Thursday, September 24, 2020

AOC Lookalikes

It's a good time to be an actress who looks like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A bunch of shows have created characters that seemed like obvious plays on the prominent New York congressman. Ana Villafañe was a dead ringer for the congresswoman as a newly-elected councilwoman who ousted Kal Penn's out-of-touch incumbent on the ill-fated NBC sitcom Sunnyside. Ginger Gonzaga played a House Representative whose initials were "AYC" (and who had the sobriquet "Angry Young Congresswoman") on Netflix's Space Force. AOC has become more than an icon, she's become a character -- a contemporary show on politics seems to need someone like her on cast.

Given this development, it's interesting to see just what sort of character the AOC clones are generally portrayed as. From what I've seen, they tend to be:

  • Smart
  • Conscientious and hard-working
  • Idealistic
  • Aggressive and hard-charging
  • Somewhat prone to grandstanding
  • A little naive as to how politics actually works
Whether or not these represent an accurate portrayal of the real AOC is immaterial. It's interesting that this is part of what TV writers think viewers will recognize when they see a character who is clearly a riff on AOC.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Supreme Court Fight Probably Helps Trump

It depresses me (if it is even possible for me to become more depressed -- yup, turns out it is) that we have to immediately turn to the political implications of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death and the ensuing confirmation fight over her replacement. But we do. And, more depressing still, I think the beneficiary of this development on a political level is Donald Trump. Why? Three reasons:

  1. Historically, Republicans are more motivated by judicial battles than are Democrats. That gap might be narrowing, but it's not clear it's disappeared. But while this is the factor everyone cites, it's actually the smallest factor in my analysis.
  2. A Supreme Court fight is a "normal" political controversy, and Trump is helped any time politics feels like a "normal" Democrat vs. Republican fight compared to extraordinary events that are unique to him and/or 2020 -- most notably, the coronavirus debacle. Ginsburg's death is one of the few things that can muscle coronavirus out of the headlines not just for a day but for a sustained period of time.
  3. Ginsburg's death is a political shock, and that automatically benefits Trump given that he's ran consistently behind in the polls. Why? Think of it this way: suppose the Supreme Court fight has an equal chance of either causing Trump to gain or lose five points in the polls. The former puts him ahead of Biden. The latter -- well, a loss is a loss: there's no tangible difference between Trump losing by a small margin and him losing by a large margin. So really, it's a 50% chance of it helping Trump and a 50% chance of it making no difference -- which is to say, it averages out to helping Trump. Given the remarkable stability in Trump's polling averages, he might be willing to take the chance on a shock even if the odds it benefited him were less than 50% (this is why I briefly contemplated the possibility of Trump doing something truly wild to shake up the polls if he was lagging far behind, like tapping Tulsi Gabbard as his new VP). And again, I think the baseline odds that this benefits Trump are at least 50% if not higher.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Should Rest in Peace. The Rest of Us Have To Gear Up.

 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Surprising absolutely nobody, Mitch McConnell has already promised to fill the seat weeks before the election notwithstanding his own months-long obstruction of Merrick Garland's nomination in the last year of Barack Obama's presidency.

It's possible he won't be able to do it. A few Republicans have hinted they won't go along with the move -- Lisa Murkowski being the most vocal, but potentially also Susan Collins and Mitt Romney. I have to assume Martha McSally has already decided she's toast in November and is just deciding to do as much damage as possible in her remaining time in office, because she waited scarcely five minutes to come out in favor of a pre-election vote. The list of Republicans who are going to publicly and unapologetically flip-flop on "filling a SCOTUS seat in an election year" is quite lengthy, but Lindsey Graham stands out for especial brazenness as he has a clip where he specifically states to the camera "I want you to use my words against me" if Republicans try to fill a seat in election year 2020.

Hypocrisy charges likely won't matter. That doesn't mean you don't fight, but it does mean that victory or defeat has little to do with how hard Chuck Schumer fights. There's no magic bullet, no secret parliamentary trick that can defeat a determined GOP majority that wants to slam through Ginsburg's replacement on short notice ahead of the next election.

What we can do is change the personnel after the election.

I've been opposed to court packing for a long time. Even after Garland, where I thought there had to be some retaliation, I thought court packing was a bad idea -- it promises a cycle of retaliation that has no logical stopping point.

I'm having trouble holding that position now, and I can't imagine cleaving to it if the GOP replaces Ginsberg before inauguration day. The Republican has announced that the new rule is that anything that is formally within the rules is permissible, regardless of how many norms it shatters or double-standards it creates. Well, confirming a new Supreme Court Justice just weeks before election day is exactly as within the rules as court packing is.

All that notwithstanding, I think the real necessary move is adding new states. DC is the obvious one, Puerto Rico ranks up there too. My stance on this is well-known. What I like most about adding new states is that, unlike court packing, it is both political hardball and unquestionably correct as a matter of non-partisan political ethics. The idea that certain American territories should be completely and permanently disenfranchised from effective political representation is an anathema to any semblance of democratic legitimacy. And the fact that the Republican argument against statehood is "but we can't win places non-White people live in" does not deserve the dignity of a response.

But all of this depends on Joe Biden winning the Oval Office, and Democrats retaking the Senate. I don't have a ton of spare income, but I sent a few dollars over to Theresa Greenfield in Iowa (it struck me as right at the line of winnable but needing an extra push). Support whoever you can with whatever you can; it doesn't have to be money either. Bear down and get the vote out however you can.

Ginsburg can rest in peace. She's earned it. The rest of us, unfortunately, can't rest at all. It's time to gear up.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Involuntary Hysterectomies Reported in ICE Facilities

Two years ago, I wrote that the natural conclusion of the White nationalist fanaticism coursing through the Republican Party is forcing immigrant women to have involuntary abortions. With raging anti-immigrant sentiment going on about "demographics are destiny" and "anchor babies", there was little doubt that at some point this politics would arrive at its natural conclusion -- a full-out assault on the reproductive capacities of the immigrants who arrive on our shores.

Today, news dropped of a whistleblower report alleging mass hysterectomies -- without informed consent -- of immigrant women held in ICE detention. It's not precisely forced abortions. But it is a hair's-breadth of distance away. And the logic carries.

Roe, nominally at least, should protect women against this -- after all, Roe does not guarantee a woman's right to an abortion but rather a woman's right to choose. But we know how the right feels about Roe. And without respecting Roe as a safeguard, it is not clear what constitutional basis there is for a woman under the custodial authority of the state (such as prisoners or immigrants held in detention) to refuse a medical procedure if her wardens demand she endure it. When choice is taken away in one direction, it can be taken away in the other.

What Makes These Protests Different From All Other Protests?

I'm trying to figure out why this round of protests against police violence feels different, in terms of the public resonance it's having, than what came before. It seems every few days we get a new wave of breathless commentary about how the backlash is coming among White suburbanites in Wisconsin and ... so far, it hasn't manifested. It'd be wrong, obviously, to act as if the entirety of America is behind the protesters or anything like that, or if there aren't important divisions and controversies among people who generally do count themselves as supporters. But in the broad sweep of things, support has been far more robust than one might have predicted based on past history.

One candidate that stands out in my mind is that the latest round of protests, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, occurred basically immediately after a different round of protests by mostly White right-wingers angry about mask-requirements and coronavirus lockdowns. Americans had just been swamped with pictures of heavily armed and kitted-out protesters getting right up in the face of police officers and screaming at them, as the officers stoically endured the assault. A lot of people remarked that the police would be a lot less stoic about this sort of thing if non-White people tried to pull it. And then, wouldn't you know it, we immediately got confirmation.

The response to the anti-lockdown protests was tangible proof that the police could, if they wanted to, respond to high-emotion and fraught protest situations without significantly escalating the situation. So when we saw how they responded to the Black Lives Matter protests occurring essentially at the same time -- indiscriminately using force, arresting journalists and lying about it, and more -- it really underscored that these were choices the police were making that were not inevitable byproducts of having a tough job and being in a difficult situation.

Of course, the differences in how some protests are treated compared to others is nothing that new under the sun when one takes the macrolens out. But the direct juxtaposition -- where one protest immediately followed the other, and the differences in the police response was so drastic and so visceral -- I think made a serious impact. Watching the police act like basically like a type of gang caused a lot of White observers who maybe had a basic faith in the general professionalism of the police to reassess their views. And that reassessment is proving stickier than I think many anticipated.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Why Is Minnesota Reddening?

In several places, I've seen folks say that Minnesota is state must likely to flip from Clinton to Trump in 2020.

Even for someone like me, who's generally confident about Biden's chance in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it's hard to argue for an alternative (New Hampshire, maybe?). And Minnesota has hardly been some Democratic bastion over the past few years. It's had recent Republican Governors and Senators; in 2018 it was the only state where the GOP picked up Democratic-held House seats (two of them, in fact; off-set by two losses elsewhere in the state).

Yet for some reason, it still feels odd to me that Minnesota seems to be reddening. The Twin Cities are a redoubt of highly-educated urban professionals -- a demographic that ha turned sharply to the left in recent years. This doesn't mean it is a perfect progressive paradise (recall George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis), but to the extent that Minnesota's population is anchored around the Twin Cities and its suburbs, those are areas where Democrats should be performing better, not worse.

The answer to the riddle, I suspect, is that rural Minnesota took longer to go Republican than other rural areas. Collin Peterson has for 30 years held down a western Minnesota seat that is, by far, the Trumpiest in the country occupied by a Democrat. Until recently, Democrats were dominant in the "iron range" of northern Minnesota -- that region was where one of the two seats the GOP took in 2018 sat. It remains the case that Democrats remain solid in Minnesota's cities and are improving in the suburbs. But Minnesota's long tradition of prairie populism may finally be fading out, and that's made a bunch of historically blue voters finally swap to the GOP.

I don't, to be clear, think it will be enough for the GOP to win the state in 2020 (either at the presidential level, or in Jason Lewis' challenge to incumbent Democratic Senator Tina Smith). I do think that Collin Peterson's luck likely will run-out -- he's got a top-tier opponent and Trump's coattails are just too long to resist in a presidential year. And it's possible that Democratic gains in the suburbs will offset losses in rural locales.

But that's all just hypothesis at this point. Any other candidates for the apparent trend are welcome.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Leila Khaled, Academic Freedom, and Hypocrisy Traps

Some of you may have heard that Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who became (in)famous for a series of plane hijackings, was invited to speak at a roundtable event hosted by San Francisco State University (lest one think "roundtable" implies that Khaled represents one edge of a wide spectrum of views being aired -- no, that's not what is happening here). Unsurprisingly, inviting a known terrorist to speak at a university which only a few years ago settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by Jewish students is proving controversial. The University has stood behind the invitation, cited norms of free speech while emphasizing that permitting a speech to occur does not entail endorsing its content.

I'm a pretty staunch academic freedom absolutist, so in one sense this is not a difficult issue for me. Khaled was invited by a member of the university community in good standing, hence, she has the right to speak. I'd say the same thing about an invitation extended to anyone else. That doesn't mean the invitation is a good idea or even defensible one; it is entirely appropriate to subject it to withering criticism (there might be a narrow range of circumstances where it would be academically appropriate to converse with someone like Khaled -- a seminar on terrorism, or a history on Palestinian terror activities in the mid-20th century -- but again, this roundtable isn't that). There is a difference between what one has a right to do and what it is ethically proper to do; that distinction is essential to any notion of academic freedom, and is one I laid out and defended in my short essay "Academic Freedom vs. Academic Legitimacy".

Nonetheless, a skeptic might wonder whether this absolutist stance on free speech and academic freedom really would apply if a different faculty member or student group did invite, say, a "price tag" terrorist who had attacked Palestinian persons or property in the West Bank. How can we be sure that this alleged principle is being applied even-handedly?

The easiest way to do it would be to invite such a speaker to campus, and see what happens. But the problem with that is twofold. First, I don't want to invite someone like that to campus. I think it would be an abuse; an abdication of my responsibilities as a member of the academic community. Second, if I did invite them to speak, it would open me up to a hypocrisy charge insofar as I've publicly stated inviting someone like this to speak is contemptible and an abdication of one's duties as an academic leader. The consistency on the axis of legal right would be paired with a seeming inconsistency on the axis of moral responsibility.

So there's a trap. One wants to drive home the point that Leila Khaled's presence on campus as an academic speaker is exactly as legitimate as Meir Kahane's would be -- no more, no less. But one can't invite the likes of Kahane to campus -- it would be hypocritical, and one has no interest in presenting Kahane as a legitimate academic voice. But the sorts of speakers one does want to invite wouldn't present a parallel case to that of Khaled. Worse, to the extent they were presented as the "anti-Khaled", it might suggest that the spectrum of "legitimate" opinion runs from "pro-Palestinian terror" on one side all the way to "moderate Israeli" on the other.

It is possible that the only way to drive home the irresponsibility of hosting a Leila Khaled is to host another speaker who is as objectively indefensible and as alienating to students on "the other side" -- a potential detente via mutually assured destruction. But engaging in that sort of brinkmanship isn't really compatible with having a principled objection to inviting terrible speakers to campus. It's also not exactly a pathway of dispute resolution that's likely to yield a healthy university environment.

What can one do instead? I'm not sure. Ideally, one would see university-level condemnation (that, again, comes alongside recognition of the "right" to invite the speaker). There's also the possibility of being more creative in come up with responsive events. For example, many of the victims who were on the planes hijacked by Khaled and other members of the PFLP are still around -- a roundtable detailing their experiences would be very stimulating and offer a potent counternarrative to the Khaled event (I actually am part of a discussion group with one such survivor who had been on the plane Khaled hijacked along with her six-year old daughter. I won't repeat her story -- it's not mine to tell -- but it was absolutely gripping).

Ultimately, though, this is one of the problems with relying on norms. When they're abused or exploited, it's really hard to respond without setting off a runaway train in motion. There's little that can or should be done to stop the event at SFSU from occurring. All we can do, and should do, is be crystal clear at just how inappropriate it is.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Massachusetts Primary Results and Lessons

Massachusetts had its congressional primaries yesterday. I put down some predictions, and I'm decently pleased with my performance. I nailed Markey/Kennedy (I said Markey would win by around 10 points, and he won by a 55/45 margin). I got the winners right in the MA-01 and -08 races, but I thought both might be closer than they were. Rep. Richard Neal beat Alex Morse by a 59-41 margin (essentially the same spread as Ilhan Omar over Antoine Melton-Meaux a few weeks ago), and Rep. Stephen Lynch beat challenger Robbie Goldstein 67-33.

So what did we learn?

Begin with the Senate race. From what I saw, Markey overperformed in college-educated, relatively affluent and disproportionately White suburban centers while Kennedy's base was in working class and minority areas of the state. That actually isn't that surprising, given how progressive politics has been playing out over the past few years, but it does clash with some of the self-image of the progressive left which very much sees itself as being the voice of the most down-trodden. Take from that what you will.

Likewise, I'm beginning to see at least a few progressive activists say that their support of Ed Markey is proof that they're not purity-obsessed compromise-averse zealots, since, after all, Markey had his share of heresies in his history (the Iraq War vote being a major one). But he was improving, and he courted their support, and it was important that this sort of behavior be rewarded even if wasn't perfect. And I agree! That's a great lesson and one I hope the left internalizes!

But for now, it still seems to be a lesson that is at best inconsistently applied. There's an alternative universe, after all, where Ed Markey -- forty year congressional veteran, backed by Chuck Schumer, Mike Bloomberg, and the DSCC, Iraq War supporoter -- is very much viewed as the quintessential "establishment" candidate who leveraged his insider advantages against the youthful upstart promising to shake things up and harken back to old school Great Society liberalism. Indeed, at the very start of the race that was the narrative Joe Kennedy was very much trying to push. It is to Markey's credit as a campaigner that he managed to turn this story on its head. But the fact is that Kennedy and Markey really don't have that different voting records from one another; and there are countless examples where "voting history akin to Ed Markey's" + "support from Michael Bloomberg" = "irrefutable proof of being part of the Deep Establishment". There's more than a bit of arbitrariness that Markey managed to avoid that label.

Perhaps the best thing Markey had going for him was that, orthodox Democratic voting record notwithstanding, he was warm and welcoming of the progressive wing of the party. There's a good lesson there too: being nice works! People like it when you're nice to them. That may seem banal, but there's a branch of progressive political activism that is very committed to the view that the only way to gain and wield political power is via incessant attacks and ruthless "shoot the hostage" bargaining ("the corrupt neoliberal Democratic Party won't listen to us unless we stop voting for them"). In reality, another good way to curry influence is to build good relationships with those you want to influence; and a good way to lose influence is to be openly antipathic to your nominal targets. This is why the Sanders strategy of "running against the Democratic Party in a Democratic primary" was doomed to fail. Markey, by contrast, built positive relationships both with the Green New Deal and "Squad" types, as well as plenty of more "establishment" oriented politicians. That paid off, big time. But once again, the lesson isn't being internalized -- check out the replies to Elizabeth Warren (who endorsed Markey) uttering some generic boilerplate niceties to Joe Kennedy after his defeat. One would think "having already won, there's no reason to actively antagonize a perfectly decent politician who just got 45% in her own state's primary" wouldn't be controversial. But you'd be wrong.

Finally, with respect to Kennedy himself, I stand by my initial assessment that his challenge was needless fratricide. Kennedy isn't a bad guy, and his record as a congressperson is perfectly solid. But there wasn't any clear reason for his campaign other than "I want to be a bigger deal than I am now", and that's not a good basis for a primary challenge. Once again, there should be a very strong presumption that Democratic Party energies are better spent fighting Republicans than other Democrats. Kennedy violated that presumption and so I'm glad he lost.

Over on the House side, I said that I thought Morse's "scandal" probably helped him more than it hurt him, but that this prediction wasn't really falsifiable. That remains true, but I think his wider-than-anticipated defeat does emphasize that the progressive-insurgent model really is struggling to gain traction outside dense urban districts. There's a good case that Stephen Lynch -- who's probably more conservative than Richard Neal and represents a far more urbanized district -- would make for a better target of progressive energies. The fact that Lynch didn't do that much better than Neal (taking 67% versus 59%) despite facing a far lower-profile candidate suggests there might be more room to run in the former district.

Lastly, there was one race, the 4th district primary (to replace Joe Kennedy) where I didn't venture a prediction because the field was a giant 9-way cluster**** and I didn't have time to even try to figure out what's going on. Election day verified that impulse -- the race hasn't been called, five candidates are in double-digits, and at the moment less than 1,500 votes separate first place (Jake Auchincloss, 22.4%) from second place (Jesse Mermell, 21.4%). Still, while the race hasn't been officially called, most observers seem to think Auchincloss -- who ran as a moderate and used to work for Republican Governor Charlie Baker -- will hold onto his lead and become the Democratic nominee.

Of course, a race this close immediately raises questions about what will happen come 2022. On the one hand, next cycle Auchincloss almost certainly won't benefit from a wildly fractured field splitting the progressive vote. On the other hand, he will benefit from being an incumbent. As Rashida Tlaib just showed, the entrenching effect of the latter can easily wipe away apparent vulnerability implied by the former even after a single election cycle. I suspect that once in Congress Auchincloss will work to lock down his progressive bona fides and will be able to hold onto his seat for awhile. But it is well within the realm of possibility that Joe Kennedy's ill-fated Senate run meant that a safe Democratic seat just got a much more conservative representative.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Massachusetts Primary Predictions

It's primary night in Massachusetts! Time for me to lay down my marker and level my predictions.

MA-Sen: Markey over Kennedy (+/- 10 points). It's hard to remember, but at the start of this race Joe Kennedy really tried to sell this as another example of fresh blood displacing an old, out-of-touch member of the establishment who'd been in Congress for decades. Markey did a fabulous job of flipping the narrative on its head, positioning himself as the progressive champion in the race, and Kennedy never really had a good answer to why Markey deserved to be replaced. A Kennedy has never lost a race in Massachusetts, but I think that streak ends tonight.

MA-01: Neal over Morse (high single digits). I don't think this is that gutsy a pick. If Morse loses narrowly, many folks will say that the big story that broke a few weeks ago (he hooked up with college students while a lecturer at U. Mass-Amherst) likely cost him the race. So more ambitious claim (conveniently unfalsifiable) is that this "scandal" actually helped Morse more than it hurt him. Not only did the narrative quickly coalesce that he didn't really do anything wrong, but it brought Morse a ton of attention and progressive support as another insurgent candidate unfairly targeted by the big bad establishment. Indivisible, for example, went all in for Morse immediately after this controversy hit the papers after being relatively quiet in the run up. I think the attention and (more importantly) anti-establishment cred Morse got is what will make this race as close as it is. But it won't be enough, and Neal will survive another term.

MA-04: [No clue]. There are a million candidates in the race to succeed Joe Kennedy, and all the polls agree they're all tightly bunched together. I have no idea who will win, or any idea who I want to win.

MA-08: Lynch over Goldstein (low double digits). In a different world, this would be the marquee progressive House challenge in Massachusetts this cycle. Stephen Lynch has always been well to the right of the district, cutting a Dan Lipinski-like path through a solidly blue constituency. Robbie Goldstein is a solid candidate who's raised respectable sums, but he hasn't gotten the attention that Morse has received out west (the comparison of Morse vs. Goldstein's chances is another reason I think Morse was helped by the "scandal"). I expect Lynch to win, but maybe not by a particularly impressive margin -- and that might set-up a more serious challenge (whether by Goldstein or someone else) in 2022.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Should We Think About "United Against Hate"?

A coalition of left-wing groups has announced a new initiative, "United Against Hate", seeking to counter antisemitism in American society. The Jewish organizations involved are IfNotNow, The Jewish Vote, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Never Again Action, and JVP. The non-Jewish groups associated with the endeavor include the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, Mijente,  United We Dream, the Arab American Institute, MPower Change, Emgage, and the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation.

What should make of this?

At one level, it's hard to say because the website associated with the endeavor appears to be broken. Moreover, there is certainly something a bit brazen about launching a new counter-antisemitism initiative titled "United Against Hate" the same week as many of the same groups pushed "Drop the ADL". Be united, but not that united, I guess.

In my view, though, an initiative like this could have four different priorities in a variety of different mixes,  and how they prioritize among them will ultimately dictate how beneficial or detrimental it is. Those priorities are:

  1. Combating right-wing antisemitism, which is a violent threat to Jews and -- through conspiracy theories like QAnon and various "Soros" theories -- is increasingly becoming mainstream in American conservative politics.
  2. Combating left-wing antisemitism, which debilitates progressive movements and marginalizes Jews in the political community most of us call home.
  3. Shielding left-wing antisemitism, by providing a Jewish seal of approval to progressive actors accused of more mainstream actors of antisemitic activity.
  4. Punching at mainstream Jewish groups, seeking to further decay their clout in American politics and redistribute their influence and power to more left-wing alternatives.
As you can imagine, I think the first two priorities are salutary and the latter two malicious. The group members have experience with all four. Some have consistently fought against right-wing antisemitism, some have made contributions in undermining left-wing antisemitism. JVP has a long history of declaring alleged left-wing antisemites "not guilty (with a Jewish accent)", and IfNotNow's raison d'etre is centered on seething hatred for mainstream Jewish outlets.

A coalition like this doesn't necessarily have to choose -- the question is how it will balance these potential missions. But -- speaking from a purely realist, cold-blooded political calculus -- one way they could be very effective is by only focusing on right-wing antisemitism. A relentless, one-sided, unshaded, nakedly partisan attack on right-wing antisemitism could have a real impact on how antisemitism is perceived in the US.

I say this would be good only from a "cold-blooded" perspective because it reflects an attribute of politics that I hate: the necessity of "bad cops". In this case, that means intentional, partisan bias against the right on the subject of antisemitism -- all attack, no defense; against targets fairly and unfairly identified. This, after all, is how the right has treated antisemitism for the past few years -- hammering its existence on the left while refusing to even acknowledge its presence at home. Unlike the progressive community, which has (haltingly and unevenly) sought to grapple with antisemitism in its ranks, the right simply does not take up the issue at all. They're assisted by the fact that, up to this point, the left hasn't made fighting right-wing antisemitism a direct priority -- too often their response when it pops up is instead make an indirect whine about media bias ("can you imagine if Ilhan Omar said this?"). Even if the complaint has some merit, it suffers from the same defect as all other charges of hypocrisy: if Ilhan Omar said it, we know these same voices would be defending her to the hilt and calling the whole thing a smear. Attacks of this sort aren't actually attacks on right-wing antisemitism, they're attacks on paying attention to antisemitism at all. So it's not surprising that they don't yield sustained attention to bad conservative actors.

The result of all of this is that antisemitism controversies on the left stay in the news for weeks, while right-wing controversies fade after a day or so. I very much believe that one of the gravest mistakes the American Jewish community has made in recent years is that we've made it so that an honest though incomplete attempt at redressing antisemitism is viewed as worse than refusing to reckon with it at all. But that is, sadly, the world we're in. And in that world, United Against Hate offers the potential of shifting the narrative a little bit -- if it can maintain message discipline. That means mostly ignoring antisemitism on the left -- not defending it, not attacking it (you'll note that the RJC spends very little time defending someone like Jason Lewis -- whenever his name comes up, they ignore him and start talking about Ilhan Omar again). It means resisting the cry of "hypocrisy" -- a sword that nearly always cuts both ways -- and a simple, relentless concentration on right-wing antisemitic activity in America. Over and over, until the drumbeat becomes irresistible.

There is room for a movement like this, because to some extent the United Against Hate people are right -- mainstream Jewish groups haven't fully risen to the occasion of the moment. Of course, neither have the groups in this coalition: for the most part, they've manifestly failed to be productive actors in the fight against antisemitism; until now the overwhelmingly majority of their contributions to the subject was denying that the problem exists in non-trivial quantities. And there is very good reason to be skeptical that they will not be able to resist falling into old habits -- spending 90% of their time explaining why attacks on antisemitism in the Women's March are "smears" or insisting that blacklisting the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community is wholly compatible with fighting anti-Jewish hate.

But -- maybe they won't do that. Maybe they'll "just" attack right-wing antisemitism in a single-minded, unmediated fashion. In its best possible form, United Against Hate will likely be aggressive, one-sided, unnuanced, and occasionally even unfair. And in the terrible world that is 2020, that still might make them a useful corrective to our scarred discourse about antisemitism.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Unnecessary Fratricide: Markey vs. Kennedy

If I were in Massachusetts, I'd vote for Ed Markey to return to the Senate.

It's a pretty easy call for me, honestly. Markey has been a good progressive voice and leader in the Senate, and as a rule I don't generally support taking out incumbents who have good progressive voting records. Meanwhile, Joe Kennedy's voting record is also quite solid, but at best that puts him and Markey in equipoise -- which means I still haven't gotten a good account of why he should be replacing Markey other than "I'm a Kennedy and thus I should be a bigger deal than I am right now."

That said, I don't bear any ill-will towards Kennedy (except that which derives from him launching a seemingly-pointless primary challenge -- and I will say I agree that there is no good justification for Pelosi endorsing him). He seems like a perfectly fine Democrat as well. But of course, this is belatedly turning into yet another proxy war of "the Establishment" vs. "the outsiders" (whatever that means in the context of a guy who's in his fourth decade of congressional service). Now Kennedy is a tool of big oil or special interests or centrist lobbyists and we have to not just vote against him, but hate him as a threat to the Soul of the Party (one has to assume that DMFI is going to come in with a pro-Kennedy ad buy, because this is exactly the sort of fustercluck they seemingly can't resist jumping into for no reason).

In a way, this for me is the mirror-case of Engel/Bowman. Just as with Ed Markey, my view with Engel was that he had a good history and a good voting record, and in general I don't support taking out incumbents who have good histories and good records. But that didn't mean I bore any ill-will towards Bowman, who also seems like he is a good guy and will be a strong Democratic in the House. Yet there too, people just jammed the contest into these tired old boxes where either Engel is a tool of centrism and sell-outs (nope), or Bowman is a wild-eyed radical looking to personally deliver Iran a nuclear weapon they can drop on Israel (also nope).

I just can't stand it. I'm tired of intra-party fratricide. Even the worst Democrats -- and neither Ed Markey, nor Joe Kennedy, nor Eliot Engel, nor Jamaal Bowman, are anywhere close to "the worst Democrats" -- are light-years better than the death cult that is the Republican Party currently occupying the Oval Office and holding the majority in the Senate. The energy being expended over ultimately small-ball intra-party fights is a distraction, and it's a distraction we don't have time for.

At the end of the day, that's what Joe Kennedy's primary challenge is -- a distraction. It's a fight that isn't worth having right now, and one that he therefore does not deserve to win. So even though I don't find the concept of Senator Joe Kennedy to be outrageous, I hope Ed Markey wins, and I hope he does so decisively. And then I hope we can return to focusing on the big game.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Review

My current time suck activity is the remake of Final Fantasy VII. The original was one of my favorite games as a kid, and like many in my generation I was ecstatic to hear it was getting a new version. Yet for some reason -- and I couldn't tell you what it was -- I held off getting it upon release. Even after I bought, I had to delay a few days because the disc was defective (I returned it and downloaded it from the online store instead). But now I'm finally waist-deep in the game (I just completed the battle at the Sector 7 pillar), and I'm very much enjoying it.

For those of you who don't know, the new game only covers a small fraction of the 1997 game -- the part that takes place in the giant metropolis of Midgar. This is only the first disc in the original, and it was a controversial decision when it was first announced -- is this just a cash grab to stretch out sequel after sequel? Or is it, as the creators insisted, a necessary step if Midgar was to be given its full color and splendor?

The answer, in my view, turns out to be some of both. There's no question that, as many others have noted, there's a decent amount of filler in the game in order to make it into a full-sized game. That being said, Midgar was always a location that screamed for more detail, and this game offers it. Now I want even more -- a complete open-world game set in Midgar, where I can visit every corner of every sector on the plate and in the slums.

Of course, that would be a different game than Final Fantasy VII, which is iconic as a relatively linear JRPG. So what do we make of the game we have?

  • It is beautiful. That's one of the first things you notice -- it is just a visually stunning game.
  • There's significantly more depth given to the main characters as characters. One thing I noticed in particular was that the age of the characters really seems more noticeable. Canonically, most of the story characters in the game are in their very early twenties. As an adolescent, that makes them adults, and one views them as basically confident, have-it-all-together heroes. Now, playing as a thirty-something, it's really obvious how they're basically kids. Cloud is awkward around women because he's 21 years old. Aerith is girlish and spritely because she's a girl.
  • On the other hand, there are virtually no memorable side quests, tertiary characters, or events that occur outside the main storyline of the game. That's a shame, since JRPG's should shine on the story side. I think the overall weakness of the side quest game, in particular, is what yields complaints about the game being padded. But the fact is there's nothing in here that comes anywhere close to, say, the gut-punch that is Witcher III's "Black Pearl" side quest.
  • The combat is a blast, and really seems to marry the best parts of a traditional turn-based system with the live action demanded by a modern game. It reminds me quite a bit of Final Fantasy XII (and it probably could have benefited from FFXII's "gambit" system).
  • The one serious drawback of the combat is the inability to swap materia (magic) mid-fight. Particularly for difficult boss battles, a proper materia layout is crucial -- yet there's no way to know what it should be until you get into battle. The functional effect is that you start a fight, assess your enemies weaknesses, die, and then swap out your materia as appropriate on the reload. But there should be a better way. Let your characters use a charge to change their materia, or use assess when you can see enemies on the map but before you engage ... something.
  • Voice acting settles a bunch of controversies -- for example, I'd been pronouncing "mako" wrong my whole life (I rhymed it with "may", but it actually rhymes with "mah"). The big choice, though, was "Aerith" over "Aeris". This makes sense on one level -- the fans who'd rebel if "Aerith" wasn't chosen are, I suspect, somewhat rowdier than the one's who'd rebel if "Aeris" wasn't picked -- but it still just sounds like everyone has a lisp when pronouncing her name.
  • I don't know if Don Corneo was modeled expressly on Jeff Ross, but that's my backstory and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, August 14, 2020

You'll Miss It When It's Gone (Iran Deal Edition)

The UN Security Council today declined to extend an arms embargo against Iran, over furious protests by the United States, Israel, and Arab Gulf States. The main opponents of the arms embargo were, naturally, Russia and China. But several European nations -- France, Germany, and the UK -- expressed hesitation, claiming that the United States was no longer in a position to credibly push for sanctions on Iran after it withdrew from the JCPOA (aka "the Iran Deal").

Fancy that. And speaking of the JCPOA, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in its own statement denouncing the UNSC's vote, urged that Security Council consider implementing the JCPOA's "snapback" provisions as an alternative means of blocking Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program. An interesting idea -- if only a certain country hadn't detonated the JCPOA framework! It's almost like the Iran Deal contained important leverage and hard-won commitments even from countries not otherwise inclined to care about Iranian aggression, and when the United States unilaterally abandoned the deal we lost a ton of international credibility that we can't easily earn back.

Many, many people warned against the reckless decision to back out of the JCPOA, precisely on the grounds that doing so would ruin the ability of the United States to credibly pursue any sort of robust diplomatic containment strategy against Iran going forward. And now we're seeing the real fruits of the Trump administration's decision. Way back when the Iran Deal was initially being debated, I noted that one of the most persuasive arguments I read in its favor was the experts who observed that every time we reject or abandon an "Iran deal", the one we're able to get two or three years later is far worse than the one we left behind. The common cycle is a deal is proposed, conservatives say "how dare you give everything away to the terrorist regime of Iran", we abandon the deal, and then next time around ... we're in an even worse negotiating posture than we were before and what once looked like "giving everything away" now is an unattainable fantasy.

We are, as always, apparently doomed to keep reliving history. Heckuva job, Trumpie.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Quick Thoughts on the Israel/UAE Deal

As you may have heard, Israel and the UAE have announced a historic agreement to normalize ties, in exchange for which Israel has committed to "suspend" plans to annex the West Bank. My quick thoughts:

  • This is a good thing. And it's okay to say it's a good thing! It doesn't make you a Trump supporter to say this is a good thing!
  • If you can only take joy in policy announcements these days if they anger someone you hate, be advised that the extreme settler-right in Israel is furious about this -- they view it as Bibi once again Lucy-and-the-footballing them with regard to annexation.
  • In all seriousness, this is probably the biggest foreign policy accomplishment of Trump's entire term. Of course, when one zooms out, that means his biggest foreign policy accomplishment is "Israel establishing diplomatic relations with its third Arab neighbor, in exchange for which Israel steps off a ledge Trump put them on." Less impressive.
  • The best defense you can give of Trump's approach here, appearing to green-light annexation, is that it was a case of brinkmanship that paid off. Still a hell of a gamble though. When David Friedman says Israel could have annexation or peace, but not both, he's basically admitting his favored policy was one which would have denied Israel peace for generations.
  • In "brinkmanship doesn't always pay off", see also Iran, whose increasingly belligerent orientation towards its Arab neighbors has had the effect of drawing them closer to Israel in ways unthinkable in the recent past.
  • Will this announcement be an "icebreaker" for other Arab states to follow suit? I've seen Bahrain and Oman cited as candidates. One awkward but probably accurate assessment: It's simultaneously healthy for Israel and its Arab neighbors to develop closer ties and for the U.S. and Israel to have greater critical distance.
  • While stopping annexation is an unambiguous good thing, it still leaves in place a status quo where Palestinians are under occupation and lack full democratic and self-determination rights. "Stopping annexation" is not and should not be the be-all-end-all of American support for Palestinian equality.
  • Has annexation been stopped? Bibi is saying it is still "on the table". What's that I often hear about leaders who say one thing to their domestic audiences and another to international listeners? (I actually think this is Bibi once again playing the rule of Lucy vis-a-vis the settler-right and putting the football back down, but still).

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Harris Pick versus White Fragility

California Senator Kamala Harris has been selected as Joe Biden's running mate.

This is, I think, the chalk pick, and one I'm quite content with. I like Harris -- she was my off-the-blocks favorite before I switched my support to Warren -- and I think she'd make a fine President in the event that Biden's health fails him. It's momentous that a Black woman is filling this role, and that shouldn't be undersold just because many predicted it in advance (as Yair Rosenberg notes, part of what makes it historic is precisely that it feels conventional). I also am excited for the prospect of the first Second Man being the first Jewish Second Man.

There is one other thing that rose to my mind that I haven't seen fully emphasized. Harris' biggest moment on the campaign trail this primary season was, of course, when she hit Joe Biden on his failure to support busing as a racial integration measure. Given that, it is I think notable that Biden picked her as his VP anyway. The standard "White Fragility" narrative* is that such a challenge, from a Black woman, to a White man, will be taken as the gravest and most unforgivable of insults -- a shattering offense from which there can be no recovery. Biden is modeling an alternative -- he did not respond to a very public, very pointed anti-racism challenge by treating the challenger as cherem. He stayed in relationship with her and elevated her as his political partner. It's not the largest thing, but it is a thing that matters.

* I know "White Fragility" is passe now among the cool kids, but for what it's worth I read it back when it was a random academic article published in an obscure journal in 2011.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Searching for Tikhanovskaya

Belarus just had a presidential election, and incumbent Alexander Lukashenko -- who has held his position since the mid-1990s and is known as "Europe's last dictator" -- was announced the winner with over 80% of the vote.

Nobody (well, nobody but a few especially credulous tankies) believes this figure is accurate, and protests have erupted throughout the country. Meanwhile, Lukashenko's main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has reportedly gone missing (Tikhanovskaya entered the race after her husband was arrested two days following the announcement of his own presidential run. What a fantastic avenue for feminist advancement!).

What do you think will be the most likely circumstances of Tikhanovskaya's reappearance?

  1. She'll emerge from hiding in another European country;
  2. Flanked by government "security", she will "voluntarily" announce that she accepts the election results and urge that all Belarussians respect Lukashenko's regime;
  3. The government will report the sad news of her suicide -- she "jumped out a window" after only taking 10% of the vote, the poor thing.
  4. She'll never reemerge, or in any way be heard from again.
I certainly hope she's okay, and safe, and send my full solidarity with the people of Belarus struggling for freedom and democracy.

UPDATE: And apparently, it's door #1!

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Why Are Romanians Running Fake "Black Trump Supporter" Accounts?

Facebook announced it had suspended a legion of accounts that purported to be Black Trump supporters but were actually Romanian in origin. Which raises the question: Why are Romanians pretending to be Black Trump supporters on Facebook?

To be clear -- there's no "good" answer to this. All the possible motivations are terrible. But they can be differently terrible. For example, while the most likely explanations are political, there are some apolitical rationales I can imagine, namely:

  • It's a grift. Scammers have discovered that gullible White people are thirsting for Black Trump supporters to exist, and this is an easy way to exploit that hunger for cash.
Someone could be interested in running this con with no particular interest or concern with the political ramifications. 

But there are quite a few different political motivations I can imagine as well (and these might all occur in conjunction):
  • The purpose is to support Trump by galvanizing Black Trump supporters -- showing them that they're not alone, there's a community, and they should be out and proud.
  • The purpose is to support Trump by galvanizing White Trump supporters -- showing them that "not all Blacks" oppose him and that therefore claims that he's racist are just ginned up by the liberal media/BLM Marxist/Soros network.
  • The purpose is to sow chaos. It's not really about supporting Trump per se, but about generating dissension, fraying bonds of trust, and inculcating a sense that everything one sees is a lie or at least a potential lie -- sentiments which, if strong enough, are toxic to functioning democratic societies.
Again, all of these "motives" are terrible things, and do real damage to the vitality of the American democratic system. Which is why, while I give Facebook some belated credit for expunging the accounts, it is absolutely essential that they take a firmer hand on this sort of problem.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Tennessee Primary Night

Tennessee had a primary tonight. There aren't really any competitive general election races in Tennessee, so I wasn't paying too much attention to the primaries either. But a few things worth noting:
  • Tennessee's Senate race wasn't going to be competitive, but everyone thought they knew who the Democratic nominee was. Attorney James Mackler had the DSCC endorsement and raised millions of dollars. Nobody else in the field had broken out of 5 digits in fundraising. Yet Mackler ended up taking third, with the victory going to virtual unknown Marquita Bradshaw. This wasn't on anyone's radar screen (while Bradshaw is definitely a progressive, this wasn't a case where there was some big grassroots energy burbling up against the establishment). Bradshaw will once again be the prohibitive underdog against GOP nominee Bill Hagerty. I admit that every time something like this happens -- a complete unknown randomly secures a major party nomination in a high-profile race -- I brace myself for some embarrassing revelation about something they once said on Facebook or a controversial job they once held.
  • Once again, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) faced a credible primary challenger (this time from Shelby County Democratic Party chair Corey Strong). And once again, he had nothing to worry about, throttling his opponent by a 70 point margin. Strong's explanation for why he got into the race is unintentionally hilarious: he acknowledges that Cohen (a) has a great voting record, (b) support Obama administration policies and opposed Trumpist policies, (c) is a national leader, and (d) has been deeply attentive to his district. So what exactly does he think the angle is? Eventually people will learn.
  • Tennessee's 1st congressional district has the longest Republican winning streak in the nation. So when the seat is open, a lot of Republicans jump at the chance to go to Washington. This year, the winner -- with just 19% of the vote(!) -- is Diana Harshbarger. Five candidates had double-digit vote tallies -- the field was that fractured. Meanwhile, I can't figure out how to say "Harshbarger" without sounding ridiculous.
  • The most serious primary challenge of the evening came against Nashville-based Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who is considerably more conservative than his district demographics suggest is justified. He survived Keeda Haynes' attempt to take him out from the left, albeit by a rather underwhelming 53-44 margin. That might give Haynes some inspiration from a rematch (look at Cori Bush and Marie Newman), but there are rumors floating around that the Tennessee GOP might try to gerrymander this seat out of existence now that the Supreme Court has waved the green flag at partisan redistricting.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Should Peter Beinart and Co. Ally with the Israeli Right?

One of life's little paradoxes is that a prerequisite for a one-state solution, which many on the left support, is Israel formally annexing the West Bank, which most on the left bitterly oppose.

I was thinking about this in relation to Peter Beinart's bombshell announcement that he no longer supports a two-state solution but instead will now back a secular, one-"state for all its citizens" solution. Many have noted that this proposal has essentially no backing among any constituencies of note in either Israel or Palestine (in both, the main divide is between two-staters versus "one state for me but not for thee" sorts).

But, in another of life's little ironies, the camp in Israel who probably comes the closest to supporting Beinart's view and those of "left-wing" one-staters abroad is ... the Israel middle-right. A great many of them are, of course, avowed supporters of a one-state solution. But many of them forthrightly say that in that one state all residents should gain full citizenship and voting rights. President Ruvi Rivlin is in this camp, but it also includes folks with a more hardline reputation like Tzipi Hotovely. It also has representation in the rank-and-file -- interviewing some of the right-wingers who have joined recent anti-Bibi protests that have rocked Israel, we saw people who claimed to be security "hawks", delighted at the prospect of annexation, but only if "Palestinians living there receive full rights."

We shouldn't overstate things. For one, there are plenty of folks on the settler right who are equally clear that their "one-state" vision is one where Palestinians are permanently subjugated and/or expelled. And in the case of folks like Hotovely, I can't help but think she hasn't quite thought through the implications of one-state with democratic equality with respect to our right-wing politics (Hotovely thinks that mass Jewish migration to Israel will preserve a Jewish majority, but even if that's the case it is very unlikely that the Jewish right she's a part of will be able to maintain its hammerlock on political power once 40% of voters are non-Jewish). 

Yet I can't help but think that one state with nominal equal rights will be the inch that gives a mile -- even if people like Hotovely get cold feet, it will be much harder to resist more extensive equality claims in this context than in the status quo. It's even possible we'll end up seeing what I've termed the "Czechoslovakia gambit" -- one state leading to two states.

Ultimately, the fact is that with the left in Israel essentially moribund, the most viable political actors who could push for something resembling "one state with equal rights" lie on the Israeli right. There is yet another layer of irony here, since frustration with the anti-democratic and illiberal actions of the Israeli right in its decades of power are largely responsible for people like Beinart abandoning the two-state solution. Given that history, can Beinart and company stomach working with them? Politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.

New Short Essay: "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews"

AJS Perspectives -- the "popular" magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies (the AJS Review is their academic journal) -- has just released its new issue on the subject of "hate". My contribution is entitled "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews". An excerpt:
Many people love “Jews”—that is, the concept of “Jews” they've constructed for their own purposes. They envision a particular role that “Jews” are assigned to play, and so long as Jews stay in that role we may genuinely be loved. But when Jews—actual Jews—do not deign to stay in the roles assigned to “Jews,” this favor yields to shock, then betrayal, then hatred.

What “role” are the Jews assigned? It varies. Some love Jews as “noble victims,” eager to sacrifice themselves on the altar of selfless universalism. Others value Jews as loyal foot soldiers in service of eschatological religious warfare across the globe. Some love Jews as harbingers of Christ, the instrumental prelude that sets the stage for and is completed by Christianity’s epic. And some adore those Jews who volunteer to intone that soothing chant —“anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”—whenever called upon to do so.

Jews who stay at their assigned post may well be loved, and there are some Jews who—by coercion or by choice— do fill these roles. Nonetheless, these concepts of “Jews” are built by non-Jews, for non-Jews. For the most part, Jews will fail to live up to the ideal imagined “Jew.” And they will be hated for it. Love for “Jews” yields hatred for Jews.
It's not a long essay, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Monday, July 27, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Alpha House

I'm surprised it took me this long to watch Alpha House -- not only would it seemingly scratch the illusive West Wing itch, but it was the project that took Garry Trudeau away from my beloved Doonesbury. Come to think of it, maybe that's why I didn't watch it.

Alpha House centers on four Republican Senators who live together in a Washington, DC row house (based on real life!). It's sort of like The West Wing, except the Senate instead of the Presidency and Republicans instead of Democrats, and set in "the real world" (Obama is the president during the series, for example). The four main characters actually do a decent job running the gamut of Republican archetypes of the mid-2010s: the smart but probably corrupt one (Robert Bettencourt of Pennsylvania, who also does a good job as a Black Republican); the lazy, coasting off name-recognition one (Gil John Biggs of North Carolina, played to perfection by John Goodman as a former UNC basketball coach); the cluelessly homophobic but possibly closeted one (Louis Laffer of Nevada), and the hyper-ambitious but sex-addicted wunderkind (Andy Guzman of Florida, definitely channeling some Marco Rubio).

Is it good? Yes. It's main drawback is that it was clearly cancelled prematurely. But its two seasons are definitely worth watching. Other thoughts:
  • The other main players on the show are the Senators' key staffers, who are all -- in true DC fashion -- overworked and underappreciated. They generally do a good job playing straight man to their bosses' antics, to good effect. The lesbian couple that's not exactly closeted but not exactly out either, given the known politics of their party, is a particularly good touch.
  • There's a scene early in the series where a house guest walks in on John Goodman coming out of the shower. It's shot in such a way such that the bare ass of Goodman's character almost certainly is a body double -- which makes me wonder how one casts for that. "Wanted: John Goodman ass lookalike"?
  • Janel Moloney, aka Donna Moss, has a fabulous arc as the hyper-conservative Tea Party Senator from North Dakota who carries a gun on Capitol Hill and says her favorite painting is of the British burning down the White House because it symbolizes what she wants to do to government. I don't know if making her Senator from North Dakota was specifically meant to be fan service, but the one cameo scene where she's on a panel with Bradley Whitford and just immediately tells him to "shut up" definitely was. I wonder how many takes it took because she accidentally called him Josh?
  • Speaking of the recurring characters, Wanda Sykes is in the series as the quartet's next door neighbor and friend (who is also a Democratic Senator from Illinois). Wanda Sykes really should be in more things.
  • We've got just enough distance that some of the Obama-era specific jokes are funny again. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of making the Benghazi committee permanent, so that "future generations" would not be deprived of the opportunity to investigate it.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Marvel's Runaways

Times are getting desperate in the Schraub/Rodde household. We've watched every back episode of Community at least ten times by now. But deep in the bowels of "recommended for you" on Hulu came a real contender for our attentions: Marvel's Runaways. We just finished the first season (of three) -- should you watch it too?

Marvel's Runaways is about a group of high school friends who discover the charity their parents all volunteer for is actually an evil teenager-sacrificing secret society. "Friends" is a bit of a ragged descriptor -- though the kids all grew up together, at the start of the show they've grown apart (partially because they're teens now, partially because one member of the group apparently committed suicide). The discovery of their parents' secret does end up bringing them back together, but the show does a good job of underscoring that the differences in their personality and gripes with one another are real and can't fully be papered-over merely by circumstance. The parents, incidentally, are in the same boat -- somewhere between co-workers and friends, not really liking each other but having a sort of affinity and bond that is (I imagine) unavoidable when you've collectively been working together in a secret society for over a decade.

Oh, and some of the kids also have superpowers. Inhuman strength, for one, or an ability to talk to her parents' pet dinosaur, for another. One of them glows with strobing lights that she can pulse as energy, and also can fly. This is useful given that they're now lining up against the aforementioned subterranean evil death cult. As usual, one of them appears to only have "good at computers" as his skill, which, I'm not denying is useful, but did make him seem a little extraneous when the gang was lining up together for a fist-fight.

Scattered thoughts follow:
  • Though a Marvel series (is it part of the MCU continuity? I'm not sure), its focus on a group of high schoolers meant that for me it gives off strong vibes of Buffy and Veronica Mars. It's not as good as either of those shows, but even being grouped together in the same thought as such august company is a good sign.
  • I'm a sucker for shows which portray villains as regular people with basically regular lives and motivations, and Runaways very much does that for the parents. They are not, by and large, mustache-twirling evildoers toasting their plans to bring hell and brimstone down on the world.
  • The strength of the show is in the actors. All of the main players, both adult and teenager (though its most impressive in the latter) are very strong. Even though the kids are in some ways archetypes (The jock! The goth! The perfect daughter!), they nonetheless feel fully realized and complex.  I even can overlook the strangeness of James Marsters not sounding like Spike (for the record, he's an American actor--it's the British accent in Buffy that's a put-on)!
  • Also on that note, the kids all are recognizably the children of their parents without being clones, which is very nicely done.
  • Of the parents, the Yorkes (the nerdy over-sharing Jewish scientists) are my favorites. They're freakin' adorable.
  • Of the kids, nominally Molly is supposed to be younger than the rest, but she doesn't actually look any younger. But for the most part, that isn't a huge distraction. Also, that she's perpetually taking naps in the aftermath of big dramatic moments is a nice character beat -- the little peanut is all tuckered out!
  • The weakness of the show is the story, and in particular the story's pacing. They really slow-walk the core mystery of the show. A full season in, and we still have barely any idea what exactly the bad guys are trying to do, or even who they really are. The result is a great cast fighting against a very shaky script.
  • The opening theme music is very evocative. It reminds me of the Mass Effect: Andromeda opener, which I'm probably the only person who finds memorable.
Overall conclusion: it's pretty gripping in spite of itself, mostly because of a really strong cast. If you like Veronica Mars and Buffy, this won't replace those shows by any means, but you'll probably have a good time watching.

Friday, July 24, 2020

I Have To Talk About Omar and Melton-Meaux, Don't I?

I really don't want to. I really, really don't. But sometimes something falls too close to your wheelhouse to ignore it. And with separate antisemitism controversies hitting both Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and her main Democratic primary opponent Antone Melton-Meaux within a few days of one another, I -- writer on antisemitism and former resident of Minnesota's 5th congressional district -- probably can't sit this one out. As much as I want to. Which I do.

Both candidates are under some fire for things put in campaign communications. Melton-Meaux released an "FAQ" which included the questions "Why do you have so much support from Jewish people/pro-Israel people" and "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" (to the latter of which he replied "no" and noted his opposition to many policies undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu). Omar's allies said that by implying that Jews only care about Israel-related issues and supposedly conflating "Jewish people" and "pro-Israel people", he was invoking in veiled fashion a dual-loyalty trope.

Omar sent out a campaign mailer accusing Melton-Meaux of being in the pocket of conservative, big money interests, with all of the named donors being Jewish (plus a "Michael from Scarsdale, New York"). This was alleged by Omar's opponents to be an allusion to his opponent being "bought" by Jews (cf. fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer (R) sending out a mailer naming three Jewish billionaires who had "bought" control of Congress).

What do I think?

Most importantly, while I don't think there is no fire behind this smoke, obviously a lot of the high dudgeon on display here from both sides is really just shots-of-opportunity. That's not exactly surprising, given the nature of politics and all, but still disappointing. I also reiterate my point that while people outside of the 5th District only care about this race for Israel/antisemitism/Islamophobia reasons, the dynamics within the district are generally concentrating on other things (including whether Rep. Omar is more concerned with her national profile than with the particular needs of her district).

On the specifics: Melton-Meaux's FAQ is clearly styled as responding to "questions" that amount to hostile whisper-campaigns (i.e., that he's a stalking horse for far-right Jewish and/or pro-Israel interests). On one level, this is why I don't really see the first question as conflating "Jewish" and "pro-Israel" -- aside from the fact that they are listed separately, in context it denotes two variants of a similar question he receives (and the questioners probably aren't too fastidious about the distinction).

But the problem with such whisper-campaigns is that it can be really hard to respond directly to the allegation without in some way legitimizing or retrenching it. Imagine being asked if a candidate supports "the gay agenda" -- you can't really answer "yes" or "no", because the entire way the question is framed makes answering it a trap. This is why you don't accept your opponents' framing of questions, as any halfway competent campaign should know. Doing otherwise means you suddenly are putting out statements answering questions like, well, "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" There's no good answer to that question, which is a good sign that Melton-Meaux shouldn't be asking it to himself. To the extent that some Jews cringe while reading it, he has no one to blame but himself.

As for Omar. While all of the named persons in her mailer are Jewish, none of them are specifically identified as Jewish (the theme of the mailer is that many of his opponents' donors are backing him solely because they hate her, which is probably true).  But on face, this doesn't distinguish her mailer from Emmer's, or Trump's 2016 "closing argument" ad which featured Hillary Clinton and then three Jews associated with money -- George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein (none of whom were explicitly identified as Jewish either). For those in the right circles, Scarsdale is well-known as a very Jewish and very rich town (hence its appearance in the "JAP battle rap", featuring "two hard-as-nails she-brews from SCARSDALE!"). It is fair to say that few people in Minnesota are likely to know this though (had she called out donors from St. Louis Park, by contrast, everyone in her district would know what she meant even as nobody outside the Twin Cities would have a clue).

On the whole, my real takeaway is feeling more convinced than ever about the need to think about antisemitism less as a question of motives and more as a question of impact. It strikes me as implausible that Melton-Meaux was intentionally trying to antagonize the Jewish community by loudly disavowing his support; it was an awkward effort by a novice campaign staff to respond to a smear -- but one that nonetheless retrenched the perception that the Jewish community is a force one needs to declare his independence from. Melton-Meaux may be a political newbie, but he has an obligation to be attentive to that dynamic and not blunder into traps quite that obvious.

With respect to Omar, I likewise find it highly unlikely that her campaign staff went on a hunt for rich Jewish donors to her opponent in a sly bid to dog-whistle at her opponent being owned by the Jews. Nonetheless, it is probably the case that the Jewish associations of the people cited -- while not likely to be picked up by many if not most of her readers -- likely do help make the attack land more effectively for those who do spot the pattern. I've written elsewhere about how one thing antisemitism does is it greases the wheels of plausibility; when you're trying to tag your opponent as in the bag for big Wall Street money (or Marxism, or "globalism" for that matter) it just feels more right when there's a Jewish hook to go along with it. It's in accord with deep-seated background intuitions, it makes the entire package feel more harmonious. This is one reason why I think someone in the Omar campaign could have reasonably been expected to check and see whether everyone they're talking about is Jewish -- and if not, find some different names (one has to think that there are some non-Jewish rich people who also are pumping money into her opponent's campaign, yes?).

But ultimately, I think this is all relatively small fries. The hypocrisy is perhaps more bothersome than anything else. I get the frustration from Omar's allies that they think she's constantly being pelted with small-ball nonsense on the antisemitism front, and so perhaps they think turnabout is fair play when they can accuse Omar's opponent of being the "dual loyalty" trope guy (you can almost feel the catharsis from here!). But either they think stuff at this level is fair game or they don't; they can't have it both ways unless they really do believe that antisemitism can legitimately be treated as instrumental political football. And on the other side, regarding the conservative media ready to stand up and shout about "yet another instance of Ilhan Omar being antisemitic!" -- unless they're willing to concede that the bulk of the Jewish community was absolutely correct in saying that the contemporary GOP, what with its brazen targeting of Soros, Bloomberg, Steyer, etc., is shot through with antisemitism from root to branch, they need to sit the hell down. As always, however strong or weak you think the case for Ilhan Omar being antisemitic is, it's far less strong than the case for the GOP being antisemitic. If I have to listen to one more attempted gotcha from the Republican Jewish Coalition about Jewish Democrats staying out of the 5th District endorsement game, when they're affirmatively trying to put this guy into a Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, I'm going to have an aneurysm.

Okay, I've done my duty. As a palate-cleanser, please read this lovely column by a Minnesota Jewish Republican explaining, in touching and heart-felt terms, why he considers Ilhan Omar a dear friend. It really is a nice piece of writing from a man whom I have to assume has decided he never wants to have any role in Republican Party politics again, because any public dictation about Ilhan Omar that's friendlier than "she's a she-devil" is grounds for immediate ex-communication from the party. And, just so nobody thinks I'm endorsing one way or the other (I'm not, and will not), read as well this column from Avi Olitzky explaining why he is such a fan of Melton-Meaux.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Rate That Apology, Part 10: Ted Yoho

I was going to do a "rate that apology" entry for Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who reportedly called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a "fucking bitch" after a heated conversation about their differing policy views (Yoho denies saying that, claiming he instead called her comments "bullshit"). But Chris Cilliza in essence beat me to it. There's a transcript of Yoho's "apology" at the link, but in sum Yoho:

  • Says he apologizes for  "for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had," whatever that means.
  • Maybe denies saying the words at all, but maybe not? He says "The offensive name calling, words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding."
  • Concludes by affirmatively refusing to apologize "for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country." Dude, nobody asked you to.
Ocasio-Cortez does not appear to have accepted this apology, pointing out that Yoho "didn't even say my name."

Grade: 2.5/10

Friday, July 17, 2020

What Do Ilhan Omar and Eliot Engel Have in Common?

I fully expect Rep. Ilhan Omar to cruise to victory in the upcoming Minnesota congressional primary election, notwithstanding the eye-popping amount of money raised by challenger Antone Melton-Meaux. But if she does end up losing her race, it will be an almost mirror image of New York Rep. Eliot Engel's apparent primary loss to Jamaal Bowman -- in that (a) the outside world mostly cares about the race because of Israel and (b) the actual reason for the challenger's success will be the incumbent's failure to pay sufficient attention to their home district.

It's flown under the radar, but (speaking as someone who used to reside in Omar's district, before she became congresswoman) there have been recurrent complaints that Omar has been weak on constituent services and local issues. Like Bowman, Melton-Meaux may be attracting outside money because of foreign policy, but his campaign focus is very much tailored to the local.

Ultimately, while the frustrations Melton-Meaux is tapping into are real among Democratic stakeholders in the Twin Cities, I suspect Omar is going to be fine in the primary -- she still seems relatively popular in her district. But the parallel between her situation and Engel's nonetheless amuses me greatly.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Blog of Ratings: Insurance Company Mascots

Apropos of nothing, my ranking of the various television insurance company mascots and spokespersons (from best to worst):

  1. Geico Gecko
  2. Flo (Progressive)
  3. Mayhem (Allstate)
  4. J.K. Simmons (Farmers)
  5. "Jake from State Farm" (original)
  6. Flo's coworkers (Progressive)
  7. Dennis Haysbert (Allstate)
  8. Aflac Duck
  9. "Jake from State Farm" (new)
  10. Peyton Manning (Nationwide)
  11. Geico Caveman
  12. The General (The General)
  13. Limu Emu (and Doug) (Liberty Mutual)
Also, while they don't represent an insurance company, the Cricket Wireless monsters come in last place because they're that terrible.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Thoughts on the Weiss Resignation

You may have heard that Bari Weiss has not-so-quietly resigned from her position at the New York Times. Her publicly-posted resignation letter is a wide-spanning critique of the culture at the Times and what she takes to be a narrowing of the bounds of acceptable opinion and intellectual curiosity.

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • I have never been particularly impressed with the bulk of Bari Weiss' work, or her general "cancel culture/fearlessly asking the questions" oeuvre. I've often found it to be lazy, self-satisfied, and/or hypocritical. I don't think she has a coherent theory distinguishing "criticism" (good) from "cancellation" (bad), and most damningly, I don't think she seems to even recognize that there's a tension here that appears to be resolved in a partisan way (my retort is criticism, yours is cancellation).
  • That said, Weiss is not even close to the only major political pundit who embodies these vices. The degree to which she nonetheless became, for many, the public avatar of those sins always made me uncomfortable, because it always felt like it was tied up to her identity as a prominent Jewish woman. Call it misojewny, call it antisemisogyny, but it stunk.
  • The eagerness with which people bring up Weiss' college escapades (she participated in projects which exposed the allegedly anti-Israel/antisemitic practices of several professors at Columbia, where she was a student) is a bit to gloating in nature for my tastes (again, many public figures have done things while in college that are not fully thought out or perfectly-tailored to keep a pristine PR file). However, consistent with my above sense that Weiss lacks a theory distinguishing "good" versus "bad" critical counterspeech, she isn't helped by the fact that she hasn't to my knowledge even seriously grappled with the tension in this issue close to her heart. A more thoughtful participant in these debates might have drawn upon her experience seeking to "cancel" figures for alleged antisemitism to be more sympathetic to other actors who seek to "cancel" figures for alleged racism. Weiss did not usually extend that sympathy, and so the juxtaposition is going to reflect poorly on her.
  • In her letter, Weiss claims that the terms which describe what happened to her are "unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong." She is, indeed, no legal expert. The conduct she describes in the letter -- whether it is "wrong" or not -- would be very unlikely to sustain a legal complaint for unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, or constructive discharge. 
  • Weiss' confusion is in line with something I've noticed from many conservative observers of anti-discrimination law. They wildly underestimate how high the barriers are to winning a discrimination claim -- probably because they're ideologically committed to the notion that minorities get their discrimination claims rubber-stamped (when the reality is such claims are overwhelmingly rejected by the courts, often before reaching a jury). So when they experience something that is in the family of discrimination, they assume that (a) it must be illegal ("if these whiny minorities are winning, surely my very real pain and trauma must present a winning case too!")and (b) if it isn't treated as illegal, that must be because of some latent anti-conservative(/white/male/whatever) bias, rather than the normal functioning of a legal system they generally endorse.
  • On the other hand, if we step away from the legal aspect of it all I think few of the people mocking Weiss' contention that the environment at the Times had gotten so toxic that she had to resign take the same view when members of other minority groups write of toxic environments in their workplaces that end up driving them out of prestigious jobs. Surely, we on the left are familiar enough with, and historically expressed enough sympathy towards, this style of claim such that the current sneering mockery -- LOL, someone claims that coworkers being mean to them made working at their job impossible -- rings hollow. Of course, many of those sympathetic to Weiss would be derisive of claims of this sort when made by members of other minority groups. Hypocrisy, as always, is a double-edged sword.
  • Weiss situates her initial hiring as an effort by the Times to understand Trump voters, and I've seen several writers lamenting her departure defending her presence along that line -- that it's important to have voices like her available to liberals because, after all, almost half the country backs Donald Trump. This argument is a bit odd, though, since Weiss was not herself a Trump-backer either. I've alluded to this problem before in relation to how one justifies hiring "conservative" voices at mainstream newspapers -- is the goal to reflect the views that are held by a large portion of the populace, or is the goal to legitimate certain views which are thought to present genuinely important and worthy contributions to public debate? Weiss' defenders effectively are claiming the former as a defense against the latter -- even if Weiss' opinions aren't objectively all that worthwhile, it's important to hear them lest liberal NYT readers silo themselves off from views which carry support in a considerable swath of the country. But the issue with Weiss is that she doesn't actually reflect the modal example of a pro-Trump opinion in American politics -- the modal pro-Trump perspective would level opinions far more grotesque than anything Weiss ever produced. Ironically, Weiss was hired by the Times because she misrepresents the average content of contemporary conservative viewpoints by giving them a patina of liberal plausibility that makes them more palatable to a liberal audience. Actual conservatives right now scarcely bother with the patina.

Monday, July 13, 2020

ZoomZoom Roundup

I just finished my first week teaching over Zoom (undergraduate Constitutional Law). So far, it's going decently well I think -- considerably more interactive than I had anticipated, which is a good thing. But it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep my eyes on the ball for two consecutive hours. Thank god for breakout rooms (just remember to unmute yourself when you bring people back....).

* * *

British voters think Keir Starmer's competence contrasts nicely with Boris Johnson's ineptitude. Amazing what having a leader who isn't a widely-reviled extremist can do for a left-wing party.

When it comes to whether "Jews are indigenous to Israel", I'm less interested in the tiresome Twitter brouhaha than I am in this really thoughtful essay on the subject in Tikkun Magazine.

Long interview with Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe on occasion of his retirement. Come for the stories of him growing up in Shanghai as a Jewish refugee, stay for the tale of how the Supreme Court Justices determined whether movies were "obscene".

A very interesting article by Roseanna Summers in the Yale Law Journal asking what everyday people think counts as "consent".

I'd much rather focus on Zach Banner than on DeSean Jackson, if it's all the same to you.

We could have beaten coronavirus, but unfortunately one of our two political parties has turned into a death cult. July is going to be rough.

Word is that Washington's football team soon won't be named after a racial slur.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What Will Happen That Night?

I can imagine the moment: When the networks agree that Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump and will become the next President of the United States.

But it's hard to imagine the very next moment. Which, in itself, is a sign of how bizarre and precarious our political era is right now.

We all wonder if Donald Trump will actually concede, even if he's clearly losing. Which is a scary thought on its own. But suppose he does concede. What does a Donald Trump concession speech even sound like? I literally can't imagine it. I have no idea what he'd say.

Meanwhile, there are some standard phrases one gives when accepting a concession -- ran a strong campaign blah blah blah thank you for your service blah blah blah unite as a country. But, even as platitudes, can you really say those things about Donald Trump? Joe Biden doesn't strike me as the sort of man to deviate from tradition on this front, but I wonder who will be the first to demand we condemn Biden as soft on fascism because he mouths some meaningless rhetoric of graciousness.

It's a night I can't imagine. So I sure do hope I get to live through it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Gentleman Jack

I remember seeing ads for Gentleman Jack when Game of Thrones was ending, and being intrigued. The show is about the real-life Anne Lister, and 18th century British landowner who dressed in masculine clothes and lived relatively openly as a lesbian and is often cited as participating in England's first (non-legally sanctioned) same-sex marriage to her partner Ann Walker.

But I never did see it then, and it was only the rapidly dwindling stockpile of television brought upon by the lockdown that finally caused me to watch it (seriously: I think I've seen every good episode of Community -- which is most of them -- at least a dozen times at this point). Should you join me? Some quick thoughts to help you decide:

  • The early episodes (and, as I recall, the advertising), leans pretty hard into a "she's a badass landlady! Look at her collecting rents from the tenants without mercy or tolerating any nonsense!" framing. This is a bit odd to watch in the present political moment.
  • It is a sign of how far we've come as a society that this series could even be made -- not because it features a lesbian relationship, but because even ten years ago I think it would've been seen as homophobic the way that she "recruits" (she may even use the word) Ann Walker to be her lover.
  • Yes, the two characters are named Anne and Ann. It's not that confusing. Usually. But keeping all the other side characters straight is a nearly impossible endeavor.
  • My reaction towards Ann Walker generally took the following arc, occurring over two episode cycles: "Damn, that woman is messed up." "Oh wow, she's had a really tragic life though." "But damn that woman is messed up!" "Oh my gosh, there's just an endless reservoir of tragedy for her isn't there?"
  • The show also features Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, as Anne's far more conventionally feminine sister Marian. It's very interesting to see Whelan play a character that is about as far from Yara as possible. But the show does something I very much like in resisting the cliched juxtaposition of the liberated, modern Anne against the straightlaced, intolerant, conservative Marian. They clearly have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, but it seems to have almost nothing to do with Anne's sexuality. Moreover, it is made evident at various points that Marian is in many respects more liberal than her sister -- particularly with regards to class issues and respectful treatment of servants. In all, Anne's family is shown to be pretty well accepting of her.
  • My head canon is that this show is the prequel to Downton Abbey, and I refuse to be dissuaded on the point.
Jill and I are a sucker for a good period drama, preferably one without gratuitous violence, and Gentleman Jack scratches that itch. Is it transcendent? No. But it's worth a watch if you're into the genre.