Wednesday, July 18, 2018

#HardPickHal and the Rise in (Stories on) Calling the Police on Black People

By now you're familiar with #HardPickHal (my hashtag -- make it fly), who called the cops on a fellow pickup basketball player after -- I swear I'm not making this up -- a particularly hard foul.

He follows in the grand tradition BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and the many other cases of White people calling the police on Black people for mundane activity -- at best, trivial offenses, at worst completely innocent conduct.

The recent flurry of these stories makes it seem like this is an newly-emergent phenomenon -- what happened to make White people start calling the police on Black people willy-nilly all of the sudden?

Of course, the most obvious explanation for our increased awareness of this phenomenon is not that it's suddenly occurring more frequently but a simple availability bias -- it's always happened like this, only now we're actually hearing about it.

And that seems mostly right. For a long time there have been complaints about White people -- particularly in the context of gentrification -- calling the police to enforce "quality of life" norms that target Black and Brown members of their community (typically long-standing residents) as a means of harassment. If we're hearing more about it now, that's not due to any change in behavior but rather new attention on an old phenomenon.

But I do wonder if there might be something going on reflecting an actual change in behavior -- an increase in White people threatening to call the police on Black people as a means of asserting racial dominance.

Basically, the idea goes like this. One way #BlackLivesMatter has impacted the cultural zeitgeist is that it has brought unprecedented attention to the way that the police can threaten the lives and liberty of people of color. It has placed into the (White) public eye a counternarrative to the dominant view that "the police are here to protect you".

One thing this could be doing is making more salient the prospect that threatening to call the police is a way for White people to specifically hurt Black people. It is a legitimate threat. Think of circumstances where people grope for ways to hurt others -- in an argument, in a dispute, or just when one is being an asshole. One of the reasons racial slurs are most likely to appear in situations like that is that they are a very quick way to wound someone one wants to wound. But -- perhaps paradoxically -- the rise in White associational awareness regarding the role of police as a danger to Black lives also makes it cognitively more available as a "move" one can pull when one is trying to dominate or terrorize the Black life standing in front of you.

I still think that most of the answer lies in column "a" -- this has always been happening, only now it's getting more exposure. But it wouldn't surprise me if there's a bit of column "b" in play as well. The counterreaction to BLM demonstrates that those deeply antagonistic to the claims Black people are making regarding the police nonetheless have absorbed -- through the mirror darkly -- the message regarding the danger the police pose to Black bodies. They just think that danger is justified and legitimately wielded. And if we're seeing that threat put out more explicitly nowadays, that might be part of the reason why.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Post-Bacchanalia Roundup

I had my bachelor party this weekend in Chicago. That sounds wilder than it was -- my fiancee have the same core friend group (we all went to college together), so we rented an AirBnb and spent the weekend as a group. We did split off Saturday to do our own things (mani/pedis for the gals, an escape room for team boy -- which we completed with seven seconds to spare), but by and large it was a non-traditionally gender-unified event.

Still a blast though.

Anyway, here's some stuff that's gone on in the interim.

* * *

In Foreign PolicyJacob Levy has a neat essay on the philosophy of my great-grandadviser (the Ph.D. adviser of the Ph.D. adviser of my Ph.D. adviser), Judith Shklar.

Also in FP, a discussion of a possible Israeli-Palestinian confederation -- the first articulation of an outcome to the conflict outside the "classic" two-state solution model which I've found remotely compelling.

Labour's antisemitism policy under Corbyn has basically been "fuck you, Jews" in so many words, but I believe this is the first time a prominent Jewish Labour politician has explicitly said "fuck you" back to him.

Iraq has a long Jewish history, which is memorialized in a giant archive of Jewish artifacts. These artifacts were removed for safekeeping following the U.S. invasion, and unsurprisingly Iraq now wants them back. Problem: virtually no Iraqi Jews live in Iraq anymore, and they want the archives somewhere they can actually access them. For the record, this is a great example of the sort of problem intersectionality was designed to illuminate.

D.C. Circuit upholds funding structure whereby FERC gets its budget from fees assessed to natural gas pipeline projects it approves (against environmental challengers who say that incentivizes them to keep approving pipelines). The more interesting part of the case is a bit buried though -- the court concludes that Pennsylvania's Environmental Rights Amendment does not create an individualized liberty or property interest in a clean environment cognizable under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Circuit concludes that refusing to give an incarcerated transwoman medically-necessary hormone therapy -- and later, forbidding her from taking those hormones herself when she's released on parole -- can give rise to a "deliberate indifference" to medical need claim.

Man calls the police on a Black man over a basketball foul. No, seriously. What's his hashtag going to be? I vote #HardPickHal.

Federal Court: "Jewish" Can Be a Race Under Title VII

Last week, a federal court in Louisiana handed down a very interesting decision in Bonadona v. Louisiana College, concerning whether "Jewish" could be a racial category for purposes of Title VII litigation.

The "is Jewish a race" question is notoriously nettlesome (oh boy is it nettlesome), but it generally can be skirted in law because most anti-discrimination statutes which have race as a protected status protect religious identity as well. But Bonadona managed to tee up the question with possibly the most perfect set of facts imaginable.

Joshua Bonadona was born Jewish to a Jewish mother, but converted to Christianity while playing football at a Christian college and is now a practicing Baptist. After graduating, he applied for a job as a football coach at his alma mater, only to be rejected at the last stage because the college President (he alleges) objected to his "Jewish blood." Yup, "Jewish blood."

So on the one hand, we have a case where the plaintiff has to make a racial rather than a religious discrimination argument because he's not religiously Jewish. And on the other hand, we have alleged statements by the defendant that frame the antisemitism in the most racialized way imaginable. In his Racism: A Short History, George Frederickson excavates how the very concept of race had its origins in the idea of limpieza de sangre -- "purity of blood" -- which was used to discriminate against Jewish converts to Christianity in the wake of the Inquisition. Bonadona's case seems to be a lineal descendant of that fusion of religious and racial antisemitism directed at formerly-Jewish Christians.

The court ended up concluding that Jewish could be a racial identity under Title VII. Certainly that seems right to me under these facts. In Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb, the Supreme Court concluded that Jewishness should be considered a racial identity for the purpose of Section 1981 claims, as (regardless of its status today) Jewishness would have been considered a racial identity when the statute was passed in 1866 (a companion case reached the same conclusion for Arab identity; interestingly, this conclusion -- that Jewishness was a race in 1866, but might not be today -- was precisely how Jewish amici at the time urged the Court to resolve the "is Jewish a race" question).

The court here correctly noted that Cobb doesn't conclusively establish that Jewish is a race for all times or all purposes. But it does indicate that race is as it does, and that rather than coming to some conclusive scientific or sociological determination of whether Jewish "really" is or isn't a race, the better move is to analyze when/how Jewishness has and does operate in practice as a racial identity. The court concluded that much of the history of antisemitism in America has taken on a racialized frame (Bonadona's allegations represent a particularly striking example), and hence Jewishness can be legitimately be characterized as a race in seeking to remedy that discrimination.

One question that remains open is whether "Jewishness" should always be considered a racialized identity even in circumstances where the form of the alleged antisemitism isn't as blatantly racialized as it was alleged to be here. That I'm not entirely sure about. On the one hand, if one side of the "race is a mutable and fluid concept" coin is that we should accept the existence of racialized antisemitism even in circumstances or eras where Jewishness is not typically thought of as a "race", then the other side of that coin has to be that in other circumstances the concept of race will mutate and flow such that even genuine antisemitism won't be conceived or experienced in racial terms. On the other hand, I'm not sure what utility there is in such fine-grained slicing and dicing, particularly given that I believe anti-discrimination should be broadly construed to effectuate its remedial purpose and few would argue that combating antisemitism -- of whatever kind -- is among those purposes.

The court's analysis, on my quick read, suggests that it thinks Jews should always have access to race discrimination claims under Title VII. But that really wasn't at issue here and, again, in most cases that don't have these (oh-so-perfect) facts it won't generally come up.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (1945 - 2018)

I just learned that Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, founding director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, has passed away.

An active participant in Jewish, feminist, and anti-racist causes, Kaye/Kantrowitz reportedly taught the very first women's studies course here at UC-Berkeley. She was the author of several books, the most important (for me at least) being The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. It is one I regularly consult and reconsult, as I think it is one of the finest meditations on antisemitism and one of the more provocative works of feminist theory I've ever read. I've long thought that if I ever taught a course centered around either (or both!) of those subjects, it would get a very prominent place on the syllabus. She was also active in a group of radical Jewish lesbian authors whose work in the 1980s and early 90s somehow has managed to remain cutting edge even when revisited today.

May her memory be a blessing.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Racist Republicans Hate Immigrants, and Other Republicans Hate Calling Racists "Racist"

Kevin Drum links to some political science evidence regarding what drives anti-immigrant sentiment. And guess what -- it's not economic anxiety. It's racism, pure and simple. Surprise!

But Drum makes a further observation that I think is worth unpacking:
With a few minor exceptions, racist sentiment was no stronger in 2016 than any other recent year. If you dial it up, you gain some voters at the bottom but lose at least as many from the middle.
In other words, Trump’s immigration message didn’t help him and, on net, probably actually hurt him. Outside of Trump’s base, I think most people understand perfectly well that anti-immigrant sentiment is basically driven by racism, and they want no part of it. Democrats should use this to their advantage by baiting Trump into getting ever louder and more putrid about immigration. The racist core of his base is already as fired up as it’s ever going to get over this, but the rest of the country becomes queasier the more he yells about it. In the Trump era, toleration for immigration isn’t just good policy, it’s almost certainly good politics too.
Maybe, but I think he's overlooked the second part of the one-two punch here. No, the hardcore racist set that loves the anti-immigrant message isn't a voting majority. But there's also another group which doesn't exactly like Trump's message, but gets far more upset when anyone calls anything racist just because it obviously is. It's meeeeaaaan. It's even (gasp) "uncivil".

The former group is Trump's base. The latter -- sometimes called anti-anti-racists -- consists of such marginal conservative figures like five United States Supreme Court Justices. These are the people who were totally going to vote Democrat until all that incivility forced them back on the Trump train.

Put them together, and they're a powerful coalition. The racists love the racism, and the anti-anti-racists regretfully -- more in sorrow than anything else, you see -- must vote against any Democrat who calls it out by name.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLVII: Schumer Not Stopping the Cavanaugh Nomination

A few times now -- not anywhere official, just on Facebook posts or blog comments -- I've seen some variation on the following argument: Chuck Schumer is going to "let" Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed because Israel and/or Netanyahu. Right after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, John Cole made an intimation in this direction:
At first blush, it's not just a false connection to make, it's a profoundly weird one. What exactly does AIPAC or Israel have to do with the Supreme Court? It's the branch of government that -- by far -- is least relevant to their policy agenda. Whatever Schumer does or doesn't regarding the confirmation fight -- and right now, all signs are he's gearing up to make it a real fight -- will almost assuredly have nothing to do with Israel or pro-Israel lobbying one way or the other.

There's actually a few different conspiracy theories intersecting to make this one, not all of which are specifically antisemitic or even about Jews. There is:

  • The belief that congressional Democrats have some super-secret trick they could use to stop Kavanaugh, and the only reason they don't use it is because they don't really want to block the nomination;
  • The belief that Schumer doesn't actually possess substantive (hawkish) policy views about Israel, but rather votes the way he does simply in blind deference to whatever Netanyahu wants;
  • The belief that Israel is so concerned about who will fill Justice Kennedy's seat that they will make sure Kavanaugh gets confirmed.
You need to believe all three subparts for the machine to run. If you don't believe the first, then you're left with the straightforward and boring truth that if Kavanaugh gets confirmed it's almost certainly because he's a Republican nominee needing to get the approval of a Republican Senate, and Democrats don't have some magic bullet to turn 49 into 51.

You need to believe the second because otherwise there's no reason to think that Schumer would care what Bibi thinks about the U.S. Supreme Court. If Schumer votes hawkishly on Israel because that's what he believes (and it so happens to mesh with Bibi's own views), then there's no reason to think that harmony would translate over to the American judicial context. What they really want to argue is that Schumer is bought and paid for by Israel and just ceases to exercise independent judgment once Bibi opens his mouth on any topic.

And you need to believe the third because otherwise there's no account for why Israel would intercede in this issue. I understand why Israel would try to lobby people on the Iran Deal -- that's a big issue for them. But the Supreme Court? That's not their bailiwick. And you'd have to think they care so much that they'd be willing to risk serious blowback for marginal gain, since Kavanaugh is very likely to be confirmed even if they do nothing.

The first of these is actually the largest driver here. There is a non-trivial portion of the progressive base that has more or less full-throatedly endorsed Green Lantern-ism -- the idea that whenever progressive political outcomes don't manifest, it's because liberal politicians didn't will it hard enough. This is itself a weird position when you think about it -- its leftists basically saying that American political structures are so lopsidedly slanted in favor of progressive priorities that we should naturally see progressive results even in circumstances where the liberal party is in the minority. But it's an outcropping of the same "the primary was rigged" sentiment whereby everything is being sabotaged from within, we'd be winning already were it not for the powers-that-be standing in our way, and the greatest enemies are always inside the house.

On it's own, this sort of sentiment doesn't require any particular connection to Jews or Israel. And one does see other terms or entities fill the role of the interfering "power" that stands and obstructs the natural progressive march of political history ("neoliberals", "the establishment", "big money donors" ... there are a few actually).

Nonetheless, understanding this sentiment does illustrate how the "Zionist conspiracy" iteration is not accidental and is a form of antisemitism. It is antisemitism -- specifically, the antisemitism that naturally associates Jews and Jewish entities with extraordinary power and world-spanning conspiracies that stand outside the normal fabric of political space and time -- that makes Israel "work" as a vector for this sort of conspiracy theorizing.

The conspiracy theory is trapped between the rock of feeling like it's going to lose (the Cavanaugh nomination) and the hard place of fervently believing that -- were things proceeding as they "should" (and they mean that descriptively, not normatively) -- they'd be destined to win. What they need, then, is some body that can break their own political equivalents of the laws of physics -- and, precisely because it can latch onto a network of deeply-ingrained antisemitic tropes, the Zionist cabal feels "plausible" as the sort of entity that could pull that off. And, as a bonus, it offers hope -- if the Zionists are what is standing between the conspiracy theorist and total victory, then all one needs to do is smash Zionism and voila! Utopia. It's so much easier than the messy, complicated, sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe reality that characterizes actual political progress -- which is why antisemitism is called the "socialism of fools".

So let's state what should be obvious: If Kavanaugh is confirmed, as remains much more likely than not, it will be for the straightforward reason that he is a Republican nominee and there are 51 Republican Senators in a 100 person chamber. That's it. If a few Democrats defect, that will be because sometimes red-state Democrats facing tough reelection fights cast votes like this. That's it. I'm not saying any of that is good or wise or justified, just that it's the most obvious explanation, and not one that seems so superficially implausible that it cries out for an alternative "it's a Zionist conspiracy" explanation.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Jewbook Blackout

Some of you might be familiar with the term "Jewbook". Those who aren't might worry that it's an antisemitic slur and, in your defense, it initially started out that way as an antisemitic label for Facebook (because of Mark Zuckerberg, obviously). But now it refers to a cluster of Jewish groups on Facebook which have fostered a unique and surprisingly vibrant space for young Jews to sort out questions of identity, talk politics, crack jokes, and simply live Jewishly with other like-minded peers.

Right now, though, much of Jewbook has shut itself down -- a blackout in protest of racism within our communities. The immediate instigating event was the vicious blowback against a column by Nylah Burton urging (what she calls "functionally-") White Jews to not refer to themselves as White-passing. This didn't come out of nowhere, however -- there were antecedents (this roundtable of Jew-of-Color perspectives at HeyAlma alludes to some).

Nylah is an African-American Jew, and the argument she made in her ill-fated column was that White-passing refers to a specifically African-American condition vis-a-vis American White supremacist structures that doesn't track onto the American Jewish experience. The problem isn't that American Jews don't experience antisemitism; it isn't even that pale-skinned Jews are perfectly and unambiguously White in the American context. The problem is that White-passing is a specific term regarding a situation where one carries White privilege unless and until one's "real" racial identity is revealed -- and that isn't typically the way antisemitism operates in America. To the extent I enjoy White privilege in America, that White privilege doesn't usually go away if someone "finds out" I'm Jewish. I might experience (more) antisemitism in that circumstance, but whatever racial prerogatives I enjoy will largely (not entirely) go unchanged.

As you might imagine, the intersection of Whiteness and Jewishness is an arena I have thoughts on (on that note, I'm not sure I ever announced on the blog that the linked-article was just accepted for publication in the Association for Jewish Studies Review). I have thoughts on the degree to which American Jews are White, and I have thoughts -- indeed, somewhat sympathetic thoughts -- on why American Jews today often resist that label.

But the issue here is less the specific contours of that debate -- on which Nylah and I have had some fruitful exchanges -- and more the way Nylah and other JOCs were treated as second-class Jews in its conduction. Consider the condescending tone taken by Micha Danzig in his response -- one which carried more than a whiff of sexism, but which also seemed to suggest that in speaking about Jews Burton was an outsider talking of people not her own. But of course Burton is just a Jewish as Danzig is or I am; her vantage on the state of Jews in America is as authentically Jewish as anyone else's. The irony is that one of the most common refrains from JOCs regarding how they're excluded in Jewish spaces is people -- with varying degrees of explicitness -- questioning whether they're "really" Jewish.

I've written before on how one of the burdens of being Black and Jewish (and I suspect this applies to other cases where one social identity one possesses is stereotypically thought to be incompatible with another) is that one has far less room to "play" with one's Jewish identity than do White Jews. I don't mean "play" to connote anything frivolous -- rather, I'm talking about the full range of ways one can "be" Jewish, from wholly consistent with popular stereotypes of what it means to be Jewish to wildly subversive. I can do things that don't track the dominant perception of what it means to be Jewish and never have my Jewish identity questioned. But when non-White or non-Ashkenazi or otherwise non-normative (within the American context) Jews try to do it -- e.g., by contesting a communal view about Jewish racial identity -- they're not just rejected on substance, they aren't even recognized as leveling the argument as Jews.

The (well, a) sad thing is that I first started hearing about Jewbook because it was thought to be a particularly important space for Jews who -- for whatever reason -- didn't have the standard or stereotypical Jewish background to create and live out a Jewish community. Nylah herself wrote about that quality, and she's not the only one.

I might be a bit too old to really appreciate Jewbook like some of the younglings do (ugh, it kills me to admit that). But I can appreciate that we as Jews have an obligation to put in the work to ensure our spaces our welcoming and inclusive of all Jews. First and foremost, that begins by believing the testimony of JOCs when they say that, right now, it isn't. They're not out to "get us". They are us -- or part of us, anyway. They have no reason to speak out about feeling excluded in Jewish spaces save for a genuine desire to be part of those spaces.

Whether on Jewbook or in the outside world, working towards a genuinely inclusive Jewry is a responsibility we have as Jews, to Jews. Fundamentally, when JOCs say they aren't respected as equals in the Jewish community, I credit that testimony. Honestly, I'm not sure what incentive they'd have to lie about it. So now it's on all of us to put in the work -- and make no mistake, it will require work -- to make it so.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Coming Era of Forced Abortions

"We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

That is a direct, verbatim quote from a sitting member of Congress -- namely Representative Steve King (R-IA).

The "somebody else" King was referring to was immigrants -- specifically, brown immigrants from Latin America. Them and their children, for King, represent an existential threat to the American republic. And while King stands apart for the explicitness with which he indulges in racist rhetoric, he is not alone in the construction of immigrant births as threat. The term "anchor baby" -- used by Donald Trump, yes, but also Jeb Bush -- also presents it as illicit, even dangerous, when immigrants give birth inside the United States.

This is not a post about immigrants, exactly. It is a post about abortion. And particularly, it is a post about the possibility of government actors coercing or compelling women (particularly women under the custodial authority of the state) to have an abortion.

People scuff at this prospect -- less based on law than based on their own lack of imagination. Who in government might want mandatory abortions? Why, the pro-life movement wouldn't stand for it!

Which is why I bring up the view of Mr. King and his cohort. It is entirely plausible that King and his cohort could come to believe that it is permissible -- even a national security imperative -- that immigrant women not be allowed to birth their "anchor babies" on our shores. They already possess and wield the language that presents the prospects of such births as a wrong, even a threat. Do you really think him and his would really have a problem with someone forcibly terminating an immigrant mother's pregnancy? Do you really think they'd even struggle to justify it? The only question would be whether they'd politely avert their eyes or outright endorse the practice.

Everything about the contemporary state of right-wing politics suggests that this is not an idle fear. The average conservative hardly bats an eyelash if horrific conditions in ICE custody cause immigrant women to miscarry. Pro-life has never extended that far, after all -- it is a movement primarily about controlling women, not saving babies. Forcible births and forcible abortions are two sides of the same coin; the preference depends on the woman involved.

Or take it another step: Remember that infamous case where the Trump administration tried to prevent an undocumented immigrant teenager from procuring an abortion? Judge Kavanaugh's dissent assumed for sake of argument that the girl had an abortion right, but argued that the government could temporarily refuse to honor it if it could secure her an immigration sponsor with sufficient rapidity. But one Judge, Karen Henderson, went further -- in her opinion, undocumented immigrant minors exist in a lawless space, devoid of any rights over their own body at all by virtue of their illegal entry (Judge Kavanaugh, for his part, did not join that opinion). The logic of Henderson's dissent, at least, would apply equally if the government -- whipped into a hysteria that "demographics are destiny" (to use another Steve King-ism) -- sought to compel her to abort her child.

The thing is, Roe v. Wade does not protect, or does not solely protect, a woman's right to an abortion. It protects a woman's right to choose an abortion -- or not. And in a world without Roe, it isn't clear what judicial doctrine would render it unlawful for a government actor to compel or coerce a woman (particularly a woman under custodial authority of the state) to have an abortion.

Indeed, it's far from clear what legal principle absent Roe would or could give a woman -- again, especially women under the custodial authority of the state (which might include the incarcerated, immigrants, and some minors) -- a constitutional right to continue her pregnancy as against a state official claiming authority to compel her otherwise. Roe answers that women have a right to bodily autonomy which vests in them a private right to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Knock off Roe, eliminate the constitutional reproductive autonomy right, and it's replaced by ... what exactly? 

I don't think there's an answer -- at least, not one that doesn't swing entirely in the other direction and say that abortion is constitutionally impermissible (which, of course, would remain blissfully apathetic regarding the rights of women in favor of waxing lyrical over the rights of blastulae). So imagine this: Roe is overturned. The issue of abortion is, as promised, "returned to the states". A few months later, a prison guard rapes an inmate and then, to cover up the crime, forces her to terminate the ensuing pregnancy. Is the latter act a constitutional violation? I don't know that it is. Is it a clearly established constitutional violation (thank you, qualified immunity)? I don't see how. The constitutional underpinnings that say women cannot be forced to involuntarily terminate their pregnancies rest entirely on Roe v. Wade -- if that's overturned, the best you can say about the state of that right is that it is up in the air.

It's well known by now that the end of Roe will fall hardest on the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable women -- not surprisingly, the ones for whom "liberty" is barely given the pretense of acknowledgment whilst government authority is allowed near-boundless jurisdiction. But even this gives contemporary conservatism too much credit, as it suggests that ending abortion is the point. The fact that pro-life politics virtually never come tied to any sort of tangible commitment to expanding pre-natal care is a clue that the birthing isn't the key variable -- the control is. Sometimes you want to control women via compulsory motherhood, and sometimes ... you don't -- but "pro-life" isn't going to do any real work one way or the other. The tides of the contemporary right -- replete with White nationalist themes, anxious to the point of obsession about becoming a minority in "their" nation -- hardly are ones inclined to respect the rights of "someone else's babies."

Think I'm being hyperbolic? Answer me this: If reports emerged of ICE agents forcing immigrant women to abort their children, would Steve King utter a word against it? Would his "pro-life" instincts kick in? Or would he find that he's ... fine? Okay, even?

We know the answer. And the thing is, you don't have to think Steve King is the be-all end-all of modern conservatism to concede that he represents a real and growing portion of it -- a portion that no doubt has adherents amongst ICE enforcers, amongst authoritarian prison guards, amongst certain extreme (but less so everyday) pockets of fanatical racist and xenophobic authoritarians. If you don't think some among them aren't going to start endorsing "extraordinary measures" to ensure no babies get anchored, if you don't think some among them aren't going to turn to forced abortions as a means of covering up their own rape culture, you're deluding yourself.

And ultimately, that's all that's necessary, because we won't be talking about forced abortions as some sort of nationwide policy. We'd be talking about a patchwork of incidents and abuses and cover-ups and "oversights" that just so happen to fall upon the sort of women that the right doesn't care about in the first place. It will be so easy to ignore them, so easy to say they brought it on themselves, so easy to let the majestic lattice of qualified immunity and formalist textualism conclude that they have no remedy.

I think we'll see it. I really do (I know that if we do, the great bulk of the American conservative movement will not care one whit about it). It's not going the only part of a Roe-less future, but it will be a part. Because when your jurisprudence denies that pregnant women have the right to choice what happens to their own body and your politics grows ever more ravenously xenophobic and your acknowledgment that immigrants, the poor, and the incarcerated nonetheless have rights shrivels into nothingness -- the result of that cocktail isn't any mystery.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Why Is Montgomery County Immune to Money in Politics?

The Democratic primary for the Montgomery County (MD) Executive race was a nail-biter this year, pitting progressive County Councilor Marc Elrich against business and political outsider David Blair. But -- pending a potential recount -- it looks like Elrich won the race by less than 100 votes.

Elrich was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and other left-leaning groups, and they're claiming another victory. Blair, for his part, dumped almost three million dollars of his own money into the race only to come up short (Elrich chose to use public financing).

It's striking to see someone with that much of a financial edge lose a race like this. And it's not the first time Montgomery County Democrats have passed on well-financed candidates.

In 2016, businessman David Trone spent a record-setting $13.2 million dollars of his own money in the Democratic primary for the 8th congressional district, which largely encompasses Montgomery County, only to lose to American University Law Professor Jamie Raskin.  Raskin ran as the most progressive candidate in his 2016 primary race, and he's lived up to that label by becoming (according to Progressive Punch) the single-most liberal member of the entire House delegation.
(Trone, for his part, trotted northwest to the open 6th congressional district, where he just secured the Democratic nomination for 2018).

And that 8th district seat? It was open because its former occupant, Chris Van Hollen, made the jump to the U.S. Senate. And Van Hollen, for his part, won his initial 2002 Democratic primary over Mark Shriver (of the Kennedy Shrivers) despite being outraised 2:1.

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, with a median household income of over $100,000. The consistent success of progressive Democrats beating back better-funded but more centrist foes makes for an interesting contrast to the claim that affluent suburbs will serve as a drag on moving the Democratic Party to the left.

Maybe this is just a series of anecdotes. But it sure seems that Montgomery County seems uniquely resistant to being swamped by big dollar candidates. Assuming that's right, what gives MoCo this rare immunity?

This is outside my area of political science. But here are some possibilities worth exploring:

  • Diversity: Montgomery County is far more racially diverse than it is often given credit for. It is now a majority-minority county, though non-Hispanic Whites remain a plurality (44% non-Hispanic White, 20% Black, 20% Latino, and 16% Asian). That alone often correlates to a leftier-lean, and potentially more suspicion of big spenders in politics.
  • Education: Montgomery County ranks seventh in the country in terms of residents with college degrees; third in the country for graduate degrees. It's possible that more educated voters are less effected by the boons one can buy with big money.
  • Political proximity: Montgomery County comprises the northwest suburbs of DC, meaning that it has a lot of government workers and thus a potentially unique level of political literacy. That could translate to greater levels of political engagement, counteracting availability effects that emerge from carpet-bombing advertising strategies.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Jackie Robinson's Other Break of the Color Barrier

This was an interesting bit of trivia I didn't know about. In 1944, 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson -- yes, that Jackie Robinson -- was court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus on a Texas army base. The army had recently desegregated army buses on army bases, and so Robinson knew he was entirely in the right when he refused to move back. Nonetheless, he was taken into custody and interrogated by a superior officer who was none to keen on the "uppity" Robinson.

Robinson was charged with insubordination, but in part thanks to excellent representation and in part thanks to sterling testimony by his battalion commander, he was acquitted of all charges.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Billions Thoughts

Jill and I finished watching all three seasons of Billions (meaning that our insatiable lust for good television to binge must look elsewhere for fulfillment). That means you get my scattered thoughts on the matter. Mild spoilers below.

* * *

* Wow, Damian Lewis is great in this -- way better than he was in Homeland!

* Wow, Maggie Siff is great in this -- just like she is in everything (Rachel Menken for the win)!

* What makes Billions a great show, in my view, is its almost Walzerian treatment of power. Rhodes and Axe have genuine, real power in completely different arenas, and the show takes care to show that each possesses tools and resources at their disposal that the other can't access. Axe's immense wealth can't buy him things like search warrants or prison threats. In other arenas, Rhodes' governmental power can't buy cooperation or incentives that Axe's money can. A lazier show than Billions would suggest that Axe could simply bribe the right people and become akin to his own government, or would be purely a tale of an unstoppable government official smashing through private sector business. Billions doesn't go either way, sitting in a well-crafted equilibrium.

* The least-likely Showtime shows do a really good job of dealing with non-normative sexuality. House of Lies was great in dealing with a gender fluid teenager. Billions handles both the Rhodes' BDSM activity and Taylor's non-binary status very well. Who'd have guessed?

* I will say that they do go a little heavy on the whole "can a robot learn to love" thing with Taylor. But there are points where Taylor indicates that the whole emotionless android thing is a front, which is easier to swallow.

* I actually buy the idea that Taylor's gender non-binary status would rapidly cease to be a "thing" in a place like Axe Capital so long as they bring in the green. But it does strike me as a little hard to swallow that their rise up the ranks that quickly wouldn't breed more noticeable resentment (beyond Dollar Bill being upset at losing his poker table spot).

* In a show where virtually all the characters are terrible, Lara is the worst. I mean, obviously that's not exactly true -- Spyros is the worst. But at least Spyros brings out some great facial expressions of undisguised loathing from Dollar Bill (those scenes are some of my favorites). Lara doesn't have that redeeming factor. I'm also not quite sure why their marriage completely disintegrated, seemingly on a dime. You'd think Malin Akerman would know how to be a Trophy Wife at this point.

* I did appreciate that, at least prior to their marriage's dissolution, Axe was portrayed as entirely sexually faithful to his wife. Again, a lazier show would have simply assumed that the ungodly-rich billionaire would be stepping out with supermodels left, right, and center.

* One of the few "good" characters is Mafee. Sadly, I don't like his chances of surviving Season 4's inevitable Axe/Taylor crossfire unscathed. Poor Mafee.

* I like Wags in spite of myself. Your mileage may vary. But watching him swell with pride the first time Taylor curses was hilarious.

* One character I'm definitely not sold on is Andolov. It's not just because I find him a bit crude and overdrawn. It's because one of Billions' great virtues is that it has thus far avoided the cheap play of assuming the ultra-rich can and will simply murder their way through problems without consequence or remorse. The whole point is that people like Axe have so many resources available to them that they don't need to resort to violence to get their way. And what's more, while the ability to refrain from violence is itself a function of their power, it's also crucial to their self-image: they are not mobsters or street thugs, they just move dollars and cents around. Andolov seems likely to move the show in a more hackneyed direction.

* On the other hand, three years ago I would have said Jock Jeffcoat was a crude and overdrawn stereotype. Sigh.

* You might have noticed I haven't said anything about the other members of Team Government. Well, let's see: Decker is well-acted but a cipher, I've completely lost track of what's motivating Connerty, Dake has no interesting characteristics at all, and Lonnie actually interests me as someone who isn't really willing to "play the game" but consequently had to be steam-rollered for the show's core thesis to make sense (hence why he's no longer in the show).

Quote of the Day: Arendt on Why Eichmann Was Tried in Jerusalem

Arendt answers those who asked why Eichmann should be tried in an Israeli court rather than an international tribunal.
[T[hose who asked the question did not understand that for Israel the only unprecedented feature of the trial was that, for the first time (since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans), Jews were able to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people, that, for the first time, they did not need to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man--rights which, as no one knew better than they, were claimed only by people who were too weak to defend their "rights of Englishmen" and to enforce their own law. (The very fact that Israel had her own law under which such a trial could be held had been called, long before the Eichmann trial, an expression of "a revolutionary transformation that has taken place in the political position of the Jewish people" ...) It was against the background of these very vivid experiences and aspirations that Ben-Gurion said: "Israel does not need the protection of an International Court."
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin 2006) (1963), 271-72.

It is worth noting that Arendt was quite the skeptic of trying Eichmann in Jerusalem. But nonetheless, here I think she aptly summarizes one of the key drivers as to why so many thought it was so essential that he be tried by Jews, in Jewish court, in a Jewish state.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Twilight of Liberalism

This feels as good as any for this Fourth of July:
There’s an argument floating around that the evils of American hegemonic practice, especially during the Cold War, means that we should not be concerned about Trump’s efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of US power. There are a number of problems with this claim. One is that there are different ways to transition away from American hegemony. Washington can pursue a policy of judicious retrenchment. Another is to pursue a more progressive, multilateral order to address global commons problems and reduce the chances of great-power conflict. These, and other strategies for managing hegemonic decline are going to be much more difficult if Trump continues on his current path. 
A related problem also lies in the specifics of where Trumpism aims to take the United States: ethnonationalism, support for authoritarian regimes, and the like. America’s current human-rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers are indicative of a shift toward “illiberal hegemony“: one less concerned with generating international goods, trying to reduce civilian casualties during military operations, and so forth. You don’t have to have a pollyannaish view of American international affairs to recognize that US foreign policy can get much, much worse. We’ve been there and done that. 
Why am I talking about this? Because we need to also consider the alternatives. If domestic practice is any guide—and we have reasons to think that it is—then the wane of liberal order is unlikely to usher in a more benign world. It’s not only the concentration camps in the United States that should worry us.
We are witnessing a global decline of the liberal order. In the United States, in Europe, in India, in the Philippines, in Israel, in Turkey, and obviously in many more places where liberalism barely had a toehold to begin with.

I'm not sure how it can be reversed. I'm not sure if it can be reversed. I am sure that I do not trust any of the alternatives to "usher in a more benign world".

Richard Rorty once remarked that there is no knockout philosophical argument that can compel people to be liberal if we don't want to or don't agree to. It'd just be "sad" if we don't. We'd miss out on many occasions for human happiness and flourishing, and unnecessarily provide for much more suffering and misery than is necessary. But there's nothing written into the fabric of human history that demands that we avoid the sadder choices.

Is Judaism Headed for a Schism?

This was initially going to be a comment on my last "Things People Blame the Jews For" post, but I realized it needed it's own space.

One of the things the MK who blamed an earthquake on Reform Jews also said was that Reform Jews should "take the money you invest in the State of Israel and build a Kotel in the U.S." Comments like these are part of a larger pattern whereby the Israeli government is more and more overt in seeking to define non-Orthodox diaspora Jews out of the Jewish community outright. In this account, the Kotel (indeed, all of Israel) isn't "for" non-Orthodox Jews. As the MK succinctly put it: "What do you have to do with the ancient stones of the Kotel?"

The Kotel, Israel -- under this view, we outside the Orthodox branch have no claim on these things. They're  for Jews, and we might as well be another faith entirely. What was it that Miri Regev said? "I've met reforms in Argentina. They were very nice, but they should be reform in Argentina. Here in Israel they should behave [like they're in Israel]". In Israel, Reform Jews aren't Jews.

Comments like these makes me wonder -- in all seriousness -- whether Judaism is headed for a schism. One that goes well beyond just being "more" or "less" observant. I mean like a Catholic Church/Eastern Orthodox style schism, basically breaking down along Israeli and American lines, where we no longer recognize each other as even being part of the same religion.

It's possible. Right now, we're seeing a few dangerous threads that may well start intersecting in the mid-future:

  1. Increasing acceptance of intermarriage in the American Jewish community at the same time as the Israeli Orthodox establishment is clamping down harder on matters of who counts as a Jew.
  2. Increasing frustration from non-Orthodox Jews regarding the hammerlock the Orthodox rabbinate holds over normative Jewish practice.
  3. Increasing political antagonism between American (non-Orthodox) Jews and the Israeli government.

The first and second threads provide the theological and/or social rationales necessary for both sides to stop recognizing the core Jewish legitimacy of the other. I know for my part that my response to Orthodox Jews who question my or my partner's Jewishness is to volley the skepticism right back their way -- it's not just that I disagree with their assessment, I also don't accept their authority to adjudicate the matter at all. They have as much authority to tell me I'm not a Jew as I have the authority to tell them they're not.

The last thread frays the desire of either party to check these tendencies. That is, when an "open" case comes up (e.g., regarding who counts as a Jew), there will be less internal pressure to take up a position that maintains the unity of the Jewish people.

We're already seeing the emergence of a "new diasporism" outside of Israel -- still mostly confined to the Jewish left, but starting to edge more mainstream -- that is explicitly centered around building a robust sense of Jewish culture and identity that is largely detached from anything emanating out of Jerusalem. Couple that with Israeli's societies vague (sometimes not so vague) contempt for the galut and it seems we're headed towards a division of the Jewish people where neither hemisphere is particularly interested in, or feels much connection to, whatever is going on in the other.

So yeah, I don't think it's out of the question that in 50 years time, "Judaism" will have completely split in two -- Zion and diaspora. There will be outposts of both camps in the lands of the other: Orthodox Jews in America and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, but it will be functionally akin to Catholics living in Russia or Eastern Orthodox Jews in Western Europe. There will be no doubt who holds what territory, and the two camps will not see each other as cohabitants of the same faith.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLVI: Clear Skies and Earthquakes

Weather-related Jewish conspiracy theories seem to be having a moment.*

In rapid succession this week, we got an Iranian general saying that Israel was stealing his country's clouds, followed by an ultra-Orthodox Israeli MK blaming an earthquake on Reform Jews.

On the former: When faced with real problems (like drought), it isn't wise to get, shall we say, sidetracked away from scientific investigation and instead waste time on nonsense like this. So long as one can blame the neighborhood Jew for all of one's ails, one avoids having to actually investigate the root causes of one's problems.

That said, since random Iranian conspiracy theories are now grist for the President's mill, I look forward to seeing this one appear on Trump's twitter feed within the week.

On the latter: As my friend Richard Goldwasser observed, this is just as absurd as any other "Jews control the natural world" whacko comment we've seen in recent months, and so there's no reason to give it a pass just because the speaker is an Israeli government officer. Indeed, when an Iranian official says stuff like this, it's to be expected. We should if anything be more worried when Israeli politicians start parroting the same nonsense.

* Yes, yes, I know an earthquake isn't really "weather". Sue me.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Suit Up Roundup

The latest wedding prep item to be checked off the list is my wedding suit. I like it. It's snazzy. Still have to pick it up post-alterations, though.

* * *

Anil Kalhan explains what was evident to anyone paying attention: John Roberts didn't "overturn" Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii -- he renamed it.

What do you call a Jewish Indian fusion food truck? Nu Deli. I love this more than I can express (semi-related: I picked up The Last Jews of Karala: The 2,000-Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Community at a bookstore the other day. So far, so good.).

Right now, we're seeing growing recognition of the full diversity of the Jewish community. That's good. But it also means reckoning seriously with the fact that the Jewish community has not always been welcoming of our full diversity. Hey Alma hosted a roundtable discussion with six Jews of Color that's definitely worth a read. Sandra Lawson and Donna Cephas write of racism they've experienced within the Jewish community. And the Baltimore Jewish Times just ran a profile on Mendel Davis, son of an African-American Chabad Rabbi.

Nobody expects the National Review to defend the Spanish Inquisition!

An interesting blast from the past: the Jewish Current reprints an exchange between Rabbi Joachim Prinz and an antisemitic Christian pastor who heard in speak at an army base in Abilene, Texas. It is striking reading, precisely because the pastor's arguments come couched in language we'd recognize today: he condemns Nazism, acknowledges the existence of some good Jews, speaks in unfailingly polite terms -- but nonetheless makes sweeping generalizations against the faith as a whole to justify his bigotry. It's well worth reading not because of how alien it is, but because of how little the language of "civil" bigotry has changed over the past seventy years.

JTA profiles Alma Hernandez, a 25-year old Mexican-American Jewish women running for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. (She's also being targeted by David Duke, which is possibly the least surprising thing imaginable).

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Racism is a Productive Ideology

The other day, Ezra Klein tweeted this:
He's right. And, though Ezra doesn't come out and say this, the reason the GOP got these victories is because of racism. And xenophobia and Islamophobia and misogyny and all of their other cousins.

That's important to remember. Not in a "these victories are tainted" sort of way, though that's true. It's important to remember because it emphasizes something important about racism. To wit:

Racism is a productive ideology.

It builds things. It makes things happen. It motivates voters, it lubricates alliances, it stirs up passions.  There are times where one can't do certain things one would very much like to do unless one is willing to harness a bit of racism.

That's why standing up to racism requires real moral fiber. Not just because racism is "wrong". But because standing up to racism, in practice, means not availing yourself of certain opportunities and benefits that one greatly desires and which are in your grasp if only you agree to play with some racism.

It's no great thing to oppose racism when it's hurting you. It's not even that difficult to oppose it when it's only hurting others. But it takes real strength to know for a fact that opposing racism will cost you -- will mean losing elections you might otherwise win, will mean that the other party might get a Supreme Court seat that you'd otherwise appoint, will mean that your cherished tax policy won't see the light of day in Congress -- and nonetheless say "no." It's so easy to console yourself with the fact that you "don't like it", that politics "is about making compromises", and that the ends justify the means. Racism flourishes in America because of what it can produce. For it to be rooted out, politicians and leaders must be willing to draw a line and decline its bounty.

That was the test facing the Republican Party over the past few years. Because it's true: had they fought -- really fought -- Donald Trump, they wouldn't be the ones picking this Supreme Court Justice. They wouldn't be in a position to finally overturn Roe. They wouldn't be steering ship on tax policy. They wouldn't be in charge of immigration regulations. They wouldn't be able to purge voters in Ohio or gerrymander to hell and back in Wisconsin. The racist tides Donald Trump tapped into are what put all these things in Republican hands.

It is a test, to turn away from those things. And it is one Republicans failed, abjectly and utterly. They decided that tax cuts and Supreme Court seats were more important. They could not resist the bounty racism could provide for them.

I have no doubt that liberals will face their own form of this test at one point or another. Racism is not just productive for conservatives, and we delude ourselves if we think it is partisan in that way.

But right now, the test was handed to Republicans. And their failure -- their near-complete abdication of responsibility, in fact -- is why they lack the moral character to lead our nation. All of them -- from Paul Ryan to John Roberts to Anthony Kennedy to Mitch McConnell to Marco Rubio to Susan Collins -- faced a moment of moral challenge and completely, utterly, entirely crumbled. They are weak. They are failures. They are profiles in moral cowardice.

That is how they should be remembered. History is faint vindication, but it is what we have. And at the end of the day, they have nobody but themselves to blame for their legacies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Media is Not Part of the Liberal Family

Max Weber has a quote (Yair Rosenberg just promoted it), regarding the proper role of a teacher:
"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts--I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others."
It's a good quote, and it's good advice -- not only for teachers. What it suggests is that among our mist difficult deliberative obligations -- with respect to facts and also to opinions -- is to consider alternatives and counters and problems with our position. It does no good to harp on what we already know and what confirms our ideological priors. We must stretch wide to think those thoughts which are hard for us and ours.

However. There's a certain strand of malign media behavior which I think is in some ways attributable to this quote and needs to be addressed. It stems from a distorted understanding by media figures of who the relevant "parties" are and what facts actually are "inconvenient". It seems to me that quite a few major stories -- about growing right-wing authoritarianism, racism, prejudice, and Islamophobia -- are going undercovered because, in the view of many journalists, they're not "inconvenient" stories. It's not that they don't recognize that this sort of behavior is wrong. It's that they think that their wrongfulness is so obvious that there's nothing interesting to talk about.

Consider the recent debates about "civility" in the public square. It's come up primarily with reference to the ethics of a private restaurant owner (quite politely, by all accounts) asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment (oddly enough, that seemed to get more negative attention than protesters quite loudly haranguing Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant). And because it's come up in that context, liberals have been quite annoyed that it's come up in that context, as opposed to, say, the fact that Congress contains a man who was criminally convicted for body-slamming a reporter, or another man who's happily retweeting Nazis. Or, you know, everything the President of the United States ever says ever.

Under any objective metric, these are far more serious breaches of "civility" than Maxine Waters urging people to confront Trump administration officials in public settings. One can think -- quite abstractly -- that the question of whether restaurant owners should refuse to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders is ponderable while acknowledging the obvious truth that it doesn't rank in the top 200 highest priority moral questions that the media should be placing on the public agenda -- even confined to the "civility" subcategory. Given that fact, there's something facially outrageous about devoting any non-trivial amount of journalistic attention to Sarah Huckabee Sanders' dining options over and above other, obviously higher-priority stories.

To that point, though, I think many media members would issue the following retort: Yes, body-slamming a reporter or being a bit of Nazi fanboy is obviously wrong. But that's the point: it's obviously wrong. It's not interesting -- who even disagrees? By contrast, the reporters probably know a ton of people who laud Maxine Waters or the Red Hen. That issue, consequently, has stakes -- it's interesting in a way that talking about physically assaulting reporters isn't. A similar motivation probably explains the New York Times' infamous "Most Americans Want Legal Status for 'Dreamers.' These People Don't" profile. From the vantage of the journalist, sympathy for Dreamers is the obvious position -- it scarcely needs explanation. Wanting to see them deported? That's novel. That's interesting. That's a truly alternate point of view.

Hence, the reason these -- objectively low-priority -- liberal (alleged) breaches of civility (or what have you) get the media attention that they do is, in a sense, precisely because they aren't viewed as self-evidently terrible. By contrast, the argument goes, nobody needs to be told that Dana Loesch is a thug or that Mitch McConnell utterly lacks any sort of principles beyond partisan hackery.

And let's be clear: within the liberal "family", that sort of introspective consideration is valuable. We should be considering the thoughts that are hard or inconvenient for us, we should be forcing ourselves to contemplate arguments or positions that challenge our own (conservatives should do the same). And the journalists, whom (I strongly suspect) are generally left-of-center in their private commitments, think that's what they're doing. They're not going to waste time confirming what's already known -- that there are some psychopaths in the Republican caucus who are pretty much avowed White Supremacists, or that there is a growing right-wing endorsement of explicitly authoritarian language towards the media as "enemies of the American people", or that undocumented immigrants remain human beings and do not deserve to be caged up and torn from their families. That's easy. What's hard is the act of forcing other members of the "family" to deal with truly inconvenient, facts and perspectives, ones that don't come naturally.

But here's the thing: journalists are not part of the liberal family. Not professionally, anyway. In their professional capacity, their job isn't to uncover the facts and narratives that are inconvenient for themselves or their tribe. Or more aptly, their "tribe", so long as they're acting as journalists, is the entirety of the United States. Which means that, for much of their audience, it is quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Steve King is a White Supremacist, and it's quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter, and it's quite "inconvenient" that the Trump administration's Muslim ban was explicitly based on racism and the Supreme Court has now decided that's okay. That these facts may seem too obvious, too much like conventional wisdom, to the journalist, or even to all the journalist's friends, is utterly immaterial. Because as it happens, they're apparently not obvious for large swaths of the country.

Ironically, conservative media critics are right about one thing: journalists need to stop thinking of themselves as part of the liberal family. It's that self-identification that creates a paradoxical problem of conservative media bias. It emerges when private liberal political beliefs conjoin with the professional understanding that it's the journalist's job to unsettle received wisdom and disturb pat answers. The result of that cocktail is that journalists persistently undercover the "obvious" conservative wrongdoings (what are they really "disturbing"?) and overreport on relatively trivial liberal ones (it may be small fries, but it least it's a challenge).

This same dynamic is also why the charge of a conservative bias is so baffling and easily dismissed by journalists. Of course, part of it is because they're private liberals themselves, so how could they be biased against liberals. But part of it is because the locus of the critique feels like a complaint about journalists doing their job right -- tackling the hard issues, forcing people to think the hard thoughts.

And the thing is, that is the right way to be a journalist -- they're not wrong about that. The problem is that they're not actually successful at forcing people to grapple with the inconvenient thoughts -- they only think that they are because their sense of what counts as a hard issue and a hard thought is distorted by the false belief that they're just liberals talking to other liberals.

They're not. They're journalists talking to the country. And for this country, right now, the things that seem so "obviously" wrong are deemed by many to be entirely right.

A good journalist should think about how to unsettle that wisdom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What We Put There Ourselves

The Supreme Court's decision in Trump v. Hawaii is a disgrace.

There are many things to be said on this disgrace -- what it means, where it takes us going forward. But for now I'll limit myself to one: the refrain one has been hearing a lot over the past two years, on issues ranging from the Muslim ban to the practice of caging immigrant children. "American doesn't do this." "This is not who we are."

I respect the instinct behind those sentiments. But I think they're wrong.

These are appeals to what exists "in the soul" of America. Much like the convicted criminal whose friends plead to the judge that he's "really" a good guy, much like the internet provocateur who tearfully insists that "in her heart she knows she's not racist", these are appeals to let an unseeable and intangible essence trump actual behavior and practice.

To that endeavor, the great philosopher Richard Rorty had a cutting retort: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves."

Does America countenance banning immigrants on basis of the faith? Do we allow for asylum-seeking children to be caged?

Yes, clearly. America does do this. We're doing it right now. If we don't like what that says about us, then it's up to us to change it. There is nothing deep down inside us except what we decide to put there. It got there through us, it can only be removed by us.

The problem with this appeal to what lies "deep down" is not that our essence is actually corrupt -- I don't believe America is "essentially" (unavoidably, irretrievably) racist any more than I believe that we're "essentially" non-racist. The problem is that when we believe that something "deep down" is in fundamental tension with these sorts of practices, it suggests that there is some sort of natural arc that will resist them for us -- absolving us from putting in the hard work of doing the resistance ourselves. Or worse: it seductively promises that these things can't be happening here because "that's not who we are." It becomes tautology that an act of the United States of America can't truly be racist precisely because "that's not who we are."

But it's wrong. It is who we are, right up until the moment that it isn't. There's nothing deep down inside us that prevents us from being a racist, bigoted, prejudiced nation. It is not destiny, or character, or essence that makes America what it is. It is our choices, our decisions, our behavior, our practices.

I predicted the Supreme Court would uphold the travel ban. And I made another prediction as well:
15 years after the ruling, it will stop being cited. 30 years after the ruling, it will become part of the anti-canon. 45 years after the ruling, it will be beyond obvious that it was an embarrassment, but fortunately, the sort of embarrassment we as a nation have thankfully outgrown. 
And 60 years after the ruling, we'll do it again -- or something very much like it.
Until we learn the lesson of Korematsu -- the actual lesson, not the limp pseudo-history Chief Justice Roberts offered in a lame attempt to act as if he was overruling the case as opposed to renaming it -- we'll keep on repeated the cycle.

There is nothing deep down inside of the American system or way of life that checks against a Korematsu -- or a Trump. There is no intrinsic resistance, no arc of the universe inexorably pressing the other way. There is simply us -- our choices regarding what America is, and what it isn't. That, and only that, is what exists inside of us. "Who we are" as a nation is no more and no less than what we choose to put there ourselves.

Quote of the Day: Justice Jackson in the Steel Seizure Case

No comment other than to note that Justice Jackson took time off from his duties as a Supreme Court Justice to be the lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials:
Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality, his decisions so far overshadow any others that, almost alone, he fills the public eye and ear. No other personality in public life can begin to compete with him in access to the public mind through modern methods of communications. By his prestige as head of state and his influence upon public opinion, he exerts a leverage upon those who are supposed to check and balance his power which often cancels their effectiveness.
Moreover, rise of the party system has made a significant extraconstitutional supplement to real executive power. No appraisal of his necessities is realistic which overlooks that he heads a political system, as well as a legal system. Party loyalties and interests, sometimes more binding than law, extend his effective control into branches of government other than his own, and he often may win, as a political leader, what he cannot command under the Constitution. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson, commenting on the President as leader both of his party and of the Nation, observed, "If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it."
I cannot be brought to believe that this country will suffer if the Court refuses further to aggrandize the presidential office, already so potent and so relatively immune from judicial review, at the expense of Congress.
But I have no illusion that any decision by this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that "The tools belong to the man who can use them." We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers. 
The essence of our free Government is "leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the law" -- to be governed by those impersonal forces which we call law. Our Government is fashioned to fulfill this concept so far as humanly possible. The Executive, except for recommendation and veto, has no legislative power. The executive action we have here originates in the individual will of the President, and represents an exercise of authority without law. No one, perhaps not even the President, knows the limits of the power he may seek to exert in this instance, and the parties affected cannot learn the limit of their rights. We do not know today what powers over labor or property would be claimed to flow from Government possession if we should legalize it, what rights to compensation would be claimed or recognized, or on what contingency it would end. With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations. 
Such institutions may be destined to pass away. But it is the duty of the Court to be last, not first, to give them up.
343 U.S. 579, 653-65 (1952).

Monday, June 25, 2018

Which Comes First, The Progressivism or the Democratic Vote?

I'm a bit late on this question, but this is a great explainer from Daily Kos Elections on why yes, Democrats should be targeting (among other places) affluent suburbs as part of the strategy to turn America blue. It is responding to an NYT editorial which suggested such targeting would cause the Democratic Party to abandon important progressive values, since affluent suburban (coded as White) voters are thought to be prime constituencies demanding policies harmful to poorer or brown citizens.

The DKE piece does a good job problematizing several assumptions in the NYT article (including the belief that these suburban districts are all uniformly or predominantly White), but I particularly like the way it pays attention to voter psychology. 

One might think that people come to beliefs on clusters of issues, and then vote for the Party that best matches their preferences. And sometimes that's true -- but usually only for a small band of exceptionally salient issues which the voter cares a lot about. On other issues -- the vast majority --the causality runs in the opposite direction, with people tending to follow their team. Hence, if people identify as "team Democrat" they'll likely shift their views towards consensus Democratic Party positions. This is one of the reasons why White Democrats have in fact shifted hard to the left on issues of racial justice in America over the past few years -- that position is now part of what it means to be on "team Democrat", and so self-identified Democrats adjust their views accordingly.

We see this all the time -- a recent prominent case is the surge in favorable Republican sentiment towards Vladimir Putin, almost certainly driven not by any considered judgment about the merits of Putin but rather by the sense that Russia and Putin are "on their team" and anti-Russia and anti-Putin sentiment are associated with Democrats. The almost complete absorption of southern Evangelical political ideology into that of the Republican Party is another case. On the other side, Muslims have become considerably more liberal on social issues since 9/11 -- not coincidentally, they've also moved from a Republican to a Democratic constituency at the same time stemming from the GOP's open embrace of Islamophobia. One suspects that a similar dynamic accounts for American Jewry's general across-the-board liberalism -- I'd love to attribute it to some intrinsic progressive characteristic of my people, but it's probably more a function of what segments of American society welcomed us onto their team and what segments pushed us away.

This account of how social groups develop political ideology is not the most popular secret in Political Science. It suggests that the route to political change isn't deep reflection on matters of truth and justice but simply relatively passive games of "follow the leader" and partisan feedback loops. But results are results. And in the case of progressive commitments on issues of racial justice, the more White suburban voters view themselves as consistent Democratic voters, the more likely they'll be to back progressive political commitments across the board.

Westworld Season 2 Thoughts

Another season of Westworld is in the books. And since I need to at least semi-regularly offer pop culture commentary as dessert for the political vegetables that are this blog's standard-fare, I figured I'd share my thoughts.

*Mild Westworld spoilers follow*

* Last season, my line on Westworld was that it was a very good show that was held back because it clearly thinks it's a great show. If anything, this season I revise that estimate downwards. To borrow from another reviewer, Westworld is a show that just adamantly refuses to step back and get out of the way of its own story. The interweaving timelines and flashbacks and fragmented memories and self-absorbed mystique is pretentious at the best of times and more often than that actively aggravating. You have a good story -- have the self-confidence to just tell the damn thing!

* Having just praised the story, I'm going to register another complaint here: The show's view of human (and, for that matter, robot) nature is so relentlessly negative that I have trouble relating to it. It also feels a little bit dated. Five or so years ago we were still obsessed with the "anti-hero", but since then there's been a flurry of shows -- mostly comedies, admittedly -- that are considerably more positive about the human condition (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Good Place). So when Westworld's message is basically "everyone is awful, and if you try to be even slightly less awful you'll be exploited and then brutally murdered", it doesn't feel bold, it just gets tiresome (RIP Elsie).

* Speaking of, I felt like at the end they finally leaned into Doloros being an actual monster -- which was pretty evident pretty early on in my view -- but it sure took awhile. Her story is that of anti-colonial rebel who becomes every bit the murderous bloodletter and tyrant that she initially was reacting against. A decent arc actually, so long as the show recognized it was telling it, but it ended up lacking distinction because everybody on the show is the worst.

* All of this is why Maeve's plotline was the best of the season. For one, it was definitely the most linearly told -- see, you don't need ninety cross-cutting flashbacks to make for an interesting story. But Maeve's plot is one of the only ones that deals with the theme of strength and power in an interesting way. Maeve makes herself strong -- the show never valorizes weakness in any character -- but she's one of the few strong characters who uses her strength for a purpose beyond simply trying to redirect the orgy of violence elsewhere.

* Oh, the orgy of violence. "The violent delights," indeed. I'm not a huge fan of graphic violence, but I can handle it if it seems thematically necessary (I'm okay with Game of Thrones, for example). On Westworld, this season -- it felt gratuitous. Maybe just me.

* Actually, the real theme of Season 2 is that giving someone a gun and dressing them up in a fancy costume does not make them into a tough guy. I'm talking, of course, of Delos "security", who are almost comically useless with those machine guns. Question: if Delos security got into a battle with the stormtroopers from Star Wars, would anyone die?

* Teddy going to robot heaven and Doloros not being there is the most Teddy ending imaginable. Nothing truly good ever happens to Teddy.

Friday, June 22, 2018

IfNotNow 2, Establishment Jewish Organizations 0

Following Ramah's histrionic letter disavowing IfNotNow and saying they'd never allow "antisemitic" content in their Israel curriculum, Birthright trip leaders act like overzealous middle school field trip chaperones while trying to block their trip participants from chatting with INN activists at JFK airport.
Participants for the most part merely listened quietly to [INN activist Andy] Ratto and the other activists there. 
The trip leaders, however, repeatedly stepped in to tell the activists to stop talking with the participants. As the leaders became more agitated, tensions escalated. 
Ratto, attempting to contextualize the activists’ position, offered postcards to a few trip leaders with some introductory information about IfNotNow. 
A trip leader took a postcard and tore it apart in front of several participants.The cards also contained questions participants can ask during the trip, such as, “What is the occupation?” “Will I have the chance to meet with Palestinians on my trip?” 
“They’re coming in, trying to fill their minds with stuff,” the trip leader later said. He gave his name only as Tyler.
As the article indicates later on, several of the trip participants came away unimpressed by "Tyler's" decision to literally rip up informational packets in front of their eyes. Way to lead, Tyler!

And that makes twice in a month where, in a confrontation between establishment Jewish organization and IfNotNow, I've come away more annoyed at the former. For someone like me, who's very establishment-oriented and very wary of IfNotNow, that's actually kind of a big deal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Loving the Children To Death

Right now, the Republican Party is trying to square a very nettlesome circle. On the one hand, they want to communicate that they care about the immigrant children the Trump administration is ripping away from their families. On the other hand, they want to do as little as possible to actually challenge Trump's policies or effectuate any meaningful change -- especially if it might mean (heaven forbid) some of these kids actually get to stay in the United States and build a safe and productive life here.

The latest bit of rhetoric emerging out of this impossible dynamic is the claim that it is for the children's own good that they are being ripped from their families and locked into cages. Moderate Republican(tm) Susan Collins kicked this off, wailing about how "dangerous" it is for parents try and cross the American border as cover for refusing to join Democratic efforts to end family separation.

More recently, that gambit has been extended to allege that the children in question are actually trafficking victims and that therefore efforts to prevent family separation are the real acts of child abuse. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, for example, tweeted the following today:
Meanwhile, his Nebraska colleague Ben Sasse took a more circuitous route -- sprinkled with many rhetorical condemnations of the family separation policy -- to arrive mostly at the same place:
This bad new policy is a reaction against a bad old policy. The old policy was “catch-and-release.” Under catch-and-release, if someone made it to the border and claimed asylum (whether true or not, and most of the time it wasn’t true), they were released into the U.S. until a future hearing date....
Catch-and-release – combined with inefficient deportation and other ineffective policies – created a magnet whereby lots of people came to the border who were not actually asylum-seekers. This magnet not only attracted illegal immigrants generally, but also produced an uptick in human trafficking across our border.... 
Human trafficking organizations are not just evil; they’re also often smart. Many quickly learned the “magic words” they needed to say under catch-and-release to guarantee admission into the U.S. Because of this, some of the folks showing up at the border claiming to be families are not actually families. Some are a trafficker with one or more trafficked children. Sometimes border agents can identify this, but many times they aren’t sure. 
Any policy that incentivizes illegal immigration is terrible governance. But even more troubling is that catch-and-release rewarded traffickers, who knew they could easily get their victims to market in the U.S.
Incidentally, "Ben Sasse takes a more circuitous route to arrive at the same place as Tom Cotton" basically describes the Republican Party dynamic on every noteworthy case of Trump administration extremism.

Anyway, first thing to say about the trafficking talking point is that it's basically bogus: DHS statistics indicate that 0.61% of family apprehensions at the border are even alleged to be cases where smugglers have falsely presented a trafficking victim as a family member.

But let's take the tiny minority of trafficking cases at face value. Those kids whom Collins and Cotton and Sasse are so concerned about? They're the ones the Trump administration is putting in cages. One might forget that the immigrant children are supposedly the victims in the GOP story, given how every Republican solution centers around keeping them incarcerated until they can be sent back to their countries of origin (where, remember, they were by stipulation abducted and smuggled across international borders -- so not a great place for them). Much like Syrian children, immigrant children (whether victims of traffickers or not) are good enough for Republicans to imprison, but not good enough to rescue.

It's no accident that the more honest voices of the Trump movement -- the Ann Coulters of the world -- are perfectly explicit in stating that the children are just as much of the enemy as their supposed "traffickers". Nothing the Republican Party has done over the past several years has been remotely consistent with the idea that they actual view immigrant children as valuable human beings whom we have an obligation to treat with respect. The priority is ensuring -- at any cost -- that they do not have the opportunity to build a dignified life for themselves in America. If that means ripping them from their parent's arms, so be it. If they means permanently destroying families, so be it. If that means sending them back to countries where they'll be executed by paramilitary gangs, so be it.

Republicans care a lot about immigrant children. It's a shame that all that care and concern goes mostly into destroying their lives.