Thursday, January 26, 2017

Chancellor Dirks on Milo Coming to Berkeley

Milo is coming to Berkeley, at the invitation of our College Republicans. The UC-Berkeley Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, has issued a statement that in my view is just about perfect:
  • It's right on the law: Berkeley is legally prohibited from canceling the speech, obstructing the speech, or otherwise discriminating against the speech in providing accommodations in any way.
  • It's right on the ethics: Law notwithstanding, Berkeley shouldn't cancel or obstruct the speech. Nor should it obstruct protesters wishing to lawfully protest the speech (so long as said protest itself does not prevent the speech itself from occurring).
  • And finally, it's right on the values: What Milo represents is deeply antagonistic to the values that should motivate a well-functioning academic community. It speaks exceptionally poorly of the Berkeley College Republicans that they issued the invitation. Once we get past the basic threshold free speech question, we can place our focus where it should be: on what Berkeley Republicans consider to be valuable and meritorious contributions to campus political debate. If this is their appraisal, then they are justly judged harshly for it.
So: Kudos to Chancellor Dirks for getting it right, and shame on Berkeley Republicans for getting it wrong.

Is It Possible To Confirm a Supreme Court Justice

Presidents are going to nominate Supreme Court Justices who, roughly, correspond to their political beliefs. There is no use complaining about that. And there is a solid case to be made that, where the nominee is not otherwise unqualified or (perhaps) a shrieking radical, members of the opposition should not actively block the confirmation.

That norm had been fraying for quite a few terms now. But the treatment of Merrick Garland has completely annihilated it.

The fact of the matter is that Democrats legitimately feel robbed of a Supreme Court Justice right now. There was a vacancy in a Democratic administration. The nominee was a liberal, but not one that even Republicans contended was either unqualified or some sort of radical. Garland was a Breyer, not a Kennedy, but he wasn't a Reinhardt either. There wasn't even the pretense that GOP obstruction had anything to do with Garland's own merits as a potential Justice. They just decided that they weren't going to vote for, or allow a vote on, or even consider someone a Democrat nominated. Hell, Ted Cruz went as far as to suggest Republicans could justly prevent a Democrat from ever appointing anyone to the Supreme Court ever again.

Given that, how can anyone look at Senate Democrats and tell them with a straight face that they shouldn't just line up to block whomever Trump nominates? It's not just "they did it first," it would also function as a form of restorative justice. Again, from their vantage point this is a stolen seat -- full stop. And we just learned there is no political consequence for this sort of obstruction.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Checking the National Review's History on Privilege

On January 26, 2016, David French wrote a column in The National Review seeking to explain the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right. His culprits are the predictable sort: "[T]he progressive movement that pushes explicitly race-based organizations such as La Raza or Black Lives Matter while specifically scorning whites, Western civilization, and so-called white privilege?"

I won't relitigate the issue of conservative fobbing off of personal responsibility, you know my thoughts on that. Rather, I want you to keep in mind his sneering dismissal of "so-called white privilege" as we fast forward almost exactly one year, to today, when French published another piece called "The Racial Poison of White Privilege". It contains one supremely fascinating line:
Discussion of “white privilege” has gone from interesting and thoughtful to stupid and malicious.
This isn't just any line. It's the one The National Review chose to highlight in promoting the post. It is also, I strongly suspect, the first time that French or The National Review has ever characterized discussion of white privilege as "interesting and thoughtful" in any context. When, exactly, did David French think "white privilege" was a useful thing to discuss? Apparently not last year, when it was a ridiculous "so-called". And I haven't found any other indicators that there was some happy period where David French thought the concept of "white privilege" was yielding "interesting and thoughtful" insights.

"White privilege" was a stupid and ridiculous idea, until it became mainstream enough for conservatives to endorse some mythologized older version of it as a cudgel against its contemporary application. Oh, for the good old days when we had thoughtful discussions on white privilege! Of course, in said good old days French and his buddies mocked and derided the idea in precisely the same language they do today.

This is perhaps the quintessential National Review move. It famously did the same thing with respect to civil rights: opposing it until it grew old enough that the memory of "good" civil rights protesters could be used as a prop against the "bad" race agitators of today. Then all the sudden we got sober lectures about how civil rights used to be a thoughtful and moral project, but now has been hijacked by malicious and unsophisticated rabble-rousers. There's no actual change in position -- the reason they dismiss today's civil rights movement is virtually identical to why they dismissed yesterday's. But that doesn't stop them from appealing to some idealized time when the civil rights cause was worth supporting (by other people).

From civil rights to the concept of white privilege, these ideas somehow manage to be only good in retrospect. At the time, they hate them in exactly the same terms and for exactly the same reasons they hate them now.

Basically, today's National Review column is taking what they opposed yesterday and endorsing it against the reforms of tomorrow. Rinse, wash, repeat indefinitely.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On the Ethics and Effects of Punching Nazis

I used to live next to a Nazi.

By "lived next to a Nazi", I don't mean that I lived near someone who had outlandishly right-wing views. Nor do I mean that I lived near someone who identifies as part of the alt-right (though I'm fine generally characterizing such persons as, at the very least, heirs to Nazism).

What I mean is, a few months after moving to Minneapolis, I discovered that a former SS officer lived in a house a few doors down from mine.

Over inauguration weekend, alt-right leader Richard Spencer was punched on camera. Now, the internet is now debating whether it's okay to punch Nazis. I gather I'm in a minority of my peer group in not endorsing punching Richard Spencer. Some of those reasons are very pragmatic -- this post by Ken White gives a good rundown. But other reasons relate to my own reaction upon learning of my Nazi neighbor.

When I found out who was living next to me, what stood out most of all was a strange feeling of vertigo. I felt like I should do something about it. But what? Part of me was just curious to meet him, hear his story. Part of me wanted to meet him, but simply to throw in his face that I was alive. Part of me wanted, yes, to smack him. Part of me thought that went a bit far and would settle for egging his house.

Part of me said "he's in his 90s, what's the point of haranguing him?" Another part replied "he's a Nazi, he's not entitled to 'live out his days in peace'!"

Ultimately, I didn't do anything. I didn't walk by his house, I didn't knock on his door. I didn't talk to him, or stare at him, or punch him, or acknowledge him in any way.

Why not?

Some people might say that, by punching a Nazi, I'm "resorting to their level." But that's not necessarily true. As many of the pro-Nazi-punching set have observed, there are times when it is absolutely fine (and consistent with being a good liberal) to punch (or otherwise commit violence against) Nazis. When Nazis are assembling war machines, and marching across continents, it is entirely right and just to assemble armed force to counter them. Americans didn't become Nazis by entering into World War II. We had to punch Nazis then, and it was entirely consistent with good old-fashioned American values to do it.

The concentration camps didn't afford Jews many opportunities to punch Nazis. But it did force Jews to react and respond to Nazis. Often, we had to grovel, beg, barter, or obey. And even when we resisted, we were still resisting Nazis -- our actions were responsive to what they were doing. We hid because they made us hide, we ran because they made us run, we fought back because they left us no other choice. Everything we did, we did because of the circumstances Nazis put us into. Do you think the average Jew in 1935 wanted to spend the next decade furiously scampering for her life?

But one of the perks of winning World War II is that I don't have to let Nazis dictate how I behave. I can do what I want! And if I don't like punching people -- and I don't -- why should I let a Nazi make me do it?

I've often quoted Carol Gilligan's remark that power means "you can opt not to listen. And you do so with impunity." Generally, I quote it as an indictment of the powerful -- they can choose to ignore marginalized persons without consequence. But there is another, liberating dimension to the same observation: disempowered groups are frequently forced to listen. Part of empowerment, for many, is precisely to be able "not to listen" with impunity. The most total victory I could ever possess over Nazis is to be able to ignore them entirely.

Ultimately, I ignored my neighbor because I had no interest in either making nice conversation with Nazis or staring them down, in punching them or in egging their houses. I left him in peace not because it was "the right thing to do", but because it was what I wanted to do. And the days where a Nazi could make me do something I didn't want to do were over.

If this strikes you as a contingent observation, you're right. The world today is not the same as the world even five years ago, and the degree to which we can simply ignore Nazis has dissipated significantly. It may be we are entering a different space, one in which we have to punch Nazis. We should acknowledge that this is a loss, not because there's a deep tragedy in Nazi-punching, but because it is a sad day whenever Nazis are in a position to make us "have to" do anything.

But for the time being, I don't think I have to punch any Nazis. And that's lucky for me, because I actually do like the norms that say we don't respond even to detestable speech with violence, that we defeat noxious ideologies with better arguments and better politics rather than with brute force. If I'm forced to abandon those norms -- and I agree there are times where they do not fit -- that would itself show the gravity of the circumstances we've found ourselves in.

I do have to pay attention to Nazis, and that's regretful. And perhaps things will deteriorate further, and I will have to actually physically fight Nazis. The day that happens is the day that Nazis are sufficiently powerful such that I will have to take actions I really would rather not. But I'm not going to give them that victory for free. I am lucky to still live in a world where Nazis are very limited in what they can make me do. And so I will continue, as best as I am able, to do what I want to do, without regard to what some Hitler Youth wannabe is spouting off on.