Thursday, October 31, 2019

Patterns of Discourse and Omar's "Present" Vote

As you've probably seen, Rep. Ilhan Omar voted "present" on a House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. She contended that the resolution, which passed 405-11 (not including the "present" votes of Omar and two of her colleagues), was a "cudgel in a political fight" and that recognition and accountability for human rights atrocities "should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics." She also suggested that the U.S. had no standing to speak out on the Armenian Genocide without recognizing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide.

This explanation did not seem to satisfy many people. That includes me -- I think this was a terrible vote paired with a terrible apologia for the vote, and she deserves to be raked over the coals for it.

But since, apparently, a bit of genocide wishy-washiness is less hot and emotionally fraught than a debate over "Benjamins" (seriously: this is The Bad Place), I wonder if we might take this opportunity to reflect -- with cooler heads -- on some patterns that I think are repeating themselves

On the one hand: A great many people otherwise fond of or sympathetic to Ilhan Omar have been very sharply critical of her vote. She does have some defenders, but at the outset they seem to be relatively few and far between. On the other: many of Omar's critics are not people "otherwise fond of or sympathetic to" Ilhan Omar, and are less disappointed than they are elated to have a valid excuse to launch another pile-on.

People in the first category have certainly observed the fact of the second category and are uncomfortable contributing to the "pile-on", which they see as reflecting particular anti-Black and Islamophobic biases. After all, why is there such intense focus on Omar's "present" vote, as compared to the eleven Representatives who actually voted "no" (all Republicans) or even the other two "present" votes (Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson)? For example, Rep. Johnson, who apparently has gone on the record saying she denies the Armenian Genocide outright, would seemingly deserve an even greater degree of scorn. And of course, those who outright voted against the resolution should face even more intense condemnation.

There is, to be sure, an answer to the "why Omar" question that doesn't boil down to "because of her identity". She has a much higher profile than does Eddie Bernice Johnson or Paul Gosar, she styles herself as a human rights advocate, there are many people who are disappointed in her that probably have no particular interest or hope in what Virginia Foxx does. Nonetheless, it is hard to say with a straight face that Omar's identity is playing no role in the dynamic. And the effect remains that the Black Muslim women makes a mistake and gets obliterated for it even as other, predominantly White colleagues effectively get a free pass for the same or worse conduct.

And here's the real kicker: the genuine, non-prejudicial, fairly-motivated critics of Omar who are speaking out based on sincerely held and non-opportunistic commitments to human rights? I don't think there is anything they could have reasonably done (save not speaking out at all) to prevent their condemnation from contributing to the pile-on effect. Even if that's not what they want, even if it makes them queasy. The dynamics in play here go beyond them; in the current moment there is not a way to in any robust sense speak critically about Omar (including justifiably critically) without carrying the risk that it will be harnessed by more primordial political actors eager to hoist up the pinata again. It would be wrong to say that this outcome was desired by the genuine critics; it would I suspect be equally wrong to say it could have been avoided by those critics.

Do you get it? Do you see the pattern? In l'affaire Benjamins, it was often claimed that Omar's critics were wholly and entirely right-wing smear merchants, and that it was their fault -- or more than that, their desire -- that she be subjected to a completely over-the-top orgy of histrionic condemnations that seem far disproportionate to her offense. This allegation, in turn, infuriated those of her critics who were genuinely motivated by non-opportunistic liberal instincts and concerns about antisemitism, and who wanted to both send a clear message that "this is not okay" but had no desire to endorse a witch-hunt.  Yet Omar's defenders, in effect, viewed that entire posture as disingenuous -- crocodile tears by political arsonists. Omar's critics are her critics -- some just put on a better figleaf of respectability than others.

One might hope that this go-around might offer some critical distance illuminating the pattern. Some of Omar's defenders in the last controversy are among her critics this time; perhaps they can learn to empathize with their peers in recognizing the genuinely uncomfortable position they find themselves in, and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of insulating their valid criticisms from enlistment into more unsavory political projects. And I'd also hope that some of Omar's critics, for those whom this issue has a less immediate pull on their psyche, can see how she really is being singled out in a way that seems anomalous given her degree of offense compared to other wrongdoers (a recognition which by necessity acknowledges there is a degree of offense!). In the history of debates over recognizing the Armenian genocide, after all, she is by no means the only actor to have gotten it wrong.

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