if humanity ever does spread outside of our home planet we will rapidly coalesce into some form of global government -- at least for the purpose of managing space affairs.

3) Returning to the "planets are big" thing, you know what job must really be low-prestige in science fiction land? An "intraplanetary" transporter or military member. Imagine there exists Starfleet, and you're part of the Navy. Not the Space Navy, just the old-fashioned water Navy that protects ocean-going ships. Somebody has to do it -- again, planets are large and there will have to be substantial intraplanetary trade which will need protection from pirates or rescue from storms or whatnot. But goodness, imagine trying to pick someone up at a bar with that job -- working on a coast guard cutter when there are literal starships flying across the universe. That's rough.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Today in Academic Freedom

Yesterday, I published a column in Ha'aretz on Berkeley's response to the Ben Shapiro speech. I noted that, since the Berkeley administration actually did exactly what it should have done in ensuring that Shapiro's juridical right to speak was protected, and since the Berkeley community largely followed through and responded to his speech through perfectly legitimate means (counterspeech, non-violent protest, flyers, questioning), perhaps we could now move on the substantive merits of what signal it sends when Ben Shapiro is invited at all.

It's been a banner couple of days for academic freedom, after all. For example:

* Harvard administrators overruled its own History Department's decision to admit Michelle Jones, a woman who rose to prominence for conducting top-level historical research while incarcerated in Indiana, to their graduate school. Reportedly, the decision was motivated in part by what conservative media outlets would say if Harvard admitted "a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority."

* Harvard also withdrew a fellowship offer previously extended to Chelsea Manning, this time in response to furious objections from conservatives in the intelligence community who deem Manning a "traitor." Manning was convicted of leaking classified information, and had her sentence commuted after serving seven years in prison. Corey Lewandowski, who assaulted a reporter, and Sean Spicer, who epitomized the "post-truth" ethos of the Trump administration, remain fellows in good standing.

* The University of Maryland is investigating the termination of a Jewish professor, Melissa Landa, from the College of Education. Landa contends that her relationship with her colleagues soured after she began organizing against antisemitic comments by (now-former) Oberlin Professor Joy Karega (Karega was eventually terminated after spreading several antisemitic conspiracy theories on social media; Landa is an Oberlin alum). Several of Landa's students have released an open letter criticizing her termination, describing her as an "ally" and "one of the few professors who is an expert in helping students examine their own biases."

* A lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was suspended after tweeting that he enjoys teaching "future dead cops." The New York City Police Union wants him fired, but New York Times columnist Bari Weiss wrote a lengthy essay explaining that, while the lecturer's views were offensive and reprehensible, it is important both for CUNY students and police officers to be exposed to ideas that discomfort them and respond via counterspeech rather than demand censorship [error: column not found].

* The University of North Carolina's board of governors shut down a civil rights center at UNC Law School which ruffled conservative feathers by litigated desegregation and environmental impact suits. I had already written about this controversy here, noting the incredibly ad hoc justifications given for what was obviously a political power play ("we just think law schools should focus less on practical training and more on esoteric, Ivory Tower theorizing!").

So that's where we stand. One suspects that some of these cases will gain great notoriety within certain political factions while others will be wholly ignored; switch the factions and you no doubt switch the cases that matter. As we've long since learned, academic freedom has a lot of fair weather friends. But as these examples indicate, the assault on academic freedom does emanate from a single source. You either defend the norms which let a university function, or you don't. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Eternal Mystery of Why Jews Vote Democratic

People sometimes ask me why Jews vote Democratic. There's no real mystery behind it. The explanation is simple:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
As we look at Donald Trump's poll ratings amongst Jews -- far lower than even his catastrophic nationwide ratings -- we see this born out. On every issue save Israel, Jews think Trump sucks. And on Israel ... Trump still is significantly underwater, and well below where Barack Obama polled on that issue at his nadir. It's just not that mysterious why an overwhelmingly liberal electoral subgroup would keep voting for the more liberal of the two parties.

But, you know. 2014 2015 2016 2017 will be the year Jews finally come to our senses and realize who truly loved us all along!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I'm Sick of Smug-Takes on Berkeley Offering "Counseling"

Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro is coming to campus this week. Shapiro will be followed this month by Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon, and Milo Yiannopoulos, as part of a Berkeley "free speech week".

In a long email outlining the various campus policies that would be in place to facilitate all these speeches (and as I've consistently argued, having been invited by authorized community members they do have a right to speak free of censorship or material disruption, though of course not from non-intrusive protest or criticism), Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Alivisatos mentioned that, among other things, counseling services were available for any students who felt "threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe."

And the internet went wild.

I don't need to collect links -- here's an example, but they're not hard to find. Across the entire political spectrum of the mainstream media -- you know, center-left to hard-right -- there was near-uniform glee in dumping on coddling Berkeley administrators and infantile Berkeley students who need counseling just because they're hearing "ideas they disagree with."

I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing this. It's lazy, it's a cheap shot, it's intellectually incoherent, and above all it's mean-spirited. Berkeley isn't wrong here. And it's detractors are showing more about what's missing in their character than the most stereotypical Golden Bear hipster.

For starters, Berkeley is a big place. Its total enrollment is over 40,000 students. These young people come from a range of backgrounds, and at any given time across that 40,000 there will be persons who are struggling, or experiencing crises, or feeling threatened, or any other permutation of personal circumstance and emotional troubles you can imagine. I've already written recently about how all of us -- self-satisfied declarations notwithstanding -- intuitively understand how certain speech can truly wound deeply, in a manner which we can all empathize with. That doesn't mean we ban it (and offering counseling doesn't "ban" anything), but it does mean that there's a genuine phenomena that we can and should attempt to address

So let's be empathic. Let's imagine, amongst Berkeley's 40,000 students, that there is a student who is struggling. Maybe he's away from home for the first time and having difficulty adjusting. Maybe she feels in over her head in classes, finding that work that got her an A in high school is barely scraping a C at Berkeley. And then let's add more to it -- maybe he's just found out that he's now at imminent risk of deportation from the only country he's ever truly known. Maybe she's found out that, though she proudly served her country and is a veteran of the American armed forces, the President of the United States publicly declared her to be a burden on the US military who should never have been allowed to wear the uniform.

Now let's remember who Ben Shapiro is.

Ben Shapiro thinks that trans individuals suffer from a "mental illness" and gratuitously misgenders them for the primary purpose of causing offense. He refers to DACA as President Obama's "executive amnesty". Pretty much the only reason he isn't an avowed member of the alt-right is that they happen to hate him too. He's not an intellectual. He's not one the great thinkers of the right. His oeuvre, his raison d'etre, is to be a hurtful provocateur. That's what he brings to the table.

And let's be clear: this, the above, was why Ben Shapiro was invited to Berkeley. It wasn't because he offered "a different view." And it certainly wasn't because of the intellectual candlepower he has on offer. The people who invited Ben Shapiro to UC-Berkeley did so because of, not in spite of, the hurt he will dish out to already-vulnerable members of the community.

The students I outlined above -- already struggling, buffeted by political dynamics which very much are designed to dehumanize them -- now have to reckon with the reality that a non-negligible chunk of their colleagues are glad they're feeling that way. They actively want to accelerate the process. They'll go out of their way to invite speakers to reiterate and emphasize the point.

Honestly, I don't blame them if they could use a venue to talk out their feelings a bit. It strikes me as spectacularly uncharitable, a colossal failure of basic empathy, to think otherwise. Then again, what is our polity going through now but a colossal failure of basic empathy?

After the election, I made a similar comment (which I cannot find) when people again made fun of college kids who expressed deep hurt and fear upon the election of Donald Trump. This, too, was attributed to fragile millennial snowflakes who don't know how to tolerate hardship. And I remarked that the man now faced with being expelled from the country is not scared because he's frail, and the woman who was the victim of a sexual assault is not despondent because she's weak-willed. We've seemingly moved past "don't punch people who think you're subhuman" (okay) to "don't be sad that people think you're subhuman" (really?).

Some are arguing that the real problem with offering counseling is that it doesn't teach the kids "resilience". First of all, I wonder what they think goes on in counseling sessions -- my strong suspicion is that they are precisely about fostering resiliency so that students are better able to cope with such annoying trivialities like "I may be torn from the only home I've ever known at any moment and a sizeable portion of what I thought was my community will cheer as they drag me off." The objection here isn't so much to lack of resilience as to the university having the temerity to try and teach it -- like objecting to wilderness training because shouldn't real men already know how to survive outdoors?

Second, it is hard not to hear in this objection a deep resentment at the fact that today, even now, some people still do proactively care about the feelings of others. The argument seems to be that "fifty years ago if someone felt marginalized on a college campus nobody gave a shit. Today, some people -- including a few holding administrative positions -- do care, and for some reason that's a step backwards for society." One can hear more than a little of the typical mockery associated with using therapy of any sort -- though I admit I hadn't heard it manifest this overtly in some time -- which suggests that only persons of pathologically fragile mental composition could ever need something as lily-livered as counseling. Again, I find this argument hard to relate to, seeing as its genealogy is so thoroughly bound up in nothing more complicated than pure cruelty. Shorn of the feelings of superiority it generates, can anyone actually defend this?

Others complain that students shouldn't be going to therapy in response to such speech, they should be responding in other ways -- debate, protest, donations, activism, any thing else. Of all the objections, this is the one that is the most difficult to credit. Does anyone think that the only way Berkeley students will respond to Ben Shapiro's speech is by going to counseling sessions? That Friday morning, all 40,000 of us will march into whatever center houses our mental health professionals and demand to be soothed? Of course not. Of course there will be debate, and protest, and donations, and activism. And you can bet that however such actions manifest, people will still find a way to denounce the entire response tout court -- unjustified actions like violence, yes, but also silent protest, but also waving signs, but also pure condemnatory speech (especially if that speech dares use the dreaded -ism or -phobic suffixes).

Finally, let's dispense with the notion that this is all being triggered by students who can't tolerate "ideas they disagree with." For starters, it's notable that while Alivisatos' email does not in fact refer to any speakers in particular, everybody simultaneously assumed they were talking about Ben Shapiro while at the same time being aghast at how anyone could possibly need counseling after hearing Ben Shapiro. Me thinks they protest to much. But more to the point: Berkeley regularly hosts speakers who will present ideas many on campus will disagree with. This week, David Hirsh is giving a talk on "Contemporary Left Antisemitism" -- surely, many on campus would resist his conclusions. Later this term, National Review editor Reihan Salam will be speaking on immigration policy -- with no known objections or protests planned.

So the problem isn't ideas people disagree with. The problem is Ben Shapiro, and Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. One doesn't invite them to campus because they're presenting important ideas which need to be reckoned with. There are plenty of conservatives who fit the bill, and when those conservatives show up they are typically met with little fanfare. But if you're inviting this contingent, you're doing it because you like hurting people. That's their comparative advantage, that's the thing they can offer over and above all of their competitors.

It neither bothers me, nor surprises me, nor offends me, that this offends certain students. If some portion of those students are in an emotional place right now where they feel like they need counseling, I encourage them to get it. If others want to protest the speech, I support their right to do so within the parameters of the law. If still others want to attend the speech, or subject Shapiro to harsh questioning, or pen scathing op-eds in the Daily Cal, I applaud them all for it. And each of these options got pride of place in Alivistos' email.

All of these are valid responses. None of them are worthy of scorn, none of them signal any deficiency in our student body. What is far more worrisome is the reaction of the so-called "adults" in the media, who have grown so fond of bashing kids-these-days that they've seemingly forgotten the need to reason, much less to empathize.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Roots of Hating DREAMs

In cancelling DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions positively cited our nations' immigration policy shift in 1924, when we enacted racial quotas to sharply limit immigration from "non-White" parts of the world. At that time, Jews were part of the "non-White" horde, and these new laws were integral in keeping out Jewish refugees attempting flee Nazi atrocities before and during World War II. It was a policy of death, enacted on a foundation of racism. No wonder Sessions loves it.

There probably aren't that many Jewish DREAMers today, but the Forward found at least one -- a young man from Venezuela who's lived in America since he was six. He came to this country legally along with his mother, who had a work visa. Unfortunately, when she died of cancer while he was still in elementary school, that visa was canceled without him being aware of it. This is just one example of many showing why the "rule of law" attack against DACA kids is utter nonsense. What exactly is the lesson supposed to be: "That will teach you to let your mom die of kidney cancer"? It's grotesque.

Attorney General Sessions said that, in ending DACA, we are not saying that DREAMer youth are "bad people." He's right. We're saying we are.

Americans have no birthright to a country we can be proud of. We write our own history. As Richard Rorty once observed: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." We decide what sort of country we are, and that means it's on our shoulders when the decision we make turns out to be ... this.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Who We Thought They Were, Part II

The headline said: "Why a Republican Pollster is Losing Faith in Her Party." I immediately thought: "I bet it's Kristen Soltis Anderson."

I was right.

I've known Kristen since high school -- we were on the debate circuit at the same time, albeit she a few years older than I. It's been a bit weird watching someone you know become, you know, an official Big Deal (fun fact: Washington Post reporter Bob Costa was also part of this same era of debaters -- the conservative Student Congress set has done very well for itself!). Kristen was always on the more moderate side of her party, and as a pollster had long been pushing reforms to the Republican Party to make it more appealing to young voters -- tamping down on right-wing social issues and focusing on matters of economic opportunity.

But the reason I knew this article was talking about Kristen wasn't because she's a moderate, per se. It's because as a pollster, I suspected Kristen would not be able to shrink from a reality that many others in her ideological camp -- more intellectual, moderate, thoughtful Republicans -- are somehow still in denial about:

The brand of politics represented by Donald Trump is, as of now, the dominant form of Republicanism in the United States.

It isn't an aberration. It isn't a hijacking. It isn't a tiny minority that's somehow taken over.

Most Republicans fundamentally like the things Donald Trump does and the politics he represents. And that includes him at his most wretched -- for example, the aid and comfort to the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. Quoth Anderson:
Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Illinois Representative] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”
The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.
[...]
Polls showing Trump’s approval among young people falling to 25 percent or less justify her pessimism. And yet, as she noted, Trump’s approval among Republicans, while slightly eroding, remains at about 80 percent. Only one-fourth of GOP partisans criticized his handling of white-supremacist groups in a recent Quinnipiac University national survey.
That's the key point. Most Republicans of Anderson's political orientation simply won't admit that white nationalism is not some fringe phenomenon in their ranks. It is, as of now, the dominant position in Republican Party politics.

I can understand why Anderson thinks the Republican Party is worth saving. One could certainly say there are elements of conservative ideology that are not tied to White racist resentment and are worth preserving and defending. But those engaged in that project need to be honest about the status quo. And the status quo is that what drives the median Republican voter, right now, isn't economic opportunity or limited government or human liberty or any of the other markers that might justify an intellectually and morally defensible conservatism. It's a vicious form of identity politics that manifests in and celebrates things like DACA elimination, the Arpaio pardon, the transgender service ban, the Muslim immigration ban, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

They are exactly who we thought they were. Some recognize that now. Most remain in denial.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

These Are Jewish Trump Voters

If you asked me to describe a Jewish Trump voter without sparing the snark, I'd have trouble topping how they talk about themselves:
[Elise Freedman] fears “an elite globalist movement that has control over what we hear and what we read. I think there’s a deeper conspiracy going on with George Soros funding the antiestablishment organizations, from Black Lives Matter to Antifa.” The media “is complicit” in this scheme, she believes, adding that the White House contains “saboteurs” remaining from the previous administration who are undermining the president in their ongoing effort to bring him down.
What's extra wild is that they almost all say that the real worry is growing antisemitism on the left. And listen, left antisemitism is a real and scary thing we should all be attentive to. For example, we can justly worry that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, left antisemitism could evolve into people believing in a self-described "conspiracy" of "elite globalists", working hand-in-hand with the media and the deep state, using their Jewish money to undermine civilization as we know it.

Oy.

Whither "The Good Place"?

*WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE OF "THE GOOD PLACE"*

NBC's comedy "The Good Place" returns soon for its second season -- excellent news for anyone who saw season one (if you haven't seen season one, stop reading this post -- because, again, *spoilers* -- and binge it on Netflix or Hulu). But it'll be interesting to see what direction it goes in its sophomore year.

The big twist at the end of the first season is that the titular "Good Place" was a lie. Eleanor and all of her friends were in "The Bad Place" all along -- the entire set-up was an elaborate construct to get them to torture each other while they all thought they were in paradise. Michael, the architect of their afterlife "neighborhood" and seeming friend and ally, was actually the puppetmaster behind it all.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the "person who seemed by all appearances to be an ally is actually the big bad!" twist genre (it almost completely ruined "Dollhouse", for example). The question is whether the character's behavior up to that point continues to make sense with the knowledge that they were secretly playing for the other side. Jill and I rewatched the first season yesterday (yes, we started and finished it in one day), and I think that Michael passes that test, albeit not with flying colors -- there are a lot of instances where it seems like he is (for lack of a better word) nicer than he should be given what his ultimate objectives are.

But one major alteration that this twist causes is that, from the audience's vantage, it dramatically changes the stakes for the characters. In the first season, the drama surrounding the core quartet was "would they be caught" and/or "would they be sent to the Bad Place". In season two, that drama will mostly be absent -- they already caught and they already  are in the Bad Place, even if they don't know it yet.

So I think the big shift in Season Two will be a reorientation of perspective towards Michael.

Of the main characters, Michael is the one we've gotten to know the least (if only because most of what we thought we knew about him was a façade). Moreover, if the stakes have functionally dropped for the quartet, for Michael they've risen astronomically. At the end of Season One he had to beg for the chance to reset his grand experiment, and while Shawn agreed he also warned Michael that he was "way out on a limb". And while we don't know if Michael's description of "retirement" was accurate, the way Shawn talks about it to Michael in private suggests that it may well be, and it represents the consequences if Michael does not successfully create his auto-torture machine this time around.

Meanwhile, Michael's gambit in round two is to separate the four torture targets from one another in the hopes that they don't form a merry band of support and mutual growth. But that also makes it harder for them to truly torture each other. Eleanor's new soulmate -- a hot but seemingly shallow mailman -- is exactly the sort of person she could settle down into, if not a truly "happy" existence, than at least a comfortable one that doesn't keep her perpetually on edge. I can imagine Season Two focusing on Michael's increasingly frantic efforts to ensure that his targets are unhappy without either giving up the ruse or building up a sufficient relationship between them to create a repeat of Season One.

In any event, I'm excited to see where "The Good Place" goes. It's one of the funniest and most creative shows on television, and the only place where one is likely to see characters reading books by T.M. Scanlon to boot. The question is whether it can maintain that momentum and emotional edge in the new world its written for itself. Color me optimistic.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Ideological Jewish Police Force"

I've long been struck by how the Jewish hard-right and the Jewish far-left mirror one another with respect to how they view the American Jewish mainstream. Think about it:
  • Both complain repeatedly about how they're supposedly excluded from mainstream Jewish conversations.
  • Both think most Jews are idiots and/or traitors for not backing them, and say so at every opportunity.
  • Both are seemingly baffled as to why most Jews don't like them, notwithstanding that they -- as per above -- think we're idiots and/or traitors and say so at every opportunity.
  • Both are bi-national curious.
This is a thought I've had for awhile, but it really sprang to the fore while reading this remarkable column by Nachama Soloveichik complaining of an "Ideological Jewish Police Force" targeting that poor, beleaguered minority -- the conservative Jew. Tell me, how familiar does this litany sound?
It is not pro-Jew to wield political ideology as a religious weapon. 
It is not pro-Jew to demand allegiance to a singular belief system. 
It is not pro-Jew to fan the flames of ant[i]-Semitism and anti-Zionism (often two sides of the same shekel) with disproportionate attacks on Israel. 
It is not pro-Jew to dictate what it means to be Jewish.
It even includes the ur-complaint: "[I]s there a danger in being too quick to label everything and everyone anti-Semitic?" (Donald Trump enters the oval office and suddenly everyone discovers their sense of nuance).

But even still. Leave out number three, and you've got the list of demands from every progressive Jew who objects to the community's alleged over-policing of left-of-center community members. It is a remarkable convergence -- one that makes me wonder if the author is even aware of it.

Color me dubious. But it remains the case that -- were it not for the fact that they hate each other -- ZOA-types and JVP-sorts would have quite a lot in common.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Boxing's Not Dying, You're Just "Colorblind"

I, of course, am watching the big fight tonight -- Miguel Cotto vs. Yoshihiro Kamegai. Why, what are you watching?

In all seriousness, I do think Mayweather/McGregor is a sideshow. That didn't stop me from putting money on Mayweather (half on Mayweather to win straight, and half on Mayweather plus the "over" on rounds), but as a boxing match it's only competitive if Mayweather has gotten old since his last fight. And that's not that interesting to me. While Cotto/Kamegai isn't exactly a toss-up fight, it should be exciting and at least it's a match-up of boxers. Plus it won't cost me $100.

But since we have another moment where boxing is in the public eye, I wanted to flag this article in the Washington Post about the future of the sport. For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that boxing is "dying", now restricted to an older fan base who are not interesting as advertising demographics. The real energy, the line goes, is behind MMA. And certainly, the latter sport has seen explosive growth over the past decade. But the WaPo article reveals that the CW about boxing has been largely misconceived. 18-29 year olds are the most likely to call themselves boxing fans (39%), and at similar rates to MMA (37%). Overall, boxing and MMA have roughly the same proportion of fans (25% for Americans call themselves MMA fans, 28% boxing fans).

So what's driving the narrative on boxing? While the article doesn't harp on this, the big difference is along the dimension of race. Non-whites are far more likely to consider themselves boxing fans than are whites. While just 17% of white people identify as boxing fans, for blacks that jumps to 52% and for Latinos its 61%. Amongst women, just 8% of white women are boxing fans, compared to 40% of nonwhite women (a significantly higher rate than the 25% of white men who characterize themselves as boxing fans).

To be sure, boxing was in some ways shooting itself in the foot by keeping so many of its big fights on premium cable networks or PPV, where younger fans often didn't have access to them. That consideration was a major factor in Top Rank's just-announced four year deal with ESPN, part of a larger shift in recent years of boxing over to basic cable and even network television.

But it's hard not to think that a large part of why people thought "boxing is dead" was because white people were less invested in the sport. Amongst black and Latino communities, boxing is still incredibly popular; it was just that their interest didn't "count" in assessing the vitality of the sport.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Free Speech and Emotional Injury

In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, decided City of Manchester v. Phelps-Roper. The case involved a city ordinance which prohibited picketing within 300 feet of a funeral service. The ordinance was challenged by (and pretty much aimed at) members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who had made a habit of protesting funerals of American soldiers because in their estimation God hates America for our various sinful practices (most notably tolerating homosexuality).

In an opinion by Judge Diana E. Murphy, the court unanimously upheld the ordinance as in keeping with the First Amendment. It was a decision that united both the court's liberals and its conservatives (though the Eighth Circuit is perhaps America's most ideologically lopsided court in terms its conservative bent -- Judge Murphy was at that point one of just two Democratic appointees on the court). I was clerking for Judge Murphy at the time, and I was proud to see the opinion released.

What immediately brought this back to mind was a decision earlier this month by a different Eighth Circuit panel upholding a similar Nebraska ordinance prohibiting picketing near funerals. But what I was particularly struck by, and what is germane to more current political controversies, was the rationale for why the ordinance was upheld.

America is famously absolutist in its free speech jurisprudence. Nonetheless, even absolutism is never quite absolute. Courts have allowed certain types of speech restrictions -- such as those which regulate only the "time, place, and manner" of speech without regard to its content -- albeit only after subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny. Such regulations must be "narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest" and allow for "ample alternative channels for communication."

Why did the ordinance in Manchester survive that test?
A significant governmental interest exists in protecting their privacy because mourners are in a vulnerable emotional condition and in need of "unimpeded access" to a funeral or burial....
Manchester’s ordinance only restricts protests for a relatively short period, tailored to encompass a mourner’s time of highest emotional vulnerability and no longer.
In the Nebraska case, the court similarly focused on the extreme emotional injury mourners are likely to suffer when encountering picketers at a funeral. It quoted expert testimony that "vulnerable mourners can suffer significant emotional injury due to the picketers’ presence," and concluded that "Mourners, because of their vulnerable physical and emotional conditions, have a privacy right not to be intruded upon during their time of grief."

None of this is counterintuitive, of course. When one is burying a parent, spouse, or child, the sheer emotional agony of having one's services disturbed by protesters screaming about how God hates you is simultaneously impossible to imagine and yet all too evident. Nobody finds it odd, or weak-willed, or oversensitive to assert that the emotional injury caused by this speech -- which is just speech, just pure unadorned words -- is very real. And a unanimous court -- conservative and liberal alike -- found that this injury, in this context, could support a type of restriction on speech.

I mention all of this because, as someone who identifies as a free speech absolutist, I have read far, far too many of my putative allies dismiss the entire concept of an "emotional injury" caused by speech as nothing but snowflake-millennial nonsense. What kind of coddled baby do you have to be to say that your emotional health justifies a restriction on free speech?

This retort, of course, is an effort to take a hard problem and turn it into an easy one. The reality is that we have no trouble recognizing that -- in the right circumstances -- speech can cause extreme emotional injuries to persons with perfectly strong wills and tolerant hearts. And if I can imagine the sort of extreme emotional anguish I can envision being triggered by some homophobic thugs protesting a family members' burial, perhaps I can also imagine that sort of anguish resulting from a public speaker at, say, a university declaring one's religious group vermin, or one's ethnic group's entire presence in America parasitic, or one's sexual identity a disease, or one's gender worth nothing beyond sexual gratification. And if I don't condemn the first of these as the product of "intolerance" or emotional fragility, then perhaps I ought not be so quick to attribute that malady to the others.

Yet regular readers of this blog know that I do not support efforts to ban such horrible, injurious speech on college campuses. Why not? What does the free speech absolutist say to all of this?

I say that the Manchester ordinance did not distinguish between "good" and "bad" picketing -- it was "content-neutral" and justified on the basis that funerals were not a place where it was necessary to support the full to-and-fro of political and social exchange. I observe that college campuses are not like that and cannot be made like that, because they are designed as forums for the exchange of ideas and there would be no way to regulate the emotional injury caused by some speech without making appraisals as to content. I note that neither Berkeley nor any other campus would want an ordinance prohibiting picketing within 300 feet of a university. I say that emotional distress is not just caused by unjustifiable speech, and that sometimes being shaken up or made anxious is an important part of the learning process. Finally, I say that the Manchester ordinance was justified not because the Westboro Baptist Church's speech was wrong (though I obviously think it was) but because nobody deserves to accosted that way at a funeral -- but college campuses are not like funerals.

What I do not say is that the emotional injury isn't real, or isn't serious, or exists only in the mind of millennial babies who have never had to deal with a contrary thought.

Speech can cause emotional injury -- real ones, genuine ones, whose gravity we recognize, whose damage can be severe, and whose harms are not always resolvable by "counterspeech". If one is a free speech absolutist, one has to accept that those injuries are sometimes the cost of preserving the free exchange of ideas. But to pretend that there is no cost is an exercise of denial. I know the piper I have to pay.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Re-Recognizing Racism: The Case of Tucson's Mexican-American Studies Litigation

A federal court invalidated an attempt by the state of Arizona to shut down a Mexican-American Studies curriculum in Tucson high schools, concluding that it was motivated by racial animus. The opinion is here, and it is just brutal on the primary architects of the law and its enforcement: Tom Horne and John Huppenthal.

What's striking about this opinion is that it doesn't flinch from the ascription of a racist motive. The program in question improved educational outcomes and was favorably reviewed in an audit ordered by the very officials whose avowed agenda was to destroy the department. Reviewing statements and practices by the major players behind the bill, the court's opinion concludes in no uncertain terms that the reason this law was passed and applied against Tucson's Mexican-American Studies program was because of bias against Mexican-Americans.

I strongly suspect that the willingness to make that determination is impacted by our current political climate. For all the whining that conservatives have engaged in about always being called a racist every which way, for the most part when it comes to official organs of government that had pretty much fallen off the table. There was an unspoken agreement that the "racism" charge was just too, well, mean to form the basis of high-level normative discourse.

And so, even a few years ago, for a federal judge to accuse a high-ranking state official of being motivated by racism would have been virtually unthinkable.  Courts dealing with racial discrimination suits would bend over backwards to couch their judgments in ways that would not be read as simply concluding that the defendants were being bigoted. Unfair, maybe; inconsistent, perhaps; unlawful, occasionally -- but not the dreaded "r" word. It wasn't seen as plausible that someone of prominence and prestige could be so crass as to be racist.

What's different now? One change is that conservatives on the Supreme Court have diced up our constitutional protections against racial discrimination such that only conscious, intentional discrimination qualifies. So judges who made have in past years relied on face-saving alternative rationales for invalidating discriminatory policies now have no choice but to say, flat-out, "this was done because of racial bias."

But I also think there's a greater psychological willingness to draw the inference of discrimination. The rise of Donald Trump demonstrated that explicit racial animus remained a live force in American politics, one that had a significant presence even amongst "elite" and "respectable" figures. Moreover, while in past years we might have worried about the backlash of flatly declaring a significant political figure racist -- how rude! -- now the calculus has changed. For it turned out that wearing kid-gloves around the racism issue in no way dissipated White racial resentment -- no matter how delicately one tip-toes around the issue, certain White people are just aching to thunder "are you calling ME a RACIST?". And so there's really not a lot of reason to beat around the bush anymore.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What's The Opposite of "Partisan"?

One of Paul Ryan's constituents, a local Rabbi, asked him if he'd support a resolution censuring President Trump for his grotesque "both sides" response to White supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Ryan declined, saying that the resolution would be "partisan".

Obviously that's a tremendously cowardly response, and if that was all to say on the matter it might not be worth remarking on. Paul Ryan is nothing if not a political coward.

No, what's more striking about it is that it's obvious nonsense. Allow me to break it down simply:

Democrats introduced a resolution censuring Donald Trump. If Paul Ryan, a Republican, supported that resolution, it wouldn't be "partisan". It'd be bipartisan. That's the opposite of partisan!

What Ryan means, I suspect, is that Democrats would benefit more politically than Republicans would from passing this resolution, even if it had supporters on both sides of the aisle. And that may well be true. But let's be clear: that's the partisan reasoning here. Sometimes doing the right thing in politics means doing when it's hard, or when it's uncomfortable, or when it helps the other side more than it helps you. If you're not willing to issue a clear denunciation of white supremacy and its apologists because you're worried about the electoral fallout, you're a coward, but you're an obvious partisan coward as well.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Being in the Room

MaNishtana, a prominent African-American Jewish writer, has a bracing but well-worth-it post on the (generally White) Jewish reaction to a racial justice march being scheduled for Yom Kippur. In some ways, I consider it to be part of the same conversation I was having in my "On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi" post, although the march here -- being focused on police violence -- is more specified than that.

MaNishtana makes several points, but the core observation is simple: Decisions are made by the people in the room. If even one reasonably-observant Jew or Jewish organization had been involved in the march's organization, they could have pointed out the conflict in advance -- prior to the public announcement of its date. What does it say about us that none of us were in that room? How does that comport with our supposedly fervent desire to be included?

This also relates to the Jewish complaints about Black Lives Matter (really, the Movement for Black Lives platform -- the fact that many of the critics don't know the difference again belies at least some of the sound and the fury). If it seems like they take a hostile stance towards matters important to Jews, can't that be explained at least in part based on who is showing up? This was Jonathan Zasloff's point and one I concurred with in my own assessment of the MBL platform language -- it was, in part, a case of being out-hustled. When Jews aren't present, people who don't really know or care about Jews (or worse, those actively hostile to Jews) get to set the agenda. That those groups beat us to the punch in terms of getting a critical mass of influence inside these emergent grassroots organizations is not something to be proud of.

I also think MaNishtana makes a critical point about the overreliance of White Jews on the legacies of 60s, and particularly Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. As he observes, this is starting to border on "Party of Lincoln" territory: "If your most significant proof of social engagement and moral uprightness is an event from *three* generations ago, then that is a problem, and you need to figure out why." I agree that it is time to retire the 1960s as proof of Jewish "showing up" for racial justice. It's time for us to make our own history.

So all of that is an endorsement of a necessary critique. Yet, in keeping with my other post, I still think it's important to provide the counterweight. In any conversation about who isn't "in the room", there are explanations that suggest the absent group doesn't really wish to be there, and there are explanations that focus on ways they might be deterred from showing up. In feminist history, there were many instances of predominantly white women's groups "unintentionally" marginalizing women of color, in ways that almost certainly never would have happened if women of color were "in the room" in any significant numbers. And some of the white women would then wonder why they weren't in the room -- didn't they know they were welcome? Didn't they know they were desired? This was taken as axiomatic; it wasn't even considered that there might be reasons why they weren't in the room and that they might not actually feel welcomed or desired.

It is true that many mainstream Jewish organizations simply were flat-footed in getting involved in movements like Black Lives Matter, and their absence is what let groups and persons with a more hostile tone towards Jewish concerns take the lead. Some of that is an issue of medium: Compared to the 1960s, Jewish political organizing has shifted significantly in an institutional direction -- large organizations which seek to connect with and influence other large institutional players through means like lobbying, amicus briefs, political donations, and so on (think AIPAC, ADL, AJC, and so on). These groups actually have solid connections with the institutional elements of the Black community (e.g., the NAACP, or the Congressional Black Caucus) -- one of the reasons why I think the supposed Black/Jewish crack-up is widely exaggerated -- but they are not well-geared towards handling incipient grassroots activism that for the most part did not proceed through these channels. Beyond whatever ideological differences they might have from more institutional Jewish groups, one reason groups like IfNotNow are gaining momentum is that they have the agility to be part of this style of grassroots, street-level activism, in  a way that the hulking behemoths of the Jewish community simply cannot match.

All that said, there absolutely were Jews who really did "show up early" for these causes -- and, importantly, there were non-trivial efforts to push out them out of the room. The case of St. Louis Rabbi Susan Talve is a clear instance of that. The Jews kicked out of the Chicago Dyke March were showing and had been for years. Ditto those at Creating Change -- by definition, they were showing up. Or consider the headline Stacey Aviva Flint got hit with in the Atlanta Black Star when she expressed her ambivalence towards the MBL platform due to its Israel language: "Black Jews Stood with ‘BLM’ Until It Questioned U.S.’ Unrelenting Support to Israel." It's not a universal by any means; indeed, as I noted in my last post there is a strong and significant tradition of African-Americans in particular rejecting efforts to leverage their political organizing as a fulcrum to marginalize or exclude Jews. Certainly, the narrative that African-Americans are especially bad on this issue is simply unsustainable. But in left spaces such exclusion happens often enough such that many Jews will be hesitant to jump into the unknown -- a hesitation that cannot be reduced down to simple white fragility.

All of this flows naturally from the same suppositions as above: decisions are made by the people in the room. The same logic that says Jews should be in the room if they want the decisions to reflect Jewish concerns also tells us that people who want to subordinate Jewish concerns should try to push Jews out of the room. And the logic of racial capitalism, in turn, explains why dissident Jewish factions (in these contexts, generally anti-Zionist Jews -- though in other spaces right-wing Jews occupy a similar role) are often the prime movers perpetuating this exclusion: excluding other Jews enhances the power of the remaining Jews in circumstances where it is symbolically important to have a Jewish presence (as "diversity", or as a bulwark against charges of antisemitism). Put another way: JVP tried to push out Rabbi Talve because a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Talve are present and active is one where JVP has less influence on BLM than a BLM campaign where people like Rabbi Ralve are excluded. It is a rational political strategy.

So we shouldn't be surprised that there will be barriers to mainstream Jewish participation in these movements -- plenty of people have an incentive to throw those barriers up. This doesn't mean that such barriers are the whole story anymore than it means Jewish apathy to racial justice is the whole story. As I said, I'm presenting a counterweight, not a counterargument.

There's one further thought that sprang to mind on this. There is a tension between the logic of the "if you want to influence the decisions you have to be in the room" argument" and the normative request that Jews or other Whites ought not "police" POC-led initiatives. MaNishtana's critique posits that Jews should have had enough presence and power within the organization setting up a march for racial justice such that they could ensure that the date didn't fall on Yom Kippur. Fair enough. But surely we all know that there are other critiques of (particularly, but not exclusively White) Jewish standing in such spaces that focus precisely on our alleged propensity to take over the spaces -- to arrogate decision-making power to themselves in a way that impeded Black self-determination of their own struggle. This controversy was what lay behind the decision by SNCC to forbid Whites from holding leadership positions in the organizations (which led to the expulsion of several Jewish leaders). Years later, in the early 1980s, it led to a boycott of the class Jack Greenberg was co-teaching with Julius Chambers on race and the law at Harvard Law School. Greenberg had helped argue Brown v. Board, succeeded Thurgood Marshall as chief lawyer for the NAACP, and was founding member of MALDEF. He was certainly someone who had absolutely been "in the room"; whatever else the controversy might have been about it, it couldn't be about that. That said, Black students were not wrong to be concerned that Harvard's record of hiring Black professors was appalling, and that there was something especially grating about the implied suggestion that even in the field of race the only option was for the class to be (co-)taught by a White guy.

I don't want to simplify these stories -- I think they are complex, and I think often they were more a case of Jews being caught in the cross-fire of a valid impulse towards self-determination than any conscious desire for antisemitic exclusion. At the same time, I think Jews are particularly vulnerable to this sort of "critique" due to antisemitic tropes wherein the Jews is portrayed as all-powerful, all-controlling, conspiratorial, pulling the strings, taking over the movement, and so on. The result is a catch-22 where, too often, there is virtually no gap between "why aren't Jews showing up" and "why are Jews dominating the space?"

Any non-trivial Jewish presence and participation -- particularly when it takes a critical form -- will quickly be recoded in this way. Rosa Maria Pegueros recounts her experience on a email list for contributors to This Bridge We Call Home where two -- two -- messages mentioning Jewishness were enough to elicit complaints that the listserv was turning into (in Pegueros' words) "a forum for Jews." I can relate (the complaint discussed in that post about "excessive" focus on Jewish issues was triggered by my own stint guest-blogging at Alas, a Blog. Barry Deutsch, the owner of the site, observed that even with my contributions the number of posts tagged "racism" outnumbered those tagged "antisemitism" by more than an 8:1 margin). Reacting to the Creating Change fiasco, one Jewish commenter lamented the exclusionary impulse which tried to kick out Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ organizations, but was more concerned that the Jewish community was publicly and effectively organizing to resist it, sympathetically describing the sentiment of conference attendees "that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies." (What they were "dictating" was that an LGBTQ conference shouldn't arbitrarily and at the last minute exclude either Israeli LGBTQ organizations or the North American Jewish LGBTQ groups who partner with them).

Like with the last post then, my ending line is meant to be ambivalent. There absolutely is a propensity within the Jewish community to rest on the glory days of the 1960s as an excuse for why we need not do the hard work of jumping back into the racial justice fray today. That needs to stop, and while different people participate in the cause in different ways, simply venerating dead Jews who marched with King is not actually a form of participation. Yet a full look at why -- to the extent it is so -- Jews are hesitant to fully link up with contemporary social justice organizing has to critically engage with the full structure of antisemitic exclusion, an inquiry which necessitates a deep dive into how antisemitism and Jewish marginalization manifest historically and contemporaneously. It can, after all, be simultaneously true that some Jews don't want to participate in contemporary racial justice causes in any way beyond the perfunctory, and that others really are trying to "show up" but face genuine barriers, both prejudicial and structural. And on the situation of White Jews particularly, I firmly believe that an intersectional analysis that seriously looks into what Whiteness and Jewishness do to one another is the only way to get a clear handle on the actual circumstances being faced here.